Chamorro People & Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands have a long history in the Pacific, and their modern culture reflects much of this history. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Chamorro and get to know this culture a little better.

The Chamorro of the Marianas

Pretty much halfway between North America and East Asia, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is an island chain called the Marianas. The largest of these islands, called Guam, is currently claimed by the United States, although this is occasionally contested by Japan. The Marianas are an important location for global commerce and militaries traveling across the Pacific, and actually, there's nothing new about this. For centuries, millennia even, these islands were the center of global trade, exchange, and conquest. There to witness it all were the Chamorro people, the indigenous ethnic group of the Marianas. To this day, Chamorros are the largest ethnic group of the islands, but their culture is a testament to their long and resilient history. If you want to study the history of the Marianas, look no further. The Chamorros today represent millennia of history within a single people.

History of the Chamorros

Due to its extreme remoteness in the Pacific Ocean, you'd think that the Marianas wouldn't have been settled until relatively recently. As it turns out, these were amongst the first of the Pacific islands to be inhabited by the seafaring people setting out east from Indonesia. People first settled on the Marianas between 3 and 4 thousand years ago. These ancient Chamorro people lived in small villages that practiced a strict system of social hierarchy called a caste system. The top level of this caste was the Chamori, which is likely where the modern name of Chamorro comes from. The Chamorro people traded and fought amongst other seafaring people for centuries, which in the 16th century suddenly grew to include Europeans. The Spanish were the first to land on the islands, claiming control of them for about 300 years until losing them to the United States after the Spanish-American War. The United States, in turn, lost the islands to Japan during WWII, but later reclaimed them. All of these imperial powers have left their mark on modern Chamorro culture, beliefs, and practices.

Chamorro Society Today

So, what does it mean to be Chamorro today? Chamorro is the largest ethnic group of the Marianas, and their identity is a compilation of indigenous practices and foreign influences adopted over centuries. For example, most Chamorro people identify as Catholics, thanks to Spanish missionaries in the 17th century, and each Chamorro village still recognizes a patron saint that is widely venerated. Chamorro people live in a wide range of areas across the islands, from small villages to larger, metropolitan cities. Clothing styles across the islands show modern American influence, traditional island colors and preferences, and strong Spanish characteristics. Chamorro food is also often cited as a great example of the many influences on Chamorro identity, and is fun to talk about because who doesn't love good food? A traditional Chamorro meal will feature local rice and seafood prepared in Chamorro, Spanish, and Filipino styles, accompanied by hot peppers, soy sauce, and grated coconuts. Chewing betel nuts and powdered lime wrapped in pepper leaves is a common habit after a big meal, and if you weren't interested in visiting Guam before this, then I'll bet you are now.

Chamorro food is a mixture of local, Spanish, and even Asian influences
Chamorro food

Arts and Music

One thing that has gained lots of attention in recent years are Chamorro arts that are being revived and widely celebrated. Weaving and other handicrafts are gaining international attention, and Chamorro music is still an important part of Chamorro life. Traditional instruments, like the nose flute or strung gourd called a belembaotuyan, liven up saints' feast days and other celebrations. A form of chant-singing called Kantan Chamorro that was traditionally used by workers engaged in lengthy group activities like fishing or weaving is still widely practiced, and much like Polynesian cultures, Chamorro dances help tell epic tales of heroes and myths through movement and rhythm.

Chamorro dances like this one blend indigenous and Spanish customs into a unique performance
Chamorro dance

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