Chamorros are the indigenous peoples of the Marianas Islands, a crescent shaped archipelago in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Chamorro poetry has a winding genealogy, reaching back to the ancestral oral tradition of tsamorita and forward to spoken word and hip-hop. This essay suggests an additional genealogical thread: a relation between ancestral Chamorro visual aesthetics and contemporary Chamorro textual poetry.
One of the most innovative forms of ancestral Chamorro visual aesthetics is canoe design. When Europeans first encountered Chamorro canoes in the 16th century, the canoes became known as “flying proas” because of how fast and nimble the canoes travelled. The canoe’s narrow hull is asymmetrical: flat on one side and curved on the other. The outrigger is mounted off the curved side and faces the wind when sailed. The flat side functions as the keel.
Unlike many other ocean vessels, the canoe’s bow and stern are identical. To turn, it does not cross and take the wind on the other side of its massive sail; instead, the canoe is steered away from the wind so that the stern becomes more upwind. In a sense, the stern becomes the bow, and vice versa. The sailors turn around and the canoe flies in the opposite direction.
One of the most well-known poems of Chamorro literature is “Thieves,” written by Chamorro writer, historian, educator and activist Anne Perez Hattori. Hattori resides in Guam, the largest and southernmost island in the Marianas archipelago. “Thieves” was published in the literary journal of the University of Guam, Storyboard 5 (1995).
The poem is composed of four stanzas, each stanza consisting of seven lines. The first stanza reads:
Thieves, they called us.
Religious converts, they made us.
Said we were sinful,
naked, savage, primitive
Playmates of Satan,
native souls blackened and corrupted
by immoral appetites
The first line refers to Magellan christening the Marianas Islands, “Islas de los Ladrones” (“Islands of the Thieves”) in the 16th century, after Magellan accused the Chamorros of stealing a skiff from the Spanish ship, Trinidad. This led Magellan and his men to retaliate; seven Chamorros were murdered during the violent attack. This first contact would eventually lead to Spanish Catholic missionization and military colonization. Hattori’s first stanza points to how Spanish colonizers and priests perceived Chamorros as thieving, sinful savages in need of salvation. Spanish rule lasted until the Spanish American War of 1898, when Guam became a colonial possession of the United States of America.
While the first stanza of “Thieves” takes the reader in the direction of exploring historical stereotypes, the second stanza does not develop this narrative into a massive plot whole (or hull). Instead, each new stanza reflects the previous stanza while turning in different narrative directions, giving the impression of narrative speed and agility. In a sense, “Thieves” turns like the Chamorro canoe. The second stanza sails:
Exterminated, they called us.
Half-castes, they branded us.
said we were impure,
casualties of inauthenticity
native blood contaminated and polluted
by casual miscegenation
This stanza captures the popular anthropological idea that “pure” Chamorros were exterminated by contact, disease, acculturation, and miscegenation. As a result, modern Chamorros were seen as “impure” because of mixed bloodlines, Catholic religious practices, and other cultural changes brought about by Spanish and American acculturative efforts. The third stanza turns again:
Infantile, they called us.
Wards of the state, they made us.
Said we were immature,
UNeducated, UNdeveloped, UNcivilized
Victims of illiteracy,
native intelligence retarded and muted
by indifferent laziness
After Guam became a U.S. territory in 1898, the U.S. naval government and the U.S. Congress viewed Chamorros as childlike wards without education, economics, or government, thus justifying their violently acculturative and governmental practices. Hattori’s capitalization of the prefix “UN” invokes the United Nations and the fact that Guam is still on the UN’s list of non-self governing territories. “Thieves” ends by looking at the current stereotypes of Chamorros:
Now they tell us
we are simply, sadly, contemptibly
Chamorros, once seen as in need of religion, civilization, and Americanization, are now seen as being completely and pathetically severed from indigenous culture. The poem leads us to ask: who are the real thieves? Even though Chamorros were dubbed “thieves” by Magellan, the poem subverts this naming to suggest that the real thieves are the colonizers that stole Chamorro souls, blood, culture, and freedom. The colonizers also stole the power of representation as hegemonic stereotypes determined the future of the Chamorros.
During the first few decades of Spanish military and religious conquest, the colonizers captured Chamorros from across the archipelago and gathered them into parishes on Guam. To restrict and control Chamorro mobility, they burned the canoes. In a few generations, the knowledge of how to build and sail the canoe was “lost.” Only in the past few decades has this practice been revitalized throughout the Chamorro home islands and diaspora.
Hattori’s poem inventively navigates the rough currents of colonially imposed identities to arrive at its destination: the realization that the colonizers are the true thieves. The poem is not narratively shaped like a giant Spanish Galleon or a U.S. aircraft carrier in the sense that the poem does not develop linearly or absorptively. Instead, the repeating and parallel rhetorical patterns of each stanza reflect the lack of distinction between narrative bow and stern as each stanza captures the wind and turns through different historical periods. The poem flies across the ocean of the page.
While there are strong connections between the oral and written literature, “Thieves” is just one example that illustrates a relationship between textual and visual aesthetics, between the poem and the canoe.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of two collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing, 2010), a finalist for the LA Times 2010 Book Prize for Poetry and the winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing.
Anne Hattori, “Thieves” from Storyboard 5. Copyright © 1995 by Anne Hattori. Reprinted with permission of the author and the editors of Storyboard Journal, http://www.storyboardjournal.org/.
Fascinating and such an earthy feel!