The Chamorro people come from 15 northwest Pacific volcanic islands located south of Japan. The migration of thousands of these people from Southeast Asia to these islands happened somewhere between 4,000-4,500 years ago. The greatest influence of language and customs came from places like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines All of these different cultures meshed together to from a people made up of skilled mariners, fishermen, hunters and horticulturalists (people who farm fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other non-food crops). Craftsmen were also a big part of society, creating canoes and other useful items like pots and furniture. The first human contact after migration to the Mariana Islands came in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer coming from Spain, anchored off of the coast of Guam. Although Spain did not officially begin colonizing Guam until 1565, Magellan laid the first stepping-stones of the process when he landed in 1521.
It wasn’t until 1898, during the Spanish-American War that the hands of power shifted when the United States captured Guam. The Chamorro people endured another change in 1941 when the Japanese captured Guam shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the United States recaptured the island near the end of World War 2 in 1944. Throughout this recolonization period between 1898 and 1944, many people of the Chamorro community decided to migrate to the United States. The two most popular destinations became Hawaii and the coast of California.
Significant migration began during World War 2 when the US Navy began recruiting some of the young Chamorro men, who were well known as skilled mariners. US fruit companies also started to bring natives of Guam to work for them starting in the 1960s. One of the main reasons many Chamorro began to migrate to the United States came as the realization of modern day medical care became prevalent among the Chamorro society. Today, the Chamorro population has steadily increased to around 60,000 according to the 2000 United States Census. In the native Mariana Islands, there are still well over 100,000 Chamorro people still thriving just as they have for the past couple thousand years.
The Mariana Islands, home to the Chamorro people, is named in honor of Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria. “Chamorro” came to be from the Spanish term for “bald,” most likely due to the local practice of shaving.
Four different foreign countries, Spain, Germany, Japan and USA, have occupied the Mariana Islands. The first European to see the area was Ferdinand Magellan. From such colonization, almost the entire society became racially mixed, so original natives, or “People of the Land,” died out.
During the Spanish Colonial Era, the Chamorro people were greatly impacted by new rule. Foreign disease and male killings brought down the Chamorro population dramatically. Around 100,000 Chamorros inhabited the islands before the Spanish came in 1667, reducing the population to fewer than 10,000 by 1800. Also, dramatic changes were made to Chamorro society, and many people were brought to Guam to be held from escape and rebellion. In Guam, they were held in parishes where they were targets for conversion to Catholicism. Their Chamorro names were replaced with Spanish surnames, and natives caught engaging in “pagan” acts were publicly beaten. Once new policies and plans were put into place, and the Chamorro population had stabilized, the natives were treated better, given improved wages for their work and were allowed to continue on living village life, as they had before colonization.
The Marianas stayed under Spanish control through the general government of the Philippines until 1898. Due to the Spanish – American War, USA gained Guam, resulting in a separate political system from the rest of the Marianas. The remaining islands were sold to Germany in 1899 through the Treaty of February 12, 1899. Japan began to occupy the Northern Marianas in 1914. Many of the remaining islands were also entrusted by the League of Nations to Japan after German defeat in World War I. This entrustment was entitled the South Pacific Mandate. After significant fighting in the Marianas in World War II, USA was entrusted the Northern Mariana Islands the same way Japan was.
Of the thousands of Chamorro people in the world, the vast majority of them reside in Guam and some in the Marina Islands. These islands are referred to as the ancestral homelands of the Chamorro people, and are more than just a piece of nature to their culture. The Chamorros value their relationship with the land, and when using resources take what they need instead of want. Therefore, when visitors try to steal resources for reasons other than survival, the Chamorro people become highly protective and conflicts arise. After many battles with the intruding Spanish and US governments throughout the 20th century, the Chamorro people now only own 1/3 of Guam. Since they never migrated to a new location, land on Guam is the culture’s most precious resource. Not only is it an essential part of the foundation, but is vital to the survival of the culture. Some may argue that natives living elsewhere in the world have the potential to sustain their culture. However, the sparse distribution of the Chamorro people in the world excluding Guam is clearly incapable of contributing the effort needed to keep the culture alive. The role of native ownership can’t be underestimated. A strong base of Chamorro people thriving in their homeland is the key to not only surviving, but also developing. The Chamorro people are in danger of extinction, yet with a little help can preserve their culture.
Currently, a deal proposed between US and Japan to relocate 8,000 marines to Guam involves a 45% increase in population, and taking land from the indigenous people. By ignoring the input of the Chamorro people, the deal plans to seize Pagat, a location that encompasses rich historical evidence of the Chamorro culture. This negotiation will limit resources on Guam, and decrease the likelihood of the culture’s survival.
For some Chamorro people, the drive to keep the culture alive has died away, and they have adapted to liking their new culture. However, others work hard to address the history they’ve lost and find ways to improve the survival of the culture. To acknowledge the loss of language, Chamorro language is required in the public schools’ curriculums, and language competitions are held annually. Furthermore, several groups have taught youth the practices and ways of the culture with the hope that the knowledge will spread throughout the island. With the effort to sustain Chamorro culture, awareness of the situation at hand has been instilled in youth, who are aided with knowledge of both cultures. Although the military build-up does harm the Chamorro people, it has encouraged youth to speak out about their culture --a behavior that has recently become acceptable to the Chamorro culture. The movement of Chamorro people speaking out has increased awareness of the situation and will help the culture’s survival.