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The Sakman Sails Onward

Ridicule and bullying won't stop cultural leaders from creating new CHamoru cultural traditions for future generations to be proud of.

Saina (elder) Eric Reyes choreographed a CHamoru dance flash mob at a Walmart in San Diego on Saturday evening, April 13. Permitted by the store’s manager, dancers from guma (houses) across the country came together to make the CHamoru dance go viral, but critics called it inauthentic, cringey, and disruptive.


“Let it be our own people to take the machete and cut our throats,” said Fafa’någue Rosemary Mantanona of CHamoru dance group Guma’ Imåhen Taotao Tåno’. 


CHamoru cultural practices have rekindled in the past few decades. Despite 600 years of colonization, cultural leaders persist in creating traditions that future generations can find pride in. 


CHamoru people have a complicated relationship with their ancient past because Guåhan endured imperial takeovers from Spain, the United States, Japan then the U.S. again. Centuries under the heel of these administering powers nearly wiped out all traditions.


Today, leaders like Mantanona bare the burden of creating cultural traditions in real time amongst the bullying and pushback from her own people.































CHamoru dance was brought to life by Saina Frank Rabon, the first master of CHamoru cultural dance and founder of Guma Taotao Tano’ Cultural Dancers, the first CHamoru dance group. He created basic standards for movements that are universal in all cultural dance practices to lay the foundation for new CHamoru dances that honor those before them. 


Mantanona was among Rabon’s original students. She carries her teacher’s mission with her own dance guma’ in San Diego called Imåhen Taotao Tåno’. 

“I stand by Uncle Frank as a student of his because

of the belief that we existed before the colonizers,”

she said. “You’re taking on all of that bullying,

all that to pave the way for the future. Its a huge

sacrifice a lot of people don’t understand.

Not even our own people will understand.”

Dr.Michael Bevacqua sees the development of CHamoru dancing as a

reflection of the tenacity a leader must have to set an example for the next generation of CHamorus. 


He teaches the CHamoru language through Zoom to over a hundred

students a year for free because he fears the Great Quieting of the language.


In about 15-20 years “we will have the big loss of the WWII generation and sort of the CHamoru language as the first language speaking generation.”


Guam’s native tongue has a similar story to the expression of dance.

Throughout the island’s history, the language was forbidden and

the people were forced to master Spanish, English and Japanese. 


My great-grandmother was fluent in CHamoru, English and Japanese. 

The current state of our language is an alphabet soup of Spanish and CHamoru because the indigenous people were punished for speaking our tongue.

I grew up hearing the CHamoru language is dead so I should just learn pure Spanish, but Bevacqua said our history can’t be unwritten.


I told him I wanted to know why I was so confused about embracing my culture when there were so many contradictions within it. He knew my confusion well.


“Culture exhibits so many paradoxes,” he said.


Authenticity and continuity are big ones, and he looks back on a lesson he learned from Robert Underwood, using the Greek parable Ship of Theseus as an example.


If the hull of CHamoru culture is completely replaced and all its original crew members pass away and get replaced, would this vessel still be considered CHamoru culture?


“It’s not for anthropologists, sociologists, or historians who get to decide who people feel connected to, who your ancestors are,” he said. “It’s for the communities to decide who they feel connected to.”​

In perpetuating the culture, he tells all his students that their own people will tease them for learning the language.

If you’re discouraged, he asks,

“Anggen ti hita, pues håyi

(If not us, then who)?”

He said that by finding ways to save the culture, we honor our ancestors before us, even our loved ones who recently passed.


Imåhen Taotao Tåno’s Wednesday evening dance practice on April 24 was dedicated to rehearsing their performance for uncle Joseph Fontanilla’s funeral, a long-time family member of the guma’.


“Now we honor him as our Saina through song and dance,” Mantanona said. “If we don’t become the vessels for their spirits, they stay silent.”

Imåhen Taotao Tåno' sings Sainan Måmi during Wednesday dance practice on April 24, 2024Saina Eric Reyes
00:00 / 00:26

Bevacqua said he pays homage to his CHamoru teachers, like his late grandmother, by making the language accessible for learning.


“It helped bring my grandmother a little bit of peace when she heard her great-grandchildren speaking CHamoru,” he said.


Although the younger generation grapples with this cultural identity crisis, SDSU third-year Ethan Concepcion said he is looking for answers. 


He joined the Pacific Islander Student Association, frequents the Native Resource Center, the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Resource Center and dedicates his college education to learning about Pacific Islander history. 


But when he tried to do a research paper on Guåhan, all academia implied the island’s history started when Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed there.


“There was no culture. There were just people there,” he saw in his studies. “They’ve just been the people that were conquered in history.”


He didn’t learn about the stories of Spanish pre-contact until he found his place in the communities at SDSU and at Montanona’s dance practice.


He said he can’t wait to sit with her and learn.


Concepcion said by learning from these cultural leaders, he wants to become the kind of person a young CHamoru can look up to.


“When I become a teacher I want people to see a prideful CHamoru who is proud of his culture, proud of his people, his history. I want to incorporate that in my lesson plans,” he said.


Mantanona reminds her dancers that the bullies will always be there, but so will the path they lay for a generation of proud CHamoru.


“Theres a lot of people that love us and a lot of people who hate us but who cares,” she said. “We cannot allow the people who attack us to prevent us from the work we do.”

This article was edited on May 6, 2024 to clarify that my great-grandmother not only understood Japanese, but spoke fluently as well.

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