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Guahan, i tåno' CHamoru: The land of the CHamoru

Editor's note: While Chamorro is commonly used on the island, CHamoru is the official spelling in Chamorro Standard Orthography. It has been codified recently by the passage of the law re-establishing the Kumision i Fino CHamoru.


Taotao tåno' translates to “people of the land” and is commonly referred to the CHamoru people, indigenous to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Last week, The Guam Daily Post sat down with Saina Laura Torres Souder to dive into the meaning and implications of the “taotao” in taotao tåno’. 

This Sunday, the Post sat down with former senator, educator, and community activist Hope Cristobal to understand more about the “tano” in taotao tåno’ and what it means in connection to the CHamoru people. 

“Your indigeneity has to do with your ties to your ancestral lands, your homelands, or home islands in our case,” Cristobal said. “When tåno’ is spoken about, we don’t speak about tåno’ as a separate thing, we are truly a people of the land.”

Guardians of the tåno'

In the early 1980s, Cristobal was primarily a science teacher at Simon Sanchez High School, but she always made it a point to teach at least one CHamoru class as well.

During this time, Cristobal and another teacher took their CHamoru classes on a field trip to Rota, to the home and property of the late Tun Thomas and his wife Tan Beata Mendiola. According to Cristobal, this area was known as “Mochong,” a sacred ancestral grounds where the Mendiolas would act as the gatekeepers to our ancestors' livelihoods and presence. 

According to Guampedia, Mochong is believed to be one of the very first settlements of the Mariana Islands, dating back as far as 1000 B.C.E. The area, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, is still visible today as an extensive ancient village site on the northern end of Rota.

A magnificent site of ancient CHamoru civilization, the site hosts approximately 47 latte stone sites, including an extremely rare structure with 14 columns and even a latte stone wall more than 50 feet tall. 

The Mendiola family of Rota occupied land adjacent to this property, according to Cristobal, and would guard the property to extremes that would inspire the public official to dedicate her eventual public roles to fighting for ancestral land usage, native rights and agricultural respect. 

“When you look at Mochong, it’s like our ancestors just moved out months ago,” Cristobal said. “The house structures are still there, the surface still had leftover artifacts, including their belongings and tools. Tun Thomas respected that the area was their residence. He would always say to "respeta" or "respetu"; it was so ingrained in him.”

Fighting for sacred lands

Cristobal said that Tun Thomas was so protective of the property to the extent that he would stop any person who drove near the site. The land's caretaker wanted no profane language used, no loud noises. She said that he always wanted total calmness and for people to take deep breaths before they even entered the sacred grounds.

So, why was Tun Thomas so protective of this ancient land? The answer lies in the root of why many of our manamko’ and CHamoru activists fight the good fight. 

A World War II survivor, Tun Thomas fiercely protected his family's land from intruders and has fought off different kind of invaders and threats to the CHamoru way of life many times throughout his life. 

The CHamoru guardian aggressively opposed the covenant that gave way for the Northern Mariana Islands to become a commonwealth and before his death, opposed the establishment of the recently proposed National Park Service in Rota, which would ultimately allow and bring more foot traffic to accessible sites like Mochong.

“I always wondered why this man was so fiercely protective of Mochong and keeping the land within the family,” Cristobal said.  “Looking at this place historically, Tun Thomas knew that this place was sacred. He knew that this was where his ancestors lived and were buried. That’s how sacred the tåno’ was to him.”

It was through experiences like these and passionate people like the Mendiola family of Rota that Cristobal said inspired her to add fuel to the ancestral land defense on Guam.

“The kids would always ask ‘Why is he so mean?’ and I would say ‘Mean? He’s trying to teach us a lesson,’” Cristobal said. “His message to us is that we have to protect this land that has always been ours. Lands like Mochong have always been free to the CHamoru, why would you want to turn it over to the federal government? This was a lesson for me as well.”

Acknowledging their freedom

While ancestral lands like Mochong still exist today across the Mariana Islands, Cristobal said that these lands still face the threat of federalization and desecration.

Lands such as Pagat and Litekyan (Ritidian) on Guam have been proposed as military firing ranges for years.

Land in Sumay, Andersen Air Force Base and many other areas around the island remain under the ownership of the United States government, where as they have been freely occupied by the taotao tåno’ for thousands of years, according to Cristobal.

Citing renowned anthropologist Laura Thompson, Cristobal said that prior to Spanish arrival on island in the early 16th century, CHamoru lands and livelihoods thrived with nearly 200 small and clustered village settlements that harbored anywhere from 30 to 50 families spread throughout Guam’s outlaying coasts.

These lands and residents documented by Spanish explorers during their first arrival recorded impressive village systems populated by a people who lived off the land, Cristobal said.

In deep admiration and reverence, Cristobal recounted a time when the taotao tåno’ were a free and sovereign people with a brilliant livelihood that depended on a respectful relationship with the land, only to be interrupted by the onslaught that colonization would bring in the coming centuries.

"Our lands represent a people who knew what freedom was like, emerging nationals of their own island,” Cristobal said. “Our survival as a people has a lot to do with our ties to and respect for the land. It is land that makes us who we are as taotao tåno’. It makes us a special people and distinguishes us from others that have come to our shores.”

Over time, the CHamoru people would be slaughtered and driven out from their lands as the Spanish invaders attempted to colonize the island for Spain and Roman Catholicism, banning ancient practices that established a communion with the land.

“Our people were free, we knew what freedom was, and we have always been defending and fighting for our freedom,” Cristobal said. “We were the people of the land. To call ourselves the taotao tåno’ reconnects us to that freedom that our ancestors had." 

Respecting hålom tåno'

Fast forward to today, these lands still exist and are traveled through everyday, Cristobal said. Lands across the island toppled with residential areas and industrial developments were once the free ranging pathways of the taotao tåno’, and they still are, she said.

These pathways and lands are honored and respected today through the practice of certain ritualistic rites in CHamoru culture.

When the CHamoru say “Guello yan guella kåo siña yu' maloffan” or “Ancestors can I pass through?” we are asking the taotao tåno’, our ancestors, for not only allowance, but awareness that we respect and recognize their space.

When our elders say “Na'faloffan yu' putfabot. Mungnga mana'puti este siha i famagu'on” or “Please make me pass, don’t hurt my children,” they are speaking to our ancestors whose spirits are still present in the hålom tåno'. Hålom tåno' literally means “in the jungle,” but takes on a much deeper meaning of a place of respect and sanctity, where we believe our ancestors’ spirits reside, Cristobal said. 

“Hålom tåno' is very sacred to us because it is grown over these antigu villages where the spirits of our ancestors are still around,” Cristobal said. “Our ties to the land has a lot to do with generations of knowledge that have been passed down to us and our deep belief that our ancestors' spirits remain.”

This familiar saying, practiced and preached by manamko’ holds much more esteem than simply asking to enter a jungle or permission to cultivate resources, Cristobal said that we as present-day taotao tåno’ acknowledge our ancestors, and the fact that these are their lands and resources.

“They may have biologically left, but they still spiritually exist there, and for that the sacredness is respected and honored,” Cristobal said. “When we do this we’re basically responding to our ancestors, saying that we will keep the ecosystem as natural as nature would have it. That is how we live in harmony with our hålom tåno'."

Communion with nature 

Even when we enter these sacred places, the CHamoru interaction with the land is still held to the highest standards of respect. CHamoru culture has taught the taotao tåno’ a respectful system of taking no more than is needed from the hålom tåno'.

Cristobal cited suruhanas and suruhanus, CHamoru healers who relied on medicine found in the hålom tåno. Suruhanas like the late Tan Pai Certeza would venture into the hålom tåno to gather medicinal resources, but they would never take more than they needed, and they would know how and where to retrieve the items, she said.

Similarly, “peskadot” or fishermen would be conscious and careful not to fish for more than what they would eat, ensuring the abundance of sea life for other villagers and in respect for the hålom tåno.

“The land meant our sustenance, our survival, and so it was important that we maintain our ties with the land,” Cristobal said. “The taotao tåno’ are a part of the natural environment. The remnants of our ancestors are still buried in the hålom tåno' and the coastal areas, but they are also very much alive in who we are as people.”

Taotao Tåno’ today

A champion of indigenous rights, ancestral land usage and environmental causes, Cristobal encourages the community to uphold the standard of respect for the hålom tåno' in order to continue being taotao tåno’ and to provide a sense of belonging that has always been ours, she said. She added that it is essential for the CHamoru to have a connection with the land to be able to survive and thrive as a people.

“All of the things that we do are a part of this whole,” Cristobal said. “Who we are and our ties to the tåno’ as taotao tåno’, we don’t want to break that. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustices that would destroy our hålom tåno'. We have been the caretakers of our land for centuries, why do we feel less apt to do so today? We can. We have it within us. The land has always been free.”

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