The Mariana Islands and Kava

Next up in the Micronesia Region of Oceania are the Mariana Islands.  The Mariana Islands have a complex history of foreign rule.  And due to their climate, the islands and its people almost surely a long history with kava-but clues to the latter are sparse.  Before we get to that, let’s discuss how the Mariana Islands have come to be what they are today.

The Mariana Islands

Also know as the Ladrones Islands (from the original Spanish designation of Islas de los Ladrones, or Islands of Thieves) the Mariana Islands are an archipelago of 15 volcanic peaks in the northwestern Pacific.  They are located South of Japan, North of New Guinea, and East of the Philippines.  The Mariana Islands cover approximately 390 square miles and split up into two administrative units.

They are made up of Guam and the Northern Mariana Island.

The island chain is part of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana Arc system.  This is a point of convergence for numerous tectonic plates.  Due to this, the area is known for its seismic activity (volcanic activity and earthquakes).  This is also the location of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the earth.

First “discovered” by the Spanish explorer Magellan in 1521, the islands officially fell under Spanish rule in 1667.  Magellan stumbled upon the Southern most islands in the chain during his attempt to circumnavigate the world.  Landing in Guam, Magellan’s ships received fresh supplies form the native peoples, the Chamorro.  Thinking they had just engaged in a trade, the Chamorro took some of Magellan’s supplies-including one of their skiffs.  Viewing this as theft, the original name of Islas de los Ladrones was born.  This was in spite of Magellan’s insistence they should be know as Islas de las Velas Latinas.  On top of being dubbed thieves, the island dwellers got first hand knowledge of how the Spanish handled “theft”.  Making landfall with over 40 armed men, Magellan’s crew burnt 40 or 50 homes to the ground, killing many men in the process, and taking back their skiff.  Unfortunately for the Chamorro people, this was only the beginning of the killings.  Within 200 years of their initial interaction with the Spanish, the estimated 100,000 Chamorro were whittled down to less that 2000.  In time, brought on by disease, intermarriage and black birding (the process of Pacific Islander slavery), the Chamorro people all but disappeared.

The Chamorro People

Fortunately, the Chamorro people have survived to make a comeback.  Although their numbers did drop to under 2000, today people claiming Chamorro ancestry number nearly 200,000.  The majority of these people live on the US Territory of Guam (approximately 65,000).  The remainder inhabit the Northern Marianas (approximately 20,000) and the US (approximately 100,000).  The large US population was brought on by the political relationship the US has in the region.

The Chamorro people are believed to have emigrated from Southeastern Asia about 2000 BC.  Based on appearance and culture, they seem most closely related to the Austronesians to the West and the Carolines to the South.  Culturally, like most of their Oceania neighbors, the Chamorro were skilled seamen.  They also were expert in weaving and pottery making (both of which were ornate and detailed in design).  They were also noted for the use of the “latte stones”.  Much like Stonehenge, these mysterious monoliths were huge rocks hewn of sandstone, with a circular rock placed on top.  The top of this rock was flattened.  All around the Mariana Islands these monoliths can be found and they vary in height forma few feet to as tall as 25 feet; weighing up to 35 tons (with the largest cap weighing in at 22 tons).  How there were used, however, is a bit of a mystery and is still debated today.

Some scholars believe they served the same purpose as the wooden post rice stores of the Ifugao people of the Philippines.  This theory has been contested for the practicality of the idea of erecting a 30 ton pillar to store grain (opposed to the wooden posts of the Philippines).  Others have said they were built as a protective enclosure for the Chamorro proas (multi-hulled sailing vessels).  Still other accounts from European explorers say the Chamorro built their houses on top of the lattes, or used them as public meeting areas.  These accounts seem to make more sense, as the stones are usually found in rectangular arrangements of 8 to 20 stones.  Whatever the use, this is the one Chamorro cultural icon which can still be seen today.  So important is the latte stone to the Chamorro people, that it has been placed on their flags, government seals, and all sorts of public crests as a symbol of their once great seafaring race.

The Chamorro society is matrilineal avunculan.  This means that the brother of the mother acts as the father figure much more than the actual father.  This brother/father culture may be loosely tied to the Chamorro creation myth. Ancient Chamorro believed that the world was created by a twin brother and sister, Puntan and Fu’uña. Upon dying, Puntan instructed his sister to make his body the ingredients for the universe. She used his eyes to create the sun and moon, his eyebrows to make rainbows, and most of the rest of his parts for various features of the Earth. After she was done, she turned herself into a rock on the island of Guam and from this rock emerged human beings.

Ancient Chamorro engaged in ancestor veneration, but did not practice “religion” in the sense that they worshipped deities. However, there is at least one account, that human sacrifice was practiced to curry the favor of a “great fish”. It was a “great fish” that threatened Inarajan Bay as an ancient legend tells that women were very important because they weaved a giant net containing their hair to capture the fish after all the men gave up.

The Mariana Islands and Kava

Even more mysterious than the Chamorro people and their mythology, is their apparent total lack of Kava contact.  The Mariana Islands are lush, and all the common vegetation of Oceania is found in abundance save one: Kava.  Why this is, we don’t know.  The climate is perfect for kava, but nary a Kava plant is to be found.  Culturally, it is not consumed for any known purpose.   We can only hope with the resurgence of Kava farming and consumption throughout most of Oceania that the remaining Chamorro people (as well as the rest of the Mariana Island residents) discover their Micronesia birth right and have themselves a little Kava Kava.

2 Responses

  1. Check on the Chamoru use of the pupulu plant as this is their connection with kava. The pupulu and kava plants are closely related; whereas the root of the kava was preferred in many islands, the leaf of the pupulu was the one of choice for the Chamorus.

  2. I believe the main reason Chamorros lack the use of awa is due to our long history of foreign rule. The Mariana’s were “discovered” by Magellan nearly 200 years before Cook landed in Hawai’i so imagine what can be done in 200 years of oppressive rulership. My ancestors fought to protect our culture but only so much can be done with sling stones and hand to hand combat versus artillery and diseases. Native ceremonies and rituals were frowned upon by the Spanish and many if not all Chamorros were forced to convert to Catholicism. Since awa is associated with ceremonies, the lack of ceremonies may have led to the lack of Awa use. As for the plant itself? Maybe they were forced to remove it due to its strong connection to native beliefs? The only way to find out is to search the jungles but by doing so we may disturb the Taotaomona (ancient chamorro spirits). It may well be abundant in the jungles, but due to the lack of awa use and knowledge, we may have overlooked the plant. Chamorros due have Betel nut which is considered more potent than awa but I enjoy taking part in awa ceremonies and would love to see it implemented in Chamorro culture.

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