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    Thursday, June 21, 2018-6:33:46P.M.






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OPINION: Reflections from 3rd Marianas History Conference

HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — Familiar faces from Guam and the Northern Marianas joined minds recently for the 3rd Marianas History Conference in Saipan.

I had the privilege and honor to be the keynote speaker for the opening plenary. My intent was to set the tone for discussion on what I termed, “Indigenous Revisionism.”

What followed were incredible presentations on all aspects of historiographic interest from educators, anthropologists and archaeologists, historians, social scientists, and passionate advocates of language, culture and indigenous rights. It was indeed a feast of ideas that inspired the imagination about what is possible. I was truly amazed and appreciative of the receptive spirit of colleagues to my efforts to introduce a new optic for writing and interpreting indigenous history. It was particularly gratifying that over half of the presenters and participants were local scholars.

Role of indigenous historians

I spoke about the goal of indigenous revisionists to redirect our historical narrative and place ourselves and our ancestors as the primary actors in our collective historical experience. We must keep in mind that revisionism is the process of revising what has been written. So, we need to guard against the inclination to summarily dismiss conventional historiographic accounts as unimportant. Accounts from missionaries, explorers, colonial administrators, adventurers, anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists have provided indigenous historians with many valuable insights into who we are as a people. These historical records are integral to our reconstructing and reinterpreting cultural practices and events for which we have no living memory. While useful, they provide only part of the story. It is the role of indigenous historians to give voice to the indigenous experience and perspectives missing from these narratives.

There are two readily identifiable forms of indigenous historiography. One form involves the telling of our story (lived experience) and ethos (worldview, beliefs, myths, legends and rituals) by indigenous storytellers. The firsthand accounts of the survivors of World War II or personal accounts of cultural practice and traditions by the masters of the craft are examples of this form. The second form reflects the reconstruction of social reality in academic writing and creative works to centralize the wisdom, knowledge and experience of indigenous people as the substance and primary focus of historiography.

Tony Palomo’s “An Island in Agony”; Dr. Pedro Sanchez’s “The History of Guam”; Dr. Katherine Aguon’s Hale’ta Series; Don Farrell’s “The History of the Marianas”; and my book, “Daughters of the Island,” are examples of this form.

I further distinguish these forms of historiography from Indigenous Revisionism, which I define as the utilization of the cultural ethos and specialized knowledge embedded in our language (Fino’ Haya) to guide re-interpretations of our past and present and to revise naming practice and word choice to reclaim identity. Let’s look at Indigenous Revision as it applies to naming practice and word choice. We must be acutely aware that terms or names first recorded by chroniclers, cartographers, missionaries, explorers, scientists, colonial officials and other non-indigenous visitors are sounds they heard through their own linguistic frameworks. Documenting terms in the way they heard them, may not be an accurate representation of Fino’ Haya. If these terms hold no meaning or cultural relevance and if we have words in our indigenous language that are more culturally appropriate, we should not be afraid to revise or replace such terms to establish authentic expression which is connected to our indigenous optic or MATA.

CHamoru, Guåhan, Pontan yan Fo’na are examples. This transformative authenticity is driven by what Paolo Freire calls “concientización.” Through critical consciousness, we can participate in changing history by co-creating the narrative and claiming language as our lens.

I also spoke about the inextricable relationship between our ability to speak our indigenous languages fluently and our continuity of peoplehood, our identity as indigenous peoples of the Marianas and our capacity to interpret historical accounts, naming of places, and meaning making through our cultural MATA or insight. Much heart-rending conversations ensued. For some conference-goers living in Saipan, the realization that the fate of CHamoru and Carolinian are not as secure as once thought created an uncomfortable urgency. “And what about those of us between 20 and 60 who were victims of the English-only movement and didn’t learn to speak well or at all?” I was asked. “Are we less legitimate or authentic, are we less CHamoru?”

Painful reality

These are definitely hard questions to ponder. While attempting to be reassuring about cultural identity, I continued to stress the painful reality that understanding the meaning of words, living CHamoru values, practicing customs and traditions, being an avid student of our history, respecting the environment, knowing how to fish and harvest CHamoru foods and prepare them — while all extremely important to manifesting our pride and connection with our heritage cannot on their own ensure the continuity of our peoplehood.

Only by perpetuating our language as our spoken mother tongue can we secure our continued existence as an indigenous people with a unique identity in the world that is tied to our ancestors who came over 3,500 years ago to our islands. What has happened to other indigenous languages and cultures that have become extinct is a testament to this reality. I further contend that only through our language can we fully tap into the ethos, knowledge, wisdom and worldview — the MATA — of our mañaina.

Dr. Laura M. Torres Souder is founder, president, and CEO of Souder, Betances and Associates, Inc. She held a Ford Foundation Post Doctoral Fellowship for Minorities in 1991 on the study of “Situational Ethnicity” at De Paul University in Chicago. She earned a masters in sociology and a doctorate in American studies from the University of Hawaii. She received a bachelor of arts from Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts.