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    Friday, September 21, 2018-2:21:11P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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GuMA Sakman: A source of pride and inspiration

LAST Friday, members of the CNMI community gathered at the Susupe Civic Center to celebrate the completion of an enormous traditional Chamorro Guma Sakman (boat house), a project that took about half a year’s manual labor and twice as much planning.

 “This is like a childhood dream or something like that. It’s a special project,” said John Castro, project coordinator of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs’ Seafaring Traditions program. Castro played a major role in planning for and building the boat house.

Click to enlarge
From left, John Castro, Robert Hunter and Tony Piailug.
Inside the Guma Sakman.
Saipan’s seafaring community celebrates the completion of the Guma Sakman.
Tony Piailug and the monkeypod trunk.

Castro says he first began to learn Chamorro traditions from his grandmother, who taught him about farm work, traditional medicine, survival skills, and, more generally, “how to go about life and challenges.”

“She told me about the star that doesn’t move. The North Star,” he said. She also taught him to “be grateful for the blessings that the land and sea provide.”

Ever since, Castro has dedicated his career to preserving and revitalizing Chamorro tradition.

“It’s actually like soul-searching, you want to find out who you are, what you are made of. And I’ve come to find out this is how we all started,” he said, gesturing toward the new Guma Sakman.

DCCA Secretary Robert Hunter said Castro “has a serious background in historic preservation.”

“He’s been working at HPO [the Historic Preservation Office] for a long time and doing field work at archaeological sites, so he has a big background in Chamorro history,” said Hunter. “In fact it’s two-fold because he’s also done the voyaging…so he was the perfect candidate. There really is nobody else like him.”

Castro said that while he knew how to weave coconut fronds and had built smaller boat houses before, Susupe’s new Guma Sakman was made possible by the expertise of traditional boat builder and seafarer Tony Piailug. 

“We are blessed with Tony being out master specialist and soon-to-be master navigator, who helped us with the engineering of this monstrous hut,” Castro said. “I never built a canoe house this big.”

“The main reason I wanted to do this was that I like to practice the traditional way,” Piailug told  Variety. “I want to pass it down before it disappears. So that was my intention when I took this job.”

Piailug said that he learned how to build canoe houses and carve canoes from his father when he was growing up on Satawal. He said that the canoe house in Susupe is larger than the huts on his home island.

“It’s for voyaging canoes, so it must be pretty big. Sometimes we can fit three canoes inside,” he said. “This one might fit four inside.”

“I heard from visitors from Guam that this is bigger than the huts on Guam,” added Castro. “So that means in the entire Marianas, Saipan has the biggest hut. But that wasn’t really the goal, our intention was to make sure we could fit our canoe.”

The canoe in question will be a traditional Chamorro proa around 40 feet in length and built for open ocean voyaging. Hunter says the canoe will be “the first that’s been traditionally built in the Northern Mariana Islands for close to 300 years.”

Castro and Piailug’s team of boat builders already felled a monkeypod tree in Chalan Galaide for the keel. The enormous trunk is sitting under the Guma Sakman, ready for carving.

“It’s the first time I’ve used a monkeypod for a sakman [canoe] in my life,” Piailug said. “We used to build sakmans out of breadfruit, but I noticed that monkeypod is a little stronger and heavier than lemai [breadfruit] so I want to make the keel out of the monkeypod and then I’ll use planks made out of lemai.”

Castro and Piailug worked full-time on the boat house along with a part-time 5-person crew. They both mentioned their appreciation for all the community’s help along the way. The project required cooperation between the Zoning Board, BECQ, DPL, DLNR, Parks and Recreation, and the Office of the Governor, which funded the boat house’s construction.

“And a really big help came from the high school students,” Castro said. “They came and took the weaving workshops with us and then after they learned and they were comfortable, we just brought them coconut leaves and they were happy to weave them.”

For many in the local community, the success of the Chamorro boat house has been a source of pride and inspiration.

“We are truly in support of this project,” said Chris Ogo, program manager for the Indigenous Affairs Office. “It benefits the revival of our indigenous culture and seeing this humungous Chamorro boat house — I remember growing up on Rota, they built one almost as big as this, but this is huge.”

When asked how he felt about finally finishing the project, Piailug just laughed.

“I feel better than at the beginning,” he said. “Now we know we can really do it.”