Monster Tales : Michael Lujan Bevacqua

The Taotaomo’na of Guam

by Michael Lujan Bevacqua

The Chamorro people of Guam have an interesting saying about our ancestral spirits. We say that they came before us, but they also wait ahead of us. It might seem contradictory in a way, but it makes sense in Chamorro cosmology, as exemplified by the most commonly used term that we use for the spirits of our ancestors, taotaomo’na.

The word taotaomo’na can refer to anything from malevolent spirits, to watchful ghosts, to demons, to magical animals and shape-changers. These spirits will haunt or frequent certain areas, usually the jungle, abandoned areas, cemeteries or even family homes. They are closely associated with the nunu or the banyan tree, which can look particularly menacing in the twilight. They can play tricks on hunters and fishermen and also steal children away from inattentive parents.

Despite the various forms that a taotaomo’na may take in the beliefs of Chamorros and others in contemporary Guam, what unites these variations is the notion that they are ultimately the spirits of the ancestors of the Chamorro people of before, and therefore they represent a force for balance, a memory for the land. There are stories of taotaomo’na tricking and cursing those who behave in loud or destructive ways in the jungle. They can also act as harbingers, warning omens of some tragedy that may soon befall a family. Because of this, even though there is a great deal of fear with regards to the taotaomo’na, there is also respect.

For example it is common in Guam today, that prior to entering the jungle you ask these spirits permission. A common version of this is “Guella yan Guello, kao siña yu’ maloffan gi tano’-miyu? Anggen måtto hamyo gi tano’-måmi siña maloffan ha’ sin mamaisen.” This translates to: “Grandmother and Grandfather, can I pass through your land? When you visit our land you can pass without asking.”

Guam jungle image from shutterstock.

The contradiction that contemporary people in Guam experience around the taotaomo’na can be tied the island’s history of colonialism. In the 17th century, Spanish missionaries came to Guam with the intent of forcing Catholicism on the Chamorro people. There was sporadic resistance for three decades, with tens of thousands of Chamorros dying from fighting and disease.

Chamorros at the time of Western contact, had a religion focused around ancestor veneration. In life each person carried an ånte or soul, but upon passing into death the soul transformed into an aniti, the term used for the spirit of an ancestor. The plural term for them was manganiti, and Chamorros believed the unseen world around was filled with the manganiti, who would protect them or punish them.

Chamorros would keep the skulls of revered relatives in their homes and the leg bones of great warriors would be carved into bones and daggers. The thinking being that when you went into battle, the spirit of your father would fight with you. The skulls were known, according to one account, as maranan uchan, which translates to “a miracle of rain.” It is because the skull acted as a spiritual anchor, and with it you could request of your ancestors that they protect the family, provide a good harvest or drive fish towards your nets.

Living a good life, acting honorably with your family, taking care of them, respecting your elders and being courageous in battle were all things that made the manganiti happy and encouraged them to bless a clan with protection and success. Behaving in cowardly, selfish and disrespectful ways would likely lead the manganiti to withhold their aid and letting tragedy upon tragedy befall the family.

The Spanish, after silencing all active resistance, sought to cement their political control, with ideological control as well. They sought for generations to break the connection that Chamorros had with their ancestral spirits. They tried to replace them, giving Chamorros a pantheon of saints, who could provide the same favors and protection as their ancestors. They tried to replace the strong matrilineal symbols of Chamorro culture, with an array of Mary figures. Over a century they slowly pushed the beliefs of Chamorros to the point where they began to see these ancestral spirits as malicious and malevolent beings, that would haunt, trick and curse.

If you turn to Chamorro dictionaries today, you’ll find the effect of the Catholic Church’s ideological onslaught in the entries for aniti, in the following terms: devil, Satan, hellish fiend, demon, evil spirit. The term has become heavily stigmatized, and so many Chamorros today refuse to use it because of the heavy negative connotations. But this does not mean that Chamorros lose their connection to their ancestral spirits, but there is a change in terminology. After more than a century of Spanish colonization, in the 19th century Chamorros start using the term taotaomo’na.

While Chamorros as a people eventually accepted Catholicism, the connection to their ancestors was not cut, but modified. Although Chamorros did begin to feel a greater distance from the taotaomo’na, they nonetheless retained a respect. They did not develop a zealous hatred for the spirits as the Catholic priests had wanted, but rather respected their place on the island, which was now largely relegated to the jungle and natural settings. This is why people on Guam continue to ask permission prior to entering the jungle, because so long as you act with appropriate decorum, not only will the taotaomo’na not trick or menace you, but you may receive their protection as well.

Returning to the opening thought for this article, the idea that Chamorro ancestors are both in front of us and behind us, we find this in the term taotaomo’na but also in this history of both colonization and resilience. The term first emerges to represent the epistemological and cultural break between Chamorros and their ancestors that the Spanish had in some ways accomplished. Chamorros began to refer to their ancestors as taotaomo’na or “the people of before,” meaning the people of before colonization and the civilizing of the Spanish. But in the contemporary moment, where Chamorros have been carrying out a decades-long cultural renaissance, where they are seeking to reconnect to their ancient ancestors, the other meaning of the term is becoming ascendant. This has manifested today in terms of dance and chant groups that are meant to reflect ancient motifs and be homages to Chamorro ancestors. It has also lead to efforts to preserve the Chamorro language, which has endured despite hundreds of years of colonization and attempts to eradicate it. You can also find it in how colonial heroes, explorers and missionaries celebrated during the Spanish era, are now being replaced by Chamorro resistance figures who fought Chamorro subjugation. In so many ways, the things that colonizers have sought to silence or erase from the island, are being embraced and celebrated again.

And it is because of this element that we can see the other meaning of the word taotaomo’na, namely “those who wait ahead of us. “ In this way my comic in the Pacific Monsters anthology represents another way in which Chamorros today are seeking to reconnect and establish a healthy and respectful relationship to the spirits of our ancestors. Centuries of colonization drove our people to see the spirits of our ancestors as agents of the Catholic devil, and in many ways disconnected us from the very land of our homeland. But with changes in our consciousness, they are no longer distantly behind us, but rather wait before us. They are no longer chained in negativity by Catholicism, but once again important guides who travel with us on life’s journey.