Chamorro people

Published on December 14, 2012 by Amy

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Chamorro People in 1915
Chamorro People in 1915

The Chamorro people, or Chamoru people, are the indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands, which are politically divided between the United States territory of Guam and the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia. Today, significant Chamoru populations also exist in several U.S. states including Hawaii, California, Washington, Texas and Nevada. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 65,000 people of Chamoru ancestry live on Guam and another 19,000 live in the Northern Marianas. Another 93,000 live outside the Marianas in Hawaii and the West/Pacific coast of the United States. The Chamoru are primarily of Austronesian stock.

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Chamorro language

The Chamorro language is included in the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian family. Because Guam was colonized by Spain for over 300 years, many words derive from the Spanish language. The traditional Chamoru number system was replaced by Spanish numbers. Chamoru is often spoken in many homes, but is becoming less common. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in reviving the language, and all public schools on both Guam and the The Northern Mariana Islands are now required by law to teach the Chamoru language as part of the elementary, middle, and high school curriculum.

Ancient Chamorros

The Chamorro are commonly believed to have come from Southeast Asia at around 2000 BC. They are most closely related to other Austronesian natives to the west in the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as the Carolines to the south. They were expert seafarers and skilled craftspeople familiar with intricate weaving and detailed pottery making. The latte stone, a megalithic rock pillar topped with a hemispherical capstone, was the foundation of ancient Chamorro architecture and is a “national” symbol. Chamoru society was based on what sociologist Dr. Lawrence J. Cunningham termed the “matrilineal avuncuclan”, one characteristic of which is that the brother(s) of the female parent plays more of a “father” role than the actual biological male parent.

According to ancient Chamorro legend, 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 Guahan/Guam, and from this rock emerged human beings. Some believe that the rock was once located at the site of an Agat Church, while others believe it is the phallic-shaped “Laso de Fua” located in Fouha Bay in Umatac.

Ancient Chamorus engaged in ancestor veneration, but did not practice “religion” in the sense that they worshipped deities. However, there is at least one account, provided by Christoph Carl Fernberger in 1623, that human sacrifice was practiced to curry the favor of a “great fish”. This claim may be related to a Chamoru legend about why the island of Guam is narrow in the middle. According to the legend, a massive fish was gradually eating away at the island from both sides. Although the ancient Chamoru supposedly had magical abilities, the creature, though huge, was elusive. When the men were unsuccessful in hunting it down, the women used their hair to weave a net which grew larger as they sang. The singing enchanted and lured the fish, and they used the giant net to catch it.

Castes and classes

Chamorro society was divided into two main castes and continued to be so for well over a century after the Spanish first arrived. According to the historical records provided by Europeans such as Father Charles Le Gobien, there appeared to be racial differences between the subservient Manachang caste, and the higher Chamori, the Manachang being described as shorter, darker-skinned, and physically less hardy than the Chamori. The Chamori caste was subdivided into the upper-middle class Achoti/Acha’ot and the highest, administrative Matua/Matao class. Achoti could graduate to Matua, and Matua could be reduced to Achoti, but Manachang were born and died as such and had no recourse to improve their status. Members of the Manachang and the Chamori were not permitted to intermingle. All three classes performed physical labor, but had different specified duties. Le Gobien theorized that Chamorro society comprised the geographical convergence of peoples of different ethnic origins. This idea may be supportable by the evidence of linguistic characteristics of the Chamorro language and social customs. Father Pierre Coomans wrote of the practice among Chamorro women of teeth blackening/dental lacquering (also a custom among the Japanese and Vietnamese), which they considered beautiful as a distinction apart from animals. Fernberger wrote in his account of the Chamorro that “penis pins” were employed as a chastity measure for young males, a practice similarly employed by inhabitants at least as far south as Indonesia.


Traditional beliefs among the Chamorro include tales of taotaomo’na and birak, as well as the Spanish-introduced concepts of duendes and hauntings in places such as in Yona, other old buildings, schools, hotel elevators, and the Maina bridge. Taotaomo’na are spirits of ancient Chamorros. Birak is a broader term that may refer not only to the undead, but also to demons or general elemental types.

Foreign rule

On March 6, 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and his men had after having crossed the Pacific Ocean encountered the first “indios” since leaving South America. Later Spanish visitors named the inhabitants “Chamurres” derived from a local term for the upper caste; this was then converted to “Chamorros”, an old Spanish term for “bald”, perhaps in reference to the local habit to shave.

Over the centuries, the Marianas have been occupied by several foreign countries (Spain, Germany, Japan, USA), and present-day Chamoru society is almost entirely racially mixed (miscegenation), with the inhabitants of Luta/Rota being the least so. The Chamoru are primarily of Austronesian stock, but began to significantly intermingle with Spanish during the Spanish Colonial Era (1600–1898 AD). Primarily since the late 19th century onward, many Chamorus have intermarried with other Pacific Islanders, Mainland Americans, Polynesians, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese.

During the Spanish Colonial Era, the Chamoru population was greatly reduced by the introduction of European diseases and changes in society under Spanish rule. The Spanish killed many Chamoru men and relocated most others to Guam where they lived in several parishes to prevent rebellion. Some[who?] estimate that as many as 100,000 Chamorus may have populated the Marianas when Europeans first settled in 1667. By 1800, there were under 10,000. Within the parishes, the Spanish eventually focused their efforts on converting the natives to Catholicism. Through this, they were given Spanish surnames through Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos or Alphabetic Catalog of Surnames. Father Frances X. Hezel stated that Chamorus caught or reported engaging in pagan “sorcery” were publicly punished. Thus, a multiracially mixed Chamorro with European descent and a Spanish surname may not necessarily have Spanish blood.

Because the Marianas are a part of the United States, the Chamoru people enjoy greater economic opportunities than many other Micronesian peoples. The increasing numbers of Chamorus, especially Chamoru youth, relocating to the U.S. Mainland, has further complicated both definition and preservation of Chamoru identity. On Guam a Chamoru rights movement has developed since the United States gained control of the island. Leaders of the movement seek to return ancestral lands to the Chamoru people, and attain self-determination.

“Chamori”, “Chamorro” & “Chamoru”

Pre-colonial society in the Marianas was based on a caste system, “Chamori” being the name of the ruling, highest caste.

After Spain annexed and conquered the Marianas, the caste system eventually became extinct under Spanish rule, and all of the indigenous residents of the archipelago eventually came to be referred to by the Spanish exonym “Chamorro”. The name “Chamoru” is an endonym derived from the indigenous pronunciation of the Spanish exonym.

Some people theorize that Spanish definitions of the word “Chamorro” played a role in its being used to refer to the island’s indigenous inhabitants. Apart from “Chamorro” being a Spanish surname, in Spanish it also means “leg of pork”, “beardless [wheat]“, “bald”, “close-cropped”, or “shorn/shaven/[hair or wool] cut close to the surface”. Circa 1670, a Catholic missionary reported that men were sporting a style in which their heads were shaven, save for a “finger-length” amount of hair at the crown. This hairstyle has often been portrayed in modern-day depictions of early Chamorros. However, the first European descriptions of the physical appearance of the Chamoru people in the 1520s and 30s report that both sexes had long black hair which they wore down to their waists or even further. Another description, given about 50 years later, reported that the natives at that time were tying up their hair into one or two topknots.

Modern Chamorro Culture

Chamorro culture today is an assimilation of Chamorro, Spanish, American, and fellow Pacific Island groups (mostly Micronesian), most especially present in the Marianas Islands. Certain Chamorro values such as inafa’maolek (which could be translated as interdependence) and practices such as balutan (the taking of leftover food from fiestas and parties to be eaten later) are still a part of the culture (usually seen in the Marianas), and are regularly expressed within families, and openly at gatherings such as village fiestas, parties; however more solemnly at nobenas where reverence and respect are expected of attending persons. Respect for one’s family, community, and the elderly (manamko) are a part of Chamorro culture, although this varies from person to person and family to family. The modern culture is strongly influenced by American customs and values, partly because the Marianas (Guam and the CNMI have different political standings) are currently under the possession of the United States of America, as organized but unincorporated territories; in addition, persons of Chamorro descent live in several states, mentioned in the introduction at the beginning, and as such are also influenced by the American culture. The American Military (mostly Navy, Air Force, and Army Reserves) has a strong cultural influence to Chamorros on Guam, reflected in the recruitment of people from Guam, which is about 14 people per 1000 compared to the closest US state, which is Montana with 8 people per 1000. (See the Guam page for more details about this topic.)


Most Chamorros are Roman Catholic[18] and few in the Marianas still maintain some customs and beliefs from the time before the first European conquests; some residents of the Marianas will still ask permission from ancestral spirits before entering parts of jungles. Traditional healers called suruhanas are still greatly respected for their knowledge of herbal treatments and spirits. Before Spanish colonization, Chamoru life centered on one’s clan. Chamorro culture has significant Spanish, Filipino, Japanese, and American influences; in addition, Chamorro food is also influenced by the various aforementioned groups. Today, large extended families remain central to life in the Marianas.


Much of Chamoru cuisine is influenced by various cultures. Common foods include Finadenemade with soy sauce, empanada from Spain, and steamed rice from Asia. Red rice made with achoti is a distinct staple food that strongly identifies Chamorro cuisine among the many dishes of fellow Pacific island cultures. Red rice is often reserved for special events, such as parties (gupot or “fiestas”), nobenas, and specific occasions such as a high school or college graduation. Chamorro food is often made for these celebrations, but within households as well. Fruits such as lemmai, mangga, niyok, and bilimbines are consumed in various local recipes. In the Marianas, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and American cuisine are also commonly available.

The Marianas and the Hawaiian islands are the world’s foremost consumers, per capita, of Spam, with Guam at the top of the list, and Hawaii second. Spam was introduced to the islands by the American military during the World War II era, when it was used as war rations.

Guam also has the highest per capita consumption of Tabasco sauce in the world, equaling almost two 2-ounce bottles per person per year. Tabasco and Spam united to create Hot & Spicy Spam, which debuted on Guam. Cans of Hot & Spicy Spam sold throughout the world feature a recipe for Spam Fried Rice from Guam-based restaurant Shirley’s.

Locally distinct foods include kelaguen, a dish in which meat is cooked in whole or in part by citric acid rather than heat; Tinaktak, a meat dish made with coconut milk; and kå’du fanihi (flying fox/fruit bat soup). Fruit bats and local birds have become scarce in modern times primarily due to the World War II-era introduction of the brown tree snake, which decimated the populations of local birds and threatens the fanihi population as well; hunting them is now illegal.

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