03 March 2011

Decolonization and the open-ocean large canoe (Sakman)


by Michael Bevacqua
Marianas Variety

"Decolonization is a process of choosing what we want from the past and crafting our own future."

Last year the group TASI or Traditions About Seafaring Islands organized a Sakman Summit; an event where experts on Chamorro culture, language, history and Micronesian traditional navigation gathered together to discuss various aspects about the recreation of the Chamorro sakman, or open-ocean large canoe.

Central to the gathering was developing a standardized vocabulary for all of the terms which you would need for navigation in Chamorro, such as parts of the canoe, tools, sea-birds, names for the different parts of the day, etc. I got to attend part of the summit and it was very inspiring to behold.

I've written before in this column and on my blog No Rest for the Awake – Minagahet Chamorro, about how critical in today's Guam the work of TASI is. They are decolonizing, and they are doing it in a way which provides important lessons to us all. They are not trying to return to a previous era, but rather showing us how it is entirely possible that things which were lost long ago, such as the seafaring skills and technology of Chamorros can and should have a place in today's world.

A common mistake which people make when thinking about decolonization is that it is a time travel adventure and in order to take something from the past which was lost or mutilated by colonialism, you must take everything and replace the present with it. In this sense, if you want to decolonize and bring to life something such as the sakman, which was long ago prohibited by the Spanish, then you must also start walking around naked, give up electricity and not use anything which has come to Guam since colonization. This idea is obviously ridiculous, but it is something you hear all the time, sometimes spoken with great conviction.

Several years back, I wrote an entire masters thesis hoping to answer why Chamorros would believe in such a silly and self-limiting notion of decolonization. In my research I related this interpretation of decolonization as being connected to a fear of not having the US at the center of Chamorro life, and how the world can seem ready to fall apart if that centrality appears to be threatened. So Chamorros create irrational fantasies and fears meant to ward off and prevent any possible discussion of decolonization or changing things in ways which might challenge the idea that America and its dominance makes Guam exist and could not exist otherwise.

But what TASI shows us is that decolonization is a process of choosing what we want from the past and crafting our own future. It means ignoring the empty but domineering logic which states that what is lost is lost, past is past and that indigenous peoples should simply look forward and accept the rule of those who claim their lands and not search for the sovereignty they once enjoyed.

TASI is built around the idea that something beautiful and important from the past should be revived. Even if it was once thought lost, it should not remain solely in books and in rhetoric alone, but should be brought to life and become part of who we are today.

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