Decolonizing Death

People ask me all the time what decolonization means. I have a variety of answers and it depends really on the context. Are they speaking to me in a political context? Or is it cultural? Linguistic? Economic? Spiritual? People will conceive of decolonization different based on their particular interests or their set of phobias. Many will instinctively define decolonization in a particular way because of their fears of feelings of dependency. Others will want to define it in a certain way because of their interest in something changing.

Decolonization breaks down for me in two basic ways. The first is when something significant happens that people are aware of and take note of. It can be for example if Guam became an independent country. But more often than not, it happens without people realizing it. Because decolonization is something that ultimately is centered around colonial legacies and what to do with things that are currently attributed to the colonizer’s presence or influence. There are explicit ways that people contend with those things, and people generally fear that sort of action. But in most cases things shift without people noticing their own role in the shifting.

Prior to European colonization, the religious framework for Chamorros was centered about ancestral veneration. Upon death, family members would become aniti, ancestral spirits who existed around us and could be called upon for help in times of need. The worship of skulls was a key part of this, and as you can imagine the Spanish priests sought to separate, by any means necessary, Chamorros from these totems and these beliefs.

Chamorros became Catholic and adopted a European religious cosmology, although aspects of their beliefs prior to colonization persisted. Belief in the aniti, now rebranded as taotaomo’na is still present up until today, but the dominant framework for belief and for giving the world a spiritual structure is one dictated by churches such as i Gima’yu’us Katoliko. Chamorros began to revere and remember their dead in ways that sometimes hinted at their older traditions, but were primarily reliant on Western religious rituals and beliefs.

When my grandfather, Tun Jack Lujan, the Chamorro Master Blacksmith passed away last month, we sang songs that reflected a Chamorro Seventh Day Adventist tradition, a religion that was introduced to the island just a few generations ago. But we were also happy to welcome the groups Pa’a Taotao Tano’ and Inetnon Gefpago to the cemetery who chanted at the start and end of the service. Just a few generations ago, having dance groups like this was impossible and unthinkable. It would have been further unimaginable to have them sing at a funeral and to honor the dead through references to ancient elders and ancestral spirits. But this is the possibilities for decolonization. When groups such as Pa’a Taotao Tano’ and Inetnon Gefpago take on the task of changing the contours of our consciousness, it can happen without many people even realizing how what was once made impossible via colonization has now been made normal through decolonization.


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