Sailing the Sakman Towards Decolonization

When people say that there is no way to turn back the clock or no way to go back in time in terms of decolonization, they are only partially right. History is not a progress in which things move forward in a simple, straight line. The idea that things are lost and nothing can be done isn’t really true. It is built on an assumption of authenticity and that in order for something to exist and be real it must be pure, it must not have changed. But this isn’t how things actually work. Neither humans nor the world itself persist in this way.

Things are forgotten all the time, but things also always carry the possibility of being recovered and rediscovered. Decolonization is not a matter of resurrecting things long lost in a perfect and authentic manner. It is not traveling back in time to live exactly the way things were before. Most people who feel that this is a definition of decolonization only propose this in order to resist the concept, to make it something that would never be viable in life, but always lead to absurd notions and impossible articulations of identity. There is no perfection in terms of identity. It only exists in imaginations, in academic texts, even in the performativity of speech, but it does not ever actually exist as something that lives and breathes.

In terms of cultural decolonization it is not so much about reliving the past, going back into it and inhabiting it. It is rather about taking elements of that past and using them to move forward. For some people this means simple lip service, a celebration of “ancient values,” but it can and should be something attached to more concrete notions of living. It can be about reimagining and revisiting and reviving certain trades, certain cosmologies, rituals, cultural forms. But it always requires a conversation about how those things will fit in today and lead towards the future, not keep Chamorros chained to the past.

In 2008 the first sakman or large open ocean canoe made by Chamorros appeared after perhaps 300 years of not being built or sailed. Created by the group TASI, it represented a powerful moment where Chamorros shook off centuries of colonial common sense, which made it seem that everything that led anywhere in life needed to come from elsewhere, that needed to be brought in. That sakman was tied to efforts to revive older Micronesian and Chamorro ways of navigating, seeing and traveling the world. The sakman need not remain a relic of the past, but it can be something powerful in the present. A symbol of connections not just to the ocean, but also between generations. Imagine if one day owning a sakman becomes like owning a car or owning a ranch. Imagine if the creation of sakman becomes common again and something families work together on as they have in the past. Imagine if this sakman no longer remains an echo of an inspiring past, but becomes a concrete foundation upon which we live our lives today?

Below is a quote about the sakman and the Chamorro ingenuity behind them from an English privateer who witnessed them in action in 1742:

“These Indians are no ways defective in understanding, for their flying proas in particular, which during ages past have been the only vessels employed by them, are so singular and extraordinary an invention that it would do honour to any nation, however dexterous and acute, since, if we consider the aptitude of this proa to the navigation of these islands, which lying all of them nearly under the same meridian, and with the limits of the trade wind, require the vessels made use of in passing from one to the other to be particularly fitted for sailing with the wind upon the beam; or if we examine the uncommon simplicity and ingenuity of its fabric and contrivance, or the extraordinary velocity with which it moves, we shall in each of these articles, find it worthy of our admiration, and deserving a place amongst the mechanical productions of the most civilised nations where arts and sciences have most eminently flourished…”

– From Lord Anson’s voyage around the world – October 1742



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