The First People

The legend of the taotaomo’na (English: “The People Who Came Before”) as told by Daddoo:

“The taotaomo’na are the ancestors of all the Chamorro people.  The oldest of them were the first people of Guam, dead long before the Spanish, dead long before the Chamorro were even ‘The Chamorro;’ they came to the island, they settled there, they turned it into a home.  In death, their spirits remain, tied to the jungles and caves and latte sites, claiming and guarding the island as they did in life.  Nunu trees (aka, banyan trees), in particular, are very important to them, they’re sacred, and they guard these trees most of all – that’s where many of the younger spirits go, to live in the roots and the trees, to dig down, deep into the earth of their homeland, safe under the watchful eyes of the First People who guard and dwell around them.

nunu-tree
Banyan Tree

“Some people say The White Lady is taotaomo’na, and the duendes, too.  The duendes might be, but I think of them as separate since the idea of them was introduced by the Spanish, and the White Lady’s story is actually from the period of Spanish colonization.  But I think it all depends on who you ask and how the stories were told to them.

“The taotaomo’na are guardians more than anything, but some, like Anufat, are quicker to anger than others.  Some appear as huge warriors, others as screaming and wailing women, and still others as frightening specters.  The Spanish reported that the spirits resembled headless giants, deformed and ugly, but I think this was their opinion, what they wanted the Chamorro people to believe their ancestors had been or had become.  Regardless, the taotaomo’na demand respect above all else; if they deny you passage or don’t want you to take something – or you don’t ask before proceeding – then they may punch or bite or pinch you, or they might let you think you got away with it only to haunt you or curse you or make you sick later on.

“You must always address the taotaomo’na with respect and surety: they are strong, they were warriors and now they are eternal guardians, and they do not respect fear and will not cater to those who display it – in fact, if you are Chamorro you are of their blood, and they may become angry with you for your weakness instead!  So you must disguise your fear, throw back your shoulders and hold your head high, and then you say with certainty:

Gue’la yan Gue’lo, kao siña malufan yo?’  (Grandmother and Grandfather, may I enter?)

Or…

Gue’la yan Gue’lo, kao siña yu’ hu na’setbe i tano’-miyu put para bai hu tinane?’  (Grandmother and Grandfather, may I please use your property for my own purposes?)

Or…

Gue’la yan Gue’lo, dispensa ham låo Kåo siña ham manmaloffan yan manmanbisita gi tano miyu sa’ yanggen un bisita i tano’må mi faloffan-ha’ sin un famaisin.’  (Grandmother and Grandfather, excuse us, but may we walk through here and visit your land?  When you come to our land, we will welcome you to do the same.)

Or…

Gue’la yan Gue’lo, kao siña yu’ manule’ tinamoum-muya yanggen matto hao gi tano’-ha fuannule’ ha sin mamaisen.”  (Grandmother and Grandfather, may I pick from your plants, and if you come to my land you may take without my permission.)

“If you anger or disrespect the taotaomo’na, the only remedy for the resulting wounds or illness or bad luck is to visit a suruhånu or suruhåna(traditional modern medicine men and women) for treatment, but they will surely send you back to the location where you first gave offense to beg forgiveness of the Guelatas and Guelotas (ancient grandparents).  Sometimes they will listen; sometimes they will not – it’s really up to them.  And in the end, you should have known better.”

Behind the Legend…

The ancestors of the first Chamorro people were expert seafarers who made the journey from Southeast Asia to Guam in or around 2000 BCE.  This original society was comprised of skilled craftspeople, able to create intricate and detailed weaving and pottery, not to mention the famous latte stones – but they did not dedicate any of their skills or time towards practicing an organized religion.  Rather than deities, temples, prayers, and priests, they venerated the aniti: the sacred and powerful spirits of their ancestors.

During Spanish colonization, over 150,000 members of the native population were killed and a great many of the villages were utterly destroyed – and a majority of the people who escaped genocide fell to the diseases the Spanish brought with them from Europe.  One of the greatest threats to the influence of the Spanish clergy and their position was the caste of medicine healers and shamans known as manmakahnas, who could commune and walk with the taotaomo’na (these healers would later be referred to by the Spanish as suruhånus and suruhånas).

It is these two groups – the original settlers as well as those killed in the Marianas by or because of the Spanish – who are believed by most to make up the bulk of the taotaomo’na.  And Daddoo’s not wrong – it was the Spanish who first reported depictions of the taotaomo’na as ghostly giants, monstrous figures, and pagan forest-dwelling demons, willfully misunderstanding and misrepresenting the true beliefs of the indigenous people, just as people do today with cultures and religions they do not understand.  In fact, they deemed the word “aniti” to mean a sort of evil soul, and the word “taotaomo’na” to reference evil spirits, the devils and demons of a pagan population.

Like most cultures, the ancient Chamorro people were in awe of the heavens and the horizon, specifically the twilight (the time between dawn and sunrise, or between sunset and dusk), and they believed that these times of day were the ones in which the spirits were most active.  Thus, even today most of the communication with and visions of the taotaomo’na occur in the late evening and early morning.

And today the respect shown to these memories of the ancient dead is still evident in the way in which these ancestors are addressed.  Unlike the more formal versions of ancestor worship, rather than simply asking for attention or guidance from “our ancestors”, the Chamorro people use the more familiar and personal terms “gue’la” and “gue’lo” – so it’s a bit like saying, “All of my grandmothers, all of my grandfathers, all of you people who came before me whose blood is my blood…”


All sources of historical information are listed here:  Chamorrknow.  The above legend was recorded as it was told to me by my Daddoo.

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