Saipan Culture

The Original Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia are Known as Chamorros

The original inhabitants and dominant ethnic group of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (all the Marianas except Guam) in western Micronesia refer to themselves as Chamorros ( tsa-’mor-os ). The term chamorri was used to designate the upper caste at the time of Magellan’s arrival in 1521. The Spaniards heard this as chamurres and understood it to mean “friend.” By 1668, the term had shifted to chamorro (“bold”), because Chamorro men often wore a topknot of hair on an otherwise shaved scalp. A more general designation of the people of the Northern Marianas is Mariana Islanders, but residents frequently use the acronym CNMI.

Identification. Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands for Spain in 1521 and first named them Las Islas de las Velas Latinas (“The Islands of the Lateen Sails”) after the triangular sails on the native canoes. Later, angered by the islanders’ penchant for stealing from his ships, he renamed the archipelago Las Islas de los Ladrones (“The Islands of the Thieves”). In 1668, the name was changed to Las Marianas in honor of Mariana of Austria, widow of Philip IV of Spain.

Location and Geography. The CNMI is in western Micronesia, about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines. The fourteen islands stretch like beads on a five hundred-mile string, from Farallon de Pajaros in the north to Rota in the south. The climate is tropical. Temperature varies only slightly between a December–June dry season and a July–November rainy season. Typhoons are a threat from August through November.

The Marianas are high islands, largely limestone terraced in the south and volcanic in the north. The 176 square-mile (458 square kilometers) land area (21 percent of it arable) is concentrated in the three southern islands of Rota, Tinian, and Saipan. Only three other islands (Agrigan, Pagan, and Anatahan) are larger than ten square miles (26 square kilometers) in area. Culturally integrated but politically separate, the United States Territory of Guam lies thirty miles farther south at the bottom of the chain. Garapan is the capital of the CNMI, located on Saipan, the site of the commonwealth’s only urbanized population.

Demography. The population grew from 16,780 in 1980 to an estimated 66,000 in 1998. Most of this nearly 400 percent growth was in the form of labor pools from Asia migrating in response to unprecedented economic growth. The 1995 breakdown of the population by ethnicity was Filipino, 19,868 (33.75 percent); Chamorro, 17,120 (29.1 percent); Chinese, 6,837 (11.6 percent); Micronesian, 4,818 (8.2 percent); Carolinian, 3,041 (5.2 percent); Korean, 2,325 (3.95 percent); white, 2,013 (3.4 percent); Japanese, 1,047 (1.8 percent); and all others, 1,777 (3.0 percent).

Linguistic Affiliation. The official languages are English, Chamorro, and Carolinian, an Eastern Malayo-Polynesian language that is a combination of dialects from atolls in the area of Truk. Chamorro is closely related to Tagalog (Pilipino). After more than four hundred years of Western (Spanish, German, and English) and Asian (Japanese) colonial domination, Chamorro is untouched in its grammar, although major portions of the vocabulary have been transformed into variants of Spanish and English. The Chamorros and Carolinians are largely multilingual, speaking their native tongues, English, and Japanese. Carolinian is spoken mostly in the home and the immediate neighborhood, while Chamorro is used widely in communities throughout

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