Native and Colonial Cultures

“When native met newcomer, both groups tried to benefit, as people will. In almost every case, each side believed itself to be superior—ethnocentrism seems to be a near-universal human quality—and from this belief was convinced that it could control the encounter to its advantage. But even though these various groups had wildly varying ideas about what they wanted and how to get it, the outcome was similar enough that researchers have constructed what might be thought of as a master narrative of the meeting of Europe and America.”

   -1491 by Charles C. Mann

When a colonizing power comes into an area it may seem that the native culture is wiped out, but seeds of the native culture remain and intertwine to create a unique cultural blend. When a native culture meets a colonizing power, as was common in the Americas when the Europeans arrived, the culture of the native group is commonly heavily impacted. Although while the culture may be changed, it is not necessarily lost. For example, when Christian missionaries arrived in the Pacific, many of the islands that were converted religiously, still retained many of their traditional beliefs and practices. This created a new and completely unique blend of religious practices. In the last few years, my family and I have traveled all over the world and experienced a lot of these traditional / colonized cultures first hand.

In the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, you get a distinct example of this blend of cultures. The book is set in Nigeria right around the time that the first Europeans and Christian missionaries were arriving in Africa. When the missionaries first arrived in the village of Umuofia, they immediately work to convert the village to Christianity. Various villages and individuals in the story adopt the new practices, however many people only convert partially. This set the stage for seeds of the native religion/ culture to remain intact despite the overwhelming presence of the colonizing religion.

Evidence of remaining seeds of culture in the book can be seen in a place the villagers call the Evil Forest. They believe that the Evil Forest is home to all the evil spirits and dead of their village. For example, when a baby died in childbirth, it was thought to be cursed and evil so the body was cast into the forest. All the members of the village were terrified of the area and believed dangerous beasts and cursed souls of their dead resided there. When the missionaries first arrived, many people in the village thought little of it and the others wanted them gone. So when they asked for land to build their church, the village elders gave them an area in the Evil Forest in the hopes that they wouldn’t survive. However, this did not have the desired effect. For when the missionaries completed their church unharmed, many people converted, believing the Christian’s god must be more powerful than their own. This was the catalyst that really sparked the village’s transition to Christianity. However, even after most of the village had been converted, many of the residents would still not enter the forest except for the immediate vicinity of the church, illustrating a lasting belief or fear of their old gods.

Another example comes later in the book during a clan member’s funeral, the gun belonging to Okonkwo, accidentally goes off killing a teenage boy. In their native culture, killing a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess and Okonkwo and his family are sentenced to seven years in exile. While this is a rather grim example, it illustrates the lasting connection and belief in both their ancient practices and gods.

One of the first places I experienced this blend of cultures first-hand was in the Central American country of Costa Rica. Costa Rica is primarily Christian, Catholic to be specific. They even require the teaching of Christianity in their schools. However, Costa Rica is still rich with native traditions. The colonial period began when Christopher Columbus reached the eastern coast of Costa Rica on his fourth voyage on September 18, 1502. Numerous subsequent Spanish expeditions followed, eventually leading to the first Spanish colony in Costa Rica, Villa Bruselas, founded in 1524.

One example showing that modern Costa Rica has retained some of its ancient traditions is in their art. Costa Ricans are well known for their mask making and have a very unique process. Traditional mask making is a very spiritual process in which artists will ask the tree for permission to make a mask and for inspiration. This clearly shows a deep anthropomorphism of trees or a belief in spirits that inhabit them. This anthropomorphism is counter to traditional Christian teachings, exemplifying the blended religious belief that colonization created.

A second example is a Costa Rican holiday that is a combination of ancient and modern history all around the country, once a year there is a day of dance called Juego de Los Diablitos which roughly translates to the dance of the devil. This holiday commemorates the day the Native tribes of Costa Rica defeated the Spanish conquistadors. During the festival, the native tribesmen carve and wear decorative masks and skirts made of large banana leaves. One member of the tribe dresses a large bull that represents the Spanish. All of the participants dance around a fire and the bull charges the other members of the tribes until finally at the end of the festival the bull is “defeated”. This is in remembrance of September 15th, 1821 when Costa Rica finally gained its independence and freedom. This is an interesting tradition because it is neither ancient or something brought by the Spanish, it is a holiday in remembrance or the history of native Costa Rican’s and it is something completely unique to Costa Rica.

Another place that demonstrates a strong cultural connection to their past despite many colonizing powers is a small island in the Marianas chain called Guam. Guam is a United States territory, however, it has its own unique culture unlike anywhere else in the United States. The native people of Guam are the Chamorro. While their culture has been heavily damaged, it is starting to make a comeback with the Cultural Renaissance that is sweeping across the Pacific. Guam was originally colonized by the Spanish in 1520 when the explorer Ferdinand Magellan anchored his three ships in Umatac Bay. From the beginning, the Chamorro and the Spanish were at odds. During the Spanish-American war in 1898, the United States took control of Guam. Then in World War I, the Japanese reconquered Guam and took it from the US. The Japanese treated the Chamorro terribly. They took them as slaves, forced them into camps, and wiped out most of their population. Finally, in World War II, the United States conquered Guam taking it from the Japanese, making it an official territory. Yet, even today, the forces of colonization are not over as more and more Chamorro land is being taken by the U.S. military to expand our bases there.

Through all this changing in powers, it is surprising that any shred of Chamorro culture is still alive today. Now, in traditional Chamorro lives, Catholicism is at the forefront of the communities’ day to day religious practices. Even though the Spanish influence can be seen Throughout Chamorro traditions, from their food to their clothes, Chamorro culture is still very much alive. They have retained many of their stories and folklore, their food and art, and their music. In Guam, similar to Costa Rica, Catholicism has been almost entirely adopted into their routine lives to the point that it is now a part of modern Chamorro culture.

Modern Chamorro culture does not have clear boundaries between colonizer traditions and their ancient traditions because it was occupied for so long by so many countries, and so many natives were enslaved then later killed. This also is demonstrated by the fact that so very few relics of traditional life still remain today.

However, there is a cultural renaissance that is sweeping the Pacific. Many island nations are working on reviving their cultural practices, There are many reasons for this, the first being that they don’t want to lose the knowledge of their ancestors and the practices that have sustained them for hundreds of years before colonizers arrived. Secondly in today’s changing world and climate it is important now more than ever that these small island nations, that are so heavily affected by the changing climate, stick to the practices that have allowed them to survive for so long without further harming their own environment when so many of them are already in such danger from sea level rise and a changing climate.

One example of this renaissance can be seen in the music played on the radio in Guam. Despite having retained a large Japanese presence on the island little to none of the music played is in Japanese, It is primarily “Island Music”, things like Reggae and other easy going songs, along with more Americanized pop music. However, recently, more and more channels are beginning to mix in some traditional Chamorro music and speak in Chamorro.

The second example of this can be seen all over the island of Guam, on the walls and buildings of the city. When most people think of graffiti, they think of names or offensive phrases scribbled on buildings, they don’t usually think of intricate murals that extend some 50 feet into the air. Although there are many groups responsible for these works of art, there is one in particular that stands out. While we were in Guam, we went to see a film and panel of speakers on the subject of graffiti in Guam. The group that spoke on the panel was the group that was also responsible for some of the most elaborate murals. While some of these murals were illegally put there, many people today will actually give permission to paint something on their walls. These murals commonly depict life or legends of the ancient Chamorro people. Even if many of these artists might be Christian, it still illustrates a belief or at least an acknowledgment of their cultural heritage.

While in Guam, our family decided to take a trip over to the islands of Palau, where we met up with some locals we new through my mom’s work in the Pacific. Like Guam, Palau has had a complicated history of control back and forth between different colonizing powers. Despite its complex history, the island is now actually its own country and the culture is very much still alive. This is apparent in their artwork and stories, their fishing practices, and their deep connection with the sea. We were extremely fortunate to be invited by our Paluan friends to attend a traditional wedding in the local village. I was curious to see what traditional village life was like, and even more so what a traditional wedding would entail. Not knowing that much about Palauan culture ahead of time, I had no idea what to expect but was very surprised to find the event to be a mostly traditional Catholic wedding.

At first, I was almost disappointed because I thought I would get to see something completely new. But the more time we spent there, the more I realized that while it may be a “traditional” Catholic wedding, it was by no means ordinary compared to what would it go on somewhere like the United States. The service and the exchanging of vows were fairly familiar, but as the wedding progressed it became more and more unique. The first two obvious things that I noticed were what people were wearing and what they were singing. Instead of the groom wearing a suit and the bride, a white gown, every couple at the service wore matching patterns of flowers on their clothes. It was like you took a standard wedding and then colored it in with all the colors of the rainforest. The next interesting thing was the singing, instead of traditional church songs, a choir dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts and pants, of both men and women sang songs in their Palauan language. This demonstrates an interesting blend of cultures because while it obviously wasn’t something that would have happened pre-colonization, it also wasn’t quite a standard Western Christian wedding either.

After the service, everyone went outside and sat down at the tables, decorated with tropical flowers collected by the members of the village earlier that day. For the meal we ate traditional foods like taro and red rice, for the main course there was traditional fish with the bones and scales still attached, and a boar that had been cooked underground all day, a process referred to in Palau as chinahan. After we all finished eating, they began playing music. Many people got up and went to do some Palauan and some non-traditional Palauan dancing while some of the children sang.

On the way out of the village, a couple of things stuck out to me. While fairly modernized, the village still showed a hint of traditional village life. The houses were small, many of them mobile homes, but decorating them was traditional artwork and carvings, called storyboards. These carvings depicted ancient myths and legends of the Palauan people. A few of the houses also had traditionally carved canoes in their yards that some of the men would use for fishing and small ones for the children to learn with. Just like in Costa Rica, while the culture was still very much alive, Christianity was deeply intertwined with the native culture to the point that it was barely distinguishable where one culture ended and the other began.

We witnessed more of the Pacific Island Cultural Renaissance in Palau. We met the navigators and builders or a traditional Yapese sailing canoe that had just been completed. We saw the, carving breadfruit trees, making rope from coconuts and even got to sail on the traditional canoe. There is a growing movement to remember and revive old ways, traditional cultures and beliefs.

This is a phenomenon seen all over the world, especially in many of the Pacific Islands. The Spanish missionaries brought Catholicism to the Pacific Islands during their explorations. While many of these encounters were not peaceful, the vast majority of islands were still converted to Christianity. For example, in the case of Guam, the Spanish came and were met with diplomacy and gifts from the natives, and in return, they kidnapped members of the village as trophies and brought them back to Spain. On their return visit, they conquered and killed anyone who would not convert. In many cases, a few generations later islands like Guam had become deeply Christian Communities. Due to this fact, the Spanish aren’t entirely responsible for the nearly total spread of Christianity through the Pacific. While the Spanish did convert most of the initial colonies, once Catholicism had been established, many of these islands sent their own missionaries out to neighboring Islands. This is a trend that is historically fairly common due to European conquest and exploration.

Over the last two years, I have been to Peru twice. Once with my family when we went to many parts of Peru, and once alone to stay with a friend and his family, who I met at the Our Ocean 2017 conference in Malta. In 1533 Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador, colonized Peru in order to gain power and westernize the country, changing the dynamics of the land completely. Peru was left decimated by the diseases that the Spanish brought with them, which killed over 90% of the Inca’ population.

During the first visit, we went to both the Amazon River basin and to the higher elevations of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Cusco is one of the many places around Peru that has not been influenced in the same way by Western culture as have in most countries. My family and I have traveled to 18 counties in my lifetime across Southeast Asia to the Americas and almost everywhere we go people dress as we do, this is what makes Peru stand out so much. Even while just driving around the beautiful mountain city of Cuzco, you immediately notice that a lot of the people are wearing traditional dress. Even in the middle of the city, lots of people aren’t wearing what would be common in many other modernized places all over the world.

One tradition that can still be seen in Peru, that is neither distinctly Catholic nor Incan, can be seen in much of the mountain farmland. Many of the women wear these interesting hats that range from short little boulder caps to tall cylindrical hats and colorful, fringed hats. While these hats may have been traditional Incan dress, they now are used to indicate ethnicity, homeland, and consequently, class. Someone with darker skin with closer ties to their Incan heritage will wear the shorter rounded caps, whereas a woman with a taller hat is someone with more Spanish Heritage and frequently lighter skin. As is true in much of Central and South America, social class is partially determined by the presence of Spanish heritage in the family. Traditional dress in these mountain communities both indicates heritage and is a clear indication that traditional culture is still present.

Peru is is a great physical example of the combination of native culture and the culture of colonizing powers. For example, many of the old churches were built on the ruins and foundations of ancient temples. If you go and visit many of these churches, you will immediately notice that they bare little resemblance in shape to most other churches. The reason for these churches’ irregular layout is that the foundations of these buildings were not originally even designed to be churches. One church in particular that we visited near Cusco quite literally had the first few feet of the walls on the outside as the original Inca bricks, where the church was simply built on the ruins of the old Temple. This is a physical manifestation of the blend of ancient and colonizing cultures to form the unique culture found in Peru today.

While it is interesting to imagine what many of these places would be like if their culture hadn’t been so deeply influenced by colonizing powers, it also allows for a unique look into what was probably the most substantial change that many of these cultures undertook. And while it may seem that the native culture is wiped out in most places, seeds of the native culture remain in each of these countries and have become intertwined with the colonizing culture to create a unique cultural blend. However, it is critically important that groups, especially small isolated ones that are most affected by climate change, don’t lose the knowledge of their traditional ways. People and their traditions evolve over thousands of years in order to coexist with their environments. So when another group comes in and changes that, it puts the place and the people at risk. This is one reason the cultural renaissance is so important. Bringing back the cultural knowledge, pride and sustainable practices that have allowed these cultures to flourish for so long will give these communities more resilient to a changing environment in the future.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart” New York. Anchor, 1994. Print.

Jason, Andrews. “Costa Rican Culture”, 15 Jun. 2012 Accessed 17 Mar. 2019

Mann, Charles C. “1491” New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York. Knopf,  6 Nov. 2005

-Special thanks to my parents for facilitating the opening of my mind and the broadening of my horizons

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