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Indigeneity & “Placental Politics” in Guam

May 15, 2020

Christine DeLisle poses for a portrait

Christine DeLisle poses for a portrait
Photo by Gavin Schuster, Backpack student

Associate Professor Christine Taitano DeLisle knows the importance of a story. Stories inform the way we see the world, and the way that a story is told makes a difference. Stories we remember become our history, and the perspectives represented in history tell us as much about the time as the stories themselves.

DeLisle is CHamoru, Indigenous to the Mariana archipelago in Micronesia, a region in Oceania. She was born and raised in Guam (Guåhan, in the vernacular), the southernmost of the Marianas. After she got her BA in social science from the University of California, Berkeley, DeLisle returned home and became involved in CHamoru cultural revitalization and historical projects. She was particularly interested in Native Pacific women's advocacy work—a highlight of which included representing Guåhan at the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. She went on to earn an MA in Micronesian studies at the University of Guam and a PhD in history and women’s studies from the University of Michigan before becoming a professor in American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. DeLisle's commitment to researching Native Pacific Islander histories, especially women's stories, stems from an earlier public history project to rewrite the island's histories from a CHamoru perspective. 

Decolonizing CHamoru History in Guåhan 

Until recently, the history of Guåhan has been told  by outsiders and those who colonized it. Like many Indigenous communities, the CHamoru people of Guam were not accurately represented in these colonial and outsider histories. In the 300 years of Spanish colonialism of the Marianas, the CHamoru were depicted as pagans and savages in need of conversion. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US took control of Guåhan and today the island remains an unincorporated territory of the US. Like the Spanish, white American colonizers justified US colonialism of Guåhan by representing CHamorus as primitive and backward, and, as with American Indians, Americans depicted them as children in need of civilizing and modernizing.

In the 1990s, DeLisle was a part of Guam’s initiative to rewrite how textbooks for public schools cover the island’s history. As a researcher and writer for the Political Status Education Coordinating Commission (PSECC), she conducted interviews with survivors of WWII, collected oral histories from CHamoru people and conducted extensive archival research. Documenting CHamoru wartime experiences for the Hale'-ta ("our roots") textbook series was an important way that PSECC captured history from the perspective of the Indigenous people. The PSECC project was also the beginnings of what would become a labor of love in history and the archives for DeLisle.

“I wanted to hear their side of the story and learn, and it was through their voices that we could get a different kind of picture about history and culture,” says DeLisle.

A feminist historian and scholar, DeLisle understands how the perspectives of Indigenous women are especially marginalized. Her work recording the marginalized voices of the CHamoru people led her to specifically pursue the voices of Indigenous women—their historical and contemporary work and activism.

Protecting CHamoru Practices

In her forthcoming book, Placental Politics: CHamoru Women, White Womanhood and Indigeneity under U.S. Colonialism in Guam, DeLisle explores the history of prewar CHamoru women laborers recruited by the US navy. She focuses on the role of the pattera (midwives) and maestra (teachers) in navigating the changes that came with the US occupation and the navy's modernizing projects in public health, public education (and the instruction of English), and public works—especially as these projects intersected with the philanthropy work of American navy wives and nurses—while preserving and protecting CHamoru culture and the practice of inafa'maolek. Literally, “to make good,” inafa'maolek is a CHamoru code or set of values based on mutual assistance and cooperation, reciprocity, interdependence, obligation, balance, and reconciliation that has direct implications for how one behaves in relation to community and land.

One example is the decisions the pattera made concerning pregnancy, childbirth, and motherwork. The pattera adopted new practices of prenatal care introduced by navy nurses and doctors. They implemented prenatal check-ups for conditions like eclampsia to ensure that the women would be prepared for a healthy delivery. In their formal training under the navy, the pattera also adopted systematic hygiene practices, which they deemed as important protective measures against infections.

While the pattera saw the benefits of certain American practices, they resisted others in an effort to best serve CHamoru families. For example, when the military (in its efforts to establish a cash-based economy on the island) told pattera that they could charge for the child delivery, most pattera instead continued to accept other forms of compensation like vegetables, fresh fish, or being named (and honored) godmother to a child they delivered. The women valued the communal bonds and reciprocal kinship relations that came from caring for mother and baby and assessing family and clan needs. They knew that the strength of their community was more important than simply monetary compensation. Similarly, when the military instructed the midwives to discard the placenta, because the navy considered it toxic human waste, CHamoru women resisted. As in many Indigenous cultures, a child’s placenta is seen as their companion and caretaker in the womb. CHamoru women would bury the placenta because they believed by doing so, they were protecting children from harm's way, giving them a strong connection to land, place, and home, and steering them down the right path even in their adulthood. DeLisle uses the term “placental politics” as a way to describe the historical and embodied work of prewar CHamoru women. As Chamoru women activists continue to protect sacred lands and communities from US military development, DeLisle applies the term more broadly; placental politics describes a framework of Indigenous feminist theory and practice.

Global Indigenous Studies

As part of her commitment to global Indigenous studies, DeLisle works with local Indigenous communities in Mni Sota Makoce. Through a UMN Grand Challenge grant, she is involved in canoe revitalization and water stewardship and sustainability projects between Indigenous Micronesians and Dakota communities of the Upper and Lower Sioux. In 2019, the Institute for Advanced Study was awarded a humanities-based Mellon grant, for which DeLisle serves as a faculty advisor in critical Indigenous studies. The Mellon Environmental Stewardship, Place, and Community Initiative involves faculty, staff, and students of the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Morris campuses working in collaboration with Dakota, Ojibwe, and local community partners to address environmental challenges as a result of forces such as climate change and colonialism. She looks at examples like Standing Rock, Maunakea, Ihumātao, and the movements from Guåhan to protect Pågat and Litekyan to teach lessons about environmental stewardship of Indigenous communities.

“Placental Politics” as Indigenous Activism

Indigenous women around the globe practice “placental politics.” Just as CHamoru midwives have insisted on burying and planting the placenta out of respect for deep cultural and symbolic meanings connecting ideas of land and community in a system of reciprocal kinship, so too have other midwives from Oceania as well as Turtle Island. And just as CHamoru women have led movements to protect land, water, and community, Indigenous women elsewhere have been at the forefront of protesting the pollution, degradation, and desecration of sacred ancestral lands and waters. For many Indigenous communities, land and water are not simply deemed as valuable resources but are revered as kin and relative. In the CHamoru origin story of Guåhan and the sibling gods of creation, Fo'na and Pontan, Fo'na utilizes her powers to create the universe from parts of Pontan’s body, after which she throws herself onto the land and her body becomes Fouha Rock from which the first CHamorus originated. Indeed, DeLisle reminds us of yet another dimension of the multiple relations than run deep and wide in the feminist placental politics of CHamoru women:

“[My book] is first and foremost a history of CHamoru women and a study of their work as enmeshed in the work of American navy wives. But it is also a story about CHamoru women protecting the land and feminist assertions of CHamoru sovereignty against US colonial and military patriarchy but alongside and in tandem with brothers and uncles—a relation that was central to CHamoru matrilineal society of the past and that holds promise for a healthy and sustainable Guåhan future,” DeLisle says.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.