In “Placental Politics: CHamoru Women, White Womanhood, and Indigeneity Under US Colonialism in Guam” by Christine Taitano Delisle, indigeneity confronts the US Navy’s “long road” settler colonialism, an effort to westernize CHamorus to what white naval officers considered “civilized”.
Delisle brings CHamoru women specifically to the forefront of this important conversation.
Delisle is extremely direct about the different narratives in this story and where they come from. Guåhan is a historic island whose narratives have been dominated by settlers for far too long. The author uses the microcosm of US Navy wives and CHamoru women to bring these narratives to the reader.
The narrative of the United States Navy is the one that ultimately shaped the island since the American occupation began. Delisle shares how the naval governor of Guåhan in 1898 wanted to use “benevolent assimilation” as an imperialist tactic.
The idea at the time, after buying the island from Spain, another controversial idea in itself, was to “cure” the indigenous people of what the US considered to be a primitive culture by introducing a fancy white Westernization.
CHamoru patteras, or midwives, occupy a central place in the narrative of “Politics of the Placenta”. The patteras were sometimes called dåma de noche, women of the night, a well-known term for sex workers, which unfortunately had a negative connotation.
This is a subtle and insidious indication of the success of the colonists’ propaganda campaign, against which Delisle is fighting.
The patteras provide an essential service to the CHamoru people who give birth, acting as doulas immersed in indigenous practices. This includes the practice of burying a part of the placenta in the ground after the child is born.
In this way, the child will always be connected to Guåhan. The sanctity of the land and a connection to it is a common thread through many indigenous Pasifika cultures.
The patteras were part of what the US naval governor considered “backward.” The colonists were unaware of the idea of women working in addition to being dutiful Christian wives, mothers, and young girls.
The idea of a woman working all hours of the day and night and often traveling long distances alone to serve her community was discouraged. The settlers couldn’t wait to convince the Indians to go to the naval hospitals.
The author mentions that the “efforts to regulate the terms of gender and sexuality of the CHamoru were also fundamentally based on what Gail Bederman describes as a “crisis in American masculinity”.
The self-sufficiency of CHamoru women, and of patteras in particular, is fundamentally at odds with what white American men want: to assert their place at the top.
This is also a strong influence on the colonists’ desire to move away from the extended CHamoru families to the much more limited and patriarchal nuclear family.
Delisle’s writing and work are dense and should not be taken lightly. There is a wealth of information in “Placental Politics”, and her love for Guåhan shines through on every page.
She brings CHamoru women specifically to the forefront, making sure to marry both their gender and indigenous identity and tell their stories.
For me, the message is that CHamoru women are the guardians of Guåhan’s heartbeat. The links to the land are both literal and metaphorical. The patteras who buried the placenta in the earth ensured that the children they brought into the world always had a part of themselves in the earth.
But in a broader sense, the Pattera and CHamoru women kept secret stories and knowledge of the culture. CHamoru women are the proverbial beacon on shorelines, signaling to the people of Guåhan that this is their shoreline, despite centuries of colonialism.
Leinani Lucas is a millennial who enjoys reading, writing, and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her friends, and can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas, when she’s not telling stories or singing out loud in the car. This book review was provided in collaboration with the University of Guam Press. Learn more about her collection of Micronesian literature at uogpress.com.