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Micronesia - Aspects of Saipan



Much of the original Chamorro culture in the Mariana Islands has now been lost. In fact, foreign influences make it very difficult for the Chamorros and the Carolinians to understand their cultural heritage. Both these heritages are different primarily because the Carolinians brought with them their own culture when they migrated from the Central Caroline Islands during the last century.


Before a woman delivers a baby, there are some special activities that take place. For the Carolinians, and for some superstitious Chamorro families, a medication is necessary especially when the woman is not married. The treatment consists of massages and oil rubbed around the abdominal area and sometimes smoking of the woman. The latter is when the woman is covered with a thick blanket and stands over a coconut husk fire. This is conducted by the local doctor and is usually accompanied by quiet chanting.

After the child has been born, the parents will usually select the name. In some cases however, the godparents, who are normally friends of the couple, will name the baby. At one time, the Carolinians on Saipan gave their children secret names taken from a plant or an animal along with the names that they were called in public.

If the parents decide to celebrate the arrival of the new baby, they will contact the selected godparents and relatives of both sides of the family and inform them of their plans. The immediate parents will have to provide most of the expenses for the feast, and in this, they will get support from their relatives. The godparents will help, customarily, with the gift of a large sum of money for the baby.

The day of the feast is also the day that the baby will be baptized. Early in the morning of that day, the parents will take the baby to the church and hand it over to the godparents. After the ceremony, the child is taken around and shown to all the relatives. They will find a pouch tied to the baby's wrist and according to custom, they will fill it with money. At the parent's home where the ceremony and celebration will take place, neighbours and relatives will give presents to the baby. This feast will be a very happy occasion that will go on throughout the day and into the night.

Should the parents decide not to celebrate this occasion, they would only prepare a small party and dinner for the immediate family and godparents. The baptism usually takes place one or two weeks after the child is born. If the mother of the baby is unmarried, usually no celebration will take place so as not to emphasize the woman's pregnancy. In this case, where a woman is pregnant without being married, she will be expected to work much harder so that she will not become a burden to her parents.


On Saipan, it is customary for the man to propose to the woman. If the proposal is accepted, then this marks the time of the beginning of their engagement. The girl will then immediately inform her parents of the decision and they will decide upon a convenient time for her future husband to visit. When this visit takes place, all of the members of the young woman's family will be sent away apart from herself and her parents. It will be the girl to receive her suitor at the door - welcomes him and introduces him to her parents. The young man, showing respect, will take their hands in his and kiss them saying "Niora" to the mother and "Niot" to the father.

If all goes well, the parents of the girl will request a meeting with the parents of the young man. When they get together, the young man and the young girl are not allowed to be present, although the girl will be in another room and the young man will be somewhere in the vicinity. Following this, the two young people will be called into the room and questioned to see if they are really sure of their choice and their decision to marry. It is normal for the parents to determine the wedding date although occasionally they will permit the young couple to do this.  

The wedding will require financial assistance and this will mainly be provided by the relatives. Most assistance is provided by the young because he must aid the bride's family in providing a party in honour of the occasion and also contribute to another party given by his side of the family. The young man will also have to provide money for the bride's clothes and will buy her jewelry such as a necklace, earrings and a wedding band.

On the wedding day, the groom and his godfather will take the bride and her godmother to the church where the blessing and the wedding ceremony will take place. The wedding is followed by celebrations called fandango. At fandango, the atmosphere is very jovial and it is increasingly becoming a custom to compete to see who can give the largest party with the most food and drinks provided. Following the wedding parties, the groom will take his bride to his father's home to live unless he already has built a house of his own.


The funeral customs of the Chamorros and the Carolinians are very much alike. The funeral customs on Saipan have been the same for many generations although the customs on the islands before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 16th century have now been lost.

Before a funeral takes place, permission to prepare the body for burial must be obtained from the family of the person who has passed away. According to tradition, preparation of the body for burial is undertaken by women. They are also responsible for dressing the dead and placing the body on a good, secure bed. They will light candles and place a cross above the head of the deceased.

Friends and relatives of the deceased will be notified and they will visit the deceased family bringing with them money and flowers to the funeral. In return, members of the family will offer the guests cigarettes, beetle nuts, leaves and lime, and usually serve light refreshments or coffee to help them stay awake during the night.

The old women who are relatives of the deceased will express their grief very deeply by crying and by asking forgiveness of their faults. People will arrive to mourn with the family, especially around midnight and at the break of dawn.

Ceremonies before the burial are attended by friends and relatives of the deceased and, most importantly, by a priest who prays for the deceased. By this time, the body has already been placed in a coffin ready to be buries. The coffin is taken to a cemetery, in a procession led by the priest and followed by those attending the burial. There are common cemeteries on Saipan where all people may be buried unless the dead person died from suicide.

Following the burial, the family of the deceased will arrange a prayer session, called a rosary, for up to two weeks. This usually is held at the home of the person who had died and all friends and relatives are invited to join the family in prayer. After the rosary period has been completed, friends and relatives come together again. On this occasion, they will donate food and money to help the family with a feast. After this, there are usually no more ceremonies for the dead until the following year when the first anniversary of the dead is remembered. 

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