On November 21 I gave a talk for the MARC Seminar Series at the University of Guam. This talk was meant to encourage a continuing discussion of the crescent-shaped, carved body ornament called Sinahi by contemporary Chamorros. My interest in this object is due to the fact that it has become a major icon of Chamorro identity, yet its ancient origins and usage is a mystery. To summarize my talk:
· The name Sinahi was given by contemporary Chamorros because it looks like a crescent moon. This is confusing because Sinahi actually means New Moon, meaning the dark moon. According to my sources, ancient Chamorro language described the waxing moon as Sinahi---(i.e One, Two), using ancient terminology for the enlarging size of the crescent over the month’s cycle. Contemporaries shortened these terms to just Sinahi. In the northern Mariana Islands, it has been called Kalang, meaning pendant.
· It was carved from the giant clam shell, a very hard brittle material. It has small holes drilled at each tip of the crescent, indicating that it was attached to a cord, to be hung or linked.
· It was made popular by Nasion Chamorro activist Angel Santos in the early 1990s, who wore an ancient carved crescent as a mark of Chamorro nationhood; it was rumored to have been found on a burial.
· My research has failed to reveal any description of this object by early missionaries and explorers, although other body ornaments were described in detail.
· My interviews with archaeologists have verified that the object is rarely found in ancient sites, and not on burial remains.
· My interviews with collectors during the mid 1990s revealed a few Sinahi that they had in their collections, usually found in disturbed surface areas. A rare reference to one found on a burial was third-hand information and not verifiable.
· German governor Georg Fritz found at least 3 Sinahi in a clay container in Saipan in 1904. They are the only Marianas artifacts I found on exhibit at the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, measuring six inches from tip to tip. His contemporary, Hans Hornbostel, makes reference to Fritz’ finds in his notes stored at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He further confused the facts by drawing a picture of three Sinahi linked together, as he proposed they might have been found. He also referenced statements attributed to natives by an unverifiable source, that such links were found in a burial cave.
This leaves us with many assumptions that cannot be verified. Further collaboration and research is necessary to come to any conclusion. Sinahi definitely existed, but no time period has been established, nor evidence of how it was used, or who used it.
This mystery does not take away from the fact that artists today are carving ever more beautiful and elaborate Sinahi neck pieces, which are worn by people from all walks of life as a sign of pride in Chamorro heritage.
Following my talk, several people have offered new ideas or raised new questions:
· Was this object worn, or was it stored as a valuable resource, to be used as a clan gift for a special event or to settle an important issue?
· Was the object was passed down through generations and is this the reason it has not been found in burials? If so, where are they now?
· Was this an object from Chamorro culture? Was it from the Carolinian culture, which was also present, especially in the Northern Marianas?
The discussion needs to continue. We need to continue to ask questions and to do the necessary research to find an answer.
My 1-hour presentation will soon be posted on YouTube and aired on KUAM and PBS Guam, thanks to MARC Seminar organizer Rlene Steffy. I look forward to more comments.