Where a meal is not complete without rice
By Raquel Bagnol
Long before the Spaniards came to the islands, rice played an essential role in the history of the CHamoru people. Even today, meal is not complete without rice.
However, there is more to rice than being the staple on every dining table in the Marianas. In ancient times, rice was used for important ceremonies such as weddings and childbirth rituals.
CHamorus celebrated an annual fiesta at Fouha Rock, where, according to a local legend, the spirit goddess Fu’una created the CHamoru people. They brought rice cakes as an offering. After being blessed, the people brought the rice cakes back to their villages to heal the sick.
In an entry on Guampedia.com, Guam Museum’s first executive director, Dominica Tolentino, cited the observations made by Spanish missionary Fray Antonio de los Angeles, who lived among the CHamorus on Guam from 1596 to 1597. According to Fray, people who sang at funerals were served rice from the family of the deceased.
Records written by Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, the first missionary to the Marianas, showed that rice, which was important among the CHamorus, has always been a favored food and an essential item in feasts even when supply was short.
In a 1967 paper titled “The Changing Role of Rice in the Mariana Islands,” anthropologist Robert R. Solenberger said the CHamorus were the only people in the Pacific island region who cultivated rice during ancient times.
Rice growing also suggested contact between the Marianas and rice-growing people from the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Archeological evidence showed the stone-age CHamorus possessed tools for rice cultivation such as axes, adzes and chisels made of polished stone or shells. These tools were used to clear dense forests that covered big areas of the Marianas.
Anthropologists concluded that the ancient CHamorus grew dry rice using hand tools.
When the Spaniards introduced the plows pulled by cattle and buffaloes brought from the Philippines, the CHamorus began growing wet rice.
The Spaniards also introduced two new varieties of wet rice from the Philippines. Water from flowing streams on Guam and Saipan helped irrigate the rice fields.
During the 16th and early 17th centuries, rice was abundant and used by the islanders as a commodity to trade with other islands and voyagers who visited the Marianas. The islanders sold rice by basket or bale.
However, rice production did not last. The people shifted to planting corn when they found it more profitable than rice. They also started planting sweet potatoes or camote.
Rice production dwindled and what little rice was left was saved for feasts.
Toward the end of the Spanish period, the people stopped cultivating dry rice despite the Spanish-run government’s efforts to revive the industry.
By the end of the 19th century, wet rice cultivation was almost totally abandoned, except for a few locations on Guam. Corn became the main crop for consumption, while the islanders turned to coconut planting for export.
Among the reasons that caused the demise of rice production were crop failure due to uncertain river flow and windstorm damage. The islanders also grew impatient with the hard work required to keep the rice fields free from weeds. Finally, the farmers complained of suffering from “cold cramps.”
During the depression in the 1930s, the American administration on Guam encouraged the people to produce rice, offering incentives and subsidies for building dams and reservoirs. They helped finance CHamoru-owned companies to buy rice lands, and even required the local government to buy local rice.
By 1937, about 640 acres on Guam were planted with rice. However, the demand was more than the supply. The Marianas started importing rice in the early 20th century.
On Saipan, Solenberger said, wet and dry rice cultivation continued until World War II.
The Japanese showed support by encouraging the people to cultivate wet rice. They constructed ponds and canals near Lake Susupe to receive run-off water during the rainy season.
However, after the Japanese left in 1946, people stopped planting rice. There was little interest in reviving rice cultivation. By 1951, only one farmer on Saipan had a carabao team for rice growing.
Even after they stopped producing the crop, the CHamorus never lost their appetite for rice. At times, when they experience a rice shortage due to delayed shipments, the people of Saipan are willing to pay higher prices.
In 2020, the Northern Mariana Islands imported $521,000 in rice from Thailand, Japan, Chinese Taipei and South Korea.
Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to email@example.com