Arts and Culture in Northern Mariana Islands
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or the CNMI, consists of a chain of islands, with the majority of them uninhabited. As of 2009, the estimated population of all the islands was about 51,500, with 90 percent of the total number residing in Saipan. Two additional islands, Tinian and Rota, hold nearly all of the remaining people, with a couple of small islands having fewer than ten inhabitants.
The Northern Mariana Islands have a colorful cultural heritage. Two indigenous groups, the Chamorro and the Carolinian, reside on the islands. They have maintained some of their traditions, often fused with Spanish colonial customs and American pop culture trends. An influx of Asian immigrants, who generally work in the low-paying garment industry, means that foreign workers currently outnumber native residents.
Turquoise waters and scores of beaches make the Northern Mariana Islands a magnet for Asian tourists, many of whom come from Japan. These tourists have inspired the region’s real estate speculation and rapid-fire development of golf courses, casinos, large hotels, spas, restaurants, and other tourist services, all of which make Saipan the fastest-developing island in Micronesia. However, a faltering Japanese economy and the decline of the yen have marked a downturn in the once-hopping tourist trades of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. The region’s declining revenues and low population, combined with poor economic governance, have resulted in little funding for the arts and culture.
The Northern Marianas Islands do not have a single professional orchestra, classical group, resident ballet company, or opera ensemble. One community-based group, the Pacific Winds Ensemble, performs concerts during festivals and special events. .
The lack of professional companies with full seasons does not mean that the region is devoid of culture, however. Community groups or visiting artists occasionally organize performances, and special festivals provide multifaceted forms of entertainment. One notable example is the annual Flame Tree Arts Festival, Micronesia’s largest arts and culture festival, which takes place in Saipan. Over 60 vendors showcase arts and crafts, often utilizing local materials such as shells for jewelry, or fish to recreate the Japanese art form of gyotaku, creating fish prints. Performances include traditional music and a presentation of the Carolinian Stick Dance, a traditional warrior dance.
The sole major museum in the Northern Mariana Islands is the CNMI Museum of History and Culturein Saipan, situated inside a former Japanese hospital. Artifacts and artwork span 4,000 years of local history and culture, with deep holdings representing the ancient Chamorro and Carolinian populations. The collection also reflects the influence of the islands’ different eras of colonization and emigration, with objects from Spanish, German, and Japanese cultures. One of the highlights is an exhibit of gold, pottery, and metal artifacts from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which shipwrecked nearby in 1638.
In the tourist town of Garapan, the Visitor Center once held display cases filled with World War II gas masks, weapons, uniforms, photographs, and war-related paraphernalia but, as of 2009, electricity and air conditioning costs have moved the collection into storage at the CNMI Museum of History and Culture.
One other site affords the opportunity to see World War II relics. The Marianas Trench Cave Museum, also known as the Rota Cave Museum, sits within a natural limestone cavern said to be 10 million years old. Exhibits line the narrow pathway into the museum. Japanese and American objects from the World War II era comprise much of the collection, but the museum also contains ancient Chamorro objects and historical pieces from the Spanish intrusion.
Traditional Chamorro music, song, and poetry are the indigenous sounds of the Northern Mariana Islands. Later music shows influences of Japanese, Spanish, German, and American colonizers. Chamorro music involves the playing of traditional instruments such as the belembaotuyan, a string instrument made from a hollowed-out gourd, as well as the nose flute. Call-and-response chants and work songs show up in Kantan singing, Chamorro poetry, Chamorrita singing, and improvised Kantan Chamorrita poetry.
One notable contemporary Carolinian musical group is the Olomwaay Band, which merges traditional sounds and instrumentation with a pop sensibility, resulting in the local hit She Gave Us Love.
The Northern Mariana Islands have their own national anthem, Gi Talo Gi Halom Tasi in Chamorro, orSatil Matwal Pacifico in Carolinian.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The Northern Mariana Islands have no resident theater company, though local artists, dance troupes, and musicians give open-air performances during the Thursday evening Garapan Street Market.
Saipan’s American Memorial Park contains a modern 1,200-seat amphitheater. Events include concerts, celebrations, art shows, and festivals. Also in Saipan, the community group Friends of the Arts stages an occasional play, musical, or theatrical event.
In 2002, John Woo’s action adventure film Windtalkers chronicled the struggle of John Enders, a Marine who is traumatized when he loses his entire platoon. Enders, played by Nicolas Cage, and another marine sergeant, are assigned to protect Navajo code-talkers during the World War II invasion of Saipan. Although the story concerns Saipan, the filming took place in various locations in Hawaii and California.
A local documentary, Lieweila: A Micronesian Story (1998), recounts the cultural experiences and challenges of the Carolinians of the CNMI. Cinta Matagolai Kaipat, a descendant of the island’s first migrants, narrates the film, which traces Saipan’s history from migration to its current state as a tourist spot and center for cheap Asian labor.
Saipan and Micronesian culture appear in several books. Chun Yu Wang (b. 1975) wrote Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin (2009). The book follows the Chinese-born author’s experiences after she moved to Saipan to work in a garment factory. Wang weaves a story of her determination in the face of cruelty and injustice.
Don Farrell (b. 1947) resides in Tinian and has written several articles and publications about regional history and culture.
Saipan figures in the plots of Tom Clancy’s (b. 1947) novel Debt of Honor and in Banana Yoshimoto’s (b. 1964) novel Amrita, which focuses on the spiritual aspect and ecology of the island.
Tinian resident Rem Diaz paints images reflecting ancient Chamorro history, daily life, and culture.
The Northern Mariana Islands saw extensive military action during World War II. Japanese bunkers and armaments pepper Saipan and other islands. The CNMI government and the National Park Service manage Saipan’s American Memorial Park, which honors the American and Marianas people who gave their lives during the Marianas Campaign of World War II. Known as the Last Command Post, Saipan’sBanadero Cave holds tanks, relics, and cannons from World War II.
At the northern end of Tinian, the North Field contains several World War II relics, including the atomic bomb pits. Chulu Beach, situated on the northwest shore of Tinian, marks the spot where United States armed forces landed during World War II. The site now features an ongoing archaeological dig.
Japanese Shinto shrines decorate different parts of Tinian. The Tinian Shrine, or the Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine, is notable.
A series of hand-carved latte stones stands near the Tinian harbor. The limestone carvings decorate the House of Taga, which was the home of Tinian’s Chief Taga.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
One of the longstanding island folk traditions is the Carolinian Stick Dance. Felipe and Joseph Ruak keep this custom alive through performances by their troupe, the Talabwog Man Stick Dancers. The Saipan ensemble performs complicated dances to the sound of chants and the knocking together of long poles held by the dancers. The group performs at regional festivals and teaches the traditional dances and chants to young villagers in Saipan.
A variety of annual festivals recognize the cultural contributions of the Chamorro and Carolinian peoples. In Rota, the popular October San Francisco de Borja Parish Fiesta honoring the saint features a feast of traditional Chamorro delicacies as well as traditional music performances, dancing, and religious processions.
The annual Tinian Hot Pepper Festival centers around the hot pepper locals call doni sali, and features tastings, competitions, an indigenous craft festival, and appearances by local entertainers. Festivities take place at Tachogna Beach.
In March, the Rota community pays tribute to the patron saint of farmers during the San Isidro Fiesta. A coronation ceremony opens the festival, which also includes a religious procession, community feast, and extreme sport events.
-World Trade Press