Repatriation efforts underway for ancient Chamorro carvings at Bishop Museum

Remnants of latte stones on display at Bishop Museum (Photo: Cassie Ordonio/HPR)

For the first time in more than 30 years, the latte stones are making a public appearance at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

They’ve lived in the museum for over a century since researchers took the cultural relics from across the Pacific Ocean to expand the museum’s collection.

Elyssa Santos was in a programme at the East-West Centre in 2022 when she saw the state of the latte stones kept at the Bishop Museum.

The ancient Chamorro stone carvings were separated, with parts kept in a storage facility and the others behind a building covered in debris and vegetation.

“It was a bittersweet moment because who wouldn’t feel happy about being reunited with our ancestors and being able to touch something they’ve created,” Santos said. “At the same time, there were a lot of feelings of pain because of their displacement.”

Latte stones have symbolized Chamorro identity across the Northern Mariana Islands, including Guam or Guåhan. They were often used in pairs and served as building foundations for homes.

Calls to revitalise the stones led to working groups the following year — with experts from Guåhan — on how to move them out of storage and put them on display in time for the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture and the Celebrate Micronesia Festival.

The latte stones are one of many cultural artifacts the museum possesses from other Pacific Islands. Cultural experts, Indigenous people and museum officials are discussing repatriating them.

“After several visits to the Bishop Museum, you move into a place of gratitude because you’re able to physically actually bet there and to connect with them,” Santos said. “We’re all working toward repatriation efforts, or at least get them (the latte stones) cleaned and moved.”

A place of ancestors

Latte stones now are remnants of Chamorro stone carvings — made from limestone or basalt — that were the staple of making a home built atop the stones, according to Mike Carson, an archaeologist at the Micronesia Area Research Centre at the University of Guam.

“Indigenously within Chamorro culture, people remembered what these sites are and revered them and respected them as places of their ancestors,” he said. “Very often, people were buried at those houses where they lived.”

Thousands of years ago, the latte era — between A.D. 900 and 1700 — was abundant before the arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and the Spanish influence during the late 1600s. Eventually, the era ended as a result of the Spanish-Chamorro wars.

In the Mariana Islands, latte sites still exist, with some structures intact. The latte stones are made of two parts: the haligi, which are the pillars, and the tasa, which is the cap.

But latte stones today symbolise Chamorro culture. They’re used at school bus stop shelters, entrances to most of Guam’s villages and more, according to Guampedia.

Nicole Delisle Duenas, the archaeological collections manager at the Guam Cultural Repository, said the stones have become an icon.

“It’s such a strong symbol of being Chamorro,” she said. “In Guam and the Mariana Islands, they make these sacred places. If you come across a latte, youʻll know this was an ancient Chamorro village.”

How Bishop Museum came to own the stones

Some latte stones are one of about 10,000 Chamorro artifacts taken from Guam and the Mariana Islands.

The stones are also part of a collection from Hans Hornbostel, an amateur archaeologist hired by the Bishop Museum to collect cultural artifacts from the Mariana Islands in the early 1900s.

Carson said Hornbostel kept detailed notes of where they extracted each cultural artifact.

“On his maps, handwritten in the margins next to where he had photographs, will say ‘This is the latte that I removed and sent to Bishop Museum,” he said. “So we know that it happened during that time. We don’t know exactly the reasons for it except that Bishop Museum wanted to expand its collections.”

It’s unclear how Hornbostel removed the latte stones — some weigh more than 5,000 pounds.

“There were spaces that Hornbostel helped himself to,” she said.

Duenas said that Hornbostel went into caves sacred to Chamorro people and chiseled out pictographs.

According to Duenas, it’s also unclear if Hornbostel acquired the artifacts with permission from the Chamorro people.

“I think it was questionable and complex,” she said. “We’ve heard from oral histories that he would go to farms, and he would be armed.”

“He would say, ‘We’d like to survey here’,” she continued. “So there’s that intimidation.”

She also said the Chamorro community was asked to exchange a cultural artifact for a movie ticket.

Moving the stones

The latte stones haven’t been displayed at Bishop Museum for over 30 years. Museum officials say the stones were removed due to the construction and renovation of the museum.

The latte stones are incomplete sets and come from various Mariana Islands and Guam villages. The tasa, or caps, were in the museum’s storage facility and the haligi, or pillars, were behind a building.

The stones reach up to 7 feet high if placed vertically and weigh more than 5,000 pounds, according to Kayla Annen, the anthology collection manager at Bishop Museum.

“The stones are so large that you can’t just use a forklift to move them,” Annen said, adding that the museum had to hire a crane contractor.

The stones are now located on the makai side of the Pacific and Hawaiian halls, close to the great lawn. The stones, not physically intact, can’t stand up due to the sloped landscape. They are currently protected by caution tape until signage is posted.

Annen said the working groups were initially going to place the latte stones in a sinahi shape, or crescent moon, facing the Mariana Islands.

But they settled for the gualafon shape, or full moon. The largest tasa is in the middle, while the haligi and smaller tasa encircle the large stone.

It symbolises healing, according to Santos, who wore her gualafon pendant during that time and aided efforts in cleaning the stones.

“For me, setting the latte in the shape of the gualafon was most appropriate,” Santos said. “We know the gualafon to be a circular shape, and we know that it’s the circular pendant that a lot of women wear. There’s usually a hole in the centre and it symbolises matrilineage, the power of our CHamoru women and maternal love. “

Museum officials say there was no formal request for the stones’ repatriation, but they noted that they will be on display until the stones are ready to return. “I just want them to come home,” Duenas said. “But I think they’re being displayed for the purpose of connecting with Chamorros who are going to be coming out for the festival and the Chamorros who are living in Hawaii. I think it’s really special.”