Guam's indigenous healers harvest medicinal heritage at naval base

HAGATNA, Guam — Traditional Chamorro healer Bernice Nelson and her apprentices visited the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station wilderness Wednesday to harvest medicinal plants from an area earmarked for future military development.

Marine Corps Activity Guam invited the healers, known locally as suruhanu and suruhana, to the base to collect plants that should be saved and transplant them elsewhere on Guam.

Access program coordinator Dave Snyder, from the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said the opportunity for healers to collect medicinal species comes ahead of an impending military buildup that will result in both a transfer of Marines from Okinawa to Guam and destruction of the wilderness area.

In accordance with the Pragmatic Agreement of 2011, the U.S. military allows traditional master healers and carvers to access cultural sites on land intended for development. Snyder said there is no timeline yet for the development of the wilderness area.

Before accessing the naval base, a suruhanu and suruhana must undergo a background check and be trained to identify unexploded ordnance as well as endangered and protected species.

Ten people have been authorized to visit the base for plant collection so far. Snyder said base personnel have a friendly, cooperative relationship with suruhanu and he encourages any interested healers to apply for authorization.

Passing on culture

Before World War II, the indigenous Chamorro people relied on traditional herbal medicine instead of Western medicine. Nelson said many of Guam’s plants can be used to treat common ailments, such as diabetes, cancer and dementia. Her focus at her nonprofit, Amot Farm Inc., is cultivating local medicinal plants, researching their effects and educating Chamorros about them.

Master Chamorro dancer Francisco “Frank” Rabon, who was taught to identify and collect healing plants as a child, said there are different times of the year when plants should be harvested for optimum medicinal usage. He said the NCTS area is perfect for collecting plants because they have grown there undisturbed.

Rabon, who has been teaching Chamorro youths about the culture for the past 33 years, visited the base on Wednesday to learn the scientific names of plants he has known all his life. He wants to teach his students to pass on the knowledge to future generations.

Making Chamorro medicine isn’t as simple as cutting and boiling the plants, Rabon said. The title of suruhanu or suruhana requires a complex knowledge of whether plants should be picked only at sunrise, within the hours of four to five in the afternoon, or at other specific times, which affects the restorative potency of the plants.

“This is the intricacy of being a suruhanu,” Rabon said.

On Wednesday, Nelson gathered plants such as beach gardenia, or panao in Chamorro, for research. The panao flower also can be added to oil to create a fragrant natural perfume.

“You don’t just go make the medicine, it takes a lot of prayer,” Nelson said.

The suruhana uses Catholic prayers such as "Hail Mary" over her mixtures, but said healers can use any prayers they want, as long as it comes from their heart. She compared the medicine preparation process to cooking food with love for one’s family.

“You want it to taste good for them, so you add the special ingredient of love,” Nelson said.


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