Looking Back with Founding Member Robert Underwood


The Guam Humanities Council has been in existence for 25 years and I am proud to have been part of the original group. Of course, human expression itself has been around in Guam and the Marianas Islands for 4,000 years. This is why the Chamorro translation of the organization is so critical and important. The original name of the non-profit group is Konsehilion Tinaotao Guam. It could have read Taotao Guam but instead it was given the title Tinaotao Guam by Dr. Bernadita Camacho Dungca.
The additional infix of “in” wasn’t placed there to be fancy or make an easily understood word somehow more obscure. It was meant to get to the meaning of being human. Taotao is person. Tinaotao is the process of being affected by or being overwhelmed by being a person or an expression of personhood. What are the aspects of our lives that reflect our peoplehood, our personhood, our humanity? That is the central question of existence and its relationship to meaning. We find meaning in our personhood as it is expressed in various forms. Twenty-five years later, we are still contemplating the ultimate meaning of that personhood. It can be found in the expression of emotions, the expressions used in conversation, the contemplation of ideas not normally circulated the kinds of actions that only humans can engage in.
The addition of the word Guam as in Tinaotao Guam localizes and provides the focus of contemplated activities. We are focused on matters related to Guam, its history, its expressions, its experiences and its essence. And we decided early on that it would not be a government agency, but instead a non-profit governed by public law and largely funded by public funds. We were not going down the road that other agencies have had with politics and all of its possibilities and limitations. There is nothing wrong with being a public government agency. But it can be limiting and we don’t need to go there if we are to have conversations and exchanges of ideas, ethics, literature and our humanity. These are projects that involve sparks of the imagination and a lifting of the human spirit that can’t be placed into the straight jacket of a governmental initiative.
Now that we have gone to Humanities Guahan, we are exploring once again the importance of meaning in Chamorro words. Guahan means “having” and it is from the root word guaha or to have. It is not “we have” as some say. Guaha ham (i) means we have and that form of “we” is exclusive and not including the person you are speaking to. For a collective statement of meaning, it would be awkward to exclude others from the meaning of “having” or “abundance.” At the end of the day, Guahan is a pretty abundant place and it must have seem so to the first people. 
Being a catalyst for thought is tough business. What if no thoughts occur? What if nobody listens? What if nobody shows up? Through the years, the GHC, now named Humanities Guåhan, has had all of this happen to them. But the opposite is generally more the case. People have shown up, people found their voices and thinking occurred which resulted in change. At times, there was poignancy and, at other times, there was anger. But there was always the voice of a human being who contemplated the meaning of cultural continuity, immigration, being in the military, the meaning of fences, the extent of American democracy and all the other issues that provide meaning for us as humans in Guam. Of course, there is Guampedia, which was founded and launched by the Guam Humanities Council, where conversations within our own consciousness about knowledge and history can take place at all hours of the night and all time zones around the world, including Chamorro Standard Time.
I was fortunate enough to be there at the beginning as was Nerissa and many others. My participation in the first council allowed me to educate in ways beyond the classroom and learn in many ways beyond books and the printed word. A few years ago, I was invited to be a member of the Board for the Federation of State Humanities Councils. It was in that experience, that I learned how effective our organization was in comparison to others.
I was granted a lifetime achievement award by the GHC but it doesn’t mean that my life is over with the humanities. History is still the discipline I love the most. The Chamorro people are the people who gave me levels of knowledge about being human that form a big part of who I am. Guam is the place that I love the most. If I added it all up, Humanities Guåhan is the place where my heart and head will always find comfort and support.
Dr. Robert Underwood
President, University of Guam
Founding Member, Humanities Guåhan