History drew divisions

The people of the Mariana Islands archipelago, collectively known as CHamorus, call as their homeland an area in the Pacific comprising 15 islands with a total land area of less than 400 square miles. The history of the CHamoru people dates back 3,000 to 3,500 years, when seafaring peoples migrated from Island Southeast Asia and settled in the Marianas. But history would eventually draw divisive lines that have permanently etched not just the political landscape of the Marianas, but the social and cultural landscape of its people.

Though the people of the island chain’s two political territories, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, today hold US citizenship and live under the US flag, they live in a politically divided land – a result of political demarcations that date back to the 19th century.

Much of what we know about the history of the CHamoru people comes from historical accounts from European expeditions dating back to the 16th century. Stumbled upon by explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, the islands were dubbed “Islas de los Ladrones,” a phrase meaning “Islands of Thieves” that stemmed from the explorer’s encounter with the indigenous population. Landing in Guam, Magellan’s expedition used the stop to rest and replenish his crew’s food supply. For reasons not recorded the islanders took items from Magellan’s ship including a small skiff. Magellan retaliated by attacking the islanders, killing seven villagers.

Representative of the possible cultural misunderstandings that arose in the West’s first encounters with the civilizations of the Pacific, the incident was a vivid example of the conflicts – both overt and subtle – that would later arise between the indigenous people and the powers that would come to rule over them. What the explorers viewed as thievery, the islanders may have viewed as reciprocity – an important tenet of the CHamoru culture that continues to be practiced today. In the end, the name given by Magellan ultimately was used by other explorers to refer to the entire chain of islands.

Later renamed the Mariana Islands in 1668 by Jesuit missionary Diego Luis De San Vitores in honor of Spain’s Queen Mariana de Austria, the island archipelago was officially claimed under the Spanish throne by explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565, some 40 years after Magellan’s landing. The Marianas remained under Spain’s control until the end of the 19th century, when world events would permanently sever the island chain, leaving it to be separately dominated by competing ruling powers.

US takes Guam

In 1898, the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain. The agreement, which was enacted in April 1899, ceded Guam and the Spanish-controlled Philippines to the US for $20 million. The fate of the remaining Mariana Islands was defined in a separate agreement between Spain and Germany, signed soon after the Paris treaty concluded. The agreement ceded the remaining Mariana Islands, as well as the Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands, and Palau to Germany – the cost of which equated to $4.2 million.

Though American rule over Guam would continue for most of the 20th century, German rule over the Marianas was short-lived, ending abruptly during World War I when Japan took control of the islands. Officially conveyed as a Japanese Mandated Territory in 1919 by the League of Nations, the Marianas again came under control of a dominating power, but this time its overseeing authority was an ally of the United States.

Though not ruled by opposing powers at that point, the division within the island chain was distinct. On one side its people lived under the political and ideological influence of the East; on the other, the West – a distinction that would impact the separate evolution of the culture and its language. Despite this, however, the two territories existed in what might be described as a passive coexistence prior to World War II. But what one war made allies, another war made enemies.

World War II takes a toll

It was as a result of World War II that the political divisions between the two territories extended to a clear, and perhaps irreversible, separation between its people. Guam, having fallen to the Japanese at the start of the war, put CHamorus across enemy lines during the thirty month Japanese occupation. CHamorus from Saipan and Rota were recruited by the Japanese military to serve as interpreters, police investigators, and staff assistants. As such, the people in the enemy-occupied territory of Guam were subject not just to the authoritative and often brutal hand of the Japanese military, but also to that of other CHamorus.

Viewed as collaborators by Guam’s CHamorus, the CHamorus of the other Mariana Islands were thus inextricably associated with the bitter memories of the Japanese occupation. So deep was this blow to CHamoru solidarity that, in the few years after the war ended, CHamorus from Guam welcomed a new naming convention that would distinguish them from the CHamorus of the rest of the Mariana Islands. CHamorus in Guam decided to call themselves Guamanians.

There was a reunification movement in the 1960s however. The people cast their vote in the matter, with the people of the Northern Marianas wanting the reunification, and the people of Guam choosing against it. Guamanians felt that reunification would be rewarding the Saipanese interpreters and that Guam’s economy would not be able to handle the cost of bringing the Northern Marianas standard of living up to that of Guam’s. The people of the Northern Marianas thought the reunification would help them gain US citizenship.

Two American entities

Though the end of World War II would see a re-unification of the Marianas under one American flag, the United States maintained the political division between the two territories. Administered separately by the US Navy, Guam was governed as a flag territory, and the Marianas as a US trusteeship. In the post-war period, the islands saw significant changes to their political, social, and economic infrastructures.

In Guam, the transition toward a greater semblance of self-rule came in the form of the Organic Act, which was enacted by the US Congress in 1950. Among its provisions, the enabling document delineated a three-branch system of government for Guam and granted US citizenship to the island’s people.

In contrast, the Marianas trusteeship signed its own agreement with the US toward the end of the trusteeship period. In 1975, the trusteeship formally re-defined its relationship with the US by adopting a new political status in association with the United States, officially forming the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The residents of the CNMI were officially granted US citizenship at the end of the trusteeship in 1986.

In contrast to the Guam agreement, the CNMI covenant granted its people greater political autonomy, including control over immigration and labor. By the turn of the 20th century, though no longer political enemies by virtue of their governing authority, the Mariana Islands archipelago seemed permanently fated to evolve as a divided region – a historical experience not unlike that of other colonial territories across the Pacific.

By Gina E. Taitano

For further reading

Farrell, Don A. History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Public School System, 1991.

Rainbird, Paul. The Archaeology of Micronesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Sanchez, Pedro C. Guahan Guam: The History of Our Island. Hagåtña: Sanchez Publishing House, 1987.

The CNMI Guide. “The CNMI Guide – The History of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands.” Last modified 18 July 2013.