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Currents 671: A Guampedia Blog


Perspectives: Looking back to 1974

By Samantha Marley Barnett

Guampedia recently published “An Analysis of Social, Cultural and Historical Factors Bearing on the Political Status of Guam”, a report written by attorney Andrew Gayle under the direction of Senator Richard Taitano, for the Guam Legislature’s Subcommittee on Social, Cultural and Historical Factors Relating to the Political Status of Guam in 1974.

As a student passionate about our island’s political history and decolonization efforts, I was excited to read the paper to learn more about what scholars were writing about Guam’s political status in the 1970s. The report begins with addressing “identifiable Chamorro culture” and how Guam’s status as a territory of the United States threatens cultural survival. Gayle notes that any new government on Guam will likely fail if its constitution doesn’t incorporate elements of Chamorro culture, which have persisted throughout colonization.

Quality of Life as a Colony 

Commitment to the well being of family members, and the sense of care and responsibility to the extended family unit, is central to Chamorro identity. Gayle contrasts this with the island’s growing homeless population, and the rising numbers of abandoned children and elders, using this an example of how Chamorros are unable to control the political system that we live under, and that if we did, we would be able to solve more deeply rooted problems in our community, including social services that are representative of our cultural values. It is heartbreaking to remember that Gayle wrote this paper in the 1970s, and that our community’s collective quality of life has only worsened since then, and our homeless population has grown.

Last month, I presented at Independent Guahan’s general assembly on the topic of political systems. I conducted research and shared that as an independent nation, Guam can design and implement systems of governance that are rooted in our cultural values and worldview, and that correspond directly to our way of life and community needs. When we practice leadership in a way that is culturally informed by our sense of place and by our values, we are more likely to make decisions that promote the well being of our homeland. When reflecting on the problems that plague our government, we should pause and consider how a different political status and system of government might better represent the values and needs of our island.

While I agree with Gayle’s point that our quality of life and the survival of our culture is threatened so long as we remain a colony of the US, I thought that some of his other points didn’t fully capture the complexity of Chamorro identity and our island’s experience of colonization over time.

Chamorro Enlistment in the US Military 

For example, Gayle notes that Chamorros have extremely high levels of enlistment in the US military. He writes respect for authority is one of the main factors behind why Chamorros enlist in the military. I think that the high rate of enlistment on Guam is much more complex than Gayle’s conclusion that Chamorros join the military because they possess an inherent and unquestioning respect for authority. I think it might have more to do with the fact that our political status as a colony of the US deeply limits our access to education, leadership opportunities, the job market, and belittles our sense of self.

Let’s look at another scholar’s analysis of Chamorro enlistment in the US military. In his essay “The Exceptional Life and Death of a Chamorro Soldier: Tracing the Militarization of Desire in Guam, USA”, Michael Lujan Bevacqua writes that as a colony “no one who resides in Guam, Chamorro or otherwise, can vote for president. This is just one simple discontinuity that can be dodged by joining the military, as active members can vote anywhere, whether in Guam, Guantanamo, or Iraq.” Bevacqua writes: “The Chamorro who joins the military is able at last to occupy that voice of universality in American discourse that only select groups and individuals within the United States can hold. That voice is the one that can speak for all and, more importantly, prevent others from speaking. (…) Thus, through military service, American-ness can be assured for those who desire it, and they can literally become the voice of America in Guam”.

In other words, joining the military provides Chamorros with a kind of political visibility and recognition that they otherwise don’t have access to as colonized peoples.

Land Theft 

Throughout the report, Gayle emphasizes that decolonization is urgent and that Chamorros need to exercise control over their government and political status in order to preserve their unique way of life. However, Gayle seems to downplay the role that the US plays in Guam’s colonization, and tries to hide the violent policies that many Chamorros experienced at the hands of the US. When we study histories of groups with different backgrounds and power dynamics, it’s important to think about who is telling the story and whose voice is being erased.  

In the report, Gayle writes: “None of this is to say that the United States has been deliberately attempting to wipe out Guam’s way of life and culture and to unfairly exploit and dominate its people.”

This completely erases the policies of the American administration on Guam that forced Chamorros to assimilate to American culture. In 1917, the US Naval Government instituted an executive general order which banned people from speaking the Chamorro language. When my grandmother was going to school as a child, she saw children get hit with wooden paddles for speaking Chamorro. Her father told her and her siblings that they can only speak Chamorro at home. She did not teach our language to my father or to me.

The US has also unjustly taken land from Chamorro families for use as military bases and training grounds. My grandfather’s mother is from Sumay, an ancient Chamorro settlement. During the World War II Japanese occupation of Guam, people from Sumay were forced to march to work camps across the island. After the war, the US Navy did not allow Sumay residents to return home, and Sumay was transformed into Guam’s US Naval Base. Sumay residents were forced to “relocate” to another village that the military created. We are allowed to return to Sumay once a year on “Back to Sumay Day,” with escorts from the military.

Romanticizing American Colonization 

Throughout the paper, Gayle romanticizes the American colonization of Guam. He writes: “…a friendly and relaxed American-Chamorro society developed during these lazy pre-war years that was from all accounts one of great charm and tranquility.” In the article “Navy Blues: US Naval Rule on Guam and The Rough Road to Assimilation, 1898-1941,” Anne Perez Hattori analyzes US naval documents from the period and argues that processes of Americanization were framed by the American administration as expressions of both charity and duty, although they were ultimately intended to benefit the naval community and facilitate the use of the island and her resources for military purposes. Hattori writes that through American-administered education and the teaching of the English language, Chamorros could “presumably be taught loyalty, patriotism, thrift, hygiene, courtesy, respect, obedience, industry, and a host of other attributes (..) the English language became an essential instrument through which American patriotism could be voiced by the colonized Chamorros, thus validating the Navy’s role as the island’s administrators” (19).

Here, Hattori’s research allows us to understand the intentions of the Naval Administration. Describing the pre-war years as “lazy,” “friendly,”  and “relaxed” simplifies the reality of this history.

Overall, “An Analysis of Social, Cultural and Historical Factors Bearing on the Political Status of Guam” has a lot of strong points about how decolonization is key to cultural survival and necessary for Chamorros to thrive in our homeland. The report also reminds me how many different ways there are to tell our histories, and how important it is to stay critical of the information that we receive.

Guåhan at the United Nations: Then and Now

By Samantha Marley Barnett

In October 2017, I traveled to New York City to speak in front of the United Nations about the United States military contamination and colonization of Guam. The trip was organized by Independent Guahan, a local group which advocates for our island’s future as an independent nation. I spoke at the UN on behalf of Prutehi Litekyan, a direct action group dedicated to the protection of natural and cultural resources in all sites identified for the US Department of Defense live-fire training ranges on Guam.

Chamorros have been testifying at the UN since 1982, when members of a group called the Organization of People for Indigenous Rights first appealed to the international body. There are many parallels between this groundbreaking effort and the most recent trip to the UN, including parallels between the island’s political climate in both 2017 and 1982 and the threats to Chamorro rights and cultural heritage that sparked the efforts.

For more information on the role that the UN has played in Guam’s decolonization movement over time, check out the Guampedia entry here.

In 1982, Chamorros rights activists formed a group called OPI-R (Organization of People for Indigenous Rights). OPI-R reached out to the community through fundraising efforts and successfully sent representatives Robert Underwood, Chris Perez Howard and Teehan to the UN to petition on behalf of Guam and the rights of the Chamorro people.

In his testimony, Underwood described the history of colonization in the Marianas and the urgent need for Chamorro self-determination. He explained that the right to self-determination belongs exclusively to the Chamorro people, because Chamorros have historically been denied the ability to speak for themselves and determine their political destiny. He also stated that it’s unfair to allow non-Chamorro residents of Guam to participate in a vote that would determine the island’s political status while the Chamorros themselves have yet to have a say in the future of their homeland. You can read the rest of Underwood’s testimony here.

Today, Guam’s journey to decolonization faces many of the same roadblocks that Underwood and other members of OPI-R spoke out against. Recently, a white resident of Guam argued that the Guam decolonization registry, which was only open to native Chamorros, is discriminatory and that any future political status vote should be open to all residents of the island, and not just the Indigenous people. The District Court of Guam ruled in Davis’ favor. Chamorros have yet to determine their political future, yet the US military build-up continues on island and sites that are sacred to the Chamorro people are being contaminated and disrespected.

In 2017, Independent Guahan launched a community fundraising effort and raised enough money to send several delegates to represent the rights of the Chamorro people at the UN, just as OPI-R had done in the past.

As for my story, I testified in front of the UN because I have listened to the stories of my elders and witnessed how they survived the violence of land theft, wartime violence, and colonial education which robbed them of their language and self-worth. I testified because during that previous summer, the island was consumed by media announcing North Korea’s threat to bomb our island. During that time, my five year old brother asked me if my baby sister will get to grow up if our island is bombed.

That same day, I was working with a local senator to help World War II survivors complete war reparations forms. One elder told me  that as a child during the Japanese occupation of Guam, he watched a Japanese soldier beat his mother with a bamboo stick until the stick was broken by the force of his blows. He said his mother held onto her strength and her pain and refused to cry in front of the soldier. He explained that only later, while he watched his mother show her bloodied back to her sister that she realized his mother’s pain, her determination to survive. It is because this mother did not scream then that I believe it is my responsibility to speak out against war, and Guam’s use as a military pawn. As a daughter of her island, I believe that I  have inherited her resilience and I will not be silent.

In my testimony, I explained that the US Department of Defense is currently planning to move forward with the construction of a massive live firing training range complex overlooking the sacred village of Litekyan, where the Chamorro people have been thriving for over 3,5000 years.

According to the Navy’s estimates, more than 79 ancestral and historical sites on land and in the ocean will be bulldozed or adversely impacted at or near Northwest Field and Litekyan. The firing range also presents a huge threat to our main source of drinking water: 6.7 million bullets will be fired at Litekyan each year–bullets containing lead and other toxics, above our primary aquifer that supplies 80-90 percent of our island’s drinking water.

The 2017 Guam delegation was historic because while we were joined by several of our elected leaders, the majority of the delegation was composed of young Chamorros. Most of us were in our early twenties, and have been mentored and inspired by the previous generations of Chamorro rights activists. It is empowering to see how the older generations have guided us and continue to support the growth and voices of Guam’s youth.

As a student of Guam history, I believe that the most beautiful things come from struggle, and the strength and resilience of Chamorro people is a testament to this.

Stay updated on the work of the United Nations by visiting the Fourth (Special Political Decolonization) Committee of the General Assembly website. For information on opportunities to get involved with efforts to testify at the UN, contact Guampedia!