Often, discussions of Guåhan’s quest for self-determination are mired in terminology that is difficult to make sense of. We unpack some of these terms here to allow visitors to engage more deeply with the stories presented. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed and keep in mind that it’s okay to question what you read here. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding, interpreting, or representing the diversity of experiences and opinions on this topic. We do, however, want you to see this as a space for learning, questioning, and imagining possibilities.

CHamoru and Chamorro

Ladrones – Native Hunter from Marianas Islands -Boxer Codex (1590).

The term “Chamorro” is found in records dating from 16th century European expeditions to the Pacific. One of the most widely accepted theories suggests that “Chamorro” is a derivation of the Indigenous term “chamorri,” which refers to the high caste in ancient CHamoru society.

“Chamurres” was used by the Legazpi Expedition of 1565. By 1668, the terms “Chamorris” and “Chamorros” were commonly used to refer to the Indigenous population.

In Spanish, the word “chamorro” means “bald” or “shorn.” Another theory suggests the name was ascribed to the Indigenous population from observations of some men’s hair style, which was a single topknot of hair on an otherwise shaved head.

A more recent theory on the origin of the word emerges from Guåhan’s seafaring link. The phrase tcha mu ulin means, “do not use your rudder (urulin, or ulilin) anymore,” as the canoe made landfall in the islands. Whatever its true origin, it is clear that the word “Chamorro” was a self-identifier.

In the 20th century, the spelling of “Chamorro” became an issue as an official orthography was developed. Recent legislation re-establishing Guåhan’s Kumisión i Fino’ CHamoru codified the spelling as “CHamoru.” Whether it is spelled “Chamorro,” “Chamoru,” or “CHamoru,” the word reflects the people of the Marianas’ distinct ethnic identity in the Pacific.

Guåhan and Guam

The Mariana Islands, 1752. Don Rubinstein collection.

Names are powerful symbols that connect people across generations, space, and time. Accordingly it is important for us to think about the histories of place names to appreciate where they come from, what they mean, and what they can teach us.

While no one knows for certain what the first inhabitants called this island, the name Guåhan has been recorded in maps from early explorers. Written in different ways, perhaps because of challenges discerning certain language sounds, Guåhan was renamed Isla de las Velas Latinas, then Isla de los Ladrones by Ferdinand Magellan, and later, San Juan by missionary Father Diego Luis de Sanvitores. Over the years, Guam was spelled Boan, Guajan, Guan, and renamed again altogether—Omiya Jima—during the Japanese Occupation.

The return to “Guåhan” was recently brought up during the administration of Governor Felix Camacho, and although the Guam Legislature introduced a bill to address the issue, nothing more was done. CHamoru scholar Dr. Robert Underwood has argued for the use of Guåhan as a sign of self-determination. Guåhan, he notes, is derived from the word guaha, which means “to have” and guahan means “having something (in abundance).” 

Preserving Indigenous place names are key to preserving living heritage and Indigenous knowledge. In the spirit of self-determination, throughout this exhibition we have chosen to use Guåhan in reference to this island. In the names of organizations or titles though we have retained the use of Guam.

A Decolonial Approach

Colonialism is “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another”. Decolonization, on the other hand, has often been used to refer to a process of reclaiming and re-centering Indigenous knowledge. This involves appreciating the value of indigenous knowledge and worldviews. A key component of decolonization is the return of power to Indigenous peoples rather than merely acknowledging the harm done by colonization. The power that Indigenous peoples seek, however, may not be power in the same way that colonial governments currently wield power. Instead, it might just be the ability to enact self-determination and self-governance. 

Colonialism at its core is about power—political, social, environmental, economic, cultural—over others. In Guåhan, CHamorus have been subjected to colonialism by the Spanish, Japanese, and American governments. For example, the introduction of Roman Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, or the “reducción” (forced relocation) of CHamorus from the other islands to six districts in Guåhan were Spanish efforts to control the CHamoru people. English-only policies that denigrated CHamoru language, unfair wages for CHamoru laborers, and the taking of land for military purposes occurred during the American naval administration.

Decolonization, though, is a bit more complex. It could mean the ending of colonialism altogether in which a former territory gains its independence. It could also be a reframing of how people think, act, or discuss issues that are important to colonized peoples. A decolonial approach importantly seeks to give voice to the people who have been (and continue to be) subjected to colonial rule.

CHamorus have found ways to reclaim Indigenous knowledge and power through the revitalization of language and culture. The Government of Guam has enacted laws and resolutions emphasizing the importance of CHamoru culture in signage, public programs, and community events. At the same time, the island’s government is unable to pass laws or to enact policies that diverge from federal law. While the people of Guåhan may hold free elections for their local leaders, our government and our island are still subject to the rules and political desires of the United States. It is therefore important to recognize that decolonization is an ongoing process and one that can take many forms.


For Indigenous peoples in the United States, self-governance often refers to the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal governments and the federal government whose leaders signed treaties defining their political status. Under such treaties tribal governments were recognized as the authorities upholding certain rights of tribal citizens. Because Guåhan was transferred to the US government by another colonial power, the Spanish Empire, such a relationship was not established by law between CHamorus and the federal government. Instead, as US citizens residing in an unincorporated territory, the rights of CHamorus are governed by the US Constitution, the Insular Cases (a set of court cases which dealt with the rights of individuals residing in US territories), and the Organic Act of Guam.

Political Status

Political status broadly refers to the relationship between a federal and territorial government. Guåhan is an unincorporated territory of the United States and has held this status since 1898 when the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War. The signing of the Organic Act of Guam in 1950 meant that Guåhan became an organized territory. As American citizens residing in an unincorporated territory, “the people of Guam are US citizens and while they may acquire full political equality as individuals if they move to any of the 50 states, they are in a subservient political condition if they remain in Guam.  We are unable to vote for president, select members of the US Congress with voting power and Congress can overturn any law passed in Guam and can decide which parts of the US Constitution apply to it.”


The term plebiscite refers to “a vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal especially on a choice of government or ruler” (Merriam-Webster). In the case of territories, plebiscite votes can be binding or non-binding on the administering power. If it is binding on the administering power then that power is obligated to ensure the implementation of the vote’s outcome. To date, many current and former territories across Oceania have held plebiscite votes regarding their political status. While several plebiscite votes have been held in Guåhan they have not been binding on the administering power: the United States.

Why Look to the United Nations?

Throughout the second half of the 20th century Guåhan’s leaders encountered multiple challenges to pursuing self-determination through the mechanisms available within the US domestic legal and political systems. In a plebiscite vote in 1982, 49 percent of voters chose Commonwealth as their preferred choice resulting in the drafting of a Commonwealth Act under the administration of Governor Ricardo J. Bordallo. As Presidents George HW Bush and William Clinton objected to various provisions of the bill, the Act never came to fruition, resulting in Guåhan’s continued status as an unincorporated territory. It was at this point, in conversation with other territories seeking to decolonize, that Guåhan’s leaders turned to the United Nations, with its declarations on decolonization and the rights of Indigenous peoples, as a forum for making its peoples’ voices heard.

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