On 21 July 1991 at Latte Stone Memorial Park in Hagåtña, a small group of Chamorro men and women gathered to form a new organization. This organization would be comprised of a number of different grassroots and family-based groups, who were all connected through a commitment to the Chamorro people and to the protection of their lands, their culture and their rights. This organization would be known as the United Chamoru Chelus for Independence, and would be the basis for the formation of a larger coalition, known as Nasion Chamoru or Chamorro Nation.
The leader of this new group, Angel Leon Guerrero Santos called the twenty people that had gathered into the middle of the eight large latte stones in the park.
“Stay within the latte, this is where the power of our ancestors, the spirit of our ancestors lives and it is important that we share this with them.”
Santos read a declaration asserting the right of the Chamorro to exist as a nation and called on the Chamorros present to sign this declaration. Those who signed were members of this Chamorro Nation but also committed to its independence. Another declaration was made for non-Chamorros. Those who signed it acknowledged that they were supporters and witnesses.
This humble, spiritual moment led to the birth of one of the most well-known Chamorro organizations in recent memory. The actions of Nasion Chamoru in their struggle for land return, decolonization and Chamorro rights shocked the consciousness of Guam, challenging many of the perceptions people held about the island’s history, Chamorro culture and the relationship of Guam to the United States. Although in their early years Nasion Chamoru was known as a group of troublemakers and radicals, they nonetheless had a significant effect on the consciousness of Chamorros today and on the ways different people on Guam understand issues such as land, liberation and decolonization.
Activism before Nasion
Local activist groups and Chamorro activists groups already existed prior to Nasion Chamoru’s emergence in the 1990s. Indeed, Nasion Chamoru was not the first group to organize public protests or acts of non-violent civil disobedience. It was not the first group to hand out leaflets, petitions and lobby in the name of human rights. What made Nasion Chamoru different was the way it represented a variety of grassroots critiques to the problems of Guam’s 20th century colonial experience. The Organization of People for Indigenous Rights (OPI-R) came to prominence a decade earlier than Nasion Chamoru and had many of the same messages. A key difference between the groups, though, is that OPI-R was made up primarily of Chamorros who were educated or came from prominent families. They had strong ties to the economic, educational and political systems on island and could hardly be considered voiceless or powerless.
Nasion Chamoru represented itself in a very different way. They believed they did not have the educated polish of OPI-R. They claimed to fill their ranks with the masses of Chamorros who did not have access to those same circles of power. Chamorros who were landless, who did not have college degrees, who were low-income—these were the people from which Nasion Chamoru derived its symbolic strength.
Nasion Chamoru also was different from other groups in the way it attracted Chamorros who were formerly in the US military to its causes. This was particularly so for veterans from the Vietnam War. Core members of Nasion Chamoru had experienced racism from fellow soldiers and commanding officers due to the color of their skin or their Pacific-Asian features. They also began to question the rhetoric of the war in Vietnam and the US in general through the violence in which they participated. As they were ridiculed or discriminated against by their comrades in arms because of their race, they underwent an identity crisis in terms of their place in the US.
Joe Ulloa Garrido, a former Maga’låhi (leader) of Nasion Chamoru, served in the military during the Vietnam era but quickly became disillusioned when he felt the freedom that he was supposed to defend did not truly exist on Guam. He and many other veterans began to question how right it was that people from Guam were being drafted to fight in wars for a country that had taken their lands after World War II and did not allow them to participate fully in American democracy.
This critique that Nasion Chamoru members offered was important, especially when they challenged many assumptions the Guam public held about the US military. Nasion Chamoru would try to portray the US military as an occupier—as a force that had taken Chamorro lands, had buried toxic poisons on Guam, and as a result, was indirectly a threat to the Chamorro people. Members of Nasion Chamoru challenged the primarily positive perception of the US military held by many Chamorros, especially as a World War II liberator. Nasion Chamoru insisted that the negative impacts of the US military on the environment and the people also be made clear.
Part of the growing discontent with the military stemmed from Angel Santos’ personal experiences. Santos, the first spokesperson and Maga’låhi of Nasion Chamoru had served in the US Air Force. While he was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base and living there with his family, his young daughter Francine became gravely ill and died within a year. While looking for answers as to how he could have lost his young daughter so soon, he came across a formerly classified report that indicated that US military facilities, including Andersen Air Force Base, had high levels of toxic chemicals in the drinking water. Instead of informing those living on these bases, the US military had decided to keep it secret. Santos became so enraged at the callousness of the US military and the possible role they may have played in his daughter’s death, it pushed him to find others who felt a similar discontent.
Chamorro scholar Dr. Robert Underwood once wrote that the issue of tano’ or land is the one thing that can turn any Chamorro from any background into an activist. The issue of land (and it being taken or lost) was the one thing that could turn a Chamorro nurse, a servicemen, a teacher—anyone—into a radical.
Prior to World War II, from 1898 to 1941, Guam hosted a small US Navy base but received little attention from the US. The US military presence on Guam was minor and centralized in small areas in Hagåtña and Sumai. This would change dramatically after World War II. As the US became a military superpower, Guam became central in the establishing the Pacific Ocean as the “American Lake”—a buffer zone to protect against potential threats from Asia. Guam would change from a sleepy hamlet, to a modern fortress. As a result, 61 percent of the entire island was condemned and taken from Chamorros in order to build bases around the island. Much of the land was returned to the local government in recent years, however. As of 2013 the Department of Defense held about 28 percent of the island.
Many Chamorros, just after World War II, were willing to give up their land in exchange for being saved from Japanese oppression. Most people gave up their land willingly, believing that after the war was over the land would be returned. However, some of these lands were not only being taken for strategic military purposes, but also as recreational areas for American servicemen. Despite the fact that many of the lands the military already had taken were not even being used, they still were taking more. The compensation for these land takings was paltry and undervalued.
For many Chamorro families the trauma of this land loss continues today. Their lack of resources, their struggles to get by were tied to the loss of their land—their potential livelihood, they believed, had been stolen from them. Most members of Nasion Chamoru had personal land stories—some piece of property that their family had been forced to give up, or that they had received little compensation for, or that they were hoping to have returned to them.
Nasion Chamoru grew significant grassroots support by taking up the cause of many Chamorros with various types of land claims. They protested for those who were seeking compensation for or the return of their lands. In the case of the landowners at Jinapsan, Ritidian and Urunao, Nasion Chamoru protested the military’s authority to restrict access to these privately owned lands. This area in northwestern Guam is “landlocked” and the only access is through areas owned by the Department of Defense.
Many Chamorros who were angry and upset over the taking of their lands after World War II felt marginalized on an island which was openly supportive of the military and whose residents tended not to challenge the US military presence. Nasion Chamoru provided the perfect vehicle for expressing such discontent. They began to network with others who had similar stories of trauma and injustice from military actions on Guam.
Nasion Chamoru was also forged through a general feeling of cultural loss. According to Angel Santos,
“We have been taught that we are not Chamoru. That there are no Chamorus anymore—they’re all dead—and that we are Americans. In 1922, Naval Governor Dorn imposed the California school system, he wanted to make Guam a loyal possession of the US. I can see how they set out to do that. At the age of five or six, when we entered school, we were immediately taught to memorize the pledge of allegiance to the US; we were taught to identify the four seasons (which we don’t have on Guam); we were taught American history. The US methodically set out to destroy our culture, our language, our identity.”
This was another ideological intervention of Nasion Chamoru. They worked to shift the perception of the US and its influence in Guam, from something necessarily positive or beneficial, to something more negative and damaging. Just as they argued that the US and its policies had been detrimental to the Chamorro people in terms of depriving them of land, they also argued that its cultural influences were helping to dilute and weaken the Chamorro culture.
In postwar Guam there was great emphasis on Americanization and leaving behind the Chamorro language, among other things, in order to become proper Americans. Prior to World War II many of these cultural and linguistic changes were forced on Chamorros through education and public laws, but Chamorros generally resisted these interventions. The Chamorro language was banned in schools and children were punished or fined for speaking it. The US Navy implemented this policy in order to “civilize” the Chamorro people. In the postwar years it seemed Guam Chamorros were beginning to willingly assimilate themselves.
After World War II a local, civilian Department of Education was created. Although Chamorros in the government were making local laws, the Chamorro language was still banned until the early 1970s. The lessons in civilizing by the US Navy proved very effective, even after they were no longer in charge of education. Members of Nasion Chamoru often cited their own pre- and postwar experiences of being punished for speaking the Chamorro language in a Chamorro homeland.
Nasion Chamoru extended this argument over loss of culture into the realm of land and harvesting of Guam’s aquatic resources. Chamorros had sustained themselves for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years through subsistence agriculture. With the incredible amount of land dispossession in the late 1940s Chamorros were forced to move away from that lifestyle and join the modern wage economy that was growing on Guam. While there was a physical displacement from the land, the group argued these policies had led to a spiritual one as well. Members also argued that the local and federal policies of closing off large portions of the ocean as military bases, for tourist recreation and for preserves actually inhibited Chamorro culture. With limited access to the sea that had nurtured them for millennia Chamorros once again were denied their cultural rights, or their ability to fish in order to support themselves.
The six elements of a Nation
The philosophy of Nasion Chamoru was based on the idea that every people, Chamorros included, were created belonging to a particular part of the earth. That was their homeland, and it was a place for which they were responsible. According to their 1991 declaration:
“In the beginning God created man in his own image. He created a universal home for his people. He scattered them throughout the world and gave each of them a language of their own. He gave them land and enough natural resources for them to live on. He created Koreans and gave them a home in Korea. Then he made Japanese and gave them a home in Japan. Then he created Chamorus and gave them a home in the Marianas.”
In this philosophy, every nation of people is supported and sustained by six elements: land, air, sea, culture, language and spirituality. These elements give them the ability to survive and perpetuate themselves in physical terms, by giving them lands and waters to drink and harvest from. But these elements also give them the ability to develop their own unique identities and ways of living. Further, just as these elements sustain a people, those same people also have a right to protect and preserve their natural resources and ways of life.
As a colony for centuries the members of Nasion Chamoru believed that the Chamorro people had been deprived of the power to protect these elements. They were marginalized in the land that they had been created to enjoy and defend. Nasion Chamoru, while taking on various political projects was ultimately about empowering Chamorros to fight for their rights and fight for the land, resources, language and culture with which they had been blessed.
Decolonization and Liberation
Politically, Nasion Chamoru had a broad commitment to decolonization. They saw this primarily as Guam becoming an independent country, an independent Chamorro Nation. This was the best way they felt the Chamorro people could protect those core six elements of every nation.
A new Liberation Day
The date for the proclamation of this new Chamoru Nasion was not accidental. July 21st is most commonly known on Guam as “Liberation Day.” It is a day in which the island and its residents celebrate “freedom” and “liberty” in a historical and contemporary context. Japanese forces occupied Guam for 32 months in World War II, and 21 July 1944 was the day the American re-invasion began. The Liberation Day holiday every year commemorates this event and is usually filled with platitudes about the US military and its defense of democracy and freedom in the world. It also serves as a reminder of the great debt and the sense of loyalty the people of Guam have toward the United States.
However, after the re-invasion of American forces on Guam the island returned to its status as a colony. Even after the signing of the Organic Act, which gave congressional US citizenship to Chamorros and allowed the island to have a civilian government, Guam remains a possession of the US and residents do not have full rights guaranteed by the US Constitution. For members of Nasion Chamoru, Liberation Day was a giant monument to the hypocrisy of the United States and how it had treated Guam and Chamorros. It was something that in their first year of existence they protested and argued should be renamed “Reoccupation Day.”
While group members recognized that Chamorros had received some privileges through their relationship to the US the cost had been their sovereignty, as well as part of their culture and language. The benefits they received from the US were not long term, but short term, and kept Chamorros in a comfortable but subjugated state. Nasion Chamoru believed that American control over Guam was an impediment, and that true liberation and freedom lay outside of the United States.
Apart from their explicit political agenda, Nasion Chamoru soon became well known visually because of the way they proudly displayed their connections to their ancient ancestors, i manmofo’na. Centuries of Spanish colonization and acceptance of Roman Catholicism, had led the Chamorros to become alienated from their ancient ancestors. They became detached from cultural icons such as the latte, the use of shell jewelry and the nakedness that ancient Chamorros had accepted as normal. The term taotaomo’na was created in order to cover over and explain this rift. Chamorros prior to Spanish colonization were the taotaomo’na or the “before people,” and were fundamentally different from them. As such, for hundreds of years Chamorros lived in respectful distance from the artifacts of their ancient ancestors.
Members of Nasion Chamoru, as well as other artists and cultural practitioners, however, began to incorporate interpretations of ancient culture into their daily lives and rituals. Although most members remained Catholic in their religion, they also began to speak openly of respect and reverence for the spirits of their ancestors and the land. Members of Nasion Chamoru would travel to latte sites in the jungle and pray to the ancestors there and ask for guidance. The latte taken from an area known as Mepo (in Fena) and moved to Latte Stone Park in Hagåtña were a favorite site for members of Nasion Chamoru to gather and reflect.
Nasion Chamoru members also attempted to take on the proud warrior-like identity of ancient Maga’låhi, or male leaders. They cut their hair in what is known as the “Kepuha” haircut, where all the hair on the head is shaven, save for a long topknot ponytail. They would also make regular use of the kulo’ (a large conch shell horn) when holding special meetings or ceremonies, as a way of starting the proceedings. The men would also sometimes dress in loincloths without shirts, a fashion reminiscent of ancient Chamorros. This was just an homage because in truth, ancient Chamorro men and women generally did not wear loincloths.
The sinahi necklace was also an ancient symbol that Nasion Chamoru helped to popularize. Members had found sinahi artifacts in ancient sites and began to wear them in public. These necklaces made from hima or giant clam shell in the shape of a half or crescent moon were considered controversial when first seen in public. They now have become a common item for purchase at craft fairs or the Chamorro Village in Hagåtña.
For inspiration Nasion Chamoru also turned to ancient sources. They celebrated as heroes ancient chiefs such as Hurao or Mata’pang, who had fought against the Spanish Catholic invasions of the late 17th century in hopes of defending the culture and beliefs of their people. In the centuries since, Maga’låhi Kepuha in particular had been historically elevated to hero status because of his support for the Spanish missionaries when they first arrived. Nasion Chamoru helped to promote alternative role models whose names had long been forgotten or maligned by biased histories because they were not welcoming of the Spanish.
Many accused Nasion Chamoru members of being “purists” because of their attempts to reconnect to their ancient past. They mocked Nasion Chamoru as living in a fantasy world because canonical history books about Guam seemed to indicate that there were “no more pure Chamorros.” In truth, this accusation had little to do with the actual philosophical position of Nasion Chamoru. As an organization the group operated under a very broad definition of what made someone Chamorro. They did not believe in judging Chamorros based on purity or the amount of Chamorro blood in their veins. In their framework anyone with any amount of Chamorro blood in them were to be considered Chamorros. According to Angel Santos,
“Who is a Chamoru? A Chamoru is a direct descendant of the original inhabitants of Guam regardless of variations in lineage. A Chamoru is not determined in degrees or fractions. A person who is one-fourth, one-half or three-fourth is still a human being. All humans have a God-given right to claim their identity based on the argument that there is no nationality in the world that is pure. Why must Chamorus be subjected to all the insults and alienation? Why must we justify our identities? God knows who we are and that is all that matters.”
Confronting a non-confrontational culture
Chamorros have long perceived themselves in relation to their colonizers as being non-confrontational. Although Chamorros were treated in denigrating ways under the Spanish, the Japanese and the United States, they rarely openly resisted such treatment, choosing quiet or passive resistance over direct or politically motivated confrontations. However, there have been times when Chamorros organized protests and sometimes resorted to violence against their colonizers.
Nasion Chamoru challenged the perceptions both non-Chamorros and Chamorros had about what was the proper way for a Chamorro to act. Nasion Chamoru articulated a set of injustices that had taken place in recent Guam history and continued today. They wanted to right those wrongs and took up acts of protest and civil disobedience. They were not popular, especially in their early years. Chamorros have often articulated the proper nature of a Chamorro to be gaimamahlao, or to have shame. It means to know one’s place and to not act out in such a way to draw too much attention to yourself or to shame your family. Most Chamorros accepted this to mean a Chamorro could not challenge authority—to just accept things the way they are and not cause trouble. Nasion Chamoru was seen as taimamahlao, as being without shame, impolite.
Their tactics were all non-violent forms of civil disobedience, but the targets that they chose and the rhetoric they employed made their protests very uncomfortable for many island residents. They held signs at Liberation Day parades challenging whether or not it was a “real” liberation. They held up signs in Tumon, the district for Japanese tourists, which were written in Japanese reminding them of the atrocities their country committed against Chamorros in World War II. Their signs also reminded the Japanese that Chamorros were still awaiting war reparations. They produced flyers and materials outlining their plans for an independent Guam and how the immigration of Guam should be controlled to protect the Chamorro people.
Nasion Chamoru also did not shy away from direct action interventions in their attempts to assert their agenda. They squatted on properties that were once owned by Chamorros but had been taken by the US military after World War II. They held demonstrations outside US military facilities, even going so far as to block access. They held sit-ins at the Legislature and in front of the government offices at Adelup.
In an initial attempt to raise the island’s consciousness of the the issues they were fighting for, they held a series of public meetings in every village on Guam. Many of these meetings were sparsely attended, and on more than one occasion the only attendees were those who were there to mock the Nasion Chamoru as crazy activists. The members of Nasion Chamoru did their best to articulate their understanding of Guam’s colonial situation, and tried to get the audience engaged to the point where they could see the need for dramatic change or action. One metaphor that Angel Santos would use dealt with an old commercial for Rolaids. According to Ed Benavente,
“Si Anghet fumaisen, “Kao en hasso nai manestaba famagu’on hit ya ta egga’ i telebishon ya guaha ayu commercial put Rolands?” Pues todu ma sangan, hunggan, hunggan in hasso. Well Anghet would ask i manmatto, “How do you spell relief?” Ya todu ma oppoe, “R-O-L-A-I-D-S.” And then we’d tell them, no, you spell relief, R-E-L-I-E-F. This is how we have been brainwashed by America, and why we don’t see things the way they are.”
The purpose of the metaphor was to help people understand that the truth was always right in front of them, but they had been conditioned over time to not recognize it. Nasion Chamoru was dedicated to helping people see the real impacts of colonialism on a people.
Maga’låhi and Maga’håga
Angel Santos was known initially as the tribal spokesperson for the group, following the example of Native Americans. But as part of their attempts to reconnect to ancient Chamorros, the male leaders of Nasion Chamoru were often referred to as “Maga’låhi” which means literally, “the highest son.” Santos was followed by Ed Benavente, Jose Garrido, Vicente Garrido and Danny H. Jackson. Although these figures were often the most visible in representing the group, Nasion Chamoru also had female leaders or “Maga’håga,” meaning “eldest or highest daughter.” Maga’håga of Nasion have been Debbie Quinata and currently, Kathy McCollun.
In ancient times, clans and villages would have two leaders, one male and one female. They would most commonly be brother and sister, but could also be cousins. Their duties were divided in terms of managing the affairs of the clan or the village. Men were in charge of warfare and navigation. Women would be in charge of the home and the land. The Maga’låhi was not above the Maga’håga.
Some conflicts over the roles of women in the group emerged, as different individuals offered different interpretations. Was the Maga’håga equal to the Maga’låhi, and therefore, they could each veto one another? Did each of them have absolute authority, but in different domains? Were they not to interfere with each other’s tasks? These disagreements led to problems in the group in terms of identifying itself. While the general public saw them primarily through their strong Maga’låhi figures, the women in the group were essential in the group’s successes, even if their work was often uncelebrated or unrecognized.
Fa’taotao v. Fa’gaga
There were numerous aspects of Guam’s relationship to the United States that Nasion Chamoru protested and sought to change. One aspect is Guam’s lack of a direct relationship with the US federal government, like those who live in the fifty States. Instead Guam falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, the government agency that is also in charge of parks, endangered species and Native Americans.
This political reality is intriguing because of the way it matches Chamorro interpretations of how they have been marginalized and treated wrongly by the US. In Chamorro to treat someone well and with respect is to fa’taotao them, or to treat them as if they are a human being. To treat someone poorly and in a condescending and duplicitous manner is to fa’gaga’, or to treat them as if they are an animal. The fact that the Chamorro metaphor for mistreatment matches the political relationship is one of the interesting accidents of Guam’s history.
This metaphor found real traction in the way in which some Chamorros felt the federal and local governments were prioritizing the needs of Guam’s endangered species over the needs of its native people. The primary source for this tension was the area of Ritidian. Nasion Chamoru took up the cause of the original landowners who claimed they were not properly compensated for the land and were seeking its return. Local and federal regulatory agencies sought to have the land turned into a critical habitat area in order to help protect Guam’s endangered species, such as the ko’ko’ and fanihi.
During protests in 1992, Angel Santos made clear the possible hypocrisy of this position:
“We are living in a sick society who has determined that the need to protect Guam’s endangered species is more important than the value of human life. Who is more important—the fanihi or the Chamoru people? Who will be the endangered species by the year 2010—the fanihi or the Chamoru people?”
The argument of Nasion Chamoru was that the needs of people, especially Guam’s native people, should be placed before its animals, even its native species. The area of Ritidian made up more than 20,000 acres and could support many families, not just those who were original landowners.
Nasion Chamoru would regularly protest and speak out against this designation. Even in 2007 when a Nature Center was opened at the US National Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian, Nasion Chamoru continued to protest the taking of their lands and the lack of just compensation.
Guam is regularly referred to in the media and by residents as a “melting pot” because of the many cultures that have made the island home. Guam is also referred to as a “model UN” or a “multicultural haven” because of the mixing of different cultures from the US, Asia and Micronesia on the island. For some residents, this multiculturalism is what makes Guam unique and special. For Nasion Chamoru multiculturalism came with a price and at the expense of the native people, who were being reduced to just one ethnic group amongst many, instead of being recognized as the indigenous people of Guam.
Nasion Chamoru was not a hate group and did not target any ethnic group as being “evil.” They were a group that was asserting a particular ethnic existence, and saw the island not as a neutral multicultural paradise, but as an island filled with different ethnicities who may be advancing while Chamorros are becoming increasingly marginalized. In the rhetoric aimed at certain ethnicities, the target was always government policies, primarily those of the federal government, but also the local Government of Guam.
From its earliest days Nasion Chamoru was critical of US immigration policies that had allowed many people to settle in Guam in order to obtain US citizenship or access to the US. Rather than move on to the US, many had stayed in Guam. This increase in the non-Chamorro population, combined with the out-migration of Chamorros to the US for better economic opportunities, had changed the demographics to the point where Chamorros were no longer the majority on the island. Nasion Chamoru expressed fears that should these policies continue they would lead to Chamorros losing economic, cultural and political power, alienating them even further in their own homeland. In 1991 Angel Santos wrote that, “American Indians are now one-third of one percent of the United States because of US immigration laws. What will happen to Chamorros?”
Nasion Chamoru also was openly critical of the compacts of free association that had been signed between the US and the newly decolonized Micronesian islands of the former Trust Territory. These compacts allowed the peoples of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau to travel freely within the US and its territories, where they would be eligible for some government programs. In the early years of Nasion Chamoru their members were very vocal that the people from the other Micronesian islands not be allowed to turn Guam into a welfare state. In subsequent years their rhetoric changed to focus on the need for the US federal government to pay Guam what it is owed in Compact Impact funds.
For Nasion Chamoru both of these issues were directly related to Guam’s colonial status and how an issue of central importance to the island, namely its borders and its immigration rules, was not controlled locally. This was part of the argument for Guam’s independence. As a small island, control over its immigration was essential in order to protect the native people, but also to manage the economy.
Anti-American v. Pro-Chamorro
In March 1992, at a meeting of the local Commission on Self-Determination and a federal Inter-agency Task Force on territorial issues, David Lujan Sablan, a member of Nasion Chamoru, renounced his US citizenship. His reason for this action was that he did not want to belong to a country that treats Chamorros like “slaves.” With tears in his eyes he returned a medal that he had received for his service in the Vietnam War, noting that he could look at it endlessly, but it would never be equal to justice for his people. Over the years several other members of Nasion Chamoru would take a similar symbolic action in separating themselves from the US and its policies.
In 1993 Nasion Chamoru organized a demonstration at Naval Air Station (NAS) in Tiyan in response to training flights that they felt were flying too low over populated areas in central Guam. Angel Santos, Ed Benavente, as well as several others were arrested for scaling the NAS fence in protest. While being arrested Santos and another individual spat on their captors who were handling them with excessive, hurtful force.
Because of these actions and others, people in Guam began to commonly refer to Nasion Chamoru as being “anti-American.” In order to explain their critiques of contemporary Guam, people interpreted them as possessing an irrational and crazy hatred against the US and for Americans.
While Nasion Chamoru members felt as if they had been wronged by the US, as a group there was no anti-American agenda. The protests and demonstrations of Nasion Chamoru, while controversial, were primarily aimed at the policies of the US federal government and the US military. In crafting their philosophy and statement of existence, they drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence of the US, and their imagining of a tribal nation was very much influenced by Native American peoples. Some of the ideals that the US claims to defend, such as freedom and democracy, were the very things that Nasion Chamoru wanted for Chamorros and for Guam. The problem was that as a colony, Guam was excluded from certain basic human rights. The solution to these problems, therefore, was not more influence from the US, but instead to empower Chamorros and move beyond the limiting the colonizing control of the US.
As Angel Santos stated, “We’re not racist. We’re nationalists and there is a big difference. We are not anti-Filipino or anti-Korean or anti-American. We’re pro-Chamorus, and there is a big difference.”
For a group that started off small, with only 20 initial members, the accomplishments of Nasion Chamoru are very significant. Although at first the community responded to them as isolated, alienated radicals who did not represent anyone except themselves, these narrow interpretations could not limit or constrict their influence. Within a few years Nasion Chamoru claimed to directly represent at least five thousand Chamorros, who over the course of their public meetings, protests and demonstrations had offered their support and words of encouragement.
Despite the fact that the media sometimes portrayed them as outside of polite society and sometimes crazy, they had an effect on the government and the laws that existed, on the landscape, and on the political consciousness of Chamorros in general.
The greatest achievement of Nasion Chamoru in terms of legislation or governance was their help in getting the Chamorro Land Trust organized and implemented. In 1974 the Guam Legislature passed the Chamorro Land Trust Act based on the Hawaiian Homestead Act, which would provide land leases to landless Chamorros. For close to 20 years this law was not implemented due to fears from successive administrations that it was unconstitutional because it was based on using racial preferences for the distribution of government assets.
Accomplishing this was not easy. It took a court case, hunger strikes, protests, as well as two camp outs each lasting more than a month on the front lawn of Adelup until the Chamorro Land Trust Commission was a functioning party of the Government of Guam.
As land was a central organizing principle in the creation of Nasion Chamoru, it is natural that it be the site of many of their most lasting victories. In addition to helping the lives of those who could receive $1 a year for 99-year leases, Nasion Chamoru also took up the cause of any Chamorro family that was seeking to have their land returned or be compensated for its appropriation after World War II. The Government of Guam had been working on the issue of excess military land return long before Nasion Chamoru existed, but the actions of Nasion Chamoru pushed it to the forefront of public consciousness. It was no longer something that local politicians worked on in private or families who had lost land kept silent about since they did not want to appear anti-American.
From Ritidian to Pågat
Nasion Chamoru helped carve out a public space through which people who were upset about the landtakings in postwar Guam and the dispossession that it had created for thousands of families, could now speak openly about their trauma. With the protest acts of Nasion Chamoru creating the ideological extreme, many Chamorros felt comfortable simply speaking out and articulating their anger, frustration or concerns. This ideological shift helped lead Chamorros to see the military bases in a fundamentally different way. After World War II the bases were idealized as sources of security, stability and prosperity. While still perceived this way by some today there also is now a perception that the military controls too much of the island.
For example, protests in the early 1970s over the possible use of Sella Bay for a Navy Ammunition Wharf were more transformative. The issue was not new lands that the Navy was planning to take, but rather, protesting and attempting to secure the return of lands the Navy already possessed. In another example, Chamorros had first responded to the military fences surrounding the bases in postwar Guam as a barrier that held the benefits of modernity and Americanization on the other side. Chamorros felt encouraged to join the military and be respectful of the military in order to access those wonders. However, Nasion Chamoru helped shift the relationship to those resources. By the 1990s, Chamorros saw the bases through the names of old places such as Fena, Sumai, Orote, Haputo and Tarague, to which they no longer had access. They began to see the bases as hoarding away Chamorro lands and keeping people from what should rightfully be theirs.
Although in immediate postwar Guam the US federal government held far more land than it does today, the 27 percent of Guam that belongs to the US military and other federal agencies still represents one of the largest per capita concentrations of military facilities in the world. Nasion Chamoru built upon these discussions and effectively changed the commonsensical ways that people understood Guam’s political status. People can publicly state and feel that the military has too much land on Guam and does not need more. In 2010 when Pågat in northeastern Guam was identified as a possible site for the construction of five Marine Corps firing ranges and the Navy announced that they may need to acquire more than 1,000 new acres of land, people began to ideologically resist the buildup, because of this new way that people interpreted land and its relationship to the US military.
Nasion Chamoru was not the first contemporary organization to assert Chamorros as an indigenous people with human rights. It did, however, take a conversation which was largely conducted amongst educated circles on island to a greater grassroots level where even Chamorros who had not attended college or even graduated from high school could use the trope of indigeneity in order to express themselves, their trauma and what they felt their place in the world should be. Chamorros had been slowly reconstructing their identity since the 1970s and moving away from the Catholic Hispanic identities that they had been proud of since the era of Spanish colonization. Following the examples of the Maga’låhis of Nasion Chamoru who proudly walk around barechested in loincloths, Nasion Chamoru helped people embrace more ancient aspects of their culture.
Finally Nasion Chamoru did not start the discussion on decolonization but it helped bring the topic to a more general level. Earlier activist organizations such as OPI-R had taken up the issue of decolonization and had their own successes. Nasion Chamoru built upon these discussions and effectively changed the ways that people understand Guam’s political status. In the two decades after World War II, conversations about Guam’s political status and its possible decolonization were close to nonexistent. It was not a topic that any elected leader felt comfortable dealing with and most of the general public was not sure how to approach it. The normal in this ideological context was the status quo, namely that Guam remain a colony of the United States.
This began to change by the 1970s, when the islands around Guam began to undergo their own processes of decolonization and Chamorros began to push for their own political and cultural rights. Actions of community groups, academics and governmental leaders all worked to force political status to become a normal and substantive topic of daily discussion. Nasion Chamoru with their demonstrations and protests helped people to engage with this ideological evolution in Guam. By the mid-1990s the topic of decolonization was something that could be discussed openly in public, and that discussion could include critiques of the United States and its treatment of Chamorros. Finally, it also helped cement the idea that sustains decolonization discussions, namely that Guam deserves more than what it has today. According to Roland Stade in his book Pacific Passages: World Culture and Local Politics in Guam,
“…the direct actions of the Nasion Chamoru have changed the public debate about the issue of Guam’s sovereignty. As of the late 1990s, not a single politician on the island will abstain from promoting either a higher level (“commonwealth”) or the highest level (”independence”) of political sovereignty for Guam. What was once an outrageous form of radical activism and anti-Americanism has become more or less mainstream.”
Public discourse in postwar Guam was often paralyzed by the assumption that Chamorros could not ask for more, but should be grateful for what they have been given by the United States. This precluded the idea that they should demand more or assert their rights for what they felt was owed to them. Although this was challenged regularly by the 1970s, Nasion Chamoru continued this evolution by helping to make it acceptable for Chamorros to not just recognize that they had rights, but to fight for them as well.
By Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD
Video clip: Let Freedom Ring
A clip from the film Let Freedom Ring, The Chamorro Search for Sovereignty by the Cabazon Band Of Mission Indians in 1997.
Let Freedom Ring, Clips 1-8 from Guampedia on Vimeo.