Sunday, January 07, 2007

Indigenous Rights in the Crosshairs

Guam: Indigenous Rights in the Crosshairs
by Gina Hotta

Michael Tuncap pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his arm. It’s the word “Chamoru”, the name of the indigenous people of Guam. “The reason the Spanish called us Chamoru is because of our dark skin”, says Tuncap. The name originally comes from the word “Moro” and has to do with Spain’s conflicted relationship with the Moors of Africa. “So initially, from the point of contact, race mattered in Guahan”, says Tuncap using the Chamoru word for Guam. An instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, Tuncap is also part of a younger generation of Chamorus who are voicing their concerns about plans to increase US military presence on Guam. In October 2006, a group of Chamorus went to the United Nations and testified that those plans could bring about the irreversible decline of indigenous culture and further undermine their political rights.

Following the Spanish-American war, the US took control of the island and changed its name from Guahan to Guam. “Guhan means ‘we - have’. It is connected to our principal of interdependence. For me to be good, then all of us in this room need to be good. Changing things like language are ways that the US has tried to get us to forget where we come from,” says Tuncap. Sitting next to him are Victoria Guerrero and Kerri Ann Borja. The two young women were part of the Chamoru coalition that testified at the United Nations to try and bring the world’s attention to their plight.

For the US military, Guam plays a critical role in the deployment of forces should conflict arise in the Pacific. At the same time, environmental concerns, crime, and the high costs associated with housing US bases in Asia have created grassroots movements in South Korea, Okinawa and Japan that seek to move the US military out of those countries. And Guam is seen as a prime alternative for relocation of US troops. In a March 2006 Taipei Times article, US Pacific Commander leader Admiral William Fallon explained that South Korea’s President Roh Moo-hyun has the ability to impose some restrictions on US forces stationed there. Fallon said he saw Guam as primarily a staging area where no such restrictions would apply. And that, Fallon says, is a genuine advantage. “Guam is American territory”.

But as Americans and military personnel on Guam exercised their right to vote in November, many Chamorus could not do so. The Congressional Organic Act of Guam in 1950 made Chamorus US citizens, but citizens without the right to vote thereby weakening their ability to determine local policies that are set by the federal government. Guam’s Congressional representative does not have a vote and can only lobby in Congress. Guam is an unincorporated US territory with limited constitutional rights. This makes it much harder to gain political clout in situations where, for example, the US military exercises its power to take control of land. Guerrero says that during World War II, “75% of the island was used for eminent domain to bomb Japan and now the US occupies 30% of the island. For about 20 years we’ve been fighting to get land back”. Immigration policies, also set by the federal government, have led in part to Chamorus becoming a little over a third of Guam’s population out of a total of around 168,000 people.

Introducing herself in Chamoru and identifying herself by family affiliation in the traditional way, Victoria-Lola Montecalvo Leon Guerrero is a writer who is bi-lingual in both her native tongue
and in English. However, she thinks that less than half of her age-group of twenty to thirty-year olds speaks the language. Among the generation following hers, the ability to speak Chamoru diminishes even more. English became the main language after World War II when the US regained control of Guam from Japan. Guerrero says of her parent’s generation that, “you’d be punished if you spoke Chamoru in school. In order to succeed you had to follow these US standards in which Chamoru had no place.”

Kerri Ann Borja echoes this sentiment. Like Tuncap and Guerrero, she now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many Chamorus migrate to the continental US because of limited opportunities on the island. Borja teaches in San Francisco and has thought of working in Guam. However, people there tell her to teach in military schools because of the higher pay as opposed to teaching in schools serving primarily native residents. Borja was born and raised off-island, traveling with her family while her father served in the US military. When researching the endangered Chamoru language, Borja asked her father why she was never taught it. “If you go to American schools”, Borja’s father told her, “you don’t need to know Chamoru”. However, Borja intends to educate herself. “My mom’s parents never taught her Chamoru. She learned it when she was older. Now I’m trying to learn Chamoru, but it’s so hard for me to learn it fully.”

Spanish, US and Japanese occupation of Guam total about five hundred years. But Victoria Guerrero says that Guam’s history goes back thousands of years and that this is what provides the foundation for a people still proud of who they are. “Even though my parents weren’t allowed to speak Chamoru in school, they spoke it in the streets. That is the way they rebelled to preserve that language.”

But Guam’s central role in the Pacific region continues to increase for the US armed forces. And that will put more pressure on the indigenous community. The relocation of Marines from Okinawa will base approximately 8000 Marine Expeditionary Force personnel and about 9000 dependents in Guam by 2014 as stated in the US-Japan Roadmap for Realignment issued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Japan Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Aso in May 2006. And in June 2006, the US launched operation “Valiant Shield” from Guam. It was the largest joint military showcase of US power in the Pacific in the last decade.

In order to voice their concerns, Victoria Guerrero and Kerri Ann Borja went to the United Nations in New York. On October 4th and 5th 2006, as part of the Chamoru coalition, they testified before the United Nations Special Political and Decolonization Committee. The military build-up and its negative impact on the indigenous people of Guam were central to their presentations. In addition, a petition asking for UN intervention to help ensure rights for Chamorus was presented in the hopes of elevating their concerns before the international community.

On the strength of their testimonies, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari later met with coalition members. “He really believes that Guam deserves the right to self-determination,” says Guerrero. However, Gambari was honest with them saying that no UN resolution will be passed because the US will veto it. Guerrero says there was a recommendation for, “a UN representative to go to Guam and do a report on the situation to take us out of that status of being an invisible colony.”

On Guam, the issue of the military remains a controversial one. “Guam may gain from Korea downsizing,” was a headline from an August 2006 edition of the Marianas Variety newspaper that serves Micronesia. The article also reported that the number of US troops in South Korea is slated to be cut-back by 2008 with some troops perhaps relocating to Guam. And for some people on the island, this means more jobs, more resources and more security under US protection.

Victoria Guerrero states that it is protection that comes with limitations. Many Chamorus died in World War II when the island was bombed by Japan. “Guam was attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor. In just two days Guahan was surrendered to Japan,” says Guerrero who was named after a close relative who died as a child during that war, “the United States left our island defenseless.” Tuncap adds that many sons and daughters of Guam fought for the United States and that, “in Guam you’ll find people who really believe in the US and the potential of this nation.” It the promise of this potential that makes Tuncap and other Chamorus challenge US military interests. He says what they ask for is not anti-American, “in fact we are calling for what America stands for which is equality, which is a voice – a right to vote, a right to a job, a right to a good and fair education”.

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