Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood’s decision last week in favor of Dave Davis and against the rights of Guam’s indigenous people was not surprising. For those familiar with the U.S. court system, it has long been designed to take rights away from indigenous people of the U.S., and instead develop nonsensical, self-serving arguments that force incorporation of the indigenous people and their lands/resources into the union.
For your average federal judge, the particularities of Guam’s status or the quest of Chamorros for decolonization are trivial and mean little. As a Chamorro herself, we might have hoped that Tydingco-Gatewood would have taken this decision as a chance to expand American notions of justice.
This would mean to take seriously its history and its contemporary responsibilities as a colonizer, and simply follow its obligations as a signatory to the United Nations charter. To also take seriously the notions that the U.S. and its court system are based on issues of justice or liberty, and what that would mean in terms of how to guide the decolonization of the sites of American-made injustice and liberty deprived in the name of American interests.
She had a chance to make a very courageous intervention into a web of legal decisions that has long been hostile to indigenous people, Chamorros included — to make her decision in the name of American ideals that people often speak of proudly but are suddenly rare and impossible to find when the territories are concerned.
Tydingco-Gatewood instead chose to act like nearly all her brethren of the U.S. court system might, to simply erase the indigenous people, their rights and pretend that the answer to American colonialism, is more American colonialism.
Tåya’ tininas na chålan gi hilo’ tåno’. For indigenous people in the United States and other countries, this is sadly the way our tale tends to unfold. The struggle for justice in the name of self-determination or decolonization is never straight, clear or fair. Part of the reason is because our fights take place within legal systems that are built on indigenous injustice and rife with delusions of American exceptionalism and sinlessness.
These court systems and the decisions that comprise them are mazes. They are created through convoluted, often insane legal paths, the blazing of which result in the sovereignty of an indigenous people disappearing and only objects of American power remaining.
Almost two centuries ago, the infamous Marshall Cases represented one such magical maze. Native American tribes went into those legal cases as independent nations, recognized through the U.S. Constitution and various treaties, but were under assault by those wishing to displace them or possess their lands. When those same tribes emerged, their sovereignty and rights had been lost in the legal labyrinth and henceforth the U.S. court system has referred to them as domestic dependent nations.
This is a familiar, cruel and degenerative alchemy, where the precious inalienable right to self-determination or sovereignty is transformed into dead weights meant to further chain the indigenous people to their colonizer.
The more a country is convinced of its greatness, the more difficult it is for its colonies to be decolonized in any meaningful way. Decolonization, in order to mean anything, requires an admission that a possession and the indigenous people attached to it demand or deserve more than what the colonizer is willing to give.
It is a process that should not be controlled by the colonizer, as such amounts to continuing colonization. It should not be something that must follow the rules of the colonizer, as that as well simply means further colonization.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.