The US Military Is Bulldozing Sacred Indigenous Sites on Guam

The US Military Is Bulldozing Sacred Indigenous Sites on Guam

The US Military Is Bulldozing Sacred Indigenous Sites on Guam

Indigenous residents are fighting to save their island’s heritage, while the military refuses to release key information about what it is razing.


Hagåtña, Guam—Before the colonial era, Sabånan Fadang, on the United States island territory of Guam, was Indigenous burial grounds. Now, it’s mostly a field of flattened dirt and rock. The US military has bulldozed the site in preparation for construction of a Marine Corps base—part of a buildup of troops and facilities on Guam, a US military outpost in the Western Pacific.

“It’s down to the gravel—that’s all you can see,” Senator Therese Terlaje, speaker of the Guam legislature, told me after visiting the site, which is not open to the public. “And there are mounds of soil and grass”—grave pits the military spared from excavation. “In this entire cleared area, just little patches of grass.”

Getting only mostly flattened, Sabånan Fadang has fared better than other cultural sites of Guam’s Indigenous people, the CHamorus. In other areas, the military has found CHamoru bones and bone fragments, as well as ancient tools, ruins, and other artifacts, which it has begun to remove from their original locations and stow away. And it has done much of this effectively without CHamoru consent.

Military officials are required to consult Guam authorities when they come across cultural sites, but documents that I and local media have obtained via public records requests illustrate how the military directs historic preservation and strong-arms Guam officials if they express concern over methodology and lack of care.

The military also tightly controls the release of information about the human remains and artifacts it uncovers. Military officials ravaged one historical site without telling locals and have refused to release comprehensive maps of archaeological finds. Many Guam residents think—and documents I obtained suggest—that such maps would reveal networks of ancient villages and burial sites, which could hinder the military buildup.

The hasty excavation and lack of local input has stirred up the indignation of Guam residents and CHamoru groups, who are confronting the military to save their island’s heritage.

“These are sacred sites,” said Terlaje. “But because the military needs to use them, we’re not recognizing them as sacred.”

The military is planning to relocate about 5,000 Marines to Guam from its bases in the heavily militarized Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. To support the Marines and beef up Guam’s military capabilities, the Pentagon is constructing a Marine Corps base, a live-fire training range complex, an urban combat training facility, a hand grenade range, a new aircraft carrier berthing station, an Army missile defense system, and other facilities.

The military took much of the space being used for these facilities from CHamoru families in a land grab during and after World War II. And under much of the construction sites lie the relics of CHamoru life before Guam was colonized by Spain in the 17th century and then the United States some 120 years ago. Colonization, particularly the early decades of US occupation, saw the deliberate near-erasure of Indigenous language and customs on Guam—which is partly why so many CHamorus today feel a deep attachment to buried remains and artifacts and are willing to fight to preserve them.

(In Okinawa, activists are engaged in their own fight to preserve the dignity of human remains, as contractors are using  soil riddled with the bones of World War II victims as the foundation for a new Marine air base there.)

When the military comes across archaeological discoveries during construction, it’s required to inform Guam authorities—particularly the state historic preservation officer—and consult them on the best ways to “mitigate” harm to CHamoru heritage. However, the local authorities have limited power to protect the sites, and the military has final say over what to do with them.

Many activists on Guam have accused local officials of playing along with the military’s desire to quickly raze the ground on top of ancient remains. But the military browbeats officials if they raise concerns about the preservation of cultural sites, as illustrated in an August memo to the state preservation officer I obtained via a local public records request.

The memo is in response to concerns that the preservation officer, Patrick Lujan, raised about an “archaeological monitoring and discovery plan” for a construction site on Guam’s Air Force base. Lujan had said that the plan was vague, that it gave all decision-making power to the military, and that it could impede data-collecting efforts he was required to undertake under local law. An Air Force official rebuked Lujan’s concerns as unfounded and out of line, writing that “there is no requirement that the [military] receive [preservation officer] ‘concurrence’ or ‘approval’” on archaeological monitoring plans.

“We kindly remind you,” the official wrote, that the state historic preservation officer “may not impose local statutes on Federal agencies.… The role of the SHPO is to advise, assist, and consult with the Federal agency.”

The military also encourages Guam authorities to withhold information about discoveries from the public. In May, reporter Anumita Kaur obtained e-mails for the Pacific Daily News via a public records request that showed that military officials urged an interim state historic preservation officer to forward media requests for information to them, claiming that the preservation officer wasn’t permitted to share additional information about archaeological discoveries. At the time, the newspaper had reported that the military had discovered additional burial sites at Sabånan Fadang, but officials hadn’t released any reports, and the public wanted to know more.

“From a non-legal but practical standpoint it’s clear to me you cannot disclose to the media the type of blanket information [the Pacific Daily News] is requesting,” a military adviser wrote to the preservation officer. “Please don’t let the media pull you along as it’s probably just a waste of time.”

Public pressure has compelled the military to begin building a “cultural repository” for the remains and artifacts it uncovers. However, many would prefer to keep the cultural sites where they are—either to preserve artifacts “in place” like the Sabånan Fadang graves or to allow for expanded archaeological projects to uncover the full history of the land the military seized from locals decades ago.

The military has been hesitant to preserve sites—likely because it would delay construction. In 2018, for instance, while preparing ground for the construction of the Marine base, workers came across the remnants of the ancient CHamoru village of Magua’. That year, the Navy began talks with federal and local authorities, including the Guam Preservation Trust, which proposed saving the site. But in the middle of those discussions and before Guam officials had a chance to completely survey the area, the military removed what artifacts it could find and bulldozed it.

Since the area’s leveling, information about Magua’ has trickled into the public sphere. The military has informed the state historic preservation officer of buried tools, pottery, earthen ovens, and around a dozen graves it has discovered, and the preservation officer has passed some of that information on to the public. But it’s still unclear how much information is being withheld. Some of the graves could be from as early as 1500 BC, but Guam historians are also looking into the possibility that CHamorus could have been buried there as late as the early 20th century, before the military seized the land.

This is how the military has taken to releasing information about the cultural sites—in cryptic bits and pieces—leaving the public in the dark about the full scope of what it is uncovering. To justify its opacity, the military often cites the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which states that“information concerning the nature and location” of finds should, by default, be kept secret. But the law also allows the “Federal land manager”—in this case, the military—to release information about sites to the public if the land manager finds that that doesn’t place the archaeological resources at “risk of harm.”

In August, at an annual summit between military and local officials, Senator Terlaje asked for comprehensive maps of the human remains and cultural artifacts the military has uncovered. “We haven’t seen really any maps that show all of the findings on one map,” she said. “I think that’s important to show that these are potentially connected findings—that they are potentially part of an entire settlement area or patterns of life.”

“We have those maps,” Albert Borja, environmental director for the new Marine Corps base, said at the summit. But the military declined to share them publicly. Instead, military officials, citing the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, held a closed-door meeting with a select group of Guam leaders in October, during which they allowed them to briefly inspect the maps. The military “told us what we already knew: They are finding a significant number of archaeological sites and human remains near areas already known to be of historic importance,” Terlaje said after the meeting. “The full context of these areas will be lost to future generations.”

When I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the comprehensive maps, the Marine Corps withheld 12 of 16 pages, citing the archaeological protection law. The four maps that were ultimately released were of the three main ongoing buildup construction areas, but they showed only the archaeological sites and human skeletal remains for which investigation had been “completed.” In response to a query about the request results, a Marine Corps staffer claimed that “there is a history of protected resources known to the public getting vandalized, looted, or damaged unintentionally through misuse.” It is unclear what vandalism the military is concerned about on Guam, considering the archaeological sites are behind military fences. The staffer also cited “operational security” matters. Neither the staffer nor Borja responded to follow-up questions.

The military is required to share the comprehensive maps with the state historic preservation officer, but Lujan told me he is not allowed to release them.

Despite being incomplete, the Marine Corps maps, as well as other documents and announcements, give credence to concerns that military construction is jeopardizing large CHamoru historical sites.

At the August summit, military officials said that they had uncovered human remains in five places at the construction site for the urban combat training facility, which, according to Terlaje’s office, sits on the remnants of the CHamoru village of Mogfog. But later that month, two more were discovered, then another at the nearby construction site for the hand grenade range, according to a list of findings shared by Terlaje, which she obtained at the October closed-door meeting.

“We want this whole area to be preserved,” said Terlaje. She surmised that there are likely many more remains to be found in the area, but the military isn’t looking for them because it is currently only excavating where it is building roads. Indeed, a map I obtained via a local public records request shows that the found human remains fall within thin strips throughout the portion of the property where the military plans to build the training complex. The Marine Corps maps show that, as of early November, the military had completed its investigation on only three of those remains and a minority of the archaeological areas.

The next phase of construction will be at the site of the live-fire training range complex, located at the northern tip of Guam. While the military has already dug up small sections of the complex—and found tools, cooking pits, hundreds of pottery shards, and dozens of pieces of human skeletal remains—the largest firing range is still being surveyed. The complex is the focal point of anti-buildup activism, as residents protest the effects the live fire could have on Guam’s northern forests, the island’s water supply, and the area’s fishing grounds. That scrutiny will likely only increase as the military uncovers remnants of the ancient sacred CHamoru areas of Litekyan and Tailålo.

At the August summit, Timothy Liberatore, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command in the Mariana islands (of which Guam is the largest), began a session by staking a claim to CHamoru history—and portraying the military as noble guardians of it. The military’s “respect for CHamoru culture allows us to sustain our mission of protecting the Mariana islands—part of our homeland,” he said. “Our high regard for our collective heritage…is not only a moral imperative, but also stands in contrast to the malign intentions of our adversaries in this region.”

Monaeka Flores, one of several CHamoru activists who attended the summit despite its being closed to the public, responded to Liberatore later in the session. “This is the CHamoru ‘homeland.’ This is an Indigenous homeland,” she said. “And this is the ‘heritage’ of a very specific group of people who have [lived on] these islands for 4,000 years.”

According to Flores, this rhetoric, and the military’s lack of transparency, play into the US’s colonial history on Guam. “It’s part of the programming and conditioning,” she told me. “And it’s impacting our collective memory.”

Three months later, the Marine Corps invited a few local officials and CHamoru cultural practitioners to a highly publicized, “first of its kind” dedication ritual at the Sabånan Fadang graves. Lujan called it a “truly special event.” Other CHamorus, like Terlaje, saw something else: Tokenized preservation amid a rapidly expanding sea of destruction.

The scene, and the fact that other CHamorus wouldn’t be able to see it for themselves, weighed heavy on Terlaje. “I feel this huge burden on me,” she said. “I’m being shown information that the rest of the CHamorus are not to be shown. Why is that? This is their heritage.”

As she spoke of the sites, her voice began to crack. “The military has access to the information,” she said. “Why are they entitled to it and not the CHamorus?”

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