‘Biba Guåhan!’: How Guam’s Indigenous Activists Are Confronting Military Colonialism

‘Biba Guåhan!’: How Guam’s Indigenous Activists Are Confronting Military Colonialism

‘Biba Guåhan!’: How Guam’s Indigenous Activists Are Confronting Military Colonialism

As the federal government tries to expand its control of the island, the CHamoru are ready to rise in resistance.

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A crowd formed on a damp field overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was Labor Day morning in Hagåtña, the capital of Guam, and the mood was both celebratory and defiant as residents gathered to show support for the local indigenous community, the CHamoru. It had been a frustrating summer for the CHamoru on the island: Activists had reignited a campaign to claim some political power from the United States, the island’s administering authority. But with the US government in the process of annexing more of their land, they had made little progress. So they summoned this crowd—more than 2,000 people—to voice their discontent, express solidarity with one another, and demand “CHamoru self-determination.”

As the demonstration commenced, activist leaders and CHamoru elders took to the stage to denounce imperialism and call for island unity in the face of repression. CHamoru youth blew kulu shells and danced in grass garb. Families unfurled Guam flags and raised signs declaring support for the movement. Then, everyone marched.

They started at Adelup Point, by the beach where US forces retook Guam from the Japanese during World War II. They proceeded down Marine Corps Drive, built in that invasion’s aftermath, which runs through the island’s capital and connects the two US military complexes that now occupy nearly a third of Guam’s land. They passed the Naval Hospital, one of the first facilities the US government established after it wrested the island from the Spanish empire in 1898.

Finally, they ended their march at the District Court of Guam, where, today, a US-appointed judge passes verdict on whether island residents are properly following federal laws—laws passed by legislators and signed by presidents for whom they’ve never been allowed to vote.

Surrounded by tokens of US colonialism, the demonstrators made their message clear: As the federal government pushes to expand its control of their island, they are ready to rise in resistance.

The Relocation

Over the decades, Guam’s status as a US territory has meant different things in terms of laws, trade, and political representation. Residents of Guam gained US citizenship in 1952, and a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives 20 years later, but federal regulations, and even constitutional rights, have been inconsistently applied.

The one constant, however, has been military occupation. As historian Daniel Immerwahr recounts in his recent book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, the only reason the US government has retained interest in Guam as a colonial subject is because of its strategic location close to East Asia.

Guam is home to two major US military complexes. On the island’s northern end, Andersen Air Force Base is the only facility in the Western Pacific capable of permanently hosting the military’s largest bombers, which frequently fly training runs over the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, Naval Base Guam, toward the south, houses Coast Guard commands and dozens of naval units, as well as four nuclear-powered attack submarines that track Beijing’s activities in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

With its dominion over Guam, the United States can modify or inflate this armed presence essentially at will—a feature the federal government finds extremely valuable. “Guam may be a small island,” Immerwahr writes, “but it matters tremendously that there is this one spot, far into the Pacific, that the US military can use without anyone’s permission.” And indeed, as Washington has “pivoted” its military might toward East Asia in recent years, Guam’s appeal has only grown—especially as the Defense Department has experienced problems at other Pacific bases.

In the mid-2000s, the Pentagon faced a diplomatic crisis. On the Japanese island of Okinawa—which the United States occupied for 27 years after World War II, and which now hosts 32 US military installations—residents were routinely taking to the streets to demand an end to environmental destruction, accidents, and elevated crime at the hands of US personnel.

To relieve the tension, the US and Japanese governments signed a deal in 2006 in which Japan would pay the US military to draw down its presence on Okinawa by approximately 8,000 service members by 2014. And with the United States unwilling to reduce its overall troop levels in the region, the Department of Defense decided to relocate those forces to Guam.

The Navy was placed in charge of the project, and, in 2009, it presented its plan to the people of Guam in the form of an environmental impact statement. Congress created environmental impact statements in the 1970s as a way to ensure transparency and allow communities to have some input in government-sponsored projects. To Guam’s residents, however, it was clear that Navy officials saw the procedure as merely a formality: The report they published was 11,000 jargon-filled pages, and community members were given just 90 days to respond.

“If you stack up all these papers, it’s three feet high,” Moñeka De Oro, an activist with the grassroots organization We Are Guåhan, said she complained to local political leaders. “There’s no way even people with the most technical knowledge can get through this.”

Still, De Oro and the rest of We Are Guåhan—named for the CHamoru-language pronunciation of Guam—developed a reading group for the report and got to work. In the three-month window, they read through thousands of pages, and discovered that the Navy wanted to dredge more than 70 acres of coral reef to create space for an aircraft carrier. They also found out that the Navy wanted to build a Marine garrison and multiple firing ranges—including one adjacent to the ancient, sacred CHamoru village of Pågat.

In response to their findings, activists arranged protests and organized a public-information campaign. They also took advantage of the environmental impact statement process: Residents submitted more than 10,000 queries during the public-comment period, each of which the Navy was required to address.

Thanks in part to such grassroots activism—and in part to alarms raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Government Accountability Office regarding the plan’s possibly disastrous effects on Guam’s water supply and sewage system—the Navy adjusted its proposal in 2012. Most of the planned construction projects survived the adjustment, but instead of 8,000 service members and their families, the Navy decided to limit the added presence on Guam to around 5,000 troops, most of whom would rotate through in six-month stints.

It was a small win for activists. It “basically bought us time,” said De Oro. But the Navy could afford the time. Military bureaucracy—which eventually extended the relocation timeline a decade—simply outlasted widespread mobilization. Many residents, swayed by economic arguments, even came to favor the increased militarization of their island. In 2015, when the Navy published a supplemental environmental impact statement, community members submitted only 900 comments. Two years later, the military awarded the first construction contracts, and in 2018, crews started bulldozing.

The Buildup

On July 3, the Guam legislature’s Committee on Education, Air Transportation, and Statistics, Research, and Planning held a public hearing. Its purpose was to discuss a resolution endorsing a pause in the construction of a firing range on the northern tip of Guam. For months, elected officials had expressed concern that exercises at the range threatened to harm the last seeding specimen of an indigenous tree species, and while clearing the site for construction, workers discovered precolonial CHamoru artifacts. The legislature hoped that the Navy would temporarily halt construction to allow biologists and archaeologists the chance to study the area further.

As the head of the committee, Senator Telena Cruz Nelson, explained to those in attendance, the matter at hand was limited in scope. “This resolution addresses the firing range. It does not address whether we are for the military buildup or against the military buildup,” she said. But to activists at the hearing, it was impossible to ignore the bigger picture.

“For over a decade, we have been saying the exact same things at dozens of scoping meetings, public hearings, legislative hearings,” announced Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, managing editor of the University of Guam Press and a prominent CHamoru activist. “It has been the same message from our community: We do not want the destruction of our environment. We do not want the destruction of our cultural resources.”

To opponents of the buildup, the resolution addressed a microcosm of the military’s ongoing degradation of Guam. Including the firing range in question, contractors have unearthed CHamoru artifacts in no fewer than five military construction sites—an unsurprising development, given that the military’s leases consist largely of seized ancestral lands. Meanwhile, such projects are further damaging the island’s fragile ecosystem. For example, when military activity likely introduced the brown tree snake to Guam in the mid-20th century, it led to the virtual eradication of 10 of the island’s 12 forest-bird species. The loss of the seed-dispersing birds, as well as military destruction, have contributed to the thinning of the island’s native limestone forests. And with the buildup, the Navy plans to clear cut 1,000 more acres of the most pristine forest—about 8 percent of what remains—which will further strip the land of its resilience and undermine biodiversity-rehabilitation efforts.

Thirteen of Guam’s 15 legislators had sponsored the resolution, but they didn’t know that the Navy had already made up its mind. The week prior, the governor of Guam, Lourdes Leon Guerrero, sent a letter to Rdml. Shoshana Chatfield requesting a pause in the firing-range construction adjacent to the endangered tree. On the day of the legislative hearing, the admiral rejected the idea.

“Let me assure you that our mutual goal of protecting this tree…has already been met,” Chatfield wrote. “I submit that there is no concern about the timing of the future construction” of the firing range. At no point in her letter did she mention the discovery of CHamoru artifacts.

The Plebiscite

To activists, the Navy’s dismissal of what they considered a modest ask was just the most recent example of the military’s snubbing the CHamoru community. In 2011, during the initial wave of anti-buildup activism, the then-governor of Guam, Edward Calvo, relaunched a ’90s-era program called the Commission on Decolonization. Operating under the assumption that the territory’s political status quo is untenable, the commission aimed to educate the people of Guam on the different political statuses available to their island, as well as to facilitate a special referendum—dubbed a “decolonization plebiscite”—that would allow native inhabitants to vote on which status they’d hope to pursue.

A decolonization plebiscite by the commission’s design would include three options: US statehood; independence; and “free association,” a situation in which Guam would become an independent nation, but the United States could negotiate certain privileges—presumably including special military access. Furthermore, the vote would be restricted to “native inhabitants” of Guam—a group defined to predominantly include CHamoru, who make up about 37 percent of the island’s roughly 165,000 residents. And the results of the referendum would be nonbinding: Island officials would send the data to Washington and the United Nations in the hope of pressuring Congress to draft decolonization legislation.

The native-only nature of a potential referendum is important for many CHamoru. “This plebiscite is meant to assist in determining the desires of Guam’s indigenous people, after being ignored or shut out of power for centuries,” Michael Lujan Bevacqua, professor of CHamoru studies at the University of Guam and cochair of the Decolonization Commission’s Independence for Guam Task Force, explained to the UN in 2017. But such exclusivity is also what prevented the vote from ever taking place.

Shortly after the Decolonization Commission resumed activity, Arnold Davis, a white resident of Guam, attempted to register for the plebiscite—and was promptly denied. Represented by the right-wing Center for Individual Rights, he sued Guam’s government for violating the US Constitution’s 15th Amendment, which prohibits race-based voting restrictions.

The commission defended its plans, pointing out that the voting qualifications were based on “ancestry” rather than race, and arguing that the 15th Amendment didn’t apply to the plebiscite because its results were nonbinding. But it was a losing battle: Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that Hawai’i couldn’t hold a native-only referendum in 2000, federal courts have generally understood that such votes are unconstitutional.

Still, the Davis case bounced back and forth between district and appeals courts for years. Like the military buildup, it became a recurring, hot-button topic on Guam—and, naturally, the two issues intertwined.

“These things are connected,” Victoria Leon Guerrero, who also cochairs the Independence for Guam Task Force, told The Nation. “It’s really painful to watch all this happening and know that, because of your political status, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

The March

The Davis case came to a head just three weeks after the news broke that the Navy had refused to halt the construction of the firing range. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel from the US Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a government-sponsored, native-only decolonization plebiscite on Guam would be unconstitutional.

To CHamoru activists, the pair of episodes revealed a harsh colonial truth: The US system of governance has prevented the CHamoru people from halting the destruction of their indigenous forests, preserving their ancestral lands, or even taking a poll to gauge their preference for their own political future. In light of all this, CHamoru groups decided to march.

Leon Guerrero, Bevacqua, and other CHamoru leaders organized the Labor Day march for all of Guam to, as Bevacqua explained it, “show support for the CHamoru people, to show support for their rights and their place on this island.” They called it the “Fanohge: March for CHamoru Self-Determination,” using the CHamoru word for “stand up.”

At the gathering before the march, Robert Underwood, a longtime CHamoru educator and politician, stood before the crowd, microphone in hand. “We’re not here to deny people a right,” he began, in an apparent reference to the Davis case. “We’re here to fix a wrong.”

He framed resistance in positive terms, speaking of solidarity and indigenous rights—how CHamoru are not “dividers” but “uniters” who are “promoting peace.” He cited “CHamoru hospitality,” but said it was “not an invitation to deny the fundamental right to choose a political future.”

He ended the speech with a call to action: “Move forward with one clear voice that will not be silenced—that will be heard here in Adelup, over there in the federal courts; in Washington, DC; in New York; wherever there are people who make decisions about us. They must hear the echoes of history, the cries for justice, the voices of the people who are gathered here.”

He cried out, “Long live Guam!” in CHamoru: “Biba Guåhan!”

The crowd roared back: “Biba Guåhan!”

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