Language: English, Chamorro
Religion: 75% Catholicism; 17.7% Protestantism
The Mariana Islands were settled more than 3,500 years ago, making them one of the earliest inhabited island chains in the Micronesian sub-region of the Pacific. The Chamorro people of Guam were an organized cultural and linguistic society marked by advanced seafaring, horticulture, hunting, and fishing. By 800 A.D., Chamorro villages were characterized by unique latte structures, one-story houses resting on sizable limestone, basalt, or sandstone pillars and capstones.
Ancient Chamorro society was matrilineal and revolved around the core values of respect and reciprocity, with shared access to communal resources and with family clans at the center of community life. This complex, multifaceted society engaged in trade with other islands and practiced rice cultivation, pottery, weaving, boat-building, navigation, herbal medicine, and other trades far in advance of European arrival.
The 16th century saw the first encounters between Western Europeans and Chamorros, following thousands of years of existence of the latter as a sovereign independent people. This included Magellan’s landing in 1521, followed by the 1565 proclamation by Spanish navigator Miguel Lopez de Legazpi that Guam was a possession of Spain. However, colonization began in earnest in 1668 with the arrival of Spanish missionaries, whose attempts to convert Chamorros to Christianity encountered forceful opposition for the next thirty years during the Spanish-Chamorro Wars.
The Spanish responded to indigenous rebellion with vicious campaigns, resulting in the loss of thousands of native lives from both war and introduced disease. Within a short time after Spanish colonization, the population of the Marianas had declined from 50,000 people to less than 4,000 in 1710.9 Despite near annihilation, Chamorro survivors of the Spanish colonial period were able to preserve and pass on many of their customary practices, including their central cultural values and many of their traditions relative to births, weddings, funerals, and deaths, among others.10 After more than two centuries of Spanish control, Guam was ceded to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris as a territorial spoil of the Spanish-American War.11 The U.S. President then placed the island under the control of the Department of the Navy, where it would remain until 1950, with the exception of a brief period of Japanese occupation during World War II from 1941 through 1944.
The period of naval control entrenched the Chamorro people’s subordinate status, both legally and with respect to the military’s strategic priorities. The U.S. government viewed Guam as an ideal naval base for strategic military purposes, and governed its indigenous inhabitants paternalistically, attempting to assimilate and “Americanize” them.
Under Naval rule, English was mandated and the Chamorro language was banned from the education system and other public places.14 Although a plan to put Chamorro people on reservations and leave two-thirds of the land for military use did not materialize,15 Chamorros continue to be denied various civil and political rights.
A series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901, commonly referred to as the Insular Cases, gave judicial sanction to the discriminatory treatment of the Chamorro people, reaffirming Congress’s “plenary power” over Guam and excluding it from equal treatment under the U.S. Constitution via the reasoning that “Anglo-Saxon principles” of government and justice would be impracticable to apply to “alien races” differing in “religion, custom, and modes of thought.”
The Navy continued to exercise absolute control over the Chamorros, denying them basic rights within the American legal system, including the right to a jury and opportunities to appeal cases to federal courts outside of Guam. Throughout this period, beginning in 1901, delegations of Chamorros petitioned the United States to end the Navy’s rule of Guam, filing petitions throughout the years leading up to (and after) WWII, all of which were ignored.20 Guam came under the control of Japanese military forces in December 1941.
During a 32-month period of Japanese occupation and martial law, the Chamorros experienced torture, internment, executions, hunger, forced marches, forced labor and additional cultural restrictions, resulting in some 1,170 Chamorro deaths.
Although a U.S. bombardment campaign helped end Japanese occupation, it also showed little concern for the local population, many of whom likely survived only because they were in concentration camps situated closer to the island’s interior and not closer to the coasts.
During this period, the U.S. military seized Chamorro lands to build bases to launch more attacks on Japanese-controlled areas throughout the Pacific. On July 21, 1944, U.S. armed forces began to dismantle Japanese rule on Guam, leading to the return of the islands to U.S. control.25 Despite mass decolonization on most continents across the globe, the aftermath of World War II brought a stronger U.S. military and political presence on Guam. Rather than returning land seized during the war, the military executed an aggressive policy of “land grabbing,” taking some of the best and most valuable real property and water resources that had, for centuries, been in the possession of Chamorros, and denying them access to those ancestral territories.26 By 1947, an estimated 1,350 families had lost their homes not to destruction by the Japanese occupation, but to the U.S. Navy’s land seizures. Many Chamorro landowners received little or no compensation for land that was taken.
The military officially retained – often through controversial eminent domain land condemnation proceedings – about 63% of the island, displacing more than 11,000 Chamorros, or almost half of the indigenous population at the time. Guam’s self-sufficient pre-war agricultural economy never recovered from these land seizures; instead, residents were forced to import 90 percent of their food, with canned and processed food overtaking traditional staples, leading to the high prevalence of Western lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Having been denied a wide range of rights, Chamorro leaders spent the years after the war pushing for greater autonomy, resulting in Congress’s passage of the Organic Act of Guam in 1950.
The Organic Act established Guam as an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States, with a civil government, and granted statutory U.S. citizenship to its peoples (who previously were U.S. nationals). However, the Act reserved plenary power to amend or enact legislation for Guam to Congress, without the consent of the local citizenry. Drafted without the input of the Chamorro people, the Act reserved to Congress “the power and authority to annul” all laws passed by the Territory of Guam and provided that the U.S. Constitution – and its rights and freedoms – did not necessarily or automatically apply in Guam as an unincorporated territory; It also provided the Department of Interior with direct control and supervision over the affairs of Guam’s local government, continuing to deny Chamorros the right to participate in national government. Even today Chamorros (and others) in Guam cannot vote for the U.S. President, have no U.S. Senate representation, and can only elect one non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Moreover, the United States retained more than 42,000 acres of land that it had been using for other purposes, with Congress specifically excluding claims for property located on the island of Guam from the War Claims Acts of 1948 as amended in 1962.36 Thus, while the Organic Act did lead to a limited measure of local political governance, it allowed the United States to maintain – to this day – colonial control over Guam.
The decades since the Organic Act’s establishment have seen major development and demographic changes to Guam. Local tourism and other industries have grown considerably, as has migration from Asia, other Pacific Islands, and the continental United States, including a significant percentage of resident military personnel and their dependents.
This has resulted in Chamorros comprising just 37% of the population of Guam (while still constituting the largest single ethnic group). Washington’s immigration policy has allowed an unnecessarily high number of permanent immigrants into the island, contravening international self-determination principles regarding immigration to non-self-governing territories.38 In 1982, the Commission on Self-Determination organized a status referendum, in which 73% of Guam voters chose the Commonwealth option over Statehood (27%). Guam residents subsequently approved a Guam Commonwealth Act to become a Commonwealth like the Northern Mariana Islands in 1987. The Act was submitted to the U.S. Congress in 1988 and to six subsequent congresses but was never passed. Although previous administrations had been receptive to providing Guam with the same Commonwealth status already afforded to the Northern Mariana Islands, the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations consistently opposed the Commonwealth bill, with federal officials arguing that provisions ran counter to U.S. strategic defense interests, territorial policy, and non-discriminatory voting rights. In addition to the obstruction of Chamorro self-determination, U.S. rule over Guam continues to impact its economy.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (P.L. 66-261), more commonly known as the Jones Act, regulates commerce by requiring that all goods or passengers transferred on ships between U.S. ports – like Guam – must be carried on U.S.-flagged ships constructed in the U.S., owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The Jones Act severely limits the goods that can be brought into Guam, leading to exorbitantly high prices and shipping times for items like food staples (that could be imported much more cheaply, and with less environmental impact and spoilage, directly from Asia), and increasing food insecurity and economic hardship for Guam’s substantial lower-income community.42 In a more recent example, in August 2014, the United States executed a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with the Federated States of Micronesia (“FSM”).
In it, the United States, without prior consultation with the people of Guam, relinquished Guam’s potential claims over Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench. The U.S. failure to consult the people of Guam before formally executing a maritime boundary delimitation divested them of inestimable marine resources. Most recently, U.S. federal courts decided Davis v. Guam—a case that concerned a legal challenge to Guam’s Decolonization Registry Law. This local law provides that a selfdetermination plebiscite will be held in Guam, at which those persons who qualify as “native inhabitants”— defined by the statute as “those persons who became U.S. Citizens by virtue of the authority and enactment of the 1950 Organic Act of Guam and descendants of those persons”—will be able to express their desires regarding their future political relationship with the United States. They will do so by choosing one of three options, namely independence, free association, or statehood. Once ascertained, those desires will be transmitted to the United States and to the United Nations. Arnold Davis, a white American and resident of Guam who neither gained his citizenship through operation of the 1950 Organic Act of Guam, nor had an ancestor who did, attempted to enroll onto the decolonization registry.46 He was denied because he did not meet the definition of “native inhabitant” set out above. Represented by conservative American election attorneys, Davis filed suit against the government of Guam in 2011, claiming alleged violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In opinions devoid of the historical context of the U.S. colonization of Guam and the latter’s unique status as a non-self-governing territory under international law, the lower and appellate courts ignored the historical injury that the law sought to remedy and ruled that the Guam Decolonization Registry law violated Davis’s voting and equal protection rights. Today, the government of Guam has been forced to consider revising the decolonization law to allow all Guam residents to take part (including, potentially, transient U.S. military personnel), and to pay some $947,717 in attorneys’ fees and costs to Arnold Davis and his attorneys.
Brief history of the U.S. military’s intervention in Guam
Despite the appearance of ceding control to Guam’s local government through the Organic Act, the U.S. military has entwined itself in Guam’s economy, environment, and culture to great and damaging effect over the last century. The impacts of the pervasive military presence in Guam has been profound, from economic dependency and the funneling of generations of Chamorro into military service, to high rates of terminal illness due to toxic waste and weapons pollution. The U.S. military continues to occupy and control significant portions of the island. Two naval bases, one air force base, and a patchwork of ordinance depots, communications facilities, housing developments, and annexes cumulatively occupy around 30% of Guam’s land.49 Even before the buildup, the military’s footprint in Guam was huge. The land and coast occupied by the military – access to which is restricted to military personnel and their dependents – contain some of the most prized ecological environments on the island, including its longest and most beautiful beaches, nature reserves, the location where Guam’s second-largest village once stood, and other sites of great significance to Chamorros. Claims to recover ancestral lands or receive fair compensation for their value have been mostly denied by federal courts, despite provisions in the Organic Act calling for this transfer.
In 1986, the federal government agreed to pay $40 million in compensation to Guam landowners; however, it set payments using land values from 1940, representing only a fraction of the land’s actual value. In addition to land violations, U.S. militarism in the Pacific has had other adverse effects on the Chamorro people. This includes the United States’ devastating 16-year nuclear testing program in the Pacific, in which the United States conducted 105 nuclear tests including the detonation of 67 nuclear bombs in the nearby Marshall Islands to catastrophic effect. Guam received significant radioactive debris from the fallout. Increased levels of radiation on Guam are suspected to have caused serious health and environmental problems for its residents, including high incidences of cancer, the second leading cause of death locally. In addition, the U.S. Navy decontaminated 18 radioactive vessels exposed to nuclear tests in Guam, and Chamorros who served in the military were additionally radiated through hazardous clean-up of radioactive debris. According to a congressional panel formed to study in-depth radioactive contamination in Guam between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. military “put the population of Guam in harm’s way knowingly and with total disregard for their well-being.” The impact of nuclear testing in the region, according to the report, “was the largest ecological disaster in human history.”
In 2005, the National Research Council declared Guam’s eligibility for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program due to the “measurable fallout” Guam received from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific; however, as of 2020, no one in Guam has received any compensation under RECA. U.S. military control of Guam has resulted in a number of other ecological and health disasters. These include the dumping and burying of hazardous and toxic chemicals around the island after World War II; the storage and use of Agent Orange as a commercial herbicide in Guam during the Vietnam and Korean Wars; the introduction of the invasive brown tree snake through U.S. military transports, which decimated Guam’s forests and native bird population (in addition to the general large-scale clearing and conversion for construction of military installations; and whale beachings and deaths due to the military’s use of sonar. Guam has 19 Superfund sites (sites containing substances so hazardous they require a long-term clean-up response), and at least another 70 toxic sites. In addition to the likely storage of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides, Guam has also housed nuclear weapons, mustard gas, and countless other carcinogens. In the late 1980s, the Navy discharged radioactive water into Apra Harbor, failing to inform the government of Guam of the discharge.
The increased exposure to radioactivity in Guam is linked to toxic goiters, a major contributor to thyroid issues that are abundant in the local population. Multiple production wells accessing the island’s sole-source aquifer have had to be shut down due to chemical contamination from U.S. government land holdings over or adjacent to this aquifer. In more recent years, the United States has held large-scale, multi-national training exercises around Guam, as part of the “Marianas Island Range Complex,” which has expanded to become the “Mariana Island Training and Testing Area,” or MITT. A 2006 exercise entitled “Valiant Shield” included 22,000 military personnel, 280 aircraft, 28 ships, and 3 aircraft carriers from the U.S. Navy alone. The United States has repeated these exercises in subsequent years with even more personnel and hardware.
The scale and frequency of training events increase the likelihood of accidents, such as the leakage of radioactive waste from a nuclear submarine in 2008, and seven aircraft crashes in and around Guam between 2007 and 2008. It is difficult to adequately capture the sociocultural effects of the military’s presence in Guam. The decimation of Guam’s sustainable islander economy through land grabbing and other environmental destruction created optimal conditions for widespread poverty and unemployment – conditions also conducive to high military recruitment. Guam has among the highest recruitment levels in the country, with military service a generationsold tradition and economic bedrock for many Chamorro families. The military actively recruits in Guam’s schools, enticing young people with the promise of secure employment and perks like a military housing allowance (which increases the cost of housing for non-military residents) and discounts for basic household items from base supply stores, as well as voting rights for active-duty soldiers. The high degree of military service in Guam inculcates loyalty to the United States among many Guam residents, despite the lack of full benefits provided to Guam veterans as a result of the island’s status as an unincorporated territory.
This funneling of human capital and cultural allegiance has obscured much of the colonial relationship from view, while diverting many Chamorros away from other economic and educational opportunities, both modern and traditional. Military service also exacts a high toll in terms of disability and fatalities, with Chamorros suffering more deaths per capita in Vietnam and recent U.S. wars than any other ethnic group. To be sure, though the relationship between Chamorros and the U.S. military is complex, this does not obviate U.S. obligations to facilitate Chamorro self-determination in line with international law.
Having exhausted all domestic remedies for self-government, the government of Guam will cooperate with the UNPO to increase cooperation with the United Nations. Although strategic and well informed, Guam can only attend the UN twice a year, and the US often opposes any assertions made by Guam at the UN. With the help of the UNPO, Guam hopes to find a remedy to the injustices of American colonisation.