Per the request of a handful I'm posting the text for the article I wrote last week for the anti-racist feminist zine Third Space. The title of it "Things to Do in Guam When You're Dead" interested some and wanted to know more about what I meant by the title.
Hayi matai? Ya yanggen matai hao taimanu guaha chine'gue-mu? Hafa kumekeilek-mu umbre? Fine'nina na diniseha-hu na fatta' yu'!
Rather then ramble on for several paragraphs and constantly miss my points because I keep thinking to myself, "didn't I already write this somewhere?"
I'm not sure if I'm supposed to do this. Meaning whether or not Third Space has rights to it or anything. But oh well, taya' guaha.
"Things to do in Guam When You're Dead"
People often ask me why I decided to go into academia. I’m a Chamorro, from Guam, one of the world’s last official colonies and a military base for the American Empire. Shouldn’t I be out in the streets where the real fight is, instead of wasting time in the Ivory Tower?
I usually answer them by talking about my grandfather. He is hardly an academic. Never finished high school, no college degrees, no scholarly articles. Yet, despite not being a regular attendee at any anthropological conferences, the language, the very voice that my grandfather uses to describe himself, is the same voice that the anthropologist uses to describe him. Theoretically, this shared discourse amounts to the death of my grandfather, myself and all other Chamorros. Getting over this “death” will require that we engage with anthropology and its presuppositions on as many levels as possible.
What Chamorros are ensnared in today is a form of colonization deeper than territorial occupation or economic blackmail, but one which infects the very act of seeing and speaking. After centuries of colonization by Spain, Japan and the United States, an almost invisible grafting has taken upon the minds, tongues and eyes of Chamorros. What this has accomplished is the trapping of Chamorros within the fantasies, language and most importantly the gaze of the anthropologist.
It is the institutional inconsistency of anthropology, that the very thing which they seek, is the thing they destroy with their very presence. The cruelest lie that indigenous people have been told and sadly believed is that the death or dying of their culture begins with language loss or lack of inter-generational sharing, in truth it begins with the anthropologist. To put it bluntly, for indigenous cultures the anthropological gift, is the gift of death.
The presence of the anthropologist is the look of Medusa. Because of what anthropology desires (a static, intimately knowable culture), and what it represents (Orientalist, markers of mobile modernity), all anthropologists find they will kill with their very gaze.
Take for instance Claude Levi-Strauss’ research amongst the Nambikwara in Brazil. In Tristes Tropiques he writes of the guilt he felt having poisoned this innocent people by showing them modern writing. But this corruption isn’t writing or the incorporation of “non-indigenous” technology; it’s the presence of the anthropologist. Every culture anthropology “discovers” dies or begins to die by virtue of its being discovered.
In Guam, despite superficial variations, anthropological writings have all echoed the same basic mantra, “I see dead people.” Similar to what Haley Joel Osment would no doubt testify from The Sixth Sense, “I see dead people who don’t know that they are dead.” Chamorros today are trapped in such a scenario. Life or death dictated by a gaze beyond their control, yet which they are forced to live and resist within.
The imposition of the gaze and our unknowing acceptance of it as our own shows up our speech and the ways we imagine culture. When speaking about Chamorro culture, our statements always draw out an unavoidable loss. Western history and anthropology dictate that the real Chamorros, or “ancient” Chamorros died centuries ago. The rest of us live outside this temporal wall, that authenticity of being unquestionably or comfortably Chamorro always inaccessible. This epistemology affects our perceptions, becoming the gaze through which we see ourselves. Thus despite the fact that there are nearly 200,000 Chamorros left in the world, nearly every Chamorro is predisposed to say that “there are no real Chamorros anymore.”
Philosopher Giles Deleuze once said, “if you are caught in the dream of another, you are lost.” Such is the predicament of Chamorros today. The true test for the future of our people, will not how to change our culture to compete in today’s “modern” world, but how to escape the fact that we live as the embodiment of anthropological fantasies! There is nothing intrinsic about this zombie-like life, always doubting our existences. Life is only like this, because we feel forced to accept certain assumptions about how culture works; what makes it authentic, what makes us alive or dead.
Breaking out of this gaze will depend upon Chamorros doing at least two things. First, engaging these presuppositions and recognizing in whose interests is it that Chamorro continue this dance of death? Second, Chamorros must confront this death and pass through it. Sounds simple, yet in a colonial landscape, little could be more frightening.
Turning to the first issue, it’s America that benefits from this extinction agenda. American colonialism in Guam since 1898 has been based on two things, the control of Guam’s territory for strategic military purposes, and second, the re-making of the Chamorro, so as not to threaten this control. To both these ends, the fundamental discursive point of American colonization has been to make it commonsensical for Chamorros that “there is no life without America.”
Earlier forms of colonization ran upon an economy of imposed binaries. The landscape and bodies of the colonized would be transformed into simplified binary choices, good/bad, white/black. But in today’s world, marked by “the end of history,” we would be lucky if we had even such a disagreeable choice. For those not fortunate enough to be “modern” all that remains are forced, impossible choices. Not good/bad, but good/ impossible. In a world where America offers itself, its freedoms and its beliefs as the ultimate panacea, on a small island like Guam, how could one imagine anything outside of this colonizer?
Over the years, the United States through education, health care and politics in Guam has made this crystal clear. Historians and anthropologists wrote extensively of the non-existence of Chamorros and their culture. Navy doctors proposed that without their aid Chamorros would soon become extinct. Signs demanding that Chamorros “speak English only” could be found everywhere and were backed up with fines and punishment. In schools, most anything local or Chamorro was instructionally absent. The intended lesson being, that the future lay with America, its history, its geography, its culture.
For those who denied these things, there were simple ways of dealing with them. For example, on children’s school papers if the word “Chamorro” was used, it was often crossed out and accompanied with commentary that “there are no Chamorros anymore.”
All this disciplining and degradation serves a purpose. It affirms the idea that there is no life outside America. That beyond it there is nothing but that impossible death on the other side of the binary. What this affects most specifically are attempts by Chamorros to decolonize their island.
Whether seeking more autonomy from the United States, a revamping of Guam’s educational system or something outside of late-capitalism, for the past few decades there have been both scattered and organized movements to seeking some form of decolonization. What has made these labors nearly impossible has been this consciousness that sees nothing but death outside of American control and influence.
“Decolonization is suicide,” is a phrase I commonly hear. For those whom colonizing convincing holds sway, it is already traumatic enough that we’re nowhere on the American flag, that we don’t vote for President or have any votes in Congress, but to move any further away from America would be to tempt death!
Because of the way decolonization tampers with already uncomfortable American identities of most Chamorros, even rudimentary discussions of it are vehemently opposed or silenced. This yielding to the mandates of the anthropological gaze is strategically useful for the United States. By stifling decolonization efforts, Guam’s status as a colony remains unblemished, as does the American military’s control over 1/3 of it.
Getting past this gaze in which we find life only through America and are forced to doubt our own existences, means staring into this death and seeing what might lie beyond it. Because confronting it and passing through it, despite the fear that it colonizes within us, is the path into freedom, into life itself.
When I try to discuss issues of decolonization with most Chamorros I am usually shut down through paranoid, hysterical questioning, about what the “morning after” decolonization would look like. “How will we survive?” “How will we make a living?” “What will education be like?” These questions are of course not meant earnestly, but instead designed to quiet me. To force me to admit and recognize that there is nothing beyond this gaze.
But forcing our way into and traversing these questions is the answer! If sincere, these questions reflect the shattering of commonsense. The death of Chamorros and their culture, the awesomeness of American style education or the erasure of the indigenous person in democracy, these are colonizing commonsensical notions that force our vision and speech, yet lie well beneath them, supposedly beyond questioning. While I have focused only on Chamorros, this is the task for indigenous communities everywhere, finding the courage to question what appears to be unquestionable. If we can dare to ask and answer these questions in earnest, there will lie the possibility for the revitalization, the reinvention of our peoples.