History Lessons

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of taking my then four month old daughter Sumåhi around the island, and photographed her at different historic sites. I took photos of her atop a canon at Fort Soledad, in front of the Protestant Church her great great grandfather helped build in Inarajan, and helped find the names of her relatives on the memorial wall at the Asan overlook. Each site was accompanied by a boring but informative lecture on the importance of this location, and what lessons Chamorros today can gather from each site. Often times the lessons would be difficult, especially around issues of Spanish violence, Japanese imperial brutality and American colonial racism.

People told me that it was silly to be dragging her around the island and teaching her the island’s history when she’s too young to remember any of it. But the value of this first trip as I see it, isn’t in what is happening now, but rather the way this “silly” trip would hopefully help start a dialogue between my daughter and me, about the history of her island and people, which will last the rest of our lives.

My hope is that she will grow up to be well informed and clear eyed about the world around her, and therefore be willing to make difficult decisions about its future. Our island is in such difficult times right now, because so many of us refuse to pay close attention to our island’s history over the past 100 years…

This is most noticeable with regards to the proposed military increases to Guam, and the public reactions of most people on Guam. These increases are celebrated with almost frightening optimism, hope and trust. Whatever the military says must be true, what they are doing must be good for Guam. And the only way in which this could be bad is if we do not take advantage of the tidal wave of opportunities which are already flooding Guam. This dangerous optimism and trust is made possible because of how a lack of knowledge of Guam history supports a number of prevailing fictions.

The American return in 1944 was a liberation. The military downsizing in the 1990’s happened because we hurt the military’s feelings and scared them away. More military means more security. The military does not damage people’s health or the environment. The military as an institution, cares about Guam and is our partner.

A clear-eyed view of our history complicates or proves false all of these points and demands that we approach the proposed military build up with caution and be prepared to make very serious and substantive demands of the United States military and Federal Government. I see a tremendous everyday fear however in investigating the past, because of the ways such inquiries might complicate the Americaness of Guam, by revealing the ways its regularly just Guam and not Guam U.S.A. And how those who live on Guam are often times formally and informally second class citizens. I see fear in taking our historical relationship with the United States seriously, because once we do, degrading phrases such as “the tip of America’s spear” won’t be celebrations of how useful we are to the United States, but rather traumatic sobering revelations of how we have been and continue to be used by them.

It is imperative that our children today, who will inherit both our successes and failures, perceive their history, their present and then plan for their future with clear eyes, no matter how difficult or critical of the United States, such a vision may be.

To not do this will just continue the cycle of dependency, where we will hate ourselves for our hopeless dependency, yet whenever anything can be done to change it, we scream that without the United States we will starve, we will die, without them we are nothing. The history of our island teaches something different however, if we are brave enough to learn it, to learn from it, and then pass on its lessons to our children.


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