Saturday, January 03, 2009

Act of Decolonization #13: Chamorro Studies

I've dreamed for years about a Chamorro Studies program or department at the University of Guam. This possibility was one of the things which helped push me through graduate school and compelled me to return to Guam and work at UOG.

A Chamorro studies program could be an incredible force in assisting with various potential processes of decolonization. It could be a central force in the publication of historical, cultural, critical or consciousness building texts. It could be a key player in helping build social social for different movements or help in the securing of funding and other resources. It could also be a site for the grooming and educating of future Chamorro/Guam leaders.

It could, on the other hand be none of the these things and end up as a conservative department, and maybe just existing as an arm of the Guam Visitor's Bureau, where kosas Chamorro are just things to pretty the island up for tourists.

But the possibilities that it represents are worth those sorts of risks.

There are been rumors of a program in the works for years, but nothing meaningful has ever emerged. With Robert Underwood appointed as the new President of UOG last year, there is even more hope than usual that a Chamorro studies program is on the horizon. Last Fall I saw that there might be some truth to this hope, as Underwood taught a Chamorro Studies class in the Micronesian Studies program. I took this class several years ago when I was in MSP, but this time around the focus of the course wasn't on general Chamorro history, culture or issues, but was centered around what a Chamorro studies program might look like or what it would do. I attended a couple classes and spoke to several of the students in the current class about their ideas.

One student gave me a list of questions for his ideas and I've pasted below my responses:

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1) Does colonialism exist in Guam? Name a few significant visible aspects from your perspective.

Colonialism in Guam could be said to be "abstract" since on a day to day basis, Guam in the minds of so many there, might as well be America. So much of day to day life there seems to already echo America America, language, education, media, the way people dress, act, recognize themselves or reconfigure their lives. This all appears to be a testament to how much Guam is already America, the appearance of equality, the appearance of a fierce, patriotic and natural link or tie that defies any mention of colonialism.

But this desire has little to do with whether or not colonialism exists, in fact we can link this intense desire to be American as an effect of the pervasiveness of colonialism in Guam. First of all, the appearance of Guam as "America" can have everything to do with what the people there want, as well as what the colonizer wants.

The point of colonialism is that there is a very fundamental split, a break between these two communities, which cannot be overcome or forgotten simply because one seems to like the other, or because one takes after the other.

The surface of this relationship may seem very nice and even friendly, polite and civil. In most instances of colonialism, there is always this pretense, this is the "sensibilities" of Europe were created, through their interactions with those they considered to be beneath them or theirs to destroy or control. But that has little to do with the bedrock of how these two communities are related to each other, what are the laws, both formal and obscene that bind them together and produce what is acceptable and unacceptable about how they should exist, in and of themselves, in relation to each other, and in relation to other communities.

When speaking about colonialism today it is important to do away with this pretense or with this surface and get to the structure of relationships.

One way in which issues of political status are deferred or banished as being unimportant and not worth discussing or wasting time on, is by assuming that they are abstract things, which only the most maladjusted or activist crazy types care about. They are not issues which relate to our everyday lives, not tied in any way to the act of "putting food on tables," but this is one of those means of taking the centrality or the importance of political status issues out of our lives, in deferring the possibility for decolonization, by pretending that colonialism doesn't exist in Guam or if it does, we are the special or exceptional because we have a good brand or version of it.

This being said, evidence of colonialism in Guam is everywhere, but my set up for this point is because these things do not appear as pervasive as they are, they appear. We live in what in my work I have called a decolonial deadlock, where all of these questions and issues of colonialism, political status, decolonization have to be resisted, have to be cast aside, because of the intense, intimate fear that if we were to decolonize it would be suicide, because good or bad, colonialism makes us who were are, gives us all the things good in our lives, all the things necessary to live in the world of what Joe Murphy refers to as full of KMart and terrorism. The decolonial deadlock is propped up by two basic points, the first is that the Chamorro is impossible, that the Chamorro does not exist, cannot exist, should not exist. The second is that the Chamorro can only exist or that life is only possible in Guam through the United States, we can only live, survive and be happy as patriotic, loyal appendages of the United States. To go against the United States, to as one of my interview subjects said "to lessen their influence in our lives in anyway, would amount to suicide."

This overall fear, is what keeps most people on the island from even perceiving or even organizing the effects of colonialism in their lives. They in some ways know its there. They see it, read about it, hear it, experience it constantly, but cannot overcome this fear or embedded resistance in order to make sense of it in a critical or a decolonial way. Its in the educational system, how it gets funded, how and what gets taught. Its in the military buildup. Its in the media. Its in our view of our government on Guam. All people think of their governments as being ineffective or corrupt, but the colonial version of this, manifests when you don't just criticize or loathe your government, but actually as a whole pine for someone else to govern you. There is an actual other government who you think is better than yours and want to dominate you or control you.

Robert Underwood once said, that Guam is unique today because its probably one of the few communities out there where people are actually, everyday advocating more outside control over their lives and affairs. Each day they want less local control, less sovereignty, and more outsiders telling them what to do. Basically, more colonialism.

2) Do you feel that a Chamoru National consciousness on Guam exists, and/or has existed, or does not exist? Please highlight and briefly explain some historical and/or present examples that you can think of.

Absolutely, a Chamorro national consciousness exists, but the forms that we find it in today are primarily apolitical. Chamorro nationalism exists as either "pride" activities or acts meant to represent Guam to others or reveal the "coolness" of Guam's place in the world or the fact that the island has "made it" or isn't so "backwater" or in cultural activities, the consuming or creating of art, culture, artifacts that is meant to represent a Chamorro essence or existence.

These are the only two ways in which Chamorro national consciousness reaches a "community" level, or has become something woven into the lives of nearly all Chamorros.

The Chamorro nationalism that we see for instance in the "activists" is nationalism, but its not yet effective because although it has become part of life on Guam, participation in that national movement is still limited to those with a particular path to "consciousness." Each person in that movement has a story about how they came to consciousness, how they saw past the colonial Matrix and learned the truth. These stories are inspiring and I don't mean to take away from the work that these people do ( I am one of them after all). But they do not represent the leaders of a "national consciousness" movement. They could be called a vanguard or a braintrust or something, but at best they have the power to be tolerated by the community at large, not lead it, not effective shape it or guide it.

The language of Chamorro nationalism has slowly become embedded in everyday life on Guam. For instance, people do not try to fight me or spit on my anymore when I talk about American colonialism, when even just seven years ago they would. Perhaps we can attribute this to Angel Santos dying and his death representing a transition from those days of defaming and marginalizing those "scary" activists, to today's Guam of tolerating activists. With the body of the one who signified so much negativity in Chamorro culture, society and Guam society gone, perhaps now the things that people tied to him, or the ideas he tried to promote can now be discussed, digested or at the minimum tolerated. But regardless of why or how, things have changed, political status issues are no longer taboo, colonialism is no longer a taboo topic of discussion.

But none of this means that Chamorro nationalism is not an effective "discourse" or "spirit" for societal change. All this shift means is that Chamorro nationalism or Chamorro nationalists, just get a seat at the table of public interests in the governance of today's Guam. Senators can't through Howard Hemsing out of their office, no matter how much they might want to. The Governors staff cannot rebuke me or yell names at me, no matter how much they might want to.
Politically, the Chamorro national spirit is thus marginalized, concentrated in a handful of activists. Just to clarify this point. All Chamorros are tied to a Chamorro national spirit. But there are only a few who feel it as something they own, and not just something that they own as an artifact or an object, but something more, truly a spirit, often times a burden, an insurmountable task of decolonization. Those who feel this spiritual ownership are the ones who are called "activists" because they see it as something that has to be built, created, sustained, made possible in this world. This feeling of active ownership over their lives and the world around them, this feeling of destiny, makes their ties to this national consciousness a political one, because although it can involve any numbers of struggles or points of interest, somewhere near the center of it is a political commitment to Chamorros, strong opinions or beliefs about their governance, organization and their future.

The majority of Chamorros feel less explicit in their link to this consciousness, and as I said earlier feel it primarily in relation to "pride in Guam" and cultural consumption or representation.

5) Explain some important reasons, in your opinion, for the necessity of Chamorus in the building and maintenance of a Chamoru National Consciousness or Identity on Guam.

The "cultural" feeling of Chamorro national consciousness is something which is both excited and from the perspective of decolonization very dangerous and frustrating. First of all, it represents a significant shift in the way Chamorros see themselves in the world and in their historical trajectory. In contrast to generations of Chamorros in the 20th century who would echo the statements of historians and anthropologists that Chamorros "have no culture" or "don't exist," Chamorros of today finally feel and sometimes very passionately that they are a people who have a culture, have something to offer human history or the world.

But on the other end, this cultural excitement and energy, makes it possible so that Chamorros can ignore their colonial status and feel that they are full, equal, sovereign respected members of the American family, as their culture gives them a shot at membership in the emerge discourse of American multiculturalism. In political terms, multi-culturalism in a colonial space, operates as further sort of wall preventing decolonization or recognition of one's colonial status. The energy of the colonized is thus focused and channelled into their "culture" and the "political" aspects of their lives should be left to the United States and its example to decide.

For decolonization activists or for people committed to the enhancement of a Chamorro national consciousness, this is the key struggle that they will be dealing with, the main battleground for the future of this consciousness and whether it becomes transformative or becomes benign and useless. Can the new ownership that Chamorros feel over their culture, their new willingness to buy t-shirts that have Chamorro words on them, to get tattoos with latte or fishhooks, or even their willingness to put their kids in dance groups, can all of this be transformed into a broader willingness for societal and political improvement? An new feeling of ownership over the lives of Chamorros? The rights of Chamorros? The destiny of Chamorros?

Part of this problem is of course, getting over the powerful assumptions that Chamorros feel about the necessary "apoliticalness" of themselves and their culture. Chamorro perceptions of themselves, like all colonized people, not engaged in an aggressive decolonial struggle always are very negative. Icky stereotypes of Government of Guam laziness and Chamorro corruption are just as much a part of the lives of Chamorros and non-Chamorros. Chamorros see themselves as a people not capable of doing anything, take care of themselves or their island, and their culture as something which is all about "partying" and "having fun" or "island-living." In the minds of most Chamorros, their culture has to be kept as far away from the governance of Guam or their lives as possible or else insane things happen, or corruption, incompetence and the pare's of Governors run amok. When Chamorro culture becomes political, becomes about serious things, or about things that we've become accustomed to following the American way of doing things, it seems silly or impossible. When asked about a possibly independent Guam or about Chamorro philosophies or styles of government, Chamorros respond that a "Chamorro military would have to fight with slingstones and spears" or that a Chamorro government would mean "barbequing everyday."

The fishing rights bill, which was recently vetoed by the Governor is an excellent example of this. The possibility for Chamorro activists to start going beyond the rhetoric of "all indigenous people have ingrained in their DNA how to preserve their natural resources better than any modern person" and also push against the logic of most people on Guam that "brown people don't know anything about preserving their own resources, you have to rely on white people who come to the islands because of great diving to solve those problems." This was a perfect example where Chamorro studies is needed in Guam, to fill in this gap between these two sides, which I can truthfully say as someone who was lobbied by both the Nasion Chamoru and the Coastal Management Agency to "join" their sides, is much needed. Both sides, were so assured of their pre-existing position that neither had any room to even think about their positions. Both sides had merits, but the position that Camacho arrived at, that this shouldn't happen because "it will jeopardize Federal funding for Guam" is just about the worst way to make decisions on Guam. A Chamorro studies program and scholars would be crucial in helping overcome this sort of automatic resistance on both sides, the first amongst activists to even elaborate upon the passions they feel, so that those who may not know or have the same experience or consciousness can also join the conversation, the second amongst those who feel that Chamorros have nothing to offer, or that it is a bankrupt or useless culture and that nothing from that history can provide anything which could be relevant for the governing of Guam and its resources (especially not when matched up against the obvious "greatest" nation ever, the United States). But the fact that this decision ultimately comes down to the possible loss of Federal funding, brings us back to colonialism!

And as for the issue of a Chamorro National Consciousness, it is crucially important today, because whether or not it becomes hegemonic, or becomes something that the majority of Chamorros feel an explicit or committed ownership over, will decide whether or not the island is decolonized. The colonial status of the island will continue, so long as this consciousness is nascent or marginal.

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