Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pieces of a Map of Violence

As part of my "detour of Hawai'i," earlier today I had the chance to speak to a group of Waianae High School students who are participating in a summer environmental justice program sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. As part of this program, they are traveling all around Oahu, looking at different sites of development, militarization and what sort of historical and contemporary problems that these sites have or are causing. They are also visiting sites where people whether through reclamation, reforestation, the propagation of native plant species or the practicing of sustainable agricultural programs, are also working towards solutions in making the island a more sustainable and more naturally balanced place.

Even before meeting the students, I was already excited, because of what sorts of potential lessons I could learn from the program itself, and how something similar could be organized for Guam youth.

I was asked to speak to them to discuss the environmental challenges that Guam is facing today, especially with regards to the military presence there and the military buildups that are looming on the horizon. I decided to frame my short talk through the metaphor of "maps." Sasha Davis, a former professor at the University of Vermont, who conducted research on Guam several years back, and according to rumor is a sometimes reader of this blog, was brought in to work with the students in developing community maps as their final projects. The same day that I spoke, a Tongan orator and scholar Emil Wolfgram had spoken to the students about the landscape of Oahu, and seeing the hidden clues, or the trace elements of older ways in which the island was mapped. The stories that gave the landscape meaning, that gave it a Pacific and a Hawaiian cartography, and one which is always constantly in the process of being paved over, bulldozed to make way for military training exercises or being commodified to enhance the tourist exotic flavor of the island.

With this sort of thinking already in the students' minds, I decided to talk to them about another way of considering maps of Hawai'i or Oahu.

The military is always obsessed about maps, it produces so many of them, it can eventually cause problems, because if shows the nature of their thinking, their crass desires, their cravings for property for conquest. It can always argue that their maps are "pre-decisional" or just exploratory, but the plethora of maps that the military is always using or creating nonetheless show the complex way in which they seek to not just dominate of control parts of the world they inhabit, but also a desire to control the representation of that world. To find a way to capture it in easily consumed and digested details, figures and shapes, lines and scales on a map.

In heavily militarized places like Guam or Oahu, the military is one of the key figures in determining the representing of land. They control vast pieces of land on these islands, and the maps that they use, that they imagine are often the ones which have the most power. And this map is given power or strength, it feels natural or it feels right based on the value that the military pumps into it, the arguments they make, not just about what is or isn't theirs, but what their presence does. What its relationship is to the land, to people, to security, to economy. The military and its view of the world is so dominant, because people outside of the fences or outside of the service tend to accept the things that military says about itself in the world, they tend to accept (to continue the metaphor) the key to their map.

On Guam we all know this key by heart, and if you ever forget it, you need only scan through a random issue of the Pacific Daily News or simply talk to someone in your family to be reminded. In other posts I refer to these ideas as colonizing fictions, and part of the mythology that props up American power and greatness in Guam. More military means more money, more jobs, a better economy. The military is a great steward of the environment. More military means more safety and security.

If you believe these fictions, if you accept them, then the map that the military proposes isn't just a good one, but starts to feel like a necessary one, as if everything would crumble and turn to dust unless we are all defined by their interests. The map of the military seeks to push out or erase all others. In the case of Oahu, on the military map of the island, you'll see no meaningful place for concepts such as Native Hawaiian sovereignty, ceded lands, the 1893 overthrow. These are all crucial things which have been essential in making the heavily militarized Hawai'i of today, primarily through their being forgotten or pretended to not mean anything except as noise from crazy brown people.

I didn't go into this much detail in my talk, but after making this point, I reminded the students there that through this program, by visiting all of these sites of military contamination and expansion, they were being given pieces of Oahu's most important map, the map which the military works so hard to keep hidden, or pretend doesn't exist. They were gathering together pieces of the map of the violence against the land of Oahu, the way it has been damaged by the heavy military presence, the way it will continue to be damaged.

I told them all that they held a great responsibility by being given this chance to see their island from a completely different perspective. They were being handed the truths to the colonizing fictions and it was up to them to assert the map of violence that they were learning about. More military can wreck an economy and polarize it, drive up the cost of living, making housing less affordable for those not in the military. The military works very hard to appear to be an environmental steward, while generally creating some of the worst toxic and hazardous waste sites you can imagine. The military creates a facade of nicely cut lawns and nicely painted houses, while the reality of military bases are savage environmental damage and high disease rates that often effect even the civilian communities outside of the gates and fences.

The students appeared to be interested and paying attention, and so I was very glad I got to speak to them. I hope to hear more about their projects and I really hope to establish a similar sort of program on Guam, as its such an important way of mentoring and preparing the next generation of activists.

When the students were asked if they had any questions after I was finished, there was only one. A female student asked how she would say "I Love You" or "What's Your Number?" in Chamorro. After the whole class laughed, I referred to my "I Love You in Chamorro" page on this blog.

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