Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Act of Decolonization #16: Guam or Guahan?

The day that Governor Felix Camacho first announced that he was planning to change Guam’s official name from Guam to Guahan, I actually had no idea it was happening. The day of his last state of the island address, I had five classes to teach, office hours to hold and then was working with Anne Perez Hattori (a fellow Guam history teacher at UOG) to organize a huge meeting of “cultural practitioners” to write a joint statement/DEIS comment about the dangers the military buildup will pose to the indigenous people of Guam, the Chamorros.

In the middle of the meeting, as we were going line by line over the statement which Anne and I had written, I got a call from Mar-Vic Cagurangan, the editor for the Marianas Variety. She was calling to get my comments on the proposal to change Guam’s name and also my insights as a historian about whether what Camacho was saying and proposing was true or not.

It was difficult to provide any decent comments since I didn’t quite know what was going on, but I did my best. I also wasn’t prepared for giving a history lesson on Guam’s many names, so I wasn’t as precise as I wanted to be in that regard either. I almost cringed when I saw my words in the newspaper the next day.

Over the past few weeks, the changing of Guam’s name has been a regular topic of conversation, something to inspire people, to enlighten people, to be another way of talking about colonization and decolonization, but its also been a source of derision, a joke, another fact to show how ridiculous activist types are on Guam, and how “out to lunch” or “off-island” Camacho is yet again. I should point out before continuing that I am for changing Guam’s name to Guahan. I think it is an important step in the maturity of any colony or former colony that it go through a process of renaming and reclaiming meaning or territory, and so this is just another part of that.

It is for this reason that one of the regular points of conversation in this debate has been so frustrating for me, especially as a Guam historian.

For those who want to counter this name-change or speak out against it, the most common talking point you can access is the one that states that “how do we know that Guahan is the original name?” or “can we ever really even know what Guam was originally called to rename it?”

These seem like very important and very real points, but in truth they are not.
Two points to be made here. First, Guahan is one of many names that Guam has been assigned over the years. When we look at maps that were distributed in Europe from the 16th – 19th century, we can see more than a dozen different names being used for Guam. San Juan, Boam, Baham, Goam and so on. Within this list we can find both Guam and Guahan. Contrary to what a lot of activists are saying about this name change, Guam was not a named “imposed” on Guahan by the US when they arrived in 1898. Guam was one of the most prominent names for the island and so they simply formalized it, although for a while Ladrones was also popular.

As Marjorie Driver noted in her Pacific News Center interview, about her book on the many names of Guam, the earliest recorded name of Guam was “Baham” with “Guahan” coming a few years later. In her interview, she reiterates the “never know the truth” trope, and this is the sort of soft gravitas point which media tend to seize on. (it allows you to play the both sides angle but some things up in a "we may never know" sort of way).

The basis of this argument is that since we can never really know Guam’s true name, then it should never be changed. This is a very common argument on Guam for almost all things Chamorro. That if people can’t agree as a community that something is the original or authentic form, then don’t call it Chamorro. This was the initial response that those who started the new forms of traditional Chamorro dance in the 1980’s and 1990’s were met with. That because the Spanish prohibited all the original Chamorro dances, and we lost that connection to that tradition, Chamorros can never again claim to have their “own” dances. They instead will forever be doomed to only copy or borrow other peoples who were fortunate enough to not be oppressively colonized.

In both of these cases, the argument is puru take’ toru, or all bullshit. Because in the minds of nearly all people “authenticity” is the basis for life, this is supposed to make sense, but if we just think about it for a moment, gumof chatklaru. Life is all about the search for fullness, essentialness, completeness and that clarity of something which is truly authentic, but as we should all know, none of it exists anywhere, especially when we are talking about culture and history.

If we take this argument to its logical conclusion we see un gof matahlek na version of the axiom that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Except in this version, those who are judged to have lost control over their past, are not allowed to have a future. If something was taken away from you long ago, you can never claim to have it again. If you lost part of your culture long ago you can never have it again in any form, you just have to accept that and move on.

It is for this reason that in my Guam History classes, I do my best to get rid of this mindset in the minds of my students. That the point of taking and learning history is not to learn about the "way things really were" so we can ensure that when we act today, we do so in the proper, authentic way.
This is the ultimate position of indigenous powerlessness, the ultimate way in which the anthropological gaze, without any tangible interference from an actual anthropologist, still permeates the minds of people in the Pacific. How some abstract ideas about limits or rules of a culture end up drastically affecting the concrete and lived ways that people such as Chamorros imagine themselves. History and life are like rivers, which means things mix, flow, change, and although things may always be moving, there is no set path to how they move. The one thing that we can be clear about, is that contrary to how we may imagine the ideal or perfect way that a culture should exist, changeless or timeless, cultures and life are not meant to be that way. They are meant to change and do constantly.

So, is the argument that we should not rename Guam Guahan sound because we don’t know what Guam is “really” supposed to be called? No, even if we accept the idea that Guam’s name should be changed to what it was originally called, does that mean that we need to go back 4,000 years ago to see what it was called when the first Chamorros arrived here? Or is it okay to accept what they called Guam 500 years ago? 1,000 years ago? 2,000? 3,000? Its most likely changed quite a bit, so which point is the truth? The one that we can rely on to be real and be authentic enough to rename the island after?

But this is precisely why, renaming the island can be considered an act of decolonization.

It’s important to note that when I say “act of decolonization” I mean it differently than most. For most people, they understand decolonization to mean either a ridding the colonies of the colonizer or a ridding of the colonies of the influence or culture of the colonizer. In the first instance, it’s primarily a physical expulsion, you get rid of settler, soldiers, government officials. In the second sense, it’s all about the technology or cultural forms they brought in. Both of these are part of decolonization, and although they may seem so significant, they can actually be a small part of the process.

According to these logics, decolonization is therefore about finding out the way things were before the colonizer came and returning to those moments, giving them the sovereignty that was stripped from them, returning to the wonderful balance that existed before “things fall apart” with the introduction of modernity or the colonizer. These are some beautiful and inspiring sentiments, but make those who crave decolonization in these ways, very susceptible to the problems I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It leaves you too open to determine yourself and what you can do as a “decolonized entity” or “entities” on the basis of what is and isn’t authentically yours to embody or possess. It’s no wonder then that if you talk to almost anyone on Guam about the prospect of decolonization, and regardless of whether they view it positively or negatively, both will tend to view it as something through these unrealistic and laughable lenses. For some it means going back to the days before the colonizer and living in that simplicity and harmony. For others it means going back to the days before the colonizer brought in so many things to Guam that we now depend on for life, and so decolonization means giving up internet, education, capitalism, indoor plumbing and reality TV shows.

After doing research on these phenomena for years, I am still shocked to see so many normally intelligent and articulate people, turn into caricatures when the prospect of decolonization is mentioned. Someone who appears so serious one moment, will turn into a moron who is afraid of decolonization since it would mean that we would have to go back to wearing loincloths. The point that I want to draw out from the previous sentence is italicized, and that the problem with this thinking is not whether or not loincloths will be worn, but the idea that they will have to be worn as a result of decolonization, as if there is this laid out process which defines already what will stay, what will go, and what will happen. So, if Guam does become decolonized, all the influences which brought clothes to Guam from the Spanish to the US will be gone and so all we would have left is our naked decolonized bodies. We don’t have any say in the manner, since we wanted to decolonize and get rid of all that “influence.” (all of this of course is made perfectly, ironically clear by the fact that ancient Chamorro men did not wear loincloths and so all the fear of loincloths perfectly exemplifies how that loathing and dread is tied to someone else’s rules or imagination)

It’s here that I should point out that decolonization is freedom, but not in the sense in which we tend to think of it. Decolonization is not freedom in a some simple, untainted free native sense, as if by decolonizing we can achieve the mythical harmony of the pre-contact days. I mean instead freedom in the sense that Slavoj Zizek uses it, to refer to a painful disruption, which cuts across the present moment threatening to rend and reform the fabric of a community.

So returning to the previous point about the loincloth, decolonization is not a prescription for what to do with the loincloth. It is not a demand to bring the loincloth (or another “ancient” form into the present), nor is it a demand that it be thrown away as anachronistic. Decolonization is instead meant to be a freeing of the moment, an airing of it out and a making of a choice such as this, open. It is at its core a freeing up of the possibility of the colonized. It is about not seeing themselves chained to someone else’s history, story or rules for their being. It is not about being imprisoned either by some fantasy of the pre-colonial harmony of their people. It is instead just a moment where both of those basic frameworks for seeing their being, hold less sway, where the way forward as they act is not as clear, but is something which in fact they have some power over.

It is for this reason, that although I haven’t written about it much lately, I used to refer to decolonization on this blog as future fighting, as those moments where you challenge the abstract, embedded laws for how you are supposed to proceed, and attempt to forge your own path.

It is the same in the case of renaming Guam Guahan. These is not certainty as to whether or not this change is the “right” one, or the “authentic” one. There is also that impulse that these sorts of acts mean nothing, because they only cost money, inconvenience people, and actually challenge/complicate the Americaness of the island, which is always dangerous for those who happily leave and breathe colonialism in Guam and see no other way to exist except as an appendage of the US.

As people grasp for some sort of guarantee of what this will do, what this will mean, there frankly are none. It could be a fantastic move which inspires and drives a new epoch of Guam’s history, hopefully one towards sustainability and less dependency on its colonizer. It could end up ruining Guam’s image around the world by pissing off map makers, who in their rage at having to change Guam’s name on all their maps, just decide to either leave the island off the map, or rename it “Bob Bougher Island.” Or it could end up meaning very little, nothing could actually change and this is just a symbolic move by Felix Camacho to try and build some sort of legacy for himself.

As in any colony, the world is supposed to be set up in such a way that the meaning and the messages all point to whatever the colonizer has “built,” “brought” or is associated with should not be touched and never be messed with. Whatever the things are that the colonizer uses to recognize you, the things which make up his vision of you and give you life within his gaze should not be tampered with. It is for that reason that so many people who are “obviously” oppressed or being manfa’ga’ga’ga’ still cling to their forms of oppression. They see their subordination as intertwined and wrapped into whatever makes their lives stable, possible, tungo’on kontiempo. Should you dare to shed these trappings, who knows what would happen?

But this is one of the most fundamental choices as one seeks to decolonize, is to take that risk of interfering and resisting that very gaze. Of being willing to take on the uncertainty of changing your symbolic network, the very meanings and orders of your life. And by doing so, you do feel that searing risk that you might no longer exist, that you might become invisible and mean less in the world than you do know (i.e. the fear that so many have of moving from second to third world/class citizenship), but at the same time it means seizing the chance to define and determine yourself anew. To try to challenge those ideas which pin you down, which ingrain you with a sense of powerlessness and make you feel like you need to be under the control of another in order to live a good, stable, prosperous life.

But as with anything, decolonization is not a magic spell, it is not even really a solution in and of itself, it is a chance, a moment from which you can build on. So the change of name from Guam to Guahan, as many have said, it can be a start of something important, a movement towards developing that spirit of Guam as being a place of protecting and maintaining what “we have.” A step in a longer journey, or it could be nothing. A symbolic nothing, the first step of a stairs which mockingly leads to nowhere. I fine’nina yan I uttimo na pekkat gi un gua’ot asta tåya’.



Nice Blog, Michael
Greetings for all Guamese friends...
From Argentina, Aro Geraldes
International football journalism
I wait your visit and your messages

玉鳳 said...

We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull, Some have weird names , and all are different colors, but they all have to live in the same box.............................................

The Saipan Blogger said...

I prefer:

Island of Danger and Awesomeness.

That way, when people ask you where you are from you can honestly say, I'm from the Island of Danger and Awesomeness.


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