My previous trips to Okinawa revolved around demilitarism and decolonization in a political sense. This trip, because of my participation in the Island Language Revitalization Symposium at Ryukyu University was focused on decolonization with regards to the language in Okinawa. As people have asked me about my trip to Okinawa and what it was like I have developed a sort of easy to use, easy to understand narrative that I rely upon.
Most think of Okinawa and Guam as places that are linked only through the presence of US military bases. Chamorros from Guam know Okinawa primarily through the imaginary of the military, as a place where they once lived, trained or heard stories of how the people there protest the US military. I want to challenge those limited ideas and show that there are more potential connections beyond that, more chances for solidarity. I want to help people see Okinawa from Guam not through the lens that you get by serving in the military, or getting your identity from the military or feeling like you come from an island that needs the US military in order to survive. I want to help people see beyond that.
One of the things that connects Okinawans and Chamorros is that both of them underwent attacks on their language and culture in the past century due to colonization by either the Japanese or the Americans. As a result their languages have been in decline ever sense and either may become extinct in a few generations.
For my talks and presentations during this trip I focused heavily on decolonization in terms of language. The revitalization of our languages is a very important way of dealing with colonial legacies and empowering ourselves again. Note I said revitalizing of our languages, not preserving or promoting of our languages. The difference here can mean universes in terms of what you are actually attempting to do and how hard you are willing to work in order to “save the language.”
Promoting the language is easiest and amounts to very little in terms of decolonization. Promoting something requires little to no knowledge of it. You can promote the language by wearing a t-shirt, getting a tattoo or just knowing a few words and saying them with pride. You can promote the language by saying “Hu guaiya fumino’ Chamoru!” but you can also promote the language by saying it in English “I love to speak Chamoru!”
Promoting the language has almost nothing to do with the language itself. Promoting the language is attending to the social aura that surrounds people. It is about creating positive perceptions of the language. It is about pushing people to say nice things about it. It is about reshaping and remaking it so that you can distribute it easily and in small bites to tourists and other visitors. If Guam was a place where people were still being punished or condemned for using Chamorro then we would need more promotion. But since surveys show that close to everyone says the Chamorro language is impottante yan gefpago this is not the front where we need more efforts. Promoting the language is only decolonization in certain contexts. Promoting the Chamorro language 50 years ago would be considered decolonization since the social context was still very “English ha’ yan Mungga mafino’ Chamoruyi i Famagu’on-mu.” But today it accomplishes little.
Preserving the language moves this a bit further, but still falls short of decolonization. In previous generations on Guam this was the only way in which Chamorros spoke of their language in terms of its future existence or its value. It was assumed since World War II that the language would die and so it must be preserved, collected and written down before it disappears. This drive to preserve was something that is stimulated by an anthropological or outside perspective.
It assumes that a people are detached and divorced from their culture. They that no longer speak their language, no longer practice their culture. It assumes a decay and a endangerment, and a leaking of life. This is related to the ways that an outside culture may see an indigenous people. They may see themselves as adapting and changing, but they will assume the indigenous person to be stuck and stagnant and any change is a mark of their demise. They are not the pure and authentic people they once were, now they are losing their culture and it must be preserved before it is lost. They are becoming too much like us and so we should preserve who they were.
This drive to preserve comes from the way the Chamorro or the native person comes to occupy the position of the fabled anthropologist. In times past anthropologists traveled the world collecting the knowledge and language of people, as a testament to their superiority over said native peoples. They traveled there to save what the native peoples were allowing to be lost. In doing so, they assumed a disconnect between the natives and their heritage and assert their own authority over it, since the native peoples themselves, who are always on the verge of disappearing, certainly can’t preserve it themselves. The idea that the language or culture should be preserved or recorded for posterity, was another way of arguing the supremacy of a particularity in the form of a universal.
This is part of the overall problem with the way Chamorros and many other indigenous people understand themselves today. We should not be striving to preserve our language and culture. We should be striving to live our culture and speak our language.
Preservation can be important, especially if there are parts of the language or parts of the culture that may soon become lost, but it should never be an end in and of itself. We should not be protecting our language and culture in order to prepare it for the museum, or get it ready for some 22nd century Indiana Jones to stumble upon.
One of the most nefarious aspects of the discourse on preservation is that the task easily becomes disassociated from everyone in general. For people who feel disconnected from their culture, the impulse to preserve is something very convenient. It requires you to do close to nothing. You don’t know the language, you feel like you barely practice the culture, so the task couldn’t and shouldn’t fall to you. It must be accomplished by others. The government, the university, activists, they should be the ones to do it, while you cheer from the sidelines. Preservation is a discourse that keeps your detached from the object to be preserved. It does not transform your relationship to it, but instead reifies its dispossession. It does not belong to you, but now belongs to the museum, to history, to the world. Lofty sort of ideas, but ones that doesn’t help to keep cultures and languages in healthy states.
The final form, and the one that is most intimately tied to any conception of decolonization is revitalization. Revitalization is the process of bringing something back to a healthy state. It is built upon the assumption that the language should be spoken and that certain cultural forms should be practiced. It does not mean that you write down all the words of the Chamorro language or that you mandate that everyone on island get a Chamorro word tattooed on them. It simply means that you start to use the language again and make it an integral part of Chamorro and Guam life again.
This is decolonization precisely because it represents an end to the ghostly, always evaporating existence for the indigenous person. As part of colonization there is always a pressure to give up whatever is yours. The more effective the colonization the more people will feel that they have to give up things they consider theirs and take on more of the things they consider to belong to others. I should note that this issue of iyon-mami and iyon-ñiha doesn’t really stand to scrutiny. It doesn’t really make sense. But this is what I studied when I wrote my Masters Thesis in Ethnic Studies. The way that colonization creates certain ideas, beliefs or identities that don’t make any sense, that shouldn’t be accepted as serious by any thinking person, and should be filtered out if only reflected upon for a clear-headed moment. If Guam became an independent country, it is moronic to think that all of the things that have come to the island since the United States occupied it would somehow disappear. This is a clearly vapid idea, but one that many people take seriously as part of their everyday resistance to decolonization and the idea of sovereignty for Guam.
Colonization establishes a framework for positives and negatives. It is constantly challenged and the logic that it bleeds is sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected and sometimes transformed. But part of colonization is an attempt to push the colonized into a difference sense of time and being. You ban them from the present and cage them into the past, so that they will eternally echo previous eras and never feel appropriate in the present. You at the same time you prevent them from moving into the future and feeling that the things they feel are theirs have any universal value. You make them feel as if they constantly need to give up what they have or represent in order to exist and survive.
This is one of the reasons why the language can be so difficult to revitalize, even when Chamorro still has at least 40,000 speakers. Because even those who speak the language, feel comfortable using it with those who are their own age, but do not feel comfortable using it with those who are younger. They make up a Great Barrier Reefs-worth amount of excuses to not speak the language to their children and grand-children. This is because of that feeling that the language cannot be something to truly go on in time. It cannot be transferred back in time, to previous Chamorro generations, but it is something that can’t continue on in time. It exists to be spoken backwards in time, but never passed on forwards to subsequent generations.
Language revitalization is decolonization because it forces the language to exist in the present and that it be passed on. It creates a life for the language and place for it in the present. It no longer feels like just something old people use. Or something that you can only use for very limited and simple things. The language doesn’t only reflect and give meaning to who your people once were, it also becomes something that you feel you can take with you into the future. It may seem small at first, but once it becomes married with the sovereignty and identity of a people it can become bolder and more powerful.