Monday, February 15, 2010

The rich irony of changing Guam’s name to Guåhan

In his State of the Island address, Gov. Felix Camacho calls for returning Guam’s name to Guåhan.

The governor is right to seek this name change for the island. As he pointed out in his speech, Guam is the name set in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. It’s an artificial rebranding of the island and an exercise of colonial power.

But why is the governor making this recommendation now, at this particular point in Guam’s history?

The credit may belong to the people behind We Are Guåhan. It is a movement of many young and well educated residents passionately concerned about preserving the island’s cultural heritage and enriching it. They are questioning the very foundations of Guam’s direction and are unwilling to cede the island’s future to the military. There are nearly 2,000 people who have signed up as members of this group on Facebook and their numbers grow daily.

A cynic might suspect that the governor’s name change proposal is intended to diffuse or at least muddle one of We Are Guåhan’s most important assertions, that the build-up poses grave risks to island’s culture and identity. But Camacho may not be acting politically. He runs an island where one-out-of-four paychecks is government issued, either through the federal government or Guam’s government. Government spending is a pillar of the economy. In his speech, he argues: “Like many of you, I have raised my children here, and this is the place my grandchildren call home. We all want safer streets, an improved educational system, and a job market that allows our people to better support their families.” He doesn’t see economic alternatives for improving his children’s future but understands, nonetheless, the risk to his legacy and the island by backing the build-up, which he is attempting to mitigate by forcing the U.S. to extend the build-up timeline, improve its financial support and not dredge Apra Harbor. By recommending the island’s name change, the governor is arguing that the island can absorb the build-up as well as preserve its cultural identity. This is also known as the having your cake and eating it too argument.

In his speech, Camacho makes it clear that the build-up will have irrevocable impact.
“Life as we know it will be changed forever and we must ensure that we protect our environment, manage our limited resources, and preserve our culture.”
Later, in his remarks arguing for the island’s name change the governor says:
“As we quickly move in to this time of rapid growth and development that may forever change our island, our sense of identity, family, and place – it is important that we reaffirm our identity as a people.”
That’s a strong statement by the governor and a clear warning about what’s in store. The build-up “may forever change our island, our sense of identity, family and place ...” The governor is speaking from fact. Guam faces the risk of being gradually turned into a combination of island theme park and strip mall as a result of build-up, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (which I’ll show shortly) explains how.

The most enthusiastic supporters of Guam’s name change, ironically, will be the build-up supporters, including the U.S. government. (It would not surprise me if President Obama voices support for it during his visit next month.) Support for the name change will be, for build-up supporters, a means of demonstrating sensitivity to Guam’s cultural identity without having to make any concessions on the build-up. They may see support for Guåhan as a way to soften opposition.

But, conversely, build-up opponents might argue that if Guam is to change its name, Guåhan must also be a statement of the island’s future and its hopes, otherwise it’s a shallow rebranding and as artificial as the name Guam. The name change can’t be separated from the build-up, because the build-up undermines the culture, which is the very thing the name change seeks to reaffirm. The build-up's population increase will dilute the political power of the Chamorro population that may set it on a path that is less independent and increasingly deferential to U.S. wishes.

From the DEIS (Vol. 2, Chapt. 16):

Minoritization: Overall, the analysis indicates a sustained increase of approximately 33,500 people on Guam. Most of these people would have political rights as U.S. citizens. Therefore, their sustained presence could affect Chamorro culture in a number of ways, politically and culturally.
Firstly, a reduction in Chamorro voting power would impact certain political issues important to the Chamorro population. The incoming population would presumably be disinclined to vote for further moves away from the U.S., and this may affect the success or failure of future plebiscites involving Guam‘s political status. … Another goal of Chamorros has been political self determination, and for some Chamorros, total sovereignty.
While it is by no means certain that Guam residents would ever vote for full independence even if the military buildup does not take place, the addition of more non-Chamorro voters may make efforts at sovereignty less viable.
On a more purely cultural level, while the loss of the Chamorro language has been occurring for years on Guam, it may be accelerated with the military build-up.
Guam‘s integration into the larger English-speaking American society has been correlated with a loss of the use of Chamorro language in everyday life. A survey of Chamorro residents (Santos and Salas 2005) Guam and CNMI Military Relocation Draft EIS/OEIS (November 2009) found that 90% said the language was a source of pride, and students are learning to read and write the language with more comprehension than most of their elders. However, younger people are much less able to speak and comprehend the spoken language than their elders. Younger people speak the language primarily just with older relatives, not among their peers.
This loss of language skills is a common occurrence where a more dominant culture influences a minority culture.
In a recently published book by Martin Jacques When China Rules the World there is an excerpt from an interview with Hung Tze, a Taiwanese publisher, who addresses the importance of language:

Language is essential to form an idea – as long as you keep your unique language, you keep your way of creating ideas, your way of thinking. The traditions are kept in the language.
On the importance, beauty and wisdom of the language on Guam, I have gleaned many insights from the wonderful writing of Michael Lujan Bevacqua.

There are some 4,000 years of history in the Chamorro culture and broader question for the U.S. government is just what strategic ends are being served by the build-up.

The governor, in his speech, points out that Guåhan means, ‘We have’ – and we have the right to do so.” The context Camacho gives the name is one of strength, of assertion and bold activism, which is the right message to send in the face of the U.S. government's plans. Even though the Guam government appears to support the broad goal of the build-up, I can't help but wonder whether the governor's name change proposal is a sign, a signal of some doubt about it. It opens a new artery in the build-up debate to ask indirectly but nonetheless for the meaning of Guåhan and “We have” at a time when there appears much at risk.

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