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Guåhan and the CHamoru People

A sepia-toned photograph of Humåtak Bay and Village in Guåhan. The photo shows water surrounded by hills and palm trees and the town.

Humåtak Bay and Village, Guåhan. June 21, 1945. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Once in a while, the U.S. territory of Guåhan (Guam) appears in mainstream media such as The New York Times, generally when catastrophic or near-catastrophic events involve the island—most recently as Typhoon Mawar and its ­­­­­140 mile-per-hour winds passed directly over the island in May 2023. However, though news reporters came for the storm, their articles critically focused on the U.S. military presence on the island instead.[1] Strikingly, they saw that most Americans, including themselves, did not know about this far-flung unincorporated territory of Guåhan and its Indigenous CHamoru people.[2]

Approximately 200 square miles, Guåhan is the southernmost island of the Marianas archipelago that spans north to south along the 144ºE longitude line in the Western Pacific Ocean. The island’s diverse population is roughly 160,000 people, with the Indigenous CHamoru population accounting for about a third of the island’s residents, while the majority of the others have heritage from the Philippines and other Pacific Islands. As the proverbial “tip of the spear” of U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific region, Guåhan contains several military installations for the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army. Currently, construction and infrastructure work has ramped up in order to relocate and house several thousand Marines and their dependents from U.S. military installations in Japan back into “American territory” in Guåhan.[3]

Thus, as U.S. historians, if we are to study and teach the history of global American power, the history of Guåhan from the perspective of CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars is essential. Grand narratives of an American republican democracy sit uneasily when one does not have representation in Congress, cannot vote for President, and sees disparities of opportunity and wealth when compared to stateside American citizens.[4] Furthermore, as the continued U.S. militarization of Guåhan is prioritized over the welfare of local residents, the irony of freedom and democracy becomes ever more apparent. The historiography of the island has seen a transition in recent decades. Whereas earlier works were geared toward the shortcomings of U.S. benevolent empire as seen in historical lapses in integration, citizenship, and assimilation, the more recent historiography falls into a decidedly critical and activist vein, skeptical of American presence and exposing the harm that U.S. presence has had on land, environment, and CHamoru life and culture in Guåhan. In particular, CHamoru and other Guåhan-based scholars—including myself—provide a unique vantage point from which to study U.S. imperial history, guided by our personal experiences living and working in a U.S. colony.[5] We refute the relegation of Guåhan to a “footnote” of history and show how the relationships between the Indigenous CHamorus and the U.S. military, other migrants, and the environment provides all of us critical perspectives on U.S. imperialism and how colonial subjects have negotiated and resisted colonial impositions.[6] For us, history does not exist just for the ivory tower; we show how the politics of writing history is inextricable from the moments and movements that shaped us.

First of all, histories of Guåhan require a keen understanding of the CHamoru’s indigenous relationship to the Marianas archipelago. The CHamoru people trace their origins to Puntan and Fu’una, a pair of siblings whose bodies created the earth and the universe and gave rise to the CHamoru people.[7] These ancestors’ bodies gave rise to Guåhan. The Marianas archipelago, of which Guåhan is a part, is home to the Indigenous CHamoru and Refaluwash people who first inhabited the islands 4,000 years ago. In 1565, Ferdinand Magellan encountered Guåhan while lost in the Pacific Ocean, and claimed the island for Spain. Spain colonized the Marianas for over 300 years until the Treaty of Paris in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Guåhan became a U.S. colony.

Guåhan’s twentieth- and twenty-first century history demonstrates the multitude of ways that U.S. imperialism, militarism, and state-building intersects and impacts Indigenous Pacific Islanders every day. No matter the historiographical generation, CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars have agreed that U.S. military strategy has come to define the island’s colonial administration: it was a coaling station in 1898, a pivotal island in the U.S. island-hopping strategy during World War II, a launchpad for airplanes departing for Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and now serves as the most forward base of U.S. military strategy against China in the Asia-Pacific region. Due to Guåhan’s military “necessity” to the United States, many scholars agree that the lives and futures of the Indigenous CHamoru people and island residents have been largely in the hands of military and federal officials in Washington, D.C. and a pawn in the frontlines of war.[8]

CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars have complicated the one-sided narrative of an American benevolent empire, emphasizing CHamoru agency in their interactions with the U.S. Navy. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy directly governed Guåhan—a prime example of how the U.S. military can act as a colonial bureaucracy. During that time, the President of the United States appointed a Naval captain every one to three years to oversee the island’s population, instituting political and social regulations while building military and civilian infrastructure upon preexisting Spanish colonial establishments. As shown in Robert Underwood’s work “American Education and the Acculturation of the Chamorros of Guam,” the Navy had limited success in Americanizing the CHamoru people through an American education system and by instituting anti-CHamoru laws such as banning the CHamoru language and religious holidays.[9] Yet, CHamorus continued to speak CHamoru and practice their culture. They also extended their historical agency by leading political movements and resisting other colonial policies. Penelope Bordallo Hofschneider, for example, examines how CHamoru leaders used their legal acumen to advocate for political rights vis-à-vis a colonial government. In their respective books, Anne Hattori and Christine Taitano DeLisle show how U.S. Naval officials and their wives taught CHamoru people Western medical practices and attempted to snuff out CHamoru healing traditions. Others, such as Elyssa Santos and James Viernes, illuminate how CHamorus enacted everyday forms of resistance against Naval regulations on farms and in military exercises.[10]

Historically, World War II was a watershed moment for Guåhan and the CHamoru people. The United States had surrendered its colony quickly to Japanese forces, evacuating its military personnel days before the Japanese military attacked the island on December 8, 1941. Guåhan then fell swiftly into a brutal 32 months of Japanese occupation.[11] After its recapture in 1944, the island became a crucial hub for the U.S. military island-hopping strategy, transforming from a sleepy coaling station into a bastion of U.S. military presence in the Pacific. Military installations pervaded the island as the United States built new infrastructure, marking a new age of American modernization in Guåhan. Meanwhile, arguing that their loyalty during World War II proved their Americanness, CHamorus vied for U.S. citizenship in the late 1940s, believing that citizenship would afford them political rights and a voice in their island’s affairs. In 1950, President Truman signed the Organic Act of Guam, which provided U.S. citizenship to CHamorus and transferred the colonial administration of Guåhan from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Department of the Interior.[12] A civilian government was established and CHamorus found some semblance of democracy with the ability to create and enforce laws for their island.

Early histories of Guåhan published in the decades after World War II, such as Paul Carano and Pedro Sanchez’s A History of Guam, skewed positively toward the U.S. presence in Guåhan. White and CHamoru historians alike saw American empire as a better alternative to the traumatic experience of Japanese occupation, and viewed U.S.-driven modernization and the establishment of American citizenship as positive developments.[13] Yet, scholars such as Anne Hattori, Alfred Peredo Flores, and myself have complicated these earlier evaluations of U.S. presence by showing that U.S. citizenship did not actually provide CHamorus the voice they had hoped for in their island’s affairs—a twist to American historians’ assumptions that U.S. citizenship is unequivocally and always a good thing. Wartime land annexation and postwar militarization led to the dispossession of CHamoru ancestral and family lands and subsequent mandatory relocations. Having limited access to land for subsistence, CHamorus were forced to rely on a newly minted cash economy controlled predominantly by the U.S. military.[14] The military also imported thousands of workers from the Philippines for infrastructural projects, some of whom stayed and established a substantial immigrant population that grew to challenge CHamoru population numbers by the 1970s.[15] Thus, U.S. militarism made settler colonialism a permanent state of existence on the island.

CHamoru discontent with U.S. colonialism brewed in the 1970s into political movements that used the Charter of the United Nations to push for a self-determination plebiscite. According to the UN, Guåhan residents should be able to decide—in a plebiscite that has yet to be scheduled—whether the island becomes an independent nation, a nation in free association with the United States, or more fully integrated into the United States as a state­­.[16] CHamoru activist groups such as the Organization of People for Indigenous Rights (OPI-R) critiqued the United States before a local, national, and international audience, demonstrating the connection between U.S. militarism and colonialism and arguing that indigenous people of Guåhan should decide the island’s future.[17] Significantly, CHamoru activists saw the power of historical narratives in shaping colonial policy and sought to rewrite history to emphasize CHamoru agency and viewpoints. For instance, in the 1990s, the Government of Guåhan and the Department of Education published the Hale’ta Series to be used in Guåhan’s public schools.[18] Featuring books subtitled with the phrase “From the Chamorro Perspective,” the series covered topics that included the self-determination movements such as the Guam Commonwealth Movement that, at the time, would neither make mainstream histories nor be taken seriously by stateside academics.

As a result, CHamoru scholar-activists from this era of protest not only undeniably shaped subsequent Indigenous CHamoru movements, but also planted the seed of a revisionist historiography that is rooted in a community-based, anti-colonial praxis of telling history. Many CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars today, including myself, come from this activist genealogy, using our access to intellectual circuits and opportunities to re-narrate the past and re-envision alternate presents and futures for Guåhan. We employ interdisciplinary methods from Ethnic Studies, Pacific Indigenous Studies, and Gender Studies to account for the multitude of ways that history is expressed on the island. We are deeply involved with Guåhan, participating in community organizations, recording oral histories, writing histories for general audiences, conveying history through literature, and creating amazing YouTube videos.[19] Most notably, the organization Independent Guåhan records podcasts, holds teach-ins, organizes rallies and protests, and participates in direct action to advocate for self-determination rooted in CHamoru history in Guåhan.[20] As scholar-activists, CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars show the power of historical narratives in shaping how we view ourselves and Guåhan’s relationship to world.

As of 2023, Guåhan has yet to vote for self-determination, demonstrating that the age of U.S. colonialism is alive and well. Yet we can listen, read, and incorporate CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars into our scholarship and classes on U.S. history to more fully grapple with the potent impact of U.S. imperialism­—and how CHamoru people continue to resist it.[21]

Kristin Oberiano is an assistant professor of history at Wesleyan University where she researches and teaches about U.S. imperialism. Kristin is a third-generation Filipino born and raised on Guåhan, and currently serves as a board member for Guåhan Sustainable Culture 501(c)(3), a non-profit organization dedicated to food sovereignty and environmental sustainability on Guåhan.


[1] Sarah A. Topol, “The America that Americans Forget,” New York Times, July 7, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/07/magazine/guam-american-military.html; Damien Cave, “Uneasy Coexistence on Guam: Military Buildup and an Indigenous Upwelling,” New York Times, April 12, 2023.

[2] Guåhan (pronounced Gwa-han, with long a’s) is the Indigenous CHamoru name for Guam. It means “we have,” connoting a sense of abundance in the island. CHamoru is the official spelling as dictated by the Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru (Chamorro Language commission). More about the commission can be found here: https://kumisionchamoru.guam.gov/.

[3] Julian Aguon, “No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies,” Boston Review, June 7, 2021, https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/no-country-for-eight-spot-butterflies/.

[4] On the ubiquitous presence of American imperialism on Guåhan, see Michael Lujan Bevacqua and Manuel Lujan Cruz, “The Banality of American Empire: The Curious Case of Guam, USA,” Journal of Transnational American Studies, 11 (Summer 2020), 127–49; and Michael Bevacqua, “Chamorros, Ghosts, Non-Voting Delegates: GUAM! Where the Production of America’s Sovereignty Begins” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 2010).

[5] This notes section is a starting point for historical inquiry into Guåhan history. In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the number of CHamoru scholars and Guåhan-based scholars in all academic fields, including but not limited to history, interdisciplinary studies, environmental sciences, and public health. Given the nature of the history of Guåhan, many of these works, no matter the field, contend with the same central tension of U.S. colonialism and its effects on the people of the island. The following notes provide an overview of Guåhan history in the context of U.S. colonialism, while highlighting some significant intellectual contributions of CHamoru and Guåhan-based scholars to narrating specific moments in the island’s history.

[6] In reference to “footnote,” see Tiara Na’Puti and Michael Lujan Bevacqua, “Militarization and Resistance from Guåhan: Protecting and Defending Pågat,” American Quarterly, 67 (Sept. 2015), 837–58.

[7] Anne Perez Hattori, “Folktale: Puntan and Fu’una: Gods of Creation,” Guampedia Inc., https://www.guampedia.com/puntan-and-fuuna-gods-of-creation/. Guampedia.com is a good resource for facts about Guåhan, created by the non-profit organization Guampedia Inc.

[8] On U.S. militarism and Guåhan, see Tiara R. Na’puti, “Archipelagic Rhetoric: Remapping the Marianas and Challenging Militarization from ‘A Stirring Place,’” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 16 (2019), 4–25; Michael Lujan Bevacqua, “The Exceptional Life and Death of a Chamorro Soldier: Tracing the Militarization of Desire in Guam, USA,” in Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific, eds. Setsu Shigematsu and Keith L. Camacho (2010), 33–62; Keith L. Camacho and Laurel A. Monnig, “Uncomfortable Fatigues: Chamorro Soldiers, Gendered Identities, and the Question of Decolonization in Guam,” in ibid., 147–80; Kristin Oberiano, “Territorial Discontent: Chamorros, Filipinos, and the Making of United States Empire on Guam” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2021); and Kenneth Gofigan Kuper, “Kontra I Peligru, Na’fansåfo’ Ham: The Production of Military (In)Security in Guåhan” (Ph.D. diss., University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2019).

[9] Robert Anacletus Underwood, “American Education and the Acculturation of the Chamorros of Guam” (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1987).

[10] On Naval-era political history, see Anne Perez Hattori, “Righting Civil Wrongs: The Guam Congress Walkout of 1949,” ISLA: Journal of Micronesian Studies, 3 (Rainy Season 1995), 1–27; Anne Perez Hattori, “Navy Blues: Naval Rule on Guam and the Rough Road to Assimilation, 1898–1940,” Pacific Asia Inquiry, 5 (Fall 2014), 13–30; and Penelope Bordallo Hofschneider, A Campaign for Political Rights on the Island of Guam, 1899–1950 (2001). On health practices, see Christine Taitano DeLisle, Placental Politics: CHamoru Women, White Womanhood, and Indigeneity under U.S. Colonialism in Guam (2021); Anne Perez Hattori, “‘The Cry of the Little People of Guam’: American Colonialism, Medical Philanthropy, and the Susana Hospital for Chamorro Women, 1898–1941,” Health and History, 8 (Jan. 2006), 4–26; and Anne Perez Hattori, Colonial Dis-Ease: U.S. Navy Health Policies and the Chamorros of Guam, 1898–1941 (2004). On everyday resistance, see Oberiano, “Territorial Discontent”; James Viernes, “Negotiating Manhood: Chamorro Masculinities and U.S. Military Colonialism in Guam, 1898-1941” (Ph.D. diss., University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2015); and Elyssa Santos, “‘Practicing Economy’: Chamorro Agency and U.S. Colonial Agricultural Projects, 1898–1941” (M.A. Thesis, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2018).

[11] Guåhan’s wartime experience is captured in community memory repeated yearly around Liberation Day in June, found in newspapers, traditional and social media, and exhibited by and for community in different forms including public history events and self-published books. On Guåhan’s World War II experience, see Tony Palomo, An Island in Agony (1984); Ben Blaz, Bisita Guam: Let Us Remember (Nihi Ta Hasso); Remembrances of the Occupation Years in World War II (2008); Vicente M. Diaz, “Deliberating ‘Liberation Day’: Identity, History, Memory, and War in Guam,” in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s), eds. T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama (2001), 155–80; Keith L. Camacho, Sacred Men: Law, Torture, and Retribution in Guam (2019); and Keith L. Camacho, Cultures of Commemoration: The Politics of War, Memory, and History in the Mariana Islands (2011).

[12] Hattori, “Righting Civil Wrongs.”

[13] Paul Carano and Pedro C. Sanchez, A Complete History of Guam (1964). In a similar vein, see Robert F. Rogers, Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam (1995).

[14] On post-WWII military build-up, see Alfred Peredo Flores, Tip of the Spear: Land, Labor, and U.S. Settler Militarism in Guåhan, 1944–1962 (2023); Anne Perez Hattori, “Guardians of Our Soil: Indigenous Responses to Post–World War II Military Land Appropriation on Guam,” in Farms, Firms, and Runways: Perspectives on U.S. Military Bases in the Western Pacific, ed. L. Eve Armetrout Ma (2001), 186–202; James Viernes, “Fanhasso I Taotao Sumay: Displacement, Dispossession, and Survival in Guam” (M.A. Thesis, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2008); and Kuper, “Kontra I Peligru Na’fansåfo’ Ham.”

[15] On CHamoru-Filipino relations, see Flores, Tip of the Spear; Keith L. Camacho, “Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, and the American Empire,” in The Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, eds. David K. Yoo and Eiichiro Azuma (2016), 13–29; Michael P. Perez, “Interethnic Antagonism in the Wake of Colonialism: U.S. Territorial Racial and Ethnic Relations at The Margins,” Ethnic Studies Review, 23 (2000), 1–32; Vicente Diaz, “Bye Bye Ms. American Pie: The Historical Relations between Chamorros and Filipinos and the American Dream,” ISLA: Journal of Micronesian Studies, 3 (1995), 147–60; Oberiano, “Territorial Discontent”; and Josephine Faith Ong, “The Colonial Boundaries of Exilic Discourse: Contextualizing Mabini’s Incarceration in Guåhan” (M.A. Thesis, University of California Los Angeles, 2019).

[16] Commission on Decolonization, Giha Mo’na: A Self-Determination Study for Guåhan (2021).

[17] Kristin Oberiano, “Guam’s Quest for Indigenous Chamorro Self-Determination in the Age of Pacific Anticolonialism,” in The Anticolonial Transnational: Imaginaries, Mobilities, and Networks in the Struggle against Empire, eds. Erez Manela and Heather Streets-Salter (2023); Robert Underwood, “Dies Mit: The Origin and End of Chamorro Self-Determination,” Micronesia Educator, 22 (Nov. 2015), 100–112; Michael P. Perez, “Contested Sites: Pacific Resistance in Guam to U.S. Empire,” Amerasia Journal, 27 (Jan. 2001), 97–114.

[18] Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten I Chamorro, Issues in Guam’s Political Development; The Chamorro Perspective, Hale’ta Series, Political Status and Education Coordinating Commission, 1996.

[19] YouTube videos from @PulanSpeaks are well-crafted and can be used in classes: https://www.youtube.com/@pulanspeaks. For literature of Guåhan and Micronesia, see Julian Aguon, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies (2022), also published as Julian Aguon, The Properties of Perpetual Light (2021); Craig Santos Perez, from Unincorporated Territory series, http://craigsantosperez.com/books/; and Evelyn Flores and Emelihter Kihleng, eds., Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (2019). For performing arts, see Andrew Paul Mantanona Gumataotao, “Na’la’la’ i Taotao Tano’: Navigating the Performative Terrain of CHamoru Reclamations” (M.A. Thesis, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 2021).

[20] Independent Guåhan, https://independentguahan.org/.

[21] On contemporary CHamoru self-determination movements, see Tiara R, Na’puti and Sylvia C Frain, “Indigenous Environmental Perspectives: Challenging the Oceanic Security State,” Security Dialogue, 54 (April 2023), 115–36; Tiara R. Na’puti, “Disaster Militarism and Indigenous Responses to Super Typhoon Yutu in the Mariana Islands,” Environmental Communication, 16 (2022), 612–29; Na’puti, “Archipelagic Rhetoric”; Michael Lujan Bevacqua and Isa Kelley Bowman, “Histories of Wonder, Futures of Wonder: Chamorro Activist Identity, Community, and Leadership in ‘The Legend of Gadao’ and ‘The Women Who Saved Guåhan from a Giant Fish,’” Marvels & Tales, 30 (2016), 70–89; and Tiara R. Na’puti, “Speaking the Language of Peace: Chamoru Resistance and Rhetoric in Guåhan’s Self-Determination Movement,” Anthropologica, 56 (2014), 301–13. On the Filipino relationship to CHamoru self-determination, see Kristin Oberiano and Josephine Faith Ong, “Envisioning Inafa’maolek Solidarity: The Importance of CHamoru-Filipino Mutual Relations for a Decolonized Guåhan,” Critical Ethnic Studies, 7 (Fall 2021); and Tabitha Espina, “Ali’e’ and Asi’i: Unsettling the Rhetorics of Filipinos on Guåhan,” College English, 84 (2021), 100–120.

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