Resisting the Guam Military Build-Up

LisaLinda Natividad is a Chamorro rights advocate and one of the main organizers of the local opposition to the Guam build-up, the imminent transfer of 8,000 Marines and their families from bases in Okinawa to Guam, an under-resourced and environmentally exploited de facto colony of the U.S. military that already controls one-third of Guam’s land mass.

Natividad teaches at the University of Guam, where many of her colleagues in the social work department are also active in the struggle for Chamorro self-determination. "This whole build-up is an issue of justice," Natividad says, "social justice, which is one of our core values in the social work profession." Pushed into peace work by the signing of this accord, Natividad has since become known as a consistent questioner of the environmental and human cost of the proposed build-up. This past summer, Natividad spoke on the matter in Australia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit.

KERSHNER: Explain Chamorro-U.S. relations?

NATIVIDAD: Our political status is what’s called an "unincorporated territory" of the United States, which essentially means we have no status, we are a U.S. colony. That means that we don’t have many of the basic rights as a people for self-government. One of the most tangible things that people can relate to is that we don’t have the right to vote for a president. We have a Congressional representative but her vote is very limited. At the accords being signed between the U.S. and Japan, our government wasn’t even consulted about this transfer of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Recently, U.S. Congressperson Hank Johnson made remarks about Guam capsizing. To what extent does this demonstrate U.S. lack of concern for the Chamorro people?

I think it’s a very flagrant example of the ignorance of the rest of the country about the issues. I often refer to Guahan, which is our traditional name, as America’s best-kept secret. Most people don’t realize that old-school colonization still exists. So we hear references to Guam on different TV sitcoms, those sorts of things. Typically, Guam is known for its snake population, not its human population. Often, national, particularly federal, entities refer to Guam as a sort of outpost of U.S. militarism. It’s almost like that’s what we’re known for, so the native population is overlooked—although overlooked is a very mild description of how we’re treated.

Why does Guam matter to the U.S.?

We’re prime real estate. Congressperson Ike Skelton [D-MO] was here at the university to deliver a lecture and he basically described how the Asia-Pacific region—because of the population boom that’s anticipated and claims that China’s rising to power—will be the focus of U.S. military activity in the next decade at least. So, when you consider that the U.S. landholdings in the Pacific being primarily Hawaii and Guam, clearly our political status as an unincorporated territory gives them what’s often referred to as "maximum flexibility," which means we’re a colony and they can do whatever they want.

When you talk about issues of Chamorro self-determination and exercising the right to get off the list of being a non-self governing territory of the world, that just doesn’t come into the conversation. It’s like, "let’s just pretend that’s not there," because they have other things in mind for us.

A few years ago, Guam ranked as the number one most successful area for Army National Guard recruiters. What are the effects of this militarism?

U.S. military aircraft over Guam

It’s very disheartening. In our high schools—Guam doesn’t have very many of them—three of them have JROTC programs. We top the charts in terms of joining the military and that’s largely indicative of two things. One, the sort of blind patriotism that a number of people have because of the whole touting of the U.S. "liberating" us from the Japanese occupation in World War II. So there’s this sentiment of allegiance to the U.S. But the other part of it is that you’ve got a very high poverty rate on Guam. Nearly 50 percent of the population is eligible for food stamps. In most communities the people that join the military are not going to be your affluent people. Here you join the military and then at least you’re gainfully employed—it’s almost as though you’re the elite here.

Also, we’re desensitized to militarism in our community. If you were to drive around Guam, you would be amazed at how much of our physical environment is impacted by the military footprint. In addition you see military memorials and "support our troops" ribbons everywhere.

Are there elements of the peace and anti-base movement that are opposing militarized education in Guam?

The Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice chaired the International Network of Women Against Militarism conference here in September. What we were able to do at that time was convene a Micronesian regional grouping of women to discuss counter-recruitment. We’re currently securing funding to be able to continue to convene this group of women.

This summer a practicum student was placed with the Coalition. Her job was to take national counter-recruitment materials from the American Friends Service Committee, as well as information we’ve received from military recruiters, and use that to develop materials for our people.

Given that so many people on Guam are dependent on military base jobs for their livelihoods, it must be difficult to organize a strong opposition movement.

Economics and colonization go hand in hand. If you were to ask me what direction we, as a people, need to take, clearly it’s to develop alternative economies. But how do we go about doing that when we have the limitations of U.S. federal territorial policies, for example? Also, when you’re in an impoverished place, it’s hard to develop a new economy when you don’t have the resources to do it. It’s not an answer that’s going to be realized within the next five to ten years. What we require at this point is a generational shift in identity, in nationhood, in terms of understanding the complexities of militarism and how we’re contributing to war across the world. There just isn’t that consciousness now.

I’ve started to introduce these concepts in my public lectures and when I start to talk about the contrast between Chamorro values and military values, I’m like the devil. It’s very hard for people to hear that. But I keep pushing that envelope because it’s so important. That’s how we learn to re-frame the way we so blindly embrace U.S. militarism. What I’ve begun to do is to look at the issue in terms of long-term gains, long-term goals. How do we shift our whole understanding? How do we help our people become aware of the fact that we are colonial subjects? It’s going to require lots of work. I think our biggest task in organizing at this point is in educating our community to develop a deeper consciousness.


Seth Kershner is a graduate student and freelance writer based in Massachusetts.