The Decolonization Conversation

By: Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD
Understanding Unincorporated Status
Members of the cultural dance group Para i Probechu'n i Taotao-ta (also known as På'a Taotao Tåno') conduct the opening ceremony and blessing for the Respect the Chamoru People Rally held at Adelup on April 7, 2017. Courtesy of Michael Lujan Bevacqua

Manhoben, manåmko’, taotao sanhiyong, taotao sanhalom; people of all backgrounds are always asking me what decolonization means. For many, it can stir fearsome feelings about losing everything that makes life possible; they are seeking some reassurance that decolonization couldn’t mean that. I have a variety of answers, anecdotes, theoretical lenses and concepts ready to go, but my response always depends on the context. Are they speaking to me about decolonization in a political context? Or is it cultural? Linguistic? Economic? Spiritual? All are possible ways to think about decolonization, but let’s broaden our perspective to account for all of these possibilities and more. 

On the island, there is still a perception that decolonization is something to be feared. Decolonization is associated with isolation, with a rude breaking away from the United States. Some fear it would be a time traveling experiment, a giving up of all modern things. Some feel that this is only something activists and radicals are concerned with and not something the polite majority should take seriously. 

This is, however, from my perspective, a shortsighted and unproductive approach to both how we can define decolonization and how we understand Guam, its history and potential future. This approach does Guam no favors. As Guam scholar and former Guam delegate to Congress Dr. Robert Underwood has often noted, “to talk about Guam and not talk about colonization is like talking about a hospital without talking about illnesses.” 

Colonization, not just in its historical sense, but as a continuing process that binds together the unincorporated/non-self-governing territory of Guam to its administering power the United States, affects the island in both visible and invisible ways. Everything — from the economy, educational system, legal system, imagined identities, language, politics to regional/international relations is subject to Guam being something that according to U.S. law is “owned” by the United States. This fact is often not realized by many, but the impact persists regardless of whether someone realizes it or not. 

Decolonization is not simply tied to a change in government, and does not automatically mean “independence.” It is not as some might imagine an automatic rejection of anything “colonial.” It can instead be a way of analyzing our present state, and taking colonial legacies seriously. For example, is something, whether it be a system, an idea, or a form of technology that was placed in our island and in the center of our lives as part of our history really good for us? Should we keep it, should we modify it, should we seek a different way? Does this system, and its institutions and ideas, really serve our interests or are they just monuments to colonial legacies? This is why I often refer to decolonization today more generally as “the decolonization conversation.”

Community members often talk about the poor state of health care and education on the island. They focus on local corruption, incompetence, but scarcely acknowledge that the particular systems Guam is trying to support for those necessities of life might also be problematic. All of these concerns have roots in our current status of being a territory. Infusing decolonization into the discussion means getting at the foundation of these concerns. Ignoring them means only superficial changes.

This way of seeing our present and our future is essential. For too long in Guam, our vision has been clouded by the idea that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world and therefore whatever it does, whatever it offers or represents, must be naturally great for Guam. Notions about the U.S. being the greatest at everything simply aren’t true in almost all ways that might matter in trying to build a healthy and engaged community. For example, U.S. educational and health care models tend to be quite expensive and leave out huge portions of the population. 

We often assume the problems on the island must be of our own creation, since America is so great and we are so small. Because of this perspective, when we talk about improving things or fixing problems, we often focus on the local elements as problems, ignoring the colonial structure that we have inherited. According to postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, the oppressed always believe the worst in themselves. This tendency can be something that inhibits our ability to change and reform, since we assume we must change to match the colonial structure and not the other way around. 

But part of decolonization is opening up that structure so not just some of the parts, but the entire system can be questioned. So that there is no longer any reified reverence or sacred status for those things that came via colonization. 

The colonizer proposed that certain ways of government, certain types of economic and social systems, that certain values create the pathways to us becoming modern and civilized. We have to be prepared to realize that these systems of life might be the problem, and then seek something different beyond them. University of Guam Social Work Professor Lisa Natividad has spoken about this in terms of how Western approaches to dealing with social problems in the region have consistently fallen short. We have the best models, the latest programs, the trendiest theories, but they consistently don’t work in meeting our needs. She asks, at what point do we stop blaming ourselves for not fitting into their boxes, and seek to find or develop boxes that match who we are?

This is why, to infuse political status into these discussions means to open your mind to not just replacing parts, but the idea that the larger system itself may need an overhaul. That the system itself might not fit well with the island, its size, its needs or the cultures of the people who live here. 

When we think of it in this way, everything can have a decolonial dimension. Whether we are talking about decreasing our food dependency and protecting our precious natural resources or revitalizing the Chamoru language and seeking more sustainable ways to develop our economy. All of these issues have colonial roots, and only by decolonizing our assumptions can we act in ways to truly improve them. 

This way of conceiving of decolonization means that it isn’t always a massive, earthshattering event. In fact, more often than not, decolonization can happen without people even realizing it. 

As colonization involves structures of life that shape our choices and sense of possibility, we sometimes feel dependent upon them and sometimes resist direct change to them. This feeling of colonial debt can be crushing. Some may feel that Magellan “discovering” Guam means we have a debt to him or else we wouldn’t exist. Some feel that if San Vitores didn’t bring Catholicism to Guam and force it upon people, we would be heathens. Others feel that if the U.S. didn’t bring things like electricity or education or capitalism, we would be poor, illiterate and living in huts. 

People may feel trapped or constrained by this, but while all of these things are part of our history, feeling indebted to that history is in no way necessary. If you were colonized, it doesn’t mean that you have to be loyal to your colonizer in order to exist. Reckoning with that past and being able to see the future with new eyes, free from that debt is an integral part of decolonization. 

So, while people may resist larger changes, small, significant and sometimes revolutionary ones are always already taking place. In my writings I list many examples to make this point, but I’ll share a very personal one for this essay, “finatai” or death. 

Prior to European colonization, the religious framework for Chamorus was centered around ancestral veneration. Upon death, family members would become aniti, ancestral spirits who existed around us and could be called upon for help in times of need. The worship of skulls was a key part of this, and as you can imagine the Spanish priests sought to separate, by any means necessary, Chamorus from these totems and beliefs.

Later Chamorus became Catholic and adopted a European religious cosmology, although aspects of their beliefs prior to colonization persisted. Belief in the aniti, now rebranded as taotaomo’na, is still present today, but the dominant framework for belief and for giving the world a spiritual structure is one dictated by churches such as i Gima’yu’us Katoliko. Chamorus began to revere and remember their dead in ways that sometimes hinted at their older traditions, but were primarily reliant on Western religious rituals and beliefs.

When my grandfather, Tun Jack Lujan, the Chamoru Master Blacksmith passed away in 2015 we held a burial ceremony for him and sang songs that reflected a Chamoru Seventh Day Adventist tradition, a religion that was only introduced to the island a few generations ago. But we also welcomed to the ceremony the groups Pa’a Taotao Tåno’ and Inetnon Gefpågo, who opened and closed the service with chants. For these groups, they saw my grandfather as an honored elder, a master artisan who had dedicated his life to perpetuating the culture of the Chamoru people. They sang of him not solely as a soul to be caught by God in death, but as a spirit who connected us to our ancestors for hundreds of generations past, long before the introduction of Christianity. 

Just a few generations ago, having cultural dance groups like this at burials was impossible and unthinkable. It would have been further unimaginable to have them sing at a funeral and to honor the dead through references to ancient elders and ancestral spirits. But these are the possibilities of decolonization. When groups such as Pa’a Taotao Tåno’ and Inetnon Gefpågo take on the task of changing the contours of our consciousness, it can happen without many people even realizing how what was once made impossible via colonization has now been made normal through decolonization.
Understanding Unincorporated Status