The Reunification of the Marianas?

By: Theresa (Isa) Arriola, PhD
Our Island, Region, World
INterDEPENDENCE | Kie Susuico
Vector Illustration created in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator

When you think of reunification, what does that bring to mind? A singular nationhood premised on a common identity? A common political status that affords us more political power on the world stage? A more equitable relationship with the United States, or something entirely different? In Marianas history, the goal of reunification was often premised on the fact that our peoples would eventually maintain a closer political union with the United States. For example, in the 1970s, the members of the Marianas Reunification Committee from the Northern Marianas and the members from Guåhan on the Guam Committee originally felt that a stronger relationship with the CNMI would lead to better chances for statehood which was tied to increased economic development and a stronger Chamorro identity.1 These concerns were always connected to the looming question of how we were related to the rest of Micronesia. Was the CNMI to leave the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) and split relations with our Micronesian brothers and sisters, or were we leveraging our combined political power to maintain a closer relationship with the United States? I point to this question to highlight how reunification is often characterized as a choice between two worlds. Given Guåhan’s contemporary colonial status and the CNMI’s Commonwealth status (as well as our combined label of “unincorporated”), our contemporary social and political desires are shaping reunification in different ways. While reflecting on these concerns, I have come to see that a renewed interest in reunification is less about being bound to political status and more about our desires to revitalize and sustain our unique cultural traditions, produce sustainable economic practices and promote a kind of Indigenous sovereignty that is truly equitable in our contemporary world. 

Reunification is influenced by a number of internal forces and external factors. Perhaps the most important and influential external influence has been the history of militarization. U.S. Military planning has always been a driver and major influence over Marianas political futures. In 1974, the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained to President Ford that, “…our essential need in our political relationship with Guam are control over Guam’s defenses and foreign affairs and continued military basing rights. To achieve this, we need a political framework that will continue Guam’s close relationship with the Federal Government, but that will keep the island’s growing political demands within manageable bounds.”2 Thus, so much of the way we envision our political possibilities are always, already subsumed by the ebbs and flows of U.S. Military interests. To understand reunification from a Micronesian perspective, however, means to prioritize our own people’s socio-political needs and desires over national defense goals. In this way, our desires are not only integrally linked to our relationship with the United States, but with the way we envision a regional identity with the rest of Micronesia. Conversations regarding our political futures should be made freely with the goals of long-term social, political and economic sustainability for our peoples in mind. These decisions should not have to be antithetical to broader defense planning. 

1Farrell, Don. (n.d.). History of Efforts to Reunify the Mariana Islands. Guampedia. https://www.guampedia.com/history-of-efforts-to-reunify-the-mariana-islands/ 

The confluence of militarization and colonization has conveniently transformed Guåhan’s colonial status into that of a “political question” that continues to be deferred. But rather than viewing Guåhan’s colonial history as a question in need of debate, what Guåhan’s unresolved political status tells us is that justice delayed is justice denied. Meanwhile, the two political statuses of the Marianas leave us in a political limbo that justifies militarization and other transformative social processes largely outside the purviews of local self-determination. This is nowhere more obvious than in the continued application of the term “unincorporated” to describe our archipelago. According to attorney Joseph Horey, the idea of incorporation and unincorporation “…draws a plain distinction between the nation itself and its possessions, and thus, given the first concept that some territories are part of the nation (“incorporated” territories), between those territories which are part of the nation and those which are its possessions (“unincorporated” territories).”3 Thus, despite the CNMI being a Commonwealth, our “unincorporated” status continues to serve as a reminder of our inequitable relationship to the broader nation. 

Looking into the future, how will the narrative of reunification be shaped by the power of our own people to decide rather than on powerful nations who are uninterested in the everyday struggles that we face? Here I am reminded of I-Kiribati and African-American writer, scholar and poet Teresia Teaiwa’s poem AmneSIA (2000). 

AmneSIA (2000)
By Teresia Teaiwa

get real
we were always
just stepping stones
erich von daniken
saw the footprints of the gods
chris connery
saw the trademarks of capitalism
who’s gonna give a damn if they don’t/can’t remember
that the whole of the donut is filled with coconuts
they’re after american pie in the east
and some kind of zen in the west
east and west are of course relative
the rim of our basin
is overflowing with kava
but the basin of their rim 
is empty
they take their kava in capsules
so it’s easy to forget
that there’s life and love and learning
asia and america
asia and america

3Horey, Joseph E. (2003). “The Right of Self-Government in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.” Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal. 4(2). http://blog.hawaii.edu/aplpj/files/2011/11/APLPJ_04.2_horey.pdf

there’s an ocean
and in this ocean
the stepping stones
getting real

republished with permission from the International Feminist Journal of Politics, 2017

Her poem provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how easy we forget who we are when we are overwritten by others, always deferring our collective futures to someone else’s political imaginary or preemptive security. To be a place “between” two other nations, as Teaiwa puts it, is a denial of our place in the world. Thus, a re-centering of our epistemologies and worldviews would be a good place to start conversations about navigating our social and political futures. 

Internally, from within our own communities throughout the Marianas, a growing desire to reflect on the reunification of the Marianas highlights concerns over cultural and environmental degradation due the history of this erasure and rampant militarization. As the peoples of Guåhan and the CNMI struggle separately with the consequences of militarism, the construction of the Mariana Islands Training and Testing Study Area forces us to reckon with the reality of being part of the same training and “testing area.” Like many other contemporary crises of our time such as climate change, what the proposed Military buildup has shown us is that what affects one island affects us all. We cannot view Guåhan’s or the CNMI’s struggles as isolated issues, but instead as intimately linked to one another. Our common struggles continue to unite us whether we eventually see ourselves as one political unit or not. To reiterate my point, reunification is not simply about having the same political status but about envisioning a kind of sovereignty that protects our peoples, histories and lifeways without homogenizing the unique diversity of the Marianas archipelago. As we wrestle with the complexity of what a unified Marianas looks like, the most important part of this reckoning is that we navigate this process together within our own waters, not in someone else’s sea. 

A solidarity message connecting sites of U.S. militarization across the Marianas Archipelago. From a 2019 protest organized by Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian. Courtesy of Michael Lujan Bevacqua. 

One last critical point must be made in light of conversations surrounding reunification, and that is that all sea lanes point back to the land. The protection of the land for future generations of Chamorros and Refaluwasch is integral to maintaining our unique identities and sense of place in this archipelago. Whether or not you live in the Marianas or in the diaspora, maintaining a homeland and protecting the land, sea and sky from irreparable damage must remain a top priority for our people. Without the ability to maintain control over the land, we lose the very ability to reflect on who we are as a people. There is no common ground if the ground beneath our very feet is threatened. Despite the complexity of navigating our identities in today’s world, these questions do not necessarily point to disunity. The Marianas is beautiful not simply because of its physical landscape, but because it is also a place of rich social, political and intellectual traditions where our histories and identities will continue to stimulate dialogue and produce knowledge about some of the most pressing questions of our time. When approached from this perspective, we find that a kind of reunification has already begun. 
Our Island, Region, World