Language and Imperialism

I recently traveled to Nicaragua to participate as an expert on the Question of Guam for the UN Regional Seminar for the Committee of 24. This regional seminar is held every year to gather information on the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories or colonies left in the world. Traveling to Nicaragua and being surrounded by the United Nations infrastructure and discourse again reminded me of the first time I traveled to testify at the United Nations in 2007. I testified before the Fourth Committee alongside Marie Ada Auyong and Rima Miles. It was a bewildering experience to say the least. I wrote a few posts about it on my blog No Rest for the Awake – Minagahet Chamorro years ago and I found myself reading through some of them earlier tonight. I’m typing below an updated version of some of my thoughts after emerging from that experience. It helped to bring together in my consciousness various ideas of colonialism, imperialism and language.
My testimony at the UN in 2007 on the Question of Guam dealt with issues of decolonization, sovereignty, American obstructionism and self-strategic self-interest. I articulated that the indigenous people of today, including those who live as contemporary colonial subjects struggle behind a wall which the United States and other nation-states seem determined to defend. They see their sovereignty, their ability to control their territories and their resources as intimately connected to the further dispossession and displacement of native and colonized peoples. I named this wall of power, “The Fourth World Wall” because of the fact that some native peoples refer to themselves as the “Fourth World” in response to the historical global political order. In terms of the mapping of the world, the Fourth World is the least important, the least considered, the least powerful when your average person today articulates globality. Those in this Fourth World are condemned to live without independence, without sovereignty, without nationhood and without decolonization.

I made connections between case of Guam and the then recent passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and noted that those who openly rejected that declaration, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, are those who stand tallest and proudest atop the Fourth World Wall, rejecting the idea that indigenous and colonized people should have self-determination or should have the right to determine their own destinies.

In 2007 I was still in grad school and I was just starting work on my prospectus for my dissertation in Ethnic Studies from University of California, San Diego. While in New York I still had to read and present for my Indigenous Epistemologies class I was taking under Professor Ross Frank. My assigned book was Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson. This book and the discussions I had with other students and scholars really helped push in my mind certain still forming ideas about language and decolonization. The author discussed how American Indian scholars had on occasion tried to come up with terms in their own languages for concepts such as “sovereignty” or “decolonization.” One of the suggestions that they came up with, was roughly “tearing oneself away from all things white.”
For me, what makes this an important formulation is not the distance from “white things,”as this is a discursive trap, one which can easily lead you away from decolonization and towards a process of political self-immolation, as the very framework you use unconsciously for determining what is white and what is not white, may be based on a diminutive and limiting formulations on what the native or colonized subject is supposed to be. For example, in Guam many people are fearful of decolonization because of the way they see certain “essential” things as being “white” and other non-essential things as being “Chamorro” or “local.” They are afraid of decolonization because they feel it means getting rid of the “white” or “American” things such as government, educations, the rule of law and so on, leaving us with only the Chamorro parts, which range from food, to cultural dancing, to images of ancient people living in huts.
What I like about this possible definition is the highlighting of the “tearing” and that there must be an active, painful and potentially self-destructive element of decolonization. This is what is easily lost today in almost all articulations of what decolonization is or should be. It is not a process where one comfortably collects the fragments of a culture and sets them up nicely on their wall or mantle. It is not an orderly process which will solve all of life’s problems. If postcolonial scholarship and literature has shown us anything, decolonization in one sense doesn’t do much for colonial problems in a variety of others.
Decolonization is a painful and dangerous process, which dissolves the self, breaks attachments and refdefines what is normal and what one needs to survive. The path that we take into the future shifts, it no longer moves with the colonizer and their mirage as the Celestial City to which we must finally gain access to. There is a violent remapping of the future, and it can be frightening as the colonized subject tastes the potential Freedom that they might have, that terrifying euphoria where the future is open and might actually belong to you in some way.
Before I get too carried away with this, let me get to the original point I intended to quickly make. In her text, Wilson used a quote from Kenyan intellectual Ngugi Thiong’o, which really hit things home for me, on why I do many of the things I do in terms of writing in Chamorro, using the language in as many ways as I can, and therefore not just promoting its preservation, but more importantly its revitalization! This must be a key point for anyone who wants to “save” or “protect” the Chamorro language. To preserve it means to remain in those colonial categories. It means to accept the limits that the colonizer, with their gaze, their laws, their production of knowledge placed over us. To fight for its revitalization, its use, and its becoming a natural and essential part of who we are, is decolonization, it means challenging all the terrible things we were once taught to think and feel about ourselves.
Here is the quote from Thiong’o:
“What is the difference between a politicians who says that Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says that Africa cannot do without European languages?”
Gof impottånte este na finayi para Hita ni’ Chamoru sa’ manmadedesi hit kontra este na fuetsa lokkue’. Bai hu admite na esta kulang manmapayon i taotao-ta nu i fino’ Amerikånu, lao hafa i apas para este na tinilaika? Humuyongña na ta hahasso todu i tiempo gi bula na manera na taibali hit sin i nina’in i Amerikånu siha ya tåya’ hit anggen taigue i lenguahin yan gineftao-ñiha. Estague i mas taimaolek na matan imperialism, i mas piligro na dinagi. Ma’falalansa i islå-ta ya ma gaganye i tano’-ta! Ma fa’geftao ya ma fa’mangge hit, lao gi minagahet, manmalago’ siha sumåkke’ i lina’la’-ta, i tano’-ta yan todu i ginefsaga’-ta!
Ya kåda na ta aksepta na takhilo’ña pat baliña i lenguahin-ñiha kiñu iyo-ta, ya tåya’ hit anggen taigue hit gi papa’ i podet-niha, ta nå’i siha todu sin atkagueti, sin yinaoyao, sin minimu. Kada ta cho’gue este, ta na’mas libiånu para u ma funas hit todu.

Kenyan author Ngugi wa ThiongÕo, Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at UC Irvine, is on the short list for the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, for xxx(add phrase or blurb here from award announcement;  Chancellor quote? Christine writing and getting approved quote). Ngugi, whose name is pronounced ÒGoogyÓ and means Òwork,Ó is a prolific writer of novels, plays, essays and childrenÕs literature. Many of these have skewered the harsh sociopolitical conditions of post-Colonial Kenya, where he was born, imprisoned by the government and forced into exile. His recent works have been among his most highly acclaimed and include what some consider his finest novel, ÒMurogi wa KagogoÓ (ÒWizard of the CrowÓ), a sweeping 2006 satire about globalization that he wrote in his native Gikuyu language. In his 2009 book ÒSomething Torn & New: An African Renaissance,Ó Ngugi argues that a resurgence of African languages is necessary to the restoration of African wholeness. ÒI use the novel form to explore issues of wealth, power and values in society and how their production and organization in society impinge on the quality of a peopleÕs spiritual life,Ó he has said.

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