militat / Uncategorized

Pagan in a Chamorro Context

The island of Pagan, from the Gani Islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas has made international news in recent years as it might soon become yet another beautiful island to be destroyed by the US military for training and bombing. Nowadays Pagan is a regular part of conversation in the Marianas. I see petitions which have garnered more than 100,000 signatures to preserve Pagan floating around Facebook almost every day. I get emails and messages about it on a weekly basis. I’ve even seen some scholarly work on Pagan. But amid all these mentions, I scarcely hear about Pagan in a Chamorro context. In a social-political context, much of the discourse that gives global or significant meaning to Pagan today is heavily tied to its environmental value. In an academic context, while you will always read of Pagan mentioned in a chain of equivalences when the list of islands in the Marianas is named, but more so you will hear of Pagan in a Japanese historical context. The attention Pagan receives is very good to ensure this beautiful island is not obliterated like so many others have been by militarization, but there is the risk of Chamorros and the idea of Chamorro homelands being erased in the process.

Environmentalists and Eco-activists are often the first line of defense against militarization and the destruction and contamination that heavy military use can cause. One of the problems is that when race or colonialism comes into play, these environmentalists or activists who generally come from outside of the community tend to have trouble working with the locals and the natives who claim the lands in questions.  For environmentalists Pagan is an ecological paradise that must be protected. Justice in this sense is tied to the defense of the land, defense of Mother Nature and her verdant glory, it is not necessarily connected to any issues of injustice against people or some sort of restitution for wrongs in the past. The ecosystem of Pagan must be protected in this context, whether it be trees, snails, fishes, or anything else, they have to be preserved so they can be researched and explored.

In this context, since the object of activation and preservation is the land, the waters, the plants and the animals, the people can be seen as getting in the way. The people there might want to use the land to build houses, to sell it, to make money, and not have the same appreciation of the natural wonders as the more environmentally minded. This is why sometimes in the Marianas you will see the environmentalists and the Chamorro nationalists on the same page, but other times, most notoriously in the case of Litekyan, you will see them pitted against each other. This is why the emphasis on the environmental uniqueness or richness of the land may be limiting in the long run, as people may see the use of it by the people who call it their homeland as something threatening that sacred commodity.

In another way, Pagan is also produced as an object of discourse in terms of Japanese memories, the nostalgia over their south seas holdings and the sepia stained fragrance of former imperial aspirations. The CNMI were controlled by the Japanese between World War I and World War II and during that time they both militarized the islands and economically developed them. Economic, social and political development weren’t carried out with the purpose of directly improving the lives of the native peoples of the islands, Chamorro or Carolinian. So most of the workforce that served this growing Marianas economy was imported, with poor workers from Japan and Okinawa working on fishing, farming and mining. Pagan was one such economic development site, where several hundred Japanese and Okinawa settlers were supported by a few hundred more Chamorros. Northern Marianas History Jessica Jordan has helped with much of this research, even assisting with the development of websites and books such as Pagan Island in the Distance.

In CNMI history, but in particular the history of the Gani Islands, those north of Saipan, the lives and memories of Japanese settlers and the bureaucracy of the Japanese colonial regime tends to obscure or erase the Chamorro aspects of these islands. Chamorros were forcibly removed from these islands during the reduccion of the Spanish era, when all Chamorros were forced to live in either Guam or Rota. The Japanese control over the islands and their activities there have discursively continued the work of the Spanish, by further separating Chamorros from the islands they once sailed between and lived upon.

This is one way that you can illustrate the idea of power/knowledge. That the ability to create knowledge that is considered formal or proper, such as from a government agency or a academic scholar can go a long way in terms of establishing the framework through which power will flow and function. Both the Japanese colonial discourse and the environmental gem discourse have helped create an possible erasure of the Chamorro connection.

The contemporary Chamorro, especially in Guam has largely been cut off for these islands and has little to no conception of them. For some families in the CNMI with ties there, they have a larger, stronger imagining or identification with them, but for most Chamorros today these islands might as well exist in another dimension. The moves by the US military to use Pagan for training and target practice has helped to change this, as more and more Chamorros, not just in the Marianas are starting to see it and feel their connection to it. This is in my opinion a potentially important step in unifying the Marianas Islands, by helping to blend together their imagined borders. It is crucial that the Chamorro connection not be lost in all the activity around defending and protecting Pagan.


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