Chamorro Self-Determination


By Ben Pangelinan


Over 3,600 years before the lost European Ferdinand Magellan ascended into our small island chain, 3,830 years before my grandmother was born and 3,887 years ago before I was born —the Chamorro people sailed the oceans and lived on this land they called Guahan.

While we may assume that all was well, there was turmoil and fights among the natives, as territories were established, villages were staked out and boundaries were defended. Then in 1668 they came to settle, bringing their own social and religious systems, work, faith and institutions to make our heathen lives civilized and whole.

Some of the natives succumbed and converted. Maga lahis Hineti, Ayihi, So’on and Odo fought on the sides of the occupiers and were rewarded with title and status. Hurao, Ahgao, Hula, Chaifi, Mata’pang and Tolahi and many others resisted and fought these outsiders. They resisted and waged fierce battles to preserve our land, sea, and the fruits and bounties that were ours.

They believed it was more important to live as we knew how and to serve our wants and needs as we saw fit. (I Manmanaina-ta: I Manmaga’lahi yan I manma’gas; Geran Chamoru yan Espanot 1668-1695. Ed Benavente 2007).

The resistance lasted for over 27 years and resulted in bloodshed. From the very beginning, the people strongly resisted and would not abandon their ancient customs or bow to the authority of the Spaniards. Governor de la Corta wrote in his Memoria “one does not know which to admire most, whether the tenacity of the Spaniards in conflicts with the elements against a cunning and treacherous people during no less than 20 years of resistance, or that of the natives pursuing such a cruel and prolonged war which could only end in their annihilation and ruin.”

The truth of these words, “annihilation and ruin” is reflected in the “reduccion” which sought to convert the natives. Beginning in 1668, marked by the killing of Pale Diego de San Vitores in 1672 and ending in 1698, it saw the reduction of the Chamorro people from the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 at the time of discovery to just 3,678, according to the 1710 census, a mere 12 years after the end of the war. (The Marianas Islands 1884-1887 Random Notes. Francisco Olice y Garcia. Translated and Annotated by Marjorie G. Driver. Second Edition 2006).

Insight to the determination of the Chamorros to defy the occupiers in the face of certain annihilation and ruin is most clearly articulated by Chief Hurao:

“The Europeans would have done better to remain in their own country. We have no need of their help to live happily. They take away from us the primitive simplicity in which we live. They dare to take away our liberty, which should be dearer to us than life itself. They try to persuade us that we will be happier, and some of us had been blinded into believing their words. But can we have such sentiments if we reflect that we have been covered with misery and illness ever since those foreigners have come to disturb our peace? For what purpose do they teach us except to make us adopt their customs, to subject us to their laws, and lose the precious liberty left to us by our ancestors?

We are stronger than we think! We can quickly free ourselves from these foreigners! We must regain our former freedom.” (Speech by Chief Hurao. Dated: 1671).

But heart and determination was not enough to overcome the resources and the advance weapons of the occupiers. For the next 200 plus years, the people lived under the control and domination of this outside metropolitan government. Then in 1898, as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War, a new domination was begun. This time it was under the United States of America. While the Spanish used force, faith and bullets to impose their will, this new power was more beguiling using seduction and law to get their way.

An interesting fact of the event of this war, which placed Guam under the United States, was that it was declared after the passage of the Tellar amendment to ensure that the United States would not establish permanent control over Cuba following the cessation of hostilities with Spain. The amended resolution demanded the Spanish withdrawal and authorized the President to use as much military force as he thought necessary to help Cuba gain independence from Spain. Of the four territories taken by the United States because of the war, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, Puerto Rico and Guam continue to be under the administrative control of the United States.

While the new occupier had a different approach towards the natives, they had one thing in common with the old—they imposed a government upon us, not of our own choosing. 1898 did not only bring a new occupying government over the people of Guam, it also brought a new occupant to Guam and that was my grandmother who was born on this island.

For the next four decades, the United States wielded its authority over the people, making decisions, which suited their needs and determined for us, the natives, what our needs were. Once again, the native leaders rose up to regain our rights, as a people in our own land..

Using reason and law, the weapons of the new occupiers, instead of sword and violence of the old, our leaders fought for our rights to govern ourselves and determine for ourselves what is best for our people. Once again, the occupier’s resources overwhelmed the meager resources of our people. We petitioned the Congress and even walked out of an institution they said gave us democracy and self-government when it was obvious they only did it to appease us. They continued to deny our right to self-determination and to our sisters in waiting—Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

Once again, war came and the geopolitical events affecting independent states brought us a short era of foreign domination and occupation of a new power as Japan invaded Guam. Again, our people resisted and fought, while the United States left the Chamorros behind to deal with the invading enemy. The need for a base of operations to defeat the Japanese saw the return of the Americans, as she reclaimed her lost territory to serve as the launching point to end the war. As part of the structure of the new world order, the states of the world organized as a Union Nations dedicated to resolving future disputes in a peaceful manner and recognized the need to respect and honor the rights of those peoples liberated from domination and war.

The signatory states of the United Nations Charter freely agreed to obligate themselves and accept responsibility for the “administration of territories whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount … and to this end they would seek to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the people, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its people and their varying stages of advancement.” (Chapter X1, Article 73 (b). United Nations Charter).

At the signing of the United Nations Charter, nearly 100 nations were voluntarily placed on the list of non-self governing territories by the signatory states which held these places before World War II and entrusted to them the administration of the affairs to be governed according to the Charter. The United States as part of this event, accepted the obligation over Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (Micronesia).

Since the establishment of the list, over 80 of the territories from the original list of non-self governing territories have been herded by their administrative authority through the process of self-determination, attaining the free expression of the people, their ultimate desire. Despite this progress, by 1960 the General Assembly believed that the pace of decolonization of the non-self governing territories, which still included Guam was too slow and adopted two landmark resolutions. The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples marked the shift from the “principle of self determination for these territories” to “all peoples have the right to self-determination.” It further states that, “All people have the right to self-determination by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Resolution 1514(XV).

A component of that Declaration of Colonial People, Resolution 1514 set forth three ways in which these territories can attain a full measure of self-determination as envisioned in the Charter.The first option is Free association with an independent State as a result of the voluntarily choice expressed through an informed and democratic process. The second option is through Integration with an independent State based on complete equality between the peoples of the non-self governing territory and the independent State. And the third option was Independence. Whatever the option chosen by the people of the non-self governing territory, it must be the result of the freely expressed wishes of these peoples.

As of today, there remain 16 non-self governing territories from the original list of close to 100 who have yet to exercise self-determination and freely express their choice. Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, all administrated by the United States are part of the last remaining 16. There have been attempts by administrating authorities to redefine not only the process of self-determination and decolonization, but the status of self government as well. Decolonization is what happens when one exercises self-determination. It is direct democracy and affirmative action freely expressed by the people themselves, clearly a right inherent in the people of Guam and clearly remains unexercised to this date.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris on April 11, 1899 between Spain and the United States, Guam’s status as a territory under the sovereignty of the United States was cemented in law with the ratification of the treaty. While we may not accept it, Guam and its people became the property of the United States and the governing of the people of Guam and their rights fell to the Congress. Article IX of the Treaty of Paris declared, “The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants… shall be determined by the Congress.”

The subsequent placement of Guam on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories by the United States effectively transferred the purview and process of determining the civil rights and political status for the people of Guam to the United Nations. The ratification and the acceptance of the United Nations Charters and Resolutions by the United States now governs the processes for granting the rights of the people of Guam to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, in my opinion, confers upon the people of Guam the rights contained in the applicable United Nations process.

The petition for citizenship and the subsequent granting of such citizenship by the Organic Act is consistent with the responsibility of the United States as the administrating authority over Guam to “provide progressive development of their free political institutions” in no way can be defended as the free expression of the people of Guam. Acceptance of such incremental development and the improvement in such status is not the free exercise of choosing such status and most certainly not the will of the people. It is still a will imposed upon the people—no matter how generous, no matter how benevolent, no matter how good the administrating authority is. The true test of their goodness is when we decide on our own what we want for ourselves and they support it. Unfortunately, they have not been good.

When we talk about self-determination, one of the key elements of this exercise is the free and educated expression of the people’s right in determining their political status for themselves. As the administrating authority, it is the responsibility of the United States to fund the education process, so that the status option, whichever one is selected is not the status offered by those who have the most money to present their case.

An educated choice is the essential element in the exercise of self-determination and the people must be educated on the promise and the reality of each option to ensure a free choice.

Who are the people vested with the right of self-determination? It is clear that these people are the native inhabitants of a territory who are living under a political status or part of a political relationship with another state without their free expression to do so. These are the people to which the United Nations Charter speaks to as the colonial peoples of the non-self governing territories. Beginning with the Guam Legislature’s empanelling of the Political Status Commission in 1973, the struggle by the people of Guam to exercise their right to self-determination as recognized under the international law was initiated. A special Commission on the Political Status of Guam followed leading to Guam’s first political status plebiscite in 1976. The plebiscite was open to all the voters of Guam with a majority selecting the option of improved status quo.

In 1977, the federally sanctioned Constitutional Convention resulted in the draft of a constitution that was approved by the Congress but ultimately rejected by the people of Guam. The constitution was still subject to a status imposed upon the people, not of their own choosing. With a new Commission on Self-Determination in 1980, another status plebiscite, opened to all registered voters was approved. The plebiscite was held in 1982 with seven available status options. When none received a majority, a run off was held with the choice of commonwealth status eclipsing statehood by a three to one margin. For the next fifteen years, Congress and the President deferred any concrete action to approve the Guam Commonwealth Act.

The Commonwealth Act provided for Chamorro self-determination, mutual consent and immigration control, agreed to by the United States in the Covenant with the Northern Marianas. In 1997 during a congressional hearing before the House Resources Committee, it became clear that federal officials would not support these provisions in Guam’s Commonwealth Act.

With the continued inaction by the United States, the people of Guam and the leaders of Guam turn to the international basis of the right of the people of Guam to self-determination as embodied by the acceptance of the United States of the United Nations Charters and Resolutions which clearly outline the process for the decolonization of a people who remain under the list of non-self governing territories. This foray into accepting a constitution, drafting a constitution, voting on a constitution without the freely expressed wishes of the people as to the political status upon which this constitution will be used to govern, is what is missing.

From that failure, the direction has changed. It is now the policy of the people of Guam to seek first the expression of our right to self-determination through the freely exercised vote on a plebiscite for the statuses available to us under the United Nations articles and resolutions. No granting of any amount of internal self-governance without the people of Guam first freely voting on the political status that frames such self-governance can be interpreted as an expression and the fulfillment of the right of the people of Guam to self-determination.

We look forward to this continued effort, this continued quest of the people of Guam – the colonized people of Guam to exercise and make their fully educated choice on the options presented to us under the UN Charter and UN Resolution to fulfill the right of self-determination inherent in a people subjugated and dominated by administrating powers over the last four hundred years.



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