We often think of sovereignty only in political terms. A colony is not politically sovereign. No one can dispute this reality here in our island. So why bother using terms such as nation-building, cultural sovereignty and political self-determination to describe Taotao Tåno’ aspirations for the future of our homeland? It behooves those of us who celebrate the Chamoru language, cultural traditions and our way of life and all who call Guam home to think more deeply about these questions.
Allow me to offer some of my own thoughts. Nation building is often associated with being a nation state. Since we are politically part of the American empire and hold American citizenship, it can be argued that we are already part of a nation. We write USA when we are asked our nationality. There are more CHamoru living in the contiguous United States than there are in Guam. All true. But, the first peoples across the United States made it clear that nations can co-exist within a nation.
Further, nation building refers to the process by which a people consciously and deliberately engages in shaping the institutions and priorities that respond to their aspirations. In this context, national identity, or the exercise of cultural sovereignty, has less to do with geopolitical control than with controlling the psyche and identity consciousness of a people.
Melanie Benjamen, Executive Director of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, describes it succinctly: “Cultural sovereignty is ancient and predates the arrival of non-Indians. It is a kind of sovereignty that we can only lose if we choose to give it up… Cultural sovereignty is our inherent right to use our values, traditions and spirituality to protect our future. It goes much further than legal sovereignty, because it is a decision to be Anishinaabe, not only to protect a way of life, but to practice Anishinaabe life, every day.
From the first time I heard Samuel Betances, my husband, speak here in Guam in the 1970s, he reminded us that “language is the umbilical cord of culture.” I became increasingly aware of the connection between our indigenous language and Chamoru cultural sovereignty. This realization fueled my passion for revitalizing the Chamoru language. It was no mere whim that prompted the United Nations Assembly to declare 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. The international community of nations recognizes that “Indigenous languages not only symbolize cultural sovereignty, they also enable it”.
The balanced relationship with the land and sustainable living are part of what is called bio-sovereignty. There is a lot of interest, especially among young islanders, who are leading the movement for food sovereignty and sustainability. Their deep respect for the land and the healthy life it supports promises to reverse the post-war food addiction that took hold in Guam as arable land was taken by eminent domain for military purposes. The Taotao Tåno’ went from being able to grow or catch what was eaten before the war to being 90% dependent on imported food in less than a generation. Thanks to the young gualo’ warriors of today, we eat away at seven decades of dependence.
Speaking or learning to speak Chamoru without excuses, respecting the land, honoring our elders, and creating a framework for multi-level sustainability – that’s what nation building is all about. When we practice cultural sovereignty, we release the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors, i manaotao mo’na. We are beginning to shake off the stranglehold that colonization has had on our mentality of what is possible. We deepen our understanding of balance and harmony with our environment and with each other. Thus, we understand that being respectful of others does not mean disrespecting ourselves. We become good about ourselves. We become whole.
Our indigenous language is a mirror of the soul of a wise and ancient people from whom we descend. Much of their wisdom and strength is within us. Like them, we have overcome natural disasters and human tragedies. Like them, we have survived pandemics and wars for which we were not responsible. After all, we have their genes and their genius. As Chamoru people, we must never forget that we are masters of our own cultural survival and identity. We will only lose it if we choose to give it up.