Monday, September 23, 2013

Indigenous Manifestos and Chamoru Visions

 By Jesi Lujan Bennett

As a scholar activist that is deeply committed to the betterment of my Chamorro people, Taiaiake Alfred’s Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto speaks to me on a personal level because of the hopes I have for Guam’s (and the Northern Mariana Islands’) political future. Alfred lays out different strategies for indigenous groups to use when thinking about the realities of their own self-government. Alfred’s book is an informative source about what self-governance could and should look like for us.

Within the next two years, Chamorros of Guam will finally have the opportunity to vote on our political future. Rather than being an unincorporated territory (aka colony), Chamorros can now decide on independence, statehood, or free association. Even with the plebiscite approaching, decolonization is not given enough attention within the media or within mundane conversation amongst Chamorros. For many it is hard to image any type of political status that does not have some kind of ties to the United States. I believe the difficulty is within the reality that many Chamorros have lost their imagination. Our colonial ties have robbed many of us the ability to see ourselves outside of the US. Many people, including my own family, have this idea that independence and self-governance means that our electricity stops working and our lights go out. Our own politicians work to secure a military buildup and growth in tourism, pushing the notion that dependency is the only way we can survive as an island. Chamorros have become extremely invested ideologically (“The United States saves us”) and physically (we have the highest rates of military enlistment per capita) in our uneven relationship with the US.

With Chamorros having the longest legacy of colonialism in Oceania, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto can be used as a tool to envision a new political future without fear. Rather than dreading a turn to ancient ways, Alfred shows how traditional ways of knowing can help build a solid foundation for indigenous governance.  For my own people, I think finding value in our culture and traditions can only help move us forward independent of the US. Once we can do that, Chamorros will find that we don’t have to live exactly like our ancestors. As Alfred suggests, you need to, “know your basic principles in the first place and then blend the contemporary and traditional together- but you have to have the principles right” (35). Chamorros and other indigenous groups must find a means of self-government that is meaningful to their specific history and context.  

As Chamorros build our political voice during the plebiscite, there will be many questions that will have to be addressed. Many of these questions are specific to Guam’s history as a territory. When looking at settler colonialism, how do you incorporate local groups (non-natives) in decolonization when many are there because of Guam’s ties to the US? With our northern islands already a commonwealth, how do we begin to think about reunification as an extension of our decolonization efforts? As Alfred says, “honour the fact that indigenous peoples have survived: The frameworks of their values systems remain intact and vital” (29). Even with the uncertainty of Guam’s political status, I find hope in the strength of my ancestors who have been fighting colonization since the 1500s.

By Kenneth Gofigan Kuper

The strength of Taiaiake Alfred’s Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto lies in its ability to effectively argue that indigenous peoples across the world need to once again place government and governance in their list of priorities. Spending time with my Chamoru community, I have seen how this deep-seated cynicism of the government is very potent in the current political landscape. I have been to many barbeques where the conversation turns into: “I have given up on the local government” or “I really do not care who wins this election because they are all the same.” As one of my mentors back home in Guam said: “But so many of the things that people say they lament, they don’t actually care about. Look at the way people complain about the government and how it is so corrupt, in order to feel that they are getting involved with the governing of the island when in fact they are not doing anything to contribute to the governing of the island.”

While I completely understand a lot of the cynicism, hopelessness and isolation are not the proper avenues for expressing this cynicism. Instead of simply giving up and deciding to separate ourselves from anything dealing with the government, we should seek to see how we can make the government work for us. Taiaiake Alfred suggests that “recovery” must include government, culture and land. We might see these as points of a triangle. As indigenous peoples, we cannot truly recover if we ignore one of the three points because if one point is not respected, the triangle will never truly stand. I would further add language as a fourth point, creating a square upon which we can stand.

Alfred rightfully cautions us about the limitations and boundaries of traditional cultural revival, when what can be revived and practiced in colonized, indigenous societies is still dictated by the colonizer. For instance, dances and chants may be easily funded by the settler-state government producing a false image that this ti magåhet (non-authentic) government supports the indigenous people. (To clarify, I am not saying that ti magåhet governments are comprised only of settlers; I am rather referring to the form of government as settling on our indigenous forms.) We, indigenous peoples, need to see through this smokescreen of false support and realize that the ti magåhet government will only support indigenous revival as long as it does not threaten the power/domination status quo. Giving money to host a concert of traditional dances does not directly affect the status quo, and may actually help with the tourist appeal of that particular place and settler-government.

I want to further address this specific point about Chamoru cultural revival and the catholic church. (I purposely do not capitalize the catholic church because they will be treated like a “proper” noun when they start acting proper). Back home in Guam, we have seen the revival and re-creation of our dances, jewelry, cooking methods, etc., and the church seems to be supporting these things. Many times the church will have a mass in the Chamoru language or be a co-sponsor for Chamoru activities, giving it the appearance of an amicable, indigenous-friendly institution. However, I bet that talks of reviving Chamoru traditions of taking the skulls of our ancestors into our homes and worshipping them or of re-establishing our guma’ ulitao (bachelor house) where boys learned adult skills including sexual acts would be absolutely opposed by the church. Reviving these particular aspects of our culture would threaten their hold over the people of the island. At this point, the smokescreen of support would come down, and we would see how these colonial institutions do not actually support indigenous values! This point serves to illustrate Alfred’s point that the limits of our cultural revitalization seem to still be in the hands of the colonizer.

Thus, we cannot sit there and concentrate on nurturing only one point of the triangle (or square) of indigenous recovery, because we can see how it creates a false belief that recovery will occur without anything additional being done. In order to experience a complete revamping of our current situations, we need to take the cynicism of government that dwells within us and realize that the form of government we despise so much is NOT OURS! This government model is a foreign one that is inconsistent with indigenous values, and thus we should yearn for something new. This is a call to action. Our cynicism should be an opportunity to imagine better systems and to realize that we had a form of government drastically different from what we have today. Governance is not something that should be ignored because we will just concentrate on “the culture”! The Chamoru people have existed since we walked out of the rock that our mother creator, Fu’una, became to give life to us, so we have ways of knowing that drastically differ from most imported, colonial governance values. As Taiaiake Alfred writes: “Just as we must respect and honour our songs, ceremonies, and dances, so, too, we must honour the institutions that in the past governed social and political relations among our people, because they are equally part of the sacred core of our nations.”

Governance has not always been a bad thing, and we need to be able to realize that. It is about time we as indigenous peoples give governance a new face that does not make our communities cringe with a bad taste in their mouths.

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