Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

22 January 2021

Women dominate all three branches of Guam’s legislature, however, their actual power over the island’s policy is constrained by United States security interests, Sylvia C Frain writes.

Contemporary colonialism and expanding militarisation continue to be a gendered process on the island of Guåhan (Guam) in the Western Pacific. Foreign occupation and patriarchal colonisation have spanned nearly 500 years, first implemented by the Spanish and further entrenched by the United States Naval Command.

Guåhan residents elect a non-voting delegate to the United States Congress but lack a vote in the House of Representatives and cannot vote for the United States President and Commander-in-Chief. Despite this, 4,000-year-old matriarchal kinship systems continue as the source of power and inspiration for Indigenous CHamoru famalåo’an (women).

On 6 November 2018, local voters elected the island’s ninth governor, Lourdes Leon Guerrero. For the first time in Guam’s modern political history, Ufisinan I Maga’Håga (the Office of the Governor) had a woman leader. Not only did Leon Guerrero win, but she secured nearly twice the number of votes secured by her Republican rival and former Lieutenant Governor, Ray Tenorio. 

News outlets reported that Guåhan became the first state or territory ‘in’ the United States to secure a legislative veto-proof supermajority with 10 of the 15 positions headed by a woman, and with all three branches of government to be headed by a woman. In his congratulatory announcement, GOP Chairman Jerry Crisostomo echoed the US-centric discourse of 2018 being “the year of the woman, so Guam is setting that trend”.

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Unfortunately, the feminist celebration of the first locally elected Maga’håga and female legislative supermajority was undermined by the imperial limitations of true political power due to continuing colonial United States Congressional control. Although famalåo’an are well represented within the Liheslaturan Guåhan (Guam Legislature), they are unable to act in the interests of their constituents to protect important Indigenous sites from the Department of Defense. 

Famalåo’an resistance is currently directed at one of 94 military expansion projects underway on Guåhan. Specifically, famalåo’an are calling for the return of their tåno’ (land) and protection of the sacred site, Litekyan (Ritidian Point), from the construction of the Multi-Purpose Machine Gun Range, one of the five rages collectively referred to as Live-Fire Training Range Complex (LFTRC). 

The efforts to protect Litekyan serve as a case-study to expose how American ‘defence democracy’ actually functions to limit local political power within Guåhan. Instead, the United States Government and Department of Defense celebrates feminism as elite women leaders in imperial positions of power which deny Indigenous self-determination.

Currently, 29 per cent of Guåhan is a restricted military area, and Defense considers the entire Marianas Archipelago as the ‘preferred destination’ for the relocation of 5,000 Marines from Okinawa, Japan.

This relocation is promoted as necessary for United States national security by former Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield, Commander of Joint Region Marianas/United States Pacific Command, who claimed the United States Marines need a place to train. Specifically, the construction of the Multi-Purpose Machine Gun Range on Guåhan is considered ’vital’ to the combat effectiveness of the Marines who will be relocating to Guåhan.

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This United States Government asserts its need to seize control over Guåhan tåno’ for a variety of reasons. Whether in the name of national security or the name of conservation, this control is supported by women in elite positions and enables expanding militarisation. Regardless of the reason, the United States Government does not require the consent of the local population land may be acquired through the United States federal legal principle of ‘eminent domain,’ justified as for the greater good of the nation

Three cultural sites eligible for the United States National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, as well as the ‘remnants of [an] ancient village,’ have been destroyed due to military construction. The Department of Defense offered through data recovery ‘to record, remove, and preserve what is deemed valuable material,’ but without local consultation. Residents do not have access to knowledge of what or where these artefacts are stored. 

On 26 June 2019, Governor Leon Guerrero wrote to Rear Admiral Chatfield, requesting a six-month pause on the construction of the facility at Litekyan. The governor acknowledged the importance of United States national security, but stressed consideration of local cultural heritage sites and the environment. While both elite women leaders are driven by their shared but competing interests over Litekyan, Governor Guerrero works within an imperial feminist framework despite successfully being elected to the highest political position on the island. 

In mid-July, Rear Admiral Chatfield responded in a letter addressed to the governor and legislature, declining the request for a pause on the Multi-Purpose Machine Gun Range. This response from the highest-ranking, appointed military leader to the highest-serving, elected political leader, demonstrates how actual power on the island is held by the Department of Defense and enacted through bureaucratic measures. 

The superficial imperial feminist approach publicly celebrates women in elite positions but does not acknowledge nor challenge how their power is limited within colonial systems. Rear Admiral Chatfield’s disregard for the governor’s request clearly represents how imperial feminism is beholden to the larger imperial project which is enforced through war and war preparation.

The enduring efforts to protect Litekyan reveals a contemporary example of how enduring United States colonial structures constrain local political power on the island of Guåhan. A gendered analysis illustrates how imperial feminism celebrates the appointment of prominent women leaders but does not question the colonial frameworks which deny political representation.

The appointment of Rear Admiral Chatfield (as the second female Commander of Joint Region Marianas) and the election of Lourdes Leon Guerrero (as Governor of Guam), superficially celebrate elite women. While the United States Government congratulated Guam as the first state or territory “in” the United States to elect a woman governor with a veto-proof supermajority, denial of Indigenous self-determination and federal domination enables continuing militarisation.

This piece is based on a journal article published in the November 2020 edition of the Small States & Territories Journal. Read the full article here.

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2 Responses

  1. Kenny Halpern says:

    Dr. Frain offers an in-depth description of the historic impediments to the representation of Guam to the United States Congress. Well done!

  2. Tyler says:

    Guam has less than half the population of the USA’s least populous state (WY). For comparison the island of Oahu (HI) has roughly 1 million people. If Guam’s 167k residents were afforded any more representation in congress -it would be disproportionate, Guam’s status as a territory is proportional, not colonialism. The relationship is unambiguous, mutually beneficial, and enjoys enthusiastic support by the vast majority of the Island’s residents many of whom are veterans (1 in 8 adults). The author’s cynicism is unwarranted, and undermines the agency of an actually progressive leadership of Guam.

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