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Indigenous Community Control Across the Pacific More Important than Ever

Military-grade fencing with a sign reading "WARNING: RESTRICTED AREA / AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY" near Tiyan in Guåhan

This piece was initially published in Veterans for Peace as part of Planners Network's City’s Call for Big Ideas op-ed series.

On March 26, 2020, an aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, docked on the unincorporated territory of Guåhan (Guam), home to the Indigenous CHamorus of the Marianas. With approximately two dozen sailors testing positive for COVID-19, 3,000+ of the Roosevelt’s crew members disembarked and were housed in the central tourist district of Tumon while they awaited testing and further quarantining procedures.

For permitting these sailors to be housed in Tumon, Governor Lou Leon Guerrero faced immense local resistance. Guam Senator Sabina Flores Perez wrote an open letter denouncing the “reckless double-standard of potentially placing exposed military personnel in local hotels,” while the CHamoru feminist collective I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan (in partnership with seven other community-based organizations) wrote an open letter urging Leon Guerrero to “reconsider her position, as the people of Guåhan should be her first priority.”

Fortunately, no COVID-19 cases have been traced back to Roosevelt sailors yet. But the results could easily have been disastrous. CHamorus often live in multigenerational households and tight-knit community structures, which would aid the easy spread of COVID-19. And given their poor health outcomes (a direct product of colonization), many CHamorus are also immunocompromised, which increases their risk of COVID-19 death.

US Military Occupation

This isn’t another story of mishandled COVID-19 risks. It’s also part of a long-standing history of the military acting against the community interests of Indigenous Pacific Islanders.

More recently, on December 8, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This authorized more than $660 billion for additional military construction projects on Guåhan––the latest development in a multi-decade process of military buildup on the island.

To address the current shortage of skilled construction labor on Guåhan, the bill includes provisions that would authorize H-2B guestworker visas on Guåhan––an easy fix for labor shortages in anticipated military and civilian construction projects.

This version of the NDAA promises to harm CHamorus in at least two ways. First, it expands military infrastructure on Guåhan, in spite of long-standing Indigenous resistance to growing military presence. Currently, more than one-third of Guåhan’s land mass is reserved for military use.

Second, by actively inducing a supply of migrant guestworkers to address skilled construction labor shortages, the military misses an opportunity to increase the supply and skill of local (especially CHamoru) construction workers.

Community Control and Resistance

More community control could have prevented or better managed these travesties. With stronger sovereign control over territorial borders, Guåhan could have placed more restrictions on military movement. And with stronger political voice (e.g. with Congressional voting power or through international agreements such as the Compact of Free Association), Guåhan could have a seat at the NDAA negotiations table.

Absent formal mechanisms to robustly negotiate between the interests of the CHamorus of Guåhan and the interests of the military, Guåhan has limited leverage against US military occupation––even as Indigenous resistance remains potent and visible.

Across the Pacific, the lack of Indigenous community control has had severe consequences for many decades. Nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and 50s resulted in polluted, radioactive environments, and generational health issues for Indigenous Marshall Islanders. In the late 1990s, the Navy seized approximately 800 acres of land designated as Native Hawaiian homesteads at Lualualei, O‘ahu for its communication stations.

Today, this lack of community control has led to heightened COVID-19 risks––not just in Guåhan but throughout the Pacific. In late May 2020, the Secretary of Defense greenlit increases in military travel to Hawai‘i. And in August, the army hosted RIMPAC, a set of multinational war games, on O‘ahu, in spite of fierce Indigenous resistance from Native Hawaiians and their allies. The public health consequences of these actions are still unclear. Under orders from the Pentagon, military COVID-19 incidence data on Hawai‘i have not been released––even as this data are publicly available on Guåhan, Japan and Korea.

As COVID-19 rages on and the NDAA heads to the Senate, Indigenous community control over U.S. military action across the Pacific is more important than ever. The demands of Indigenous peoples across the Pacific are loud, clear and strong. They must be recognized with greater formal mechanisms, to ensure that the military heeds them as well.

Kevin Lujan Lee is CHamoru with ancestral roots in Guåhan, and a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He broadly examines state-society relations in comparative context, particularly the institutional and organizational processes shaping the ability of low-wage workers to transform their workplaces and communities. Empirically, he studies low-wage Indigenous Pacific Islander workers in 21st-century Western empires (particularly the United States and New Zealand), and low-wage immigrant workers in the continental United States.




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