The Chamorro people of Guam

December 30, 2018



What got me thinking about Guam, a 544 square kilometre US territory located in the western Pacific Ocean about 11,500 kilometres from the United States mainland?  It’s rarely in the headlines, except for late 2017 when this tiny island was catapulted to unwelcome worldwide attention by North Korea’s threat to launch a missile strike against it.


A sense of curiosity peaked my interest. In a world where colonies (or non-self-governing territories as the United Nations prefers to call them) have long since gone out of style, I was keen to know a little more about this island’s history, it’s people and how it gained its current status. Besides, I’ve always been predisposed to support the underdog and had an inkling that compared to the might of the Uncle Sam, Guam was very much going to be the little guy.


Guam is, constitutionally speaking, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, which means it is controlled by the US federal government but is not officially considered part of US territory. I’ve long been fascinated by microstates or geographical anomalies; how these places have endured and not been swallowed up. The rabbit hole can take us on long and interesting journeys, such as Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla, two tiny Spanish enclaves located on the northern shores of Morocco's Mediterranean coast, or closer to home, where the archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon lies off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland—the last piece of French territory in North America.


Guam may not be a microstate, but in common with all microstates it has managed to survive, often against insurmountable odds. That leads us to the next question: How did Guam come into being, and who were the people that settled it?


First contact

The story begins over 4,000 years ago when it’s thought that Guam was settled by people who arrived from other Southeast Asian islands.


The first European contact with the island came in 1521 when, after an arduous voyage across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered the island. Spanish colonial rule also included what is now known as the Philippines, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Northern Mariana Islands.1


Initial contact with Guam was not auspicious. Explorer Ferdinand Magellan labelled it with the unfortunate moniker Islas de Los Ladrones or “Islands of Thieves.” The name had more to do with a difference of cultures and misunderstanding of deeply engrained social norms. Chamorro culture is collectivist, as is about 70% of the world.2 Communal nature of island life meant it was essentially a sharing economy where the needs of the group always trumped those of the individual. The concept of ownership is very different—if you needed something you merely picked it up and returned it when no longer required. This was anathema to the Spanish culture where individualistic culture and personal achievement prevailed.


A subjugated Spanish colony

When a Jesuit missionary Father San Vitores arrived in 1668, he secretly baptized the baby daughter of a local chief, against the chief’s wishes. This resulted in San Vitories’ death. Anne Perez Hattori, a Chamorro historian at the University of Guam, described the Jesuit Missionary’s death as a turning point culminating in a “war of subjugation” of the Chamorro people.6 Spanish rule was a potent combination of introduced diseases, cultural and religious imperialism and an attempted suppression of their culture.1


The Treaty of Paris

By 1948, Mexico had already lost over half of its territory to the US and was no longer a Spanish dominion. Spain was a declining power. In 1898 the Treaty of Paris—an agreement between the United States and Spain—would relinquish most remnants the remaining Spanish Empire. The treaty ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the US. The Philippines was also surrendered for a payment of twenty million dollars.3


Insular Cases

To better understand the legal status of Guam and its corresponding lack of political voice, we have to look back to 1901 and the consequences of the racist Insular Cases—a series of little known but hugely significant US Supreme Court decisions pertaining to the status of US territories and their four million inhabitants that were acquired during the Treaty of Paris. According to Doug Mack, author of The Not-Quite States of America, there were several Insular Cases beginning with Downes v. Bidwell in 1901:


“The court reasoned that Puerto Rico and the other new territories were “inhabited by Alien Races,” so governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible."”4


Although Guam’s 162,000 people are US citizens by birth, in common with their counterparts in Washington DC and other US territories they cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representatives in Congress.5 Although the half in, half out Insular Cases rulings were cemented last century their legacy continues to this very day. As Hattori succinctly puts it, “Since Guam is considered a possession of the US but not part of the US, the constitution does not apply.”6


World War II

Shortly after the 1941 attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour, nine Japanese planes attacked Guam. According to Hattori, the white wives and children had been evacuated to the US mainland in anticipation of this. Chamorro women who had been married to Americans were not.6


Three days later after the initial attack, Guam fell to the Japanese. So began three years of brutal occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army. Many Chamorro women were assaulted by Japanese soldiers. Some were forced to work the fields to produce foods for the Japanese. Others were killed en masse or sent to concentration camps.


From Occupation to Liberation

The Second Battle of Guam took place from July to August 1944 when US troops finally liberated the island. The Chamorro people who had remained loyal to the US enthusiastically greeted the American soldiers with open arms. 


Contemporary Guam

Considered a strategic military outpost between the US and Asia, Guam is now known as a non-self-governing territory of the United States.


Since liberation, the US military has gradually taken over large tracts of previously Chamorro owned land—in fact the military now controls more than a quarter of Guam territory.6 The widespread practice of Chamorro land being expropriated, often without adequate compensation, has been controversial. As Hattori remarked, “As a result of liberation the Chamorros become landless and many of them become homeless. The Chamorros become the poor people of Guam.”6


On the other hand many in Guam’s business community says that strong military involvement is not only desirable, but essential for the island’s future. According to Jeff Jones, chairman of Guam Chamber of Commerce’s armed forces committee:


“It’s important to understand that as an island economy, Guam’s is very fragile. We really only have tourism and the military—and we need both.”7


Interest by the US military in Guam remains strong as Guam continues to develop. The challenge for the Chamorro people is to try and preserve their unique culture and identity despite acculturation.

Impact Resolutions creates the space to step back and consider the bigger picture—to scratch beneath the surface and explore the many issues a community may be facing. By working together and actively listening to the concerns of stakeholders, we are able to draw upon a rich seam of experience to break new ground and test new theories to benefit the entire community.



1 A brief, 500-year history of Guam: The Smithsonian. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


2 7 things you need to know about marrying a Chamorro: Guam Guide. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


3 History of Guam: Wikipedia. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


4 The strange case of Puerto Rico: Slate. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


5 How the United States ended up with Guam: The History Channel. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


6 Guam: What it means to be from a US territory: Al-Jazeera. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>


7 Proposed US military buildup on Guam angers locals who liken it to colonization: The Guardian. Accessed December 5, 2018 <>













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