If all politics are indeed local, consider the geopolitical loneliness of the Chamoru indigenous people of Guam, a non-self-governing U.S. territory 3,800 miles west of Hawaii.
Colonized by the Spanish and their missionaries in the mid-17th century, Guam was surrendered to the US after the Spanish-American War. Hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the island was captured by the Japanese, whose brutal two-and-a-half year occupation killed 10% of the population. After fierce fighting, US troops recaptured Guam in July 1944, initiating a new cycle of destruction that is now accelerating with a planned $15-billion buildup to turn the 30-mile-long island into a major hub for US military operations in the Pacific.
Julian Aguon’s father was one among many victims of cancer that resulted from their work on contaminated ships returning to port from nuclear tests, and he and his three siblings were raised by their mother Annabelle, a social worker. When he left his Chamoru community for Gonzaga University, Aguon says that he learned as much from Cecelia Sheoships, a Umatilla Indian who became a mentor and second mother to him, as he did in his women’s studies and sociology classes.
Back in Guam after graduating magna cum laude, Aguon went to work to mitigate the degradation that militarization was wreaking on the island’s fragile cultural and natural resources, collaborating on a successful effort to halt the privatization of Guam’s only water provider and commercial port; drafting legislation to protect Chamoru culture; and publishing path-breaking articles and books to provide historical context for his work.
Inspired by the victories of Petra Fellows and Western Shoshone grandmothers Mary and Carrie Dann in their David v Goliath battle for native self-determination, Aguon decided to use international law as the tool to seek justice.
While distinguishing himself at the University of Hawaii law school, Aguon drafted the first official intervention on behalf of the Chamoru people and delivered it to an audience of 3,000 at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. His petition, citing US and UN officials’ failure to exercise oversight of decolonization, was joined by delegations from many Pacific and Caribbean communities.
Since law school, Aguon has intensified his work to focus international attention on the impact of the military buildup on Guam, including the clearing of entire limestone forests; the desecration of 3,500-year old burial sites; the restriction and denial of access to areas rich in plants necessary for indigenous medicinal practice, places of worship and traditional fishing grounds; and the destruction of hundreds of acres of thriving coral reef.
Teaching international law at the University of Guam and slowly gaining global attention, 29-year-old Aguon passionately argues against fatalism and failure.
In his speech to a class of high school graduates, he said, “Growing up in Guam, we constantly hear what we don’t have…what is not possible…what we cannot change. We become romantically involved with the notion of impossibility. Guam is a microcosm of the world, meaning to say it is suffering and needs you desperately. It needs more hospital beds. More doctors, more teachers, environmentalists, farmers and fishermen. So many of us, so early on in life, give up on our dreams. Maybe that’s what colonialism looks like. But what this island really lacks – what it really, really needs – is more imagination. More dreaming. People who let the beauty they love be what they do.”