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Have We Forgotten One of America’s Most Important Territories?
I had studied all night for my fourth-grade class’ fabled map quiz. With the tune of the “Fifty States that Rhyme” song on repeat, I made my way around America’s coastlines. Our task: to label a blank map of the U.S. with the appropriate states and capitals. I remember agonizing over Nebraska and Kansas, Illinois and Ohio. Most students probably have memories of a similar assignment. But as I read a recent New York Times article on the history of Guam, I realized there’s far more to the map than the 50 states.
America has a long history of oppressing Guam ever since it colonized the region in 1898. Guam now has over 160,000 residents, but it is also home to 6,000 U.S. military personnel (“Guam”). Daily life in Guam consists of never-ending military activity, with Air Force jets flying overhead each day and a strong naval presence at sea. According to The Associated Press, members of the U.S. Air Force, Naval Base, and Coast Guard combined take up almost 30% of the island, and the U.S. military hopes to grow its influence on the region in the coming years (“Where Is Guam”).
Even though Guam is technically part of the United States, it has very little power. For example, Guam’s delegate in the House of Representatives is a mere figurehead, someone who can’t even vote in elections, when that’s what the entire point of a delegate is. We call residents of Guam “citizens,” but they don’t have the rights that are promised to American citizens.
As Tom Lin remarked in his article in California Law Review, “This kind of second-class status is not how our government is supposed to work and it has real implications” (Lin). Because the people in Guam cannot vote in elections, it is difficult for them to change their reality. For example, for several years, Guam has had an unemployment rate that is higher than the national average, but little is being done to improve its economy, and its limited government has no power to change this. These representatives may voice a desire for a different life, but because they lack voting power, they cannot do anything to create a better living situation for the residents of the territory.
Furthermore, it seems as if the U.S. is making decisions that end up oppressing the people of Guam. I was shocked to learn that Americans outlawed the CHamoru language and that the CHamoru cannot vote (Topol). In 2017, the U.S. The Department of Justice even went so far as to file a lawsuit against the CHamoru Land Trust Commission, claiming that it had discriminated against anyone who was not part of the CHamoru tribe (Villazor), even though CHamoru is the majority indigenous population of Guam.
Technically, this Pacific island community is a U.S. territory. So why are places like Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands not on the maps students fill out every year? And why do we rarely learn about them in history class?
We see America as a free, inclusive, open nation. We see this kind of imperialism as something of the past, something we disapprove of because of our history with the U.K. – but the reality is that oppression is happening on our soil, by our own hands, and it has been for over a century.
America has come a long way since Biden declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day a holiday, but it’s time we start honoring America’s unincorporated territories, too.
Maybe the next time we rattle off states and capitals, we can put Guam on the map- it deserves to be there, after all.
“Guam.” CIA World Factbook. 25 July 2023, cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/guam/#:~:text=In%20a%20referendum%20in%201982,thousand%20troops%20on%20the%20island.
Lin, Tom C.W. “Americans, Almost and Forgotten.” California Law Review 107 (2019), californialawreview.org/print/americans-almost-and-forgotten.
Topol, Sarah A. “The America That Americans Forgot.” The New York Times, 7 July 2023, nytimes.com/2023/07/07/magazine/guam-american-military.html.
Villazor, Rose C. “Problematizing the Protection of Culture and the Insular Cases.” The Harvard
Law Review 131.6 (April 2018): 127-152.
“Where Is Guam and What is Its Relationship to the U.S?” MPR News. 9 Aug 2017,