A Conversation on Decolonization with Humanities Guåhan

by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life

Of the 17 non-self-governing territories the United Nations currently lists, Guåhan has one of the longest colonial histories. In “Words and Reflections from the Commission on Decolonization,” a February 13 Humanities Guåhan webinar facilitated by legislative policy analyst and community advocate Selina Onedera-Salas and featuring the Commission on Decolonization Executive Director Melvin Won-Pat Borja, speakers explained and explored that history from its origins to its present ramifications and beyond.

“For over 500 years after Guåhan’s first contact with foreigners, our path has been driven by colonization, and today our people, our culture, and even our history continue to be shaped by the words and actions of world powers. However, we must remember that Guåhan has never stood idly by,” said the Chairwoman of the Commission Governor Lou Leon Guerrero as introduction. “We must acknowledge that our present political status does not meet our needs.”

The webinar is the second installment of Unincorporated: Voting, Voices, and Visions para Guåhan, a series that Humanities Guåhan launched in January. The series is supported by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, which is administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Commission on Decolonization was formed in 1997 under Public Law 23-147 “for the implementation and exercise of Chamorro Self-Determination” with a focus on educating the public about Guåhan’s three political status options. These options originate from two United Nations General Assembly Resolutions released in 1960 that state a non-self-governing territory can achieve self-government by way of Statehood, Independence, and Free Association with the United States.

“Why these three options?” Won-Pat Borja said. “The simple answer is that these are the three internationally recognized options for political status that would relieve a non-self-governing territory from colonial rule. It’s very clear and very simple, and it doesn’t come from nowhere.”

Won-Pat Borja and Onedera-Salas paused throughout their conversation to take questions from the audience, underlining again and again the complexity of Guåhan’s history alongside the resilience and strength of its people.

“I think that we’ve all learned things along the way, we’ve experienced things along the way that really shaped…how we approach this issue, and I’m personally very proud of our government,” Won-Pat Borja said.

Gaining a deeper understanding of Guåhan’s history, Won-Pat Borja said, is one of the unexpected positives around taking up his position with the Commission.

“All of this strategic approach throughout our history, to see how intelligent, how forward-thinking our people have been along the way,” Won-Pat Borja said. “And yeah, we‘ve taken a long time to resolve it—who knows if the end is in sight—but what I appreciate is the way we’ve continued to evolve because this is so complex and no non-self-governing territory is the same, no colony is the same, no colonizer is the same—well, maybe the colonizer is the same,” Won-Pat Borja added with a smile.

Nearing the end of the webinar, Won-Pat Borja took a question about whether peaceful protests have made progress in decolonization efforts. In reply, Won-Pat Borja said that protests are manifestations of people’s desire to be heard, and when people feel like they are not being heard, what other outlet do they have?

“So long as our voices continue to be stifled, you will continue to see people marching in the street. The way I look at it is, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, you know, I’ve been on the side that’s watching the protest. I’ve been out there in the hot sun and the rain holding my sign and I always think to myself when I’m out there, to the people that are, like, yelling at us: ‘I don’t want to be here either…it’s hot out here, it’s raining…but I’m here because I have to be’” Won-Pat Borja said. “Something is happening to us—we don’t feel like we’re being acknowledged—so until things change you’ll keep seeing us.”

Photo Credit: Humanities Guåhan


This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.