Written by Brian Turner
On Saturday, May 29 the Guam Preservation Trust hosted a spectacular celebration for a place simply known as Pågat (“Pah-geht”), an ancient village featured on 2010’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. I was fortunate to make the first visit to Guam by a National Trust representative in our more than 60 year history to deliver the news of the listing and hear directly from the people why Pågat is important to them.
Here are the basics: Pågat was a coastal village site inhabited by the seafaring Chamorro people in pre-colonial times, predating Spanish rule over the small island of Guam by millennia. Pågat means “to give advice” in the native language and is still afforded great significance by the indigenous community. There is only one major source of fresh water at the Pågat site complex, a cool limestone cave where islanders of all backgrounds frequently go to take refuge from the sweltering tropical heat. A variety of native medicinal plants thrive in the area and Chamorro healers known as surahanos still traverse the steep hike down to the site to collect plants and seek guidance from their ancestors. Most importantly, Pågat is the last intact village site owned by the territorial government and accessible by the general public. The other sites are already owned by the United States military and access is limited.
The Navy recently announced plans to build a series of firing ranges on the bluff above Pågat and has only offered to provide public access at the military’s discretion. Since errant bullets would whiz over the most frequently-visited areas at Pågat, the military would need to acquire the site from the Government of Guam. The Guam Legislature is resolutely opposed to a sale or lease of this land and fear that the federal government will “take” the area through its power of eminent domain. The Department of Defense hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of such drastic action.
The 11 Most listing sparked the Guam Preservation Trust into action. Chief Program Office Joe Quinata and his able staff launched an initiative to petition President Obama who they feel, as Commander in Chief, can provide leadership to explore alternative range sites (the Palmtree golf course at Anderson Air Force Base is one possibility). They provided lesson plans to local schools, encouraged children to write letters, and visited elderly care homes. They printed t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and even sponsored a billboard. The National Trust was proud to help with the effort, attracting national and even international attention to the cause.
The Guam Preservation Trust has succeeded in making Pågat the symbol of a burgeoning new interest in Chamorro heritage on Guam, particularly among the younger generation. A largely youth-run group called We Are Guåhan is a formidable political force. Traditional arts and dance groups have started to flourish. In one popular local theater production, seven high school students are summoned to Pågat by the creator goddess Fu’una. In the grand finale they link arms as a human barricade to halt the shooting overhead with dancers frantically singing and circling them. And, in the drama’s hypothetical future, they succeed.
The Guam Preservation Trust’s extensive educational campaign culminated in a celebration for Pågat on May 29. The event was all-inclusive and hundreds of participants were treated to emotional singing, dancing, and drumming. The Guam Museum was on hand to display artifacts found at Pågat on archaeological digs. And no Chamorro party, as I learned, is ever complete without a delicious meal. The food on Guam is marvelous and if you’ve never heard of finadeni, look it up!
Impressively, the group used the celebration not as an explicit protest of the military plans, but a means to teach the public about its heritage firsthand. Pågat was first listed on the National Register in 1974 as an archaeological site, but is important for much more than simply scientific inquiry. For the Chamorro people the site represents a connection to their land, ancestors, and their identity, which they have struggled to maintain through centuries of foreign rule. And, after all, a celebration is more appropriate than a protest given the infectiously positive energy that characterizes the Pacific islands.
At the end of the celebration petitions and letters to President Obama were ceremoniously delivered to the stage by village mayors and schoolteachers. With the President expected to visit the island this month, the Guam Preservation Trust has the opportunity most advocates dream of - to hand the signatures directly to the Commander and Chief himself. Many are hopeful that Obama will identify with their concerns as a Pacific islander who understands the frustrations of having decisions made literally half a world away (Guam is 14 hours ahead of DC, making conference calls a bit tricky). And all other concerns aside, saving Pågat would be a huge first step in making the military a good neighbor in the years to come.
Brian Turner is Regional Attorney in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Western Regional Office.