Preservation Advocacy – Guam Style

Posted on: June 4th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments
The entrance to Pagat cave.

The entrance to Pagat cave.

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.

Joe Quinata of the Guam Preservation Trust leads a group hike to Pågat.

Joe Quinata of the Guam Preservation Trust leads a group hike to Pågat.

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.

A group performs traditional Chamorro dances at the May 29 celebration.

A group performs traditional Chamorro dances at the May 29 celebration.

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!

Petitioning President Obama to relocate the firing ranges.

Petitioning President Obama to relocate the firing ranges.

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.

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2 Responses

  1. Ken Perez

    June 7, 2010

    Thank you and keep up the great job!

  2. Peter J. Toves Salas

    June 9, 2010

    Dear President Obama,

    Marked July 21, 1985, I have moved here to the mainland to make my living & to find opportunities for my wife, son & myself. It’s been 24 years & 40 days here in CA., though my heart & roots are still with my people & the Island of Guam. Born Chamorro & will always be a Chamorro! I have supported you since the day you announced your candidacy for President of the United States of America and I’m proud to have you as our leader & president. Now it is up to you Mr. President, to put an end in having the military use our precious & sacred site as a military firing range. Guam is an American soil that belongs to the Chamorros. One thing I ask of you Mr. President is to leave Pagat to the native people of Guam. The Spaniards, the Japanese & the Americans have changed the course of our lives but the village of Pagat is a place no outsiders should inhabit. It belongs to the Chamorros & I honestly feel no government nor one person should claim or take over what we have left that belongs to our ancestors, the Chamorros! Please have the highest moral standard & be honest with respect on how we the people of Guam believe in… Safe Pagat!

    Peter J. Toves Salas