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A WGS Quarterly Publication

international diary june 2008

My First Tour – Civilian Reflections on Visiting Militarized Lands
By Maikiko James

I recently traveled with filmmaker Lina Hoshino to Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines to collect footage for an upcoming documentary. The film will center around the effects of US militarization on native women, using narratives of women whom have dedicated their lives to keeping some semblance of the integrity and indigeneity of their birthlands. Generally, I would be wont to use terms such as “life-changing,” “eye-opening,” “intense,” and “revelatory” to describe a trip of this nature, and it was – all these things. Yet, as I write this, it eludes me how any of those terms would be an effective way to describe what I came away with. It cannot be put into terms exactly, but I’m going to take this chance to reflect on what I saw through my lens as a young North American woman, perhaps feeling too guilty to be a helpful contributor to these situations, or perhaps not feeling guilty enough.

Our destinations started in Hawaii. Visiting Oahu as a tourist, one usually finds themselves in a few select locations dedicated to fulfilling a “tropical island” experience: Waikiki (it wouldn’t be tropical without shopping by the beach); the Polynesian Cultural Center (authentic Hawaiian amphitheater seating); the Dole Pineapple Plantation (original exploitation not included in tour); and some body of water at which to engage in traditional native behavior – tanning, snorkeling, jet skiing, etc.. The more culturally ambitious might find themselves in Iolani Palace – the location of Queen Lili’uokalani’s home then incarceration after her forced dethronement by American business stakeholders and government officials, the Bishop Museum, or the Kukaniloko birthing stones I had the honor of being taken to by our guide and interview subject, lifelong Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) activist Terri Kekoolani. The trend: there were enough distractio- um, attractions for one, including myself who’d spent a significant amount of time in Hawaii as a child, to not notice both the figurative and literal “off-limits” signs around much of the island. Approximately 25% of Oahu’s land is currently active military grounds. Civilian entry is forbidden, not to mention the inactive grounds that are contaminated and uninhabitable. I’d seen video footage, taken by Terri’s colleagues, of Makua Valley, a beautiful verdant area on the leeward side of the island fenced off for artillery testing; but my heart fell upon actually visiting it, and imagining tanks rolling up its mountainsides for test drives, bombs being dropped there simply to measure the size of their impact, the deafening shatter of machine gun rounds firing into the green of the land.

For those with the longest connection to the aina (land), these occurrences do not go unseen or ignored. There are a substantial number of Hawaiian community members, Terri a particularly strong voice among them, who work hard to protect the beauty of the land and rights of its original people. Though it is not now the majority of the population, a large group of organizations and individuals, continue to fight for the sovereignty Hawaii had before its annexation and later statehood, a movement that had a major upsurge in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was taught at a young age about the movement for Hawaiian Sovereignty, and was immediately outraged at the magnitude to which the military occupies space on the islands when I heard about the continued testing and building. But I venture that most people on the mainland know nothing about this struggle. I wonder what their reaction would be to these facts. Would Californians care if 25% of our land was, for military purposes, off-limits to us? If a proposition were put on our ballots to expand military presence, would we vote yay or nay? I fear my perspective is skewed having grown up in the Bay Area, but I’m almost certain we’d say no. Wouldn’t we? Another thing I’ve learned growing up in the Bay Area is that one can presume less and less about the way our population will vote. Yet one can presume that many will vote.

And how would Californians react if that was taken away from us? Considering the number of people in this country that don’t vote, it’s somewhat remarkable to think of the uproar that would be caused if that right was revoked. The scenario is unimaginable for many whether they take part in the process or not.

Despite the idea that many of the approximately 93,000 Chamorros living in the US may fall into the category of people who wouldn’t really stop to think about this, in Guam, it’s not imaginary. As an unincorporated organized territory of the US, the government of Guam is subject to the Federal Government. Residents may vote on local matters, but many federally imposed laws affect them as well. And in this they have substantially less of a voice, if any. Guamanians, whose 209 sq. miles of land is 30% occupied by the US military, do not have an electoral vote in the Presidential race. The Chamorro people, the natives of Guam, are shrinking in number at a rapid pace, and from what I learned, most are resigned to the presence of the military as their economic foundation, do little to protest their limited land use and more often enlist for the vocational opportunity. I recommend reading more on this, and the astounding military build-up that is about to take place there, in Sabina Perez’ article found in this month’s edition of (Re)Collection. What I found personally striking in Guam were the visible effects of colonization. On a five block walk back to the Harmon Loop Hotel from Micronesia Mall, men in two separate cars stopped to ask if I needed a ride. Initially, I thought this was a form of what would have been a catcall stateside, and while this may have partially been it, what I realized moments later is that I was the only person walking. Everyone was in a car except me and those already inside the air conditioned establishments along the way.

Guam is home to the world’s largest Kmart.

Many disturbing facts cropped up over our four day stay, from levels of unemployment to levels of domestic abuse to levels of environmental damage rendering it unlivable. But overriding the disturbing was the contagious hopefulness and resolve of Lisa Natividad, our host, and her friends, all incredibly intelligent and articulate Chamorro women that supported each other in both their political work and in daily life. Their purpose, to reclaim their home and their rights, to an outsider like me seemed futile on many levels. Yet upon reflection, I think that is because I don’t have what they have, a network of support they respect and genuinely love. They, like Terri, are looking to reclaim not for themselves individually, but selflessly, for their people, for each other.

I think in the United States, we horribly devalue this, our greatest resource – one another. After so many generations of manifest destiny, self determination (exclusive of others), individualism, it’s very difficult for us to be communal beyond our families, our ethnicities, our churches, our country. It seems only in times of crisis do we come together, as I witnessed in New York in the days after September 11th, 2001. And maybe this is not so different from the Philippines, where by my own comparative standards, the majority of the population is in constant crisis – selling garbage to live, buying garbage to eat, selling one’s own body to make it to the next day. Whom I met in Olongapo City absolutely knew the meaning of being communal, but it was hard to tell if it was because they are smarter or because their lives depend on it; either way, they are clearly more practical. On our last day in Olongapo, Lina and I joined Alma Bulawan and her coworkers at Buklod, and a group of young women – prostitutes and former prostitutes – for a day of team building on the beach off Barrio Barreta. Buklod is a women’s organization that helps provide women in prostitution with various resources, including other options for income. Two days before, we had seen some of these young women working in their bar, wearing not much more than hand-sewn bikinis, peddling themselves to men three times their size and four times their age.

It seems one of the greatest residual effects of the US military in the Philippines is the idea that their bodies are their most lucrative commodity, for sex, for labor, for battle. Everything is for sale. I have no neat conclusions about my visit to the Philippines. The disparity between rich and poor made me sick, but their resilience made me wonder whether it is not me in my US complacency that is in worse shape. Clearly I as an individual, and we as a nation, have the resources to improve the quality of life in this country from which we have reaped so much, deficits and all. Why don’t we provide them? Instead, we send soldiers who “defend” “our” “freedom.” Even in the Philippines which is no longer under territorial obligation to host them, they are still welcomed with open governmental arms.

As Lina incredibly trekked forward to Okinawa and Tokyo to collect more stories and footage, I returned home, body, mind and heart all aching a little. Touching ground in Oakland, I knew the experience could escape me as soon as it took me to walk the terminal if I didn’t work hard to remember the stories I’d learned, and more so the emotions they evoked. I’ll end this by saying my trip has left me inspired and frightened, not necessarily in that order. I am made hopeful by the sheer fact that you have read this piece, and made substantially less so by the “and I should care because…”. I care because I have now seen these things, I have made connections and friends in these places, I have cried because of them. I hope that at the very least, I become a person more wary of my resource, opportunity, and blessing in fellow human beings – even the ones right next to me. Especially the ones right next to me. No trip abroad required. Perhaps then it won’t be guilt that propels or paralyzes me one way or the other, but empathy. And in empathizing, I will act, we will act together.


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