“We Deserve to be Free”

Pacific Daily News

June 19, 2016

For two weeks, the eyes of the Pacific turned to Guam as our island and people hosted the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts, or FestPac. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to learn the stories and traditions of more than two dozen other Pacific Island cultures from our great blue continent.

During the closing ceremony of this historic event, delegates from these island nations banded together to make a powerful statement against colonization. Delegates from Guåhan and most of the other island nations who participated tied red or white bands around their arms with personal calls for freedom: “Free West Papua.” “Free Guåhan.” “Free Hawaii.” “Free Rapa Nui.” “Demilitarize Oceania.” “Decolonize Oceania.” And so forth.

If you looked closely at the flag bearer from Aotearoa (New Zealand) or the dancers from Kanaky (New Caledonia), or the aboriginal delegates from Australia, these bands were worn proudly on their arms throughout the ceremony in solidarity with members of the Guåhan delegation, who boldly reminded the crowd that our peoples continue to struggle for the human right to determine our destiny and govern ourselves.

When Guåhan’s delegation paraded the stage, 12 Guåhan delegates unfurled four banners with these words on them: “Decolonize Oceania. Free Guåhan.” And while the banners were met with loud cheers of “Biba!” and “Free Guåhan” from throughout the Paseo Stadium, there were also pockets of silence as the audience read the words and contemplated what they meant.

Some expressed that the closing ceremony was not an appropriate space for such a political message, but many others breathed a sigh of relief that this important statement was made, especially delegates from the other islands, who had wondered why conversations and statements about colonization never made it to the main stage.

Historically, FestPac has not only been a space for Oceanic peoples to share each other’s cultures, but also to share each other’s struggles; to discover our connections not just in our art, but also in our historical and political realities. The call to “Decolonize Oceania” and “Free Guåhan” helps us remember that we should not only learn from each other culturally, but politically as well.

As the Chamorro people prepare for a political status plebiscite, we must learn from others throughout the Pacific who have achieved self-determination and build solidarity with those around us, who remain colonized as well.

Among the participating nations, five, including Guåhan, are currently listed as non-self-governing territories or colonies by the United Nations:

  • Moahi Nui (French Polynesia);
  • Kanaky (New Caledonia);
  • American Samoa; and
  • Tokelau.

In addition, several other Pacific island nations struggle against neocolonialism, where countries on the other side of the sea do not acknowledge that they are still colonizing them. They struggle with the right to use their own indigenous names and protect their languages and culture.

The true purpose of FestPac is to celebrate what makes Oceania and our Pacific peoples unique in the world. The act of creating indigenous art and keeping traditions alive for thousands of years despite the colonial forces that tried to destroy them is an act of decolonization. To decolonize Oceania means that through our solidarity we can see ourselves as more than the legacies that colonization has left us with. It means celebrating ourselves as more than just tourist destinations, nuclear testing sites, airports for transit and bodies for exotic dances.

Thus, FestPac was an empowering space where we saw the vibrant and inter-connected sea of islands that we belong to in the faces, movements, creations and stories of the people who colonization has worked to separate us from. FestPac reminded us that we are a part of Oceania and that, like all people, we deserve to be free.

Michael LujanBevacqua, Ph.D., and Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, MFA, are co-chairs of the Independence for Guam Task Force. 

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