Why Pacific Heritage is Important to the World

Keynote address by Dr. Robert A. Underwood

World Heritage Workshop
Senator Antonio M. Palomo Guam Museum & Educational Facility

Dec. 3, 2019

Buenas dihas, hafa adai, kasalehlia, yokwe, lem wo, ron annim, mogethin, ali greetings to all of you.

We are here this morning to make connections in the name of heritage, renew friendships, establish new ones and renew our vows to the cause of historical heritage. I say vows because I believe we are engaged in a solemn commitment that goes far beyond what we do on a daily basis. It approximates a commitment to a cause which transcends us as individuals and which should move us across generations.  A vow is a solemn commitment that should bind us to action in that name of a principle beyond self-interest. We have marriage vows, oaths of office and various forms of allegiance to organizations and countries. We sometimes describe these as historical vows, but what about a vow to history.

This commitment to history should be the glue that binds us and moves us to finding a way to reach out to each other not just to develop a common agenda and have access to resources, but perhaps a common vision which is so compelling, it cannot help but move us to action. We are brought here together by our concern for history and our desire to share our heritage. The question of the day nudges us to argue why Pacific heritage is so important to the world. The gathering of historical preservation officers in a conference devoted to securing World Heritage Opportunities for the Pacific suggests important and vow-like actions. The vows will be measured both in words and resources which suggest dowries and life-long commitments.

The questions which arise from that also suggest many important avenues for conversation. Why is Pacific heritage important to the world as well as the Pacific? How do we know that it really is? How do we measure that importance to ourselves? If so, what parts of our heritage should we prioritize and which parts can we put out of focus. We have a sort of typical difference of perspective on memorializing actual, physical remnants of our heritage or whether we want to perhaps create the opportunity for the world to experience a heritage that builds on physical remnants, but moves us far beyond the physical remnants which are left behind due to the impact of storms, wars and the ravages of time in tropical environments as well as the activities of bull dozers and human habitation. Along the way, we perhaps discover new ways to remember our heritage as we explore such avenues to studying our past as the development of cultural landscapes and seascapes which would include underwater archeological sites.

We also struggle with the conceptualizations of history and heritage. Some of us pay homage to history and justify all of our activities on the basis of an actual historical event as opposed to the more amorphous meaning which heritage can convey. The history of individual CHamorus and the meaning of CHamoru heritage may intersect, but neither conveys the full punch of explaining what happened in Guahan for the past 3-4 millennia.

Examples of this interpretive tension as well as confusion abound on this property, now known as the Senator Antonio M. Palomo Guam Museum and CHamoru Educational Facility. The name itself requires a historical thesis if not dissertation. The politics of names, positioning and location are told in the story of what is normally just called a museum. In spite of the previous contentiousness, it is a beautiful facility and I congratulate the people of Guam and their elected leaders for making this possible. But the contents and the choices that have been made indicate that heritage and history are constantly contested fields of remembrance and perspective.

We can take a look at a couple of examples nearby. I won’t go into the speech by Hurao which was reported by Spanish missionaries, subsequently translated into English, memorialized in curriculum materials and entered into the Congressional record by yours truly. But I will discuss a couple of other examples which should jar our memory and bring us closer to a definition of heritage.

Across the street is located the Plaza de Espana. Historically, it was the Plaza de Magallanes and the actual Plaza de Espana was on the other side of the church. But today it is the Plaza de Espana and I don’t know that anyone is seeking to give it its original name in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Magellan/Elcano Circumnavigation which is coming within 500 days. The Plaza has a kind of praying hands memorial which overwhelms the entire Plaza. It is the En Defende I Tano’-ta monument honoring the Guam Insular/Force Guard which was a Navy unit CHamoru men joined before the war but never left the island. Three of the 7 men killed in a symbolic action against the Japanese invasion forces across the street were Insular Guardsmen. They have the monument and their names (Angel Flores, Vicente Chargualaf and Jesus Cruz), as well as two civilians, one Marine and one Navy Chief. The size of the monument is seen by some as disproportionate in recognition of all the other events that occurred there and the heritage that the site itself represents.

In constructing this building, a small memorial was removed and I do not know where this monument went although it could be in a more important place. I thought it might have been relocated here on Skinner Plaza. I walked around last week just to double check, but I couldn’t find it. It was the Wake Island Defenders monument. This recognizes the 45 CHamoru men who were on Wake Island in December 1941 where they participated in the defense of the island against the Japanese. Ten were killed in the battle; the remaining 35 were taken as prisoners and sent to China, where two more died. They were eventually recognized as World War II veterans through Congressional action. These men all worked for Pan American and the last remaining survivor passed away last year, Mr. Francisco Carbullido, father of Justice Phillip Carbullido. No one seems to be sure about the location of the plaque which memorialized the experience for at least a decade.

For some in the audience, the unifying historical experience of World War II could be the basis that knits all of the islands in Micronesia together. For historians, there is ample documentary evidence and there is no shortage of material remnants from that conflict including buried ammunition all over Guam and sunken vessels in Chuuk Lagoon. This merges underwater archeology with landed versions and nicely blends historical experience with broader themes. There are probably a lot of resources that could be made available for that. This could include the Asan Bay Overlook memorial wall which includes the names of nearly all of the CHamorus who were here in Guam during the Japanese Occupation. This was the first piece of legislation that passed under my sponsorship and so I would be proud to see it included in a thematic approach to our history as islands. I could even recount my experiences with Senate staffers, the National Park Service and local officials about the names and the representation of the sequence of events here in Guam.

But I would not be in favor of that approach. I think we have something of even greater value to contribute as indigenous people in this region. This broader cultural thematic approach could potentially unite us in a major project which would draw international attention, potential investors, researchers and wealthy tourists. Who could argue against this? This kind of cultural landscape would take advantage of recent research into the cultural underpinnings of Micronesia and the resurgence of interest in navigation. 

I am taking about the development of a Micronesian Stone Heritage Archaeological site proposal which would honor and feature the cultural traditions of the region in a way which had not been previously conceptualized. More recent thinking about the stone heritage site in places like Palau, Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae and the Marianas and their sudden emergence in approximately the same time frame suggests many possibilities of contact and the diffusion of knowledge and techniques. Moreover, combined with some thinking about the spread of hybrid breadfruit plants going from Eastern Micronesia to Western Micronesia, the possibilities of knowledge diffusion seem even more likely. Somewhere between latte stones, breadfruit and matrilineal clan systems, there may be some common heritage themes which can reunite Micronesia in ways previously not considered.

These ideas first came to my attention in the submission of an unsuccessful proposal for DOI funding by my colleague Dr. John Peterson that began over five years ago. In combination with the work of Glenn Petersen (no familial relationship) about the spread of breadfruit and matrilineal clan practices in pre-history time frames, the suggestion of a unified, indigenous approach to Micronesian Heritage was too strong to ignore. Glenn Petersen’s contribution was to posit that there was significant contact between Eastern and Western Micronesia prior to the arrival of the West in ways we did not previously considered. The migration waves were typically seen as originating separately and that the true Micronesians (everybody except Palauans, Yapese and CHamorus) were part of the same cultural cluster as evidenced by language and archaeology. Now we may have something that unites all of us other than colonialism, World War II and the Department of Interior.

John points out that Oceania is dramatically underrepresented on the World Heritage List, and 24 of the 31 World Heritage Sites in Oceania are on either Australian or United States territories. The proposal which he labeled the Micronesian Stone Archaeological Sites dossier will include archaeological sites from Guam, several CMNI islands, as well as sites in Palau, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Yap, and intangible landscapes (navigation) from the Marshall Islands and Chuuk. Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List carries with it an acknowledgement of a unique place and role in global history and cultural diversity. It draws the attention of both intellectual and popular communities around the world and renders the sites inscribed formidable economic and cultural assets.  This effort blends the attention given to underwater archeology, grounds the experience in navigational possibilities and draws attention to tangible remnants. It also invites cultural comparisons about the organization of clans and even offers botanical excursions into understanding the role of breadfruit in our lives as islanders.

The nomination dossier of the Micronesian Stone Heritage Sites will focus upon the appearance of stone architecture and the heightened cultural importance of stone itself during the Latte period of prehistory, which flourished 1,000 years and might have begun as early as 1,500 years ago. The cultural significance of stone, which is imperishable and therefore links one generation to the next, can be seen also in the stone Yap money, circular disks of crystalline stone produced on islands in Palau and transported nearly 300 miles by canoe to Yap.  The enigmatic architectural complexes at Nan Madol in Pohnpei and Lelu in Kosrae are testament to the spiritual and political power of the eastern Carolines in a trans-Micronesian presence that led to the hybridization of Marianas and Pohnpeian breadfruit, and a complex of interactive maritime exchange based on the maintenance of dispersed matrilineal clan villages. We are all familiar with the size, scope and dispersal of latte sites around Guam and the Marianas. We are also fairly familiar with the clan system, social structure and food which sustained the CHamoru civilization as it existed when Magellan and his crew first came nearly 500 years ago.

We could add cultural seascapes to this proposal in the form of fish weirs which also seemed to have surfaced simultaneously to the stone structures. UOG Archeologist Bill Jeffreys can inform us about tidal stone-walled weirs. Made primarily of basalt rock, Bill tells us there are 700-800 around Yap. There are also some in Palau, Pohnpei, Marshall Islands and Apra Harbor. He presumes that there are some in Chuuk and Kosrae as well.

Of course, suggested historical themes need more than intellectual curiosity and promotional pizzazz to make a World Heritage site viable and defensible. Nothing is more disconcerting that to go someplace and have eager tour guides tell us about the mystery monuments of Nan Madol or Taga on Tinian and suggest that invading aliens could have built them. You can watch that treatment on the television program “Destination Truth.” Both latte stones and Nan Madol are given the alien invader treatment. I am not suggesting that hypothesis or speculation should be the basis for exerting this effort. But it seems to me to be a viable form of inquiry and even as each potential site in this stone heritage trail can stand on its own merits, I believe it is entirely appropriate to suggest connections and invite further inquiry.

It is more than entirely appropriate that we define our Pacific heritage in our own way and in ways that demonstrate our strengths rather than just our vulnerabilities. It is the only viable approach to ensuring its authenticity, legitimacy and increase understanding about who we are as a people for some things and as separate peoples for other things. We like to say that we are Micronesians when it suits us and deny each other the use of that term when there are political barriers. There are cultural connections which are undeniable. There are practices which are similar. The strength and the sudden emergence of the stone heritage trail and perhaps a new way of organizing kinship and feeding ourselves on a regular basis offers a Micronesian contribution to the world which should inspire pride and wonder for others, but more importantly to future generations of islanders yet to come.

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