Chamorros of Guam

Alternative names: Guamians
Location: Guam, western Pacific
Population: 57,000
% of population: 45%
Religion: Christian
Language: Chamorro, English

The Chamorros are the indigenous inhabitants of Guam, the largest of the islands of the Marianas archipelago and the most populous American possession in the Pacific. In 1984 Guam had a population of 115,000 of which about half were Chamorros and the remainder US military personnel, other US citizens and immigrant contract labourers from the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific.

Guam became part of the Spanish Empire after its “discovery” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. In the late seventeenth century, after Jesuit missionaries arrived and were met with resistance, Spanish policy shifted to a war of extermination. Between 1668 and 1740 the Chamorro population fell from over 80,000 to less than 5,000. Guam became a US possession in 1898. During World War II Guam was held by the Japanese between 1941 and 1944. Chamorros were rounded up and held in concentration camps by the Japanese occupiers while some later died in battles between the opposing forces.

Unlike the other islands of Micronesia, Guam has not been a UN Trust Territory but is an unincorporated territory, governed since 1950 under an Organic Act which gives it a local legislature and governor. Guamians are US citizens but do not have the right to vote in US national elections while they are resident on Guam although the territory has a non-voting delegate, presently a Chamorro, in the US House of Representatives. Recently there have been moves to give Guam Commonwealth status in the US in order to promote a greater degree of local autonomy.

The Chamorros were until recently a majority of the population but today are a steadily decreasing minority. In 1978 they were 62% of the population but by 1984 were less than 50% and today may be less than 45%. Despite a young population the Chamorro birthrate has been declining since 1973 and large numbers of Chamorros emigrate in search of employment. Conversely large numbers of US citizens and Asians now work in Guam for the largest employers, the military and government, and also in the tourist and construction industry. There is considerable pressure on land as one third is owned by the military and a further 20% by the government. The remaining 50% is divided between 10,000 Chamorro landowners who have an average plot of less than two hectares. There are estimated to be less than 100 active farmers. In the mid-1970s 1,400 Chamorros brought a class action against the US for land appropriation during World War II. The claim was settled for US$39.5 million in 1984 although some aspects are still being debated.

Recent years have seen the growth of a Chamorro indigenous rights movement. In 1978 Chamorros demonstrated against a local newspaper which refused to publish an advertisement in the Chamorro language. Activists have also campaigned for a restricted franchise in referenda on Guam’s future status, as every eligible US citizen resident in Guam, including military personnel stationed there, can vote in such referenda. The newly formed Guam National Party of Chamorros is campaigning on this and other issues concerning future status. Most Chamorros wish to retain an association with the USA, most probably a Commonwealth status, but the exact form this will take still has to be determined.

(See also Micronesia)