Archaeologists aren’t of one mind about the exact ancient history of the people who initially populated the Marianas, but most suggest people first arrived from Southeast Asia, likely from Indonesia, about two thousand years B.C. The people came to be called the Chamorro, and they developed their own language as well as a particularly stratified social structure that is fairly similar to that in place in other Micronesian nations. While the Chamorro social code strongly emphases cooperation, independence and shared property, there is also a strict social hierarchy with three classes:
— matua: upper class, who lived in coastal villages near the best fishing grounds,
— achaot: middle class, who sometimes acted as intermediaries between the upper and lower classes, and
— mana’chang: lower class, who lived in the interior and didn’t have access to the economic bounty on the shore.
Chamorro culture also includes belief in spirits of ancient Chamorros called “Taotao Mo’na,” who are believed to haunt mountains and other natural spaces in the Marianas, as well as, according to Guam-online, “the kissing of the hands of elders, passing of legends, music (which we’ll discuss below), dance, chants, courtship rituals, handicrafts, burial rituals, preparation of herbal medicines, and requesting forgiveness from spiritual ancestors when entering a jungle.”
The first European visitors to the Marianas arrived with Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing on behalf of Spain, in 1521. The Wikipedia entries on Guam and the Northern Marianas, which are two separate but intertwined entries for reasons we’ll soon discover,
offer two separate anecdotes about Magellan’s first experience in the islands:
From the entry on Guam:
“When Magellan arrived on Guam, he was greeted by hundreds of small outrigger canoes that appeared to be flying over the water, due to their considerable speed. These outrigger canoes were called Proas, and resulted in Magellan naming Guam Islas de las Velas Latinas (‘Islands of the Lateen Sails.'”)
Or, from the entry on the Northern Marianas:
“[Magellan’s] ships were met offshore by the native Chamorros, who delivered refreshments and then helped themselves to a small boat belonging to Magellan’s fleet. This led to a cultural clash, since in Chamorro tradition there was little private property and taking something one needed, such as a boat for fishing, was not considered stealing. The Spanish did not understand this custom. The Spanish fought against the local Chamorros until the boat was recovered. The Spanish then gave the archipelago the name Islas de los Ladrones (‘Islands of the Thieves.'”
Whatever Magellan called the islands, he didn’t stick around long. According to Wikipedia’s Northern Marianas entry, “Three days after he had been welcomed on his arrival, Magellan fled the archipelago under attack.”
The Spanish returned to the Marianas in 1565 and colonized the islands about a hundred years later, making them part of the Spanish East Indies. Over time an estimated 90%-95% of the islands’ original Chamorro population either died from diseases they caught from the Spanish or married non-Chamorro settlers. The Spanish also brought new settlers from the Philippines and from throughout the Carolines, especially from Yap and Chuuk, to repopulate the islands.
Spain colonized the Marianas more intensely than most of the other islands in the Carolines, turning the islands into a regular stopover for its naval fleet, an essential stop on the route between Mexico and the Philippines. The Spanish built forts in the Marianas to protect their ships but still lost Guam to the United States in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War; the U.S. turned it into one if its main ports for American travels back and forth from the Philippines. In 1899 the Spanish sold the islands in the north of the chain to Germany.
Early in World War I Japan declared war on Germany and invaded the Northern Marianas, leaving Guam to the United States. Japan turned the Northern Marianas into a sugar cane exporter and imported a substantial amount of labor from Japanese colonies such as Okinawa and Korea. By 1939 the total population of the Japanese “South Pacific Mandate,” which covered most of Micronesia, was about 130,000; more than 75,000 was ethnic Japanese.
The Japanese followed its December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor with a December 8th, 1941 invasion and occupation of Guam. The Japanese had controlled the Northern Marianas for a generation by that point and brought Japanese-speaking Chamorros from the Northern Marianas as part of the occupying force in Guam, leading to complicated relations between the two now-separated Chamorro groups. The harsh Japanese occupation of Guam included concentration camps, family separation and forced labor among other awful impositions. The U.S.-led battles in 1944 to retake the Northern Marianas and Guam were incredibly brutal, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties, most of them Japanese.
Today, Guam is an “unincorporated territory of the United States.” In 1950 Guam’s citizens became citizens of the U.S. though they’re not allowed to vote for president or have voting representation in Congress. (They don’t have a senator but do have a representative in the House, though the representative can’t vote on legislation.) Though Guamanians elect their own governor and have their own court system, the U.S. Congress can overturn any law passed in Guam. As an unincorporated territory, Guam has no defined legal path to statehood. (Read Guampedia’s article about Guam’s political status.)
After World War II, the Northern Marianas became a United Nations Trust Territory under the administration of the United States. In the 1960s the Northern Marianas approved a referendum to reunify with Guam but Guam rejected it, citing a continuing rift between the Northern Marianas Chamorros and Guamanian Chaomorros that developed during the Japanese occupation. (Though the idea keeps coming back up.) In the ’70s the Northern Marianas decided not to become independent but instead to become closer to the U.S. In 1978 the Northern Marianas became the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and in 1986 the deal was finally sealed, granting U.S. citizenship to CNMI residents. Like Guam, the Marianas now have a non-voting representative in the House, though no senator. Unlike Guam, as a commonwealth the Marianas presumably has slightly more political autonomy than Guam. Originally the negotiation allowed the Northern Marianas the ability to decide its own minimum wage and immigration system, though Congress has since asserted control of both.
Currently Guam is anticipating an announced buildup of U.S. military forces that will have a substantial effect on the island’s population and culture; the U.S. military plans to relocate around 8,000 troops and 20,000 or so support personnel from Okinawa, integrating into Guam’s population of about 175,000. The buildup deadlines keep shifting, but the controversy surrounding what the buildup will mean to Guam is intensifying. [The official GuamBuildup.com website supports it | U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson “jokingly” says the buildup will cause Guam to “capsize.”]
More informationabout Chamorros, Guam and the Northern Marianas:
The extraordinary Guampedia.com: everything you’d ever want to know about Guam | A beginner’s guide to Chamorro language and culture | What are latte stones? The unique latte stones of Guam | Who is really Guamanian?: “Regardless of bloodline, if you’re born or naturalized on Guam, you are Guamanian. You could be any race and, born on Guam, you are Guamanian. If you have lineage to the old Tataotao, you are Polynesian by blood. Depending on where you live in the Pacific, including the Mariana Islands, determines what type of Polynesian you are–Marianan, Micronesian, Samoan, Hawaiian, Tahitian. You’re a part of the struggle for self-determination.” | The two U.S. planes that dropped nuclear bombs on Japan at the end of the war took off from the Northern Marianas | Not everyone realized World War II ended when World War II ended; Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi hid in a jungle cave on Guam until 1972. Learn about Shoichi Yokoi. Also, how did Yokoi, and another former Japanese soldier who hid for decades on the Philippines, survive for so long? | Is Guam changing its name to Guahan?