Monday, April 13, 2009


Over the next couple entries, I'll probably be writing about my trip. I want to take the time to highlight each of the islands, because they all have different histories and cultures, and I feel like I learned so so much.

I was in the Pacific Islands because we had a cooperative agreement with the Dept of Justice to do an assessment on SA in US territories. We met with the governor, Attorney general, governmental entities, lawmakers, police, judges, community leaders and victim survivors, to find out gaps in services of each territory.

The first island I want to talk about is Saipan, maybe because it reminds me most of my homeland. Although it is predominantly Christian, they still have strong beliefs in their pre-colonized spiritual heritage. The people of Saipan believe that when you walk into the woods, you should not shout or make a lot of noise because it is disrespecting of spirits. Perhaps everywhere believes that, but we were warned - they probably assumed we would act American - disrespectful and obnoxious!

I don't want to make it sound so exotic or mysterious, like an oblivious tourist, but there are so many things that made me feel connected to something more than what was right in front of me. Like untouched beaches that looked like no people had ever been there, or like the Grotto we got to see, which is a beautiful hidden cave underwater. The water the purest blue water I could have imagined.

The part of the trip that stays with me the most was a visit to Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff. Saipan's indigenous Chamorro population was first colonized by the Spaniards, then another European country I can't remember, then Japan, and in the presnt day, the US. (Many of you all know that just like all the US territories, as well as Puerto Rico and DC, the people who live here do not have equal representation in our federal government.) So during WWII, there were several thousand Japanese civilians who had settled in Saipan - subjects of the colonizer.

During WWII, when they saw the American ships coming to land there, they knew Japan had been defeated, and they feared torture at the hands of America, so entire families - men, women, children, elderly - jumped to their death at Suicide cliff and Banzai cliff, one was above land, one was above water. Several hundred died. In American history, this is considered a great achievement, and it is told to us as Japanese soldiers who commited ritual suicide. But according to the locals, it was not only soldiers but families. There were so many bodies that ships couldn't dock. They say it was a horrific scene, it's very heartbreaking to think about. But every year, both Christian priests and Buddhist monks from Saipan, Japan, and all over the world, come to Saipan to honor and bless the dead. It is something none of us had ever heard of before, and it was an intense and sad experience.

We also learned that it was from Saipan that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

It's hard for me to let go of this memory, because it reminds me of the deperation of people when there is war around them. It is familiar to me because of the experience of myself, my family and my people.

For many of us here, we only know of Saipan because we know it's home to many of America's sweatshops. In order to get the "Made in the USA" label, they produce in Saipan, but still pay and treat the laborers as poorly as anywhere in the world. So much of the labor that creates "Made in the USA" are actually Asian and Pacific Islanders. Our companies tell us they are responsible and the real irresponsible companies are in Asia - but they are exploiting labor as bad as anyone in the world. It has a huge impact on the island's economy.

Despite all the colonization, the people still hold true to their culture and values as the indigenous Chamorro people. Of course, just like Native Americans, there's not a lot of pure Chamorros anymore, most are mixed with European and Asian blood.

Here, Asians and Pacific Islanders are lumped together - but there, there is a pretty big difference, and everyone acknowledges the distinctions.

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