Independence and Liberation, 2020 Edition

Today is American Independence Day.  Even without Covid-19, it's an Independence Day unlike any other, and I thought it would be a good time to revisit a blog I wrote 10 years ago, Independence and Liberation.  

The New York Times published a story today, "Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message."  People with a greater grasp of history and current events will better encapsulate how we came to this watershed moment, and the role played by the Covid-10 pandemic, but it was certainly ignited by the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent acts of police brutality all across the country.

This has led to a period of national introspection wherein racist imagery is literally being pulled down across the country, from the monuments in Richmond, VA to the confederate flags at NASCAR events.  Even the Washington football club is considering changing their name.  

In my lifetime, the legacies of slavery, colonialism, genocide, and racism have largely been pushed to the margins of our national discussion as the dominant culture has tried to remake us into a colorblind society.  While issues of race affect all people of color, they are particularly acute for Black and Indigenous Americans only a few generations removed from enslavement and genocide.  And while the issues are different, I see parallels between current efforts to become anti-racist and to de-colonize.



Scene in the Camp at Chalan Kanoa. Photograph from the CNMI Museum.

Back on Saipan, the local government doesn't officially recognize Independence Day; we celebrate something we call Liberation Day, which coincidentally also happens to fall on the Fourth of July.  The two holidays look and feel very similar.  We barbecue and drink American beer on the beach while we wait for the parade to start.  There is usually a carnival in town with games and food, and at night we set off fireworks.

While Independence Day celebrates the anniversary of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, Liberation Day commemorates the day in 1946 Chamorro people living on Saipan were liberated from the US Military.

For two years after the invasion of Saipan, the Indigenous people of Saipan (and the Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean civilians living there before the invasion) were forced to live in a concentration camp called Camp Susupe. Our Liberation came when the United States released us from living in this cage.  


Camp Susupe (Japanese Section) Saipan, 1944. Photograph courtesy of the CNMI Historic Preservation Office.

The annual celebration of Liberation Day is supposed to remind us of our democracy's beginnings, beginnings much humbler than those of the land- and slave-owning gentlemen who signed the US Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Yet today there are some people on Saipan who think Liberation Day is a celebration of our liberation from the Japanese!

We should not forget that Liberation Day only commemorates Saipan's liberation from the Japanese in the sense that it commemorates the end of the war's hostilities and America's need for a launching pad to invade Japan.  In essence, we traded one military empire for that of another.

Paradoxically, today we celebrate our liberation from and relationship to the United States on the same day. The release from Camp Susupe on July 4, 1946, set the Indigenous people down the path towards self-government, something we have not had since Magellan "discovered" the islands in 1521 and Queen Mariana decided we should be Catholic in 1668, and importantly, something we have yet to achieve.

We inched closer on January 9, 1978 when we became a "Commonwealth in political union with the United States." Yet as the newest American colony, we are still unrepresented in the US Congress and cannot vote for our commander in chief.  

And we are not alone.  Five million mostly Black and Indigenous Americans live in the US territories and Washington, DC.  We serve in the military at higher rates than any demographic, pay our taxes*, yet our lives are affected by decisions made by officials in the Congress and White House** we had no role in electing.

As the national drumbeat of anti-racism grows, I hope there is parallel growth in the de-colonization of America.  The United States should not have colonies in the 21st Century, and all Americans deserve the right to vote.  These are basic values agreed to at the founding of our country.

I published a version of this on The Saipan Blog in 2010.

*not all the territories pay federal taxes

**DC voters participate in the Electoral College

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