Commonwealth Covenant Day, 1976


That's baby Angelo between Mom and Dad circa 1979

I’m an American citizen born on the US Territory of Guam, raised in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and have lived and worked in Washington, DC for the last decade. Most mornings I wake up, make a pot of coffee, and read the news from my back porch, where I have a view of the Wharf and the Francis Case Memorial Bridge. Every day for the last week or so, trucks from the People’s Convoy have barreled down I-395, across the bridge and into DC to block our roads and intersections in protest of perceived violations of their Freedom. There is an irony in that their definition of Freedom means they must disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of second-class American citizens living in DC. But this is nothing new to me, I’ve been a second class citizen my entire life.

Back at home in the Northern Mariana Islands, on the other side of the International Dateline, today is Commonwealth Covenant Day, the day we celebrate becoming the youngest member of the United States family. Government offices and schools will be closed, people will flock to the beaches to swim and bbq, and other than a few speeches or newspaper advertisements from elected officials, nobody will really ponder too much on what it means to be a territory of the United States.

46 years ago, on March 24, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 94-241, to approve the “Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America,” allowing our people "local self governance" for the first time since colonization, but granting the United States "sovereignty" over our islands and waters. It was a popular decision. In the months prior, eligible voting citizens of the Northern Mariana Islands overwhelmingly approved the Covenant by a vote of 78.8%. But it was not unanimous. My father, the late Ramon Garrido Villagomez proudly voted "NO."

Today, the United States, a country founded by 13 former colonies, owns 13 “unincorporated insular areas,” not including the District of Columbia. Nearly 4 million Americans citizens and nationals live in these territories; by comparison, there were only 2.5 million people living in the 13 colonies in 1776.

The people born in these U.S. territories are American citizens (except for American Samoa, who are U.S. “nationals”) and serve in the U.S. military at rates higher than any other communities in our country. Yet, we can’t vote for the U.S. president, and we have limited representation in Congress. We do not enjoy the full rights of the Constitution that the rest of Americans do and are relegated to second class citizenship.

This is a result of early 20th-century Supreme Court decisions called the Insular Cases. The court held that applying the constitutional protection of rights in the territories, including citizenship, was up to the discretion of the U.S. Congress. The prevailing court opinions at the time, which are still upheld today, included offensive language that deemed us an “alien race” of “savage and restless people'' unable to understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.”

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan was ahead of his time when he wrote in his dissent, “The idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon the earth, by conquest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or provinces, the people inhabiting them to enjoy only such rights as Congress chooses to accord them, is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the Constitution.”

My father opposed the Covenant with the United States because he envisioned Saipan being the capital of a Micronesian nation. He was a proud Chamorro, and a proud Micronesian. Our islands, passed down to us from our ancestors for thousands of years, are now “owned by, but not part of the United States.” Our government is inferior to the government of the United States, and the US Congress – where we do not have voting representation – determines which clauses of the US Constitution apply to our lives.

Dad was a prolific writer. Later in life, when he was a Northern Mariana Islands Supreme Court Justice and Chair of the Board of Regents of the Northern Mariana Islands College, his words were deliberate, and many people in the community tell me to this day how they read his letters and heeded his words.

But at the time when the Covenant was being negotiated, the community saw him as headstrong and immature, speaking up in a society where young people are expected to keep their opinions to themselves and do what their elders tell them to. Even today, it is not common in our culture for people in their twenties to put their opinions out into the public realm so freely.

I’ve collected some of his letters in Hafa Gachong: Letters to the Commonwealth, and much of what he predicted has since come to pass. Many people in our community believe we are "a Commonwealth in political union with the United States" even to this day. But we’re not. The Covenant was and is not a treaty, and Commonwealth is just a fancy name for territory, which in turn is a polite name for colony. I don't doubt there were some people who thought we were engaging in nation to nation dialogues with the United States. But the clarity of hindsight tells us the United States never did. That's how colonialism works: the Indigenous peoples always negotiate from a disadvantaged position.

So even though I live in DC today, decisions made on my behalf before I was born have real life repercussions in both my personal and professional life. Being a US territory comes with many benefits, mainly in the form of federal funding and second-class American citizenship. But I have no voting representation in the US Congress, and while I can vote for president while living in DC, I could not when I lived in the territories. In my chosen career as a conservation advocate, I must work through a system where the ultimate decisions about the future of our islands and Commonwealth are made by people in DC, many who have never been to the Marianas, and never will.

So happy Commonwealth Covenant Day to all who celebrate.

For some historical context on how the Northern Marianas became a Commonwealth in political union with the United States, I offer a letter from my father penned in 1976 days after the Covenant was approved by the U.S. Senate.  It is part of the collection of his letters contained within Hafa Gachong: Letters to the Commonwealth.
February 27, 1976
This is a time to rejoice and a time to celebrate. It is a time to laugh and a time to cry. Congratulations to the people of the Marianas for acquiring what they were made to believe they wanted and congratulations to the United States of America for successfully acquiring a new territory; a small territory which will support and strengthen its military power and influence in the Pacific World and the Far East.

For the people of the Marianas, let us extend a warm congratulations for the many things which they can now be proud of. They can be proud that two-thirds of Tinian, part of Saipan and the whole island north of Saipan now belong to the U.S. military. These lands will be reserved for contingent U.S. military installations and activities. Lord, pray for us.

The people of the Marianas can be proud that they have become a minority out of 220,000,000 people rather than a minority out of 100,000 people.

Similarly, they can be proud for becoming second-class citizens under a strange flag rather than noble citizens under their previous native flag. I am sure that they cherish more the concept of being inferior to the “mainlanders” than superior to the “district people.”

It is common knowledge that the people of the Marianas believe themselves to be superior to the people from other districts of Micronesia and inferior to Americans.

Furthermore, the people of the Marianas can be proud that they are now not represented in their national legislature (U.S. Congress) as they were in the Congress of Micronesia.

Whereas, Saipan was the capital of Micronesia, now it is a military stop-over; way out in the Pacific Ocean and only a handful of people ever get to see their great capital, the District of Columbia.

Whereas, the people of the Marianas had priority to any employment before becoming a commonwealth of the U.S., now they do not. Any qualified U.S. citizen is equally entitled to any job in the Marianas as the citizens thereof.

The people of the Marianas can be proud of that. It means that many Marianas citizens will get skinned alive when competing for jobs.

However, the people of the Marianas can obviously see something in the commonwealth status which is worth more than anything else. They can see MONEY ($).

Money has to be the most important and powerful thing for them. It is more important than brotherhood or sisterhood or family relationship. It is more important than love or religion.

It is MONEY which is breaking up homes and family ties on our small islands. It is greed for MONEY which is turning our people cold and bitter. It is greed for money which has caused our people to forget who they are, what is their identity, and to beg for commonwealth status. That they can be proud of and be congratulated for.

Nevertheless, it is money which our people have been praying for, and it is money which they are about to receive. Thanks to Uncle Sam. It is money which he has plenty of, and it is money with which he has purchased us.

CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!

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