Protecting Cultural Properties as Living Classrooms on Guam

Posted on: April 18th, 2013 by Brian R. Turner
PAGAT celebration dance

Celebrating Pågat in Downtown Hagatna | Credit: Brian R. Turner

Today is World Heritage Day, and the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) is participating in a worldwide heritage blogathon.  Brian Turner in our San Francisco Field Office contributed the following blog post.

In partnership with ICOMOS, today we are celebrating the International Day on Monuments and Sites. This year’s theme is the “Heritage of Education.” And one of the very first places in the world to greet the day is Guam, more than 8,000 miles from Washington, D.C., in the Western Pacific Ocean. Its indigenous inhabitants, the Chamorro, became U.S. citizens in 1950, though the territory has yet to achieve its self determination status. Since the 16th century, Guam has operated as a strategic outpost for Spain and the United States, and, briefly, during World War II, Japan.

In recent years, Guam has seen a resurgence of interest in the values and belief systems of the ancient Chamorro. This cultural renaissance has resulted in a resurrection of the Chamorro language particularly among the island’s youth and prompted renewed interest in traditional music and dance, arts and crafts, and medicinal practices. Educators have found that teaching about the ancient Chamorro way of life can be greatly enhanced by visiting village sites that predated Western contact. However, the U.S. military owns roughly 30 percent of the island, much of it on the island’s north side where several potential teaching areas remain. As a result, these places are virtually impossible for school groups to access given rigid base security procedures.

Enter Pågat, one of the last ancient village sites that is still publicly accessible on Guam, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Mostly owned by the Chamorro Land Trust, public access to Pågat requires a steep descent down a coastal bluff from a main highway on the island’s northeastern edge. The site includes tangible artifacts of the past life there before the Spanish forcibly removed its inhabitants in a 16th-century campaign notoriously known as reducción. Marilyn Salas, professor of culture and education at University of Guam, frequently leads groups of college students to Pågat to show them firsthand the medicinal plants, potsherds, and pillar foundations of ancient houses, known as latte stones, which have become the most cognizable symbol of the island’s pre-colonial heritage. Regarding the significance of the site as a teaching tool, Salas exclaims, “taking my students to Pågat village is the core and essence of culture and education on Guam. Teaching and learning takes place the moment we step onto the head trail.”

A central feature at Pågat is its deep limestone cave, which contains a cool pool of freshwater and requires a flashlight to enter. In addition to being a great respite from the tropical heat, one can imagine how spiritually significant the cave must have been as the only freshwater source in the area. It was the lifeblood of the village that once thrived there.

PAGAT ocean3

Pågat coastline | Credit: Brian R. Turner

Starting in 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in cooperation with We Are Guahan, and the Guam Preservation Trust successfully led an effort to keep Pågat open to the public and free from the nuisance of a complex of firing ranges. The U.S. military had proposed constructing training facilities on a nearby bluff which sparked outrage in the community. Prompted by a court ruling in 2012 in favor of heritage advocates, the military has now pledged to do additional studies, putting the threats to the site on a temporary, and hopefully permanent, hold.

I had the chance to visit Pågat several times with Joe Quinata, chief preservation officer with the Guam Preservation Trust. Quinata promotes heritage education on Guam in classic Chamorro style – with a joyous spirit and infectious enthusiasm for teaching others. Though western archeologists have confined the site’s significance to its tangible remains, Quinata explains that the site’s significance is much broader, taking into account the traditional cultural practices that take place along the eastern coast of the island. Fishing, hunting, and most importantly, medicinal practices occur seasonally in the area. On our hike he points out medicinal plants and significant breadfruit and banyan trees, and reminds travelers that respect for the whole cultural environment that supported the survival of the site’s people is necessary to true preservation. As is quite common in preservation advocacy, the efforts to “Save Pågat” have resulted in even greater attention to the site’s unique qualities and consciousness for the betterment of Guam’s heritage. It has proven that the protection of tangible places is necessarily intertwined with protecting the intangible – the values that embody the culture we put forward in the present.

About Brian R. Turner

Brian R. Turner is the senior field officer and attorney in the San Francisco Field Office.

Advocacy, Historic Sites