Sam Barnett explores decolonization and roots through writing

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May 11, 2018

Sam Barnett presenting at the United Nations fourth committee in fall 2017.

(Courtesy of Sam Barnett) Sam Barnett presenting at the United Nations fourth committee in fall 2017.

Writing

“Writing has always been deeply connected to decolonization,” Sam Barnett said. “I think that Guam is a story, a story that we learn from other people, a story that we keep telling, and I just want to see that story thrive and have that kind of future.”

When Barnett, a third year at Mills, speaks, it very quickly becomes clear the thought invested and depth of her knowledge as words pour from her mouth, heavy with intricate ruminations that are easy to miss amid her swirling ideas.

“There’s her political activism, she may seem very quiet, but she’s always taking everything in. She puts all these things together in a collage in her writing. She writes through her family there’s moments in our history that are significant,” Barnett’s adopted godmother, Victoria Leon Guerrero said. “I said Sam is quiet, but when it’s’ time to speak up against injustices she’s very vocal.”

As a Native Chamorro, Sam has “grown up” into the decolonization movement, as she put it, becoming increasingly involved throughout high school and now during college. Writing has become a way to access her history, and her people’s stories.

“I think I’m a writer in that I’m not just dedicated to being able to write my own truths but also help other people write them as well and to help other people find their outlets and ways to tell their stories,” Barnett said. “Especially because I’m from this place where we have so many stories that aren’t told or that aren’t published, that are dying with our elders because we are an oral culture. I just feel this urgency to tell stories about Guam and to tell stories about my people and to make them real and make them remembered.”

Sam’s history

Sam grew up on Guam, moving away only for college. As a teenager, she became interested in the decolonization movement and that only grew stronger once she left the island for college. She transferred to Mills in her second year from Bennington College, after finding that Bennington’s environment wasn’t for her.

“I think that’s where I started to think about race for the first time in that context,” Barnett said. “I had never had to explain anything about my culture or about Guam’s political status to anyone before, so encountering that from this totally other part of the world, it felt like there was no connection to anything that was meaningful to me or my identity while I was there.”

She transferred to Mills the next year, after learning about Mills from one of her mentors, Victoria Leon Guerrero, who became her adopted godmother. While at Mills, Barnett has continued her involvement with the decolonization movement, working with a group focused on decolonization called Independent Guåhan, and spoke to the United Nations Fourth Committee, The Special Political and Decolonization Committee, last fall 2017.

First published at nine years old, according to Guerrero, Barnett has always been a writer. Now majoring in Ethnic Studies with a minor in Creative Writing, Barnett says she uses writing as a way to decolonize her mind and has continued writing throughout her college career, most recently published in Kinalamten Gi Pasifku: Insights from Oceania, a local Chamoru anthology.

But while writing can be for herself, it can also be for her people.

Guam and the U.S.

Barnett pointed to one historical moment that changed Guam’s culture and relationship with the U.S.

“Guam was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, which was because we were a U.S. territory already and it was because of American presence on the island that the Japanese were motivated to come and occupy,” Barnett said. “The U.S. knew that they were coming, they evacuated all of their people and left the Chamorro people to live through that occupation and didn’t warn anyone of what was going to happen. Towards the end of WWII, they returned to recapture Guam.”

Barnett said that it was framed as a liberation movement, and that towards the end of the war a lot of Chamorros were put into concentration camps and work camps by the Japanese.

“So their memories and their experiences of it were that they were going through this terrible time and then the American military returned and ‘liberated’ them,” Barnett said, “so that’s now why we’re indebted to the U.S. because of that moment of saving. That’s the story that everyone hears.”

Because of the liberation narrative, Barnett says she thinks a lot of people are scared if the military leaves.

“That’s interesting too, because if you look at how Guam has been threatened by other countries in the past, it’s all because the U.S. was there and we were a pawn in these global wars,” Barnett said.

One of the beginnings of Barnett’s interest in the decolonization movement stemmed from learning about “Liberation Day.” She said that the military shuts down the streets in the main village and holds a parade with floats in celebration of Guam being ‘liberated’ by the U.S. military. When she asked her dad about the event, he demonstrated the situation as if she and her cousin were playing with a toy.

“I would be Guam, my cousin would be Japan, and we’re fighting over something and then the third person comes in, who would be the U.S., and he kills my cousin, who is Japan,” Barnett said, “but I don’t get the toy, he takes the toy away. Nobody gets anything but you’re still alive and you’re not fighting with anyone anymore. It’s just that idea of ‘were we ever liberated?’

When Barnett met Kerri-Ann Borja, they realized that they had “similar moment of awakening,” as Barnett called it, talking with their fathers about Liberation day.

“Liberation is actually defined: when you go in and liberate a people, you go in, do what you need to do, and you get out, but the U.S. never left,” Barnett said. “They stayed long after that military liberation was ever needed.”

Preserving Guam’s history

One elder told Barnett a story that seemed fused into her mind. During WWII, during the Japanese occupation, fires weren’t allowed, but this man’s mother built one to cook food for her family, Barnett explained. A soldier discovered them, and whipped his mother until the stick snapped in two, and not once did his mother cry, Barnett said, she just stayed silent.

“Because she didn’t get to speak, that’s why I’m speaking out now,” Barnett said. “It’s just all those people who didn’t have a voice, why it’s so important for us to speak out now which is why I think I’m so dedicated to being a writer and helping to preserve these stories that we don’t get to hear about.”

Barnett worried aloud that many WWII survivors are passing away, and their stories with them.

“If we don’t keep these things going, they’re going to be lost to us. A lot of these elders are passing away already and they’re like a lot of the people who have memories of the land that we are no longer able to access,” Barnett said.

When asked what is central to her identity, Barnett responded “that urgency that I feel about demilitarization, decolonization and independence for Guam and how that’s something that’s so personal for me and that I can trace throughout my family history how its impacted each generation and just feeling so entangled in that.”

This urgency to tell the intergenerational stories of trauma and its echoes throughout history, and how those stories relate to the larger forces of the effects the U.S. military presence has had on Native Chamorros, makes up a large part of the stories that spill out from Sam’s memories.

Displacement, the land, and Guam’s ancestors feature strongly through her considerations. She says she mostly writes about trauma that her father’s side of the family has experienced, but she spoke about her mother’s side as well.

“I knew that my great-grandmother on my mom’s side was from Sumay, which was this Chamorro village that was taken over by the military after the war. Today it’s a military base, and all the people were forced to leave and evacuate and they created this new village right next door,” Barnett said. “I feel like when you hear about people being displaced from their land, they have to go somewhere far away. But we are literally next door to our land and we can’t ever go back. Just that idea of growing up right next to something and not being able to return to it.”

The military’s presence on the island is entangled with each story, in some way, even her own.

“I grew up with helicopters flying over in the mornings, they use Guam as practice for war, practice for killing each other, that’s their purpose there. I grew up on that,” Barnett said. “Growing up in it, things are weird, but you don’t realize how intense it is, growing up on a military base, until you return to one. Because coming to the U.S. I knew that there weren’t fences here, but to see that reality, and to go back home and see that again..”

But the effects of the military’s presence extends to areas that are unknown. Barnett recalled when 8,000 troops were transferred from Okinawa because citizens were protesting their presence because of sexual violence.

“We were getting all their troops who were known to be sexually violent. When I was growing up, you would see these stickers on the backs of people’s cars that would say “8,000: how will they change our lives?” Barnett said. “In the face of that, in the face of military buildup, the U.S. military started to justify taking more of our land in preparation for that. For military housing, and training.”

Now, one of the issues that Barnett addressed in her testimony at the United Nations was concerning Litekyan, a sacred area on Guam. The U.S. military proposed building a live firing range over the site, Barnett said, which would fire “something like 6.8 million bullets a year.” Not only does that desecrate a sacred space, Barnett says it’s directly over an aquifer that supplies a majority of water.

At the UN (experience, symbolic of Guam’s invisibility in international communications)

When Barnett spoke at the United Nations on the proposed plan for Litekyan, she was not alone. Chamorros in the diaspora and from Guam came together to prepare and speak on Guam’s militarization and related issues. While she stressed the magic energy of having that community there, Barnett also noticed something. The chairman was in the front, and all the nations sat facing him, she said, and then her and her group sat behind them.

“Sometimes they don’t look at you,” Barnett said. “It was such a visible representation of being voiceless in this international convening of nations that’s supposed to be here to promote peace and justice worldwide. In reality, most of them are in the pockets of the U.S.”

With only four minutes to speak, Barnett said she juggled the balance of numbers and facts, and personal stories, including the story of the elder whose mother was whipped but never cried. While the experience wasn’t what she expected, the gathering of Chamorros was a renewal, Barnett said.

Guerrera called Barnett a “leader in the movement,” having observed her through their many conversations.

“She doesn’t strike me as someone who needs immediate results. She’s working for lasting change,” Guerrera said. “We may never see in our lifetime what we want…But we’re going to keep fighting for it.”

This patience emerges again in her writing, as Barnett says something she appreciated about learning from former Mills professor Vivian Chin was the editing process.

“Something that I loved about Vivian’s classes is that whenever we wrote something, it was never the end,” Barnett said. “We went through all these revision processes in a way that made writing a community activity as opposed to something you do by yourself and then you produce something and you walk away from it.”

And while many of the issues they covered benefit from international attention, Barnett said that some of the battle for decolonization is also with the minds of her fellow Chamorros.

“I think it’s so easy for me to be outspoken out here, but I’m still scared to talk to my family about this,” Barnett said. “It’s easy to talk to the U.N. about it because they have no context, but trying to explain it to your own people who have been colonized for 500 years, that’s really scary. I feel like that’s going to be a whole other journey — going back and doing that work at home. Doing it out here is a way of training and it’s a way of growing up into it, but it’s not the same as doing it with your own people. That’s going to be so much harder.”

Finding community in the bay

Some of those members who spoke at the United Nations were Barnett’s close friends. Guerrera attended, as well as San Francisco State University (SFSU) Race and Resistance Studies professor Kerri-Ann Borja and USF student Alaina Arroyo. Borja and Barnett met on Guam, and then reconnected when Barnett interviewed Borja for a story for The Campanil. Borja’s work was featured in an event at SFSU, and they got to know each other better after that. Arroyo and Barnett connected through instagram, when they saw they were both interested in the decolonization of Guam.

“I even found a community of Chamoru activists out here. It’s interesting how being away from home has brought me closer to home and brought me closer to my cultural identity because of the people that I met out here,” Barnett said.

Being mixed, Barnett said that it was a process of understanding her Chamorro side, and Guerrera pushed her to think critically, giving her the language of the possibility of Guam’s sovereignty. When she moved to the Bay area, met Kerri and got more involved in the independence movement, she said everything started shifting.

Although Barnett says she’s learned a lot about movements and other people of colors’ experiences and how to relate those to Chamorros experiences, being away from Guam takes something away from her.

I just feel like I’m less powerful when I’m not on my land,” Barnett said. “When I’m home I feel the energy of my ancestors shoot right through me and that’s where I get my power. I hope I can try and keep that with me when I come out here, and it’s scary to be away for longer and longer amounts of time because I feel like I become more and more invisible.”

At Mills

While Barnett has been able to find and explore parts of herself during her time at Mills, she came back for her second year at Mills to the massive faculty layoffs.

“At a place like Mills that markets social justice as its mission statement, it was really striking for me to think of Mills and this really white school that I had started out with seemed so polar opposite,” Barnett said, “but on an institutional level, these decisions are being made in a way that doesn’t ever really benefit people of color or really centers our voices.”

Former Mills College ethnic studies professor Vivian Chin had a profound impact on Barnett, as Chin approached works like they were never finished, texts as though they were ancestors, and dissected the ways that language can hide the actual meaning. Barnett said Chin would take partial text from emails that Mills College President Beth Hillman sent out and revealed the ways language can obscure meaning.

“My whole world erupted from being in her classes and hearing her speak and learning how to write from her,” Barnett said. “Because writing was something that always came to me naturally, but I never really thought about all the power dynamics that were inside of it, and how intentional you could be in how you’re choosing to write things.”

Barnett has continued writing, first for the Campanil as Opinions Editor, and then for The Womanist as the Editor-in-Chief. She left at the end of last semester, after addressing the Campanil’s racist history and its history as a white space. 

“How feasible is it really to change something from the inside versus doing something else like The Womanist that is made by and for people of color and hasn’t come from this racist tradition. I guess I’m less interested in trying to change things from within versus building new things,” Barnett said. “That’s why I feel like I’m learning so much while I’m out here, but it’s also just like you’re screaming into this white liberal void…I know I just have to bring it all back home.”

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Going Home :: Guam holds her heart

While Barnett can build new things with The Womanist, she can’t build a new Guam. Working within the movement, she says that there’s work both politically and within the Chamorro community itself.

After leaving Guam, Barnett says her writing output increased, because she wrote about home. Once she found her community of Bay Area Chamorros, she said they told each other stories.

“Storytelling was our way of going back home when we weren’t able to. We would all talk about our memories from home, our family members and having all this tension about trying to talk to our families about independence,” Barnett said. “I think it’s about getting people to think about these things and decolonize their minds…That’s where the real work is. It feels like it’s twofold, like actually advocating politically for our independence and speaking to international bodies, but then the other part of it is talking to our people and decolonizing our own community. There’s so much work to be done.”

Some things that Barnett misses about Guam is being warm, being brown and the natural beauty.

“I miss this nameless feeling that I get when I’m there. Sometimes it’s just me and no one else is around and maybe the sun just set and you hear the wind moving through the jungle or something but I get this feeling like I’m not alone,” Barnett said. “The whole creation story of Guam is that Fu’una lay down her body to make the land so our land is literally our ancestor, and I feel that. I feel both this ancestor voice in my ear and this rooting inside of me. That idea that the presence of our ancestors is so strong and you cannot feel that anywhere else.”

She also misses her family. Both her parents had a large impact on her, and she admires her father’s work in activism before he turned to supporting his family.

“My dad being able to do these funny skits on his TV show and getting people to laugh and then stop and think that, “Oh, this is fucked up.” That’s how you get people to actually remember things, accessing that emotion,” Barnett said. “What’s going to be my way of doing that? That’s something I want to learn from him. How do we tell these stories in a way that people who are actually affected by oppression can use them to empower themselves and educate themselves?”

She loves that you can’t be anonymous because Guam is so small.

“That is what makes me feel invisible,” Barnett said. “If you don’t know me and my family, do I even exist?”

Writing now

As she continues writing, Barnett says she struggles with asking permission. In Guam, she says they have a tradition of asking for permission from their ancestors to be in a certain space, and now she finds it difficult to know when telling stories may be powerful, or disrespectful to her community.

“That idea of asking for permission I think has overshadowed a lot of my work because I don’t ever write about my white family, you know? I only ever write about my Chamorro family and the shit that they’ve been through,” Barnett said.

She returns to the story of the man who watched as his mother was whipped and never cried. She said he told her she could retell the story.

“That has been sticking with me ever since, and I feel that story found its way to me in a way to teach me to speak,” Barnett said. “It was a foundational moment for me, thinking about all the women in the past who haven’t been able to do that and why there’s the urgency for me to do that now.”

While Barnett feels she may be struggling with entering the storytelling space, Arroyo sees her writing as powerful.

“Her work is always tied back to storytelling and how we tell our stories as Indigenous people who have survived hundreds of years of trauma. Sam is incredibly poetic in her speaking and in her writing and how she presents herself as being Chamoru,” Arroyo wrote in an email. “Sam never forgets to center our ancestors, elders and most importantly our women in everything that she does.”

Borja agrees, and when asked to pick a few words to describe Barnett, chose the word maga’håga. The word is native Chamorro for the female leader of a clan, and “represented the highest level of power and authority in ancient Chamorro society,” according to Guampedia.

Hopes

Barnett has interned at Pacific Daily News and Aunt Lute, a San Francisco publishing house that has printed authors like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua and Alice Walker. This coming summer, she plans to intern at the University of Guam’s Press.

Arroyo believes that Barnett will blossom in whatever she chooses to do. “Wherever her journey takes her, one think I do know is that she will do everything she can to heal our people and our island(s),” Arroyo wrote. “Her commitment to the movement and to independence will always navigate her way to Guåhan and to our Chamoru people.”

For Borja, who has been working in the movement for ten years, Barnett’s involvement signals something else.

Being able to see a younger generation doing this work, whether it’s going to work, going to school, being critical, being able to make connections and making those connections between people and those struggles,” Borja said. “For me, after organizing for ten years , it’s beautiful to know that the work is still continuing.”

While she hopes to live to see Guam’s gain independence, Barnett also recalls a quote from Ed Benavente, a leader in the decolonization movement. It expressed the message that although he may not see decolonization in his lifetime, he can see it for his children and their children.

“I think that is really common with Indigenous people: that multi-generational perspective,” Barnett said. “It’s not just you, it’s everyone who came before you, it’s everyone who going to come after.”

If she does live to see independence, she’s not quite sure what it would look like.

“There’s so many different possible futures and I think that’s where it’s exciting, because a lot of people in the independence movement are artists and they come from creative backgrounds,” Barnett said. “I’m also thinking about me as a writer, how it’s exciting to lean into that uncertainty, even though that’s what’s the most scary.”

But her long term dream is to start a publishing house that raises the histories and voices of Chamorros and other Pacific Islanders.

“I get this feeling of ‘we’re going to be okay,’ even though I don’t know what that means.”


Sam Barnett explores decolonization and roots through writing was published on May 11, 2018 in News

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