Chris Gelardi


‘This Isn’t Your Island’: Why Northern Mariana Islanders Are Facing Down the US Military

Read the full piece in The Nation

In April 2015, in a school cafeteria on the Pacific island of Tinian, a high-school sophomore named Jerica Aldan approached the microphone. Seated to her right were US Navy representatives, who wanted to establish a live-fire range that would encompass the majority of her 40-square-mile home. In front of her, it was standing room only—her friends and neighbors had come out to this public hearing to try to save their community from the US military.

“This isn’t your island,” she told the Navy officials in Chamorro, the indigenous language. “It’s my island.” Switching to English, she compared their plans to crumpling a clean sheet of paper into a ball—no matter how hard one tries to straighten it out, the page will never go back to how it was. “You think we can recover from this?… We can’t,” she said. The crowd erupted into applause.

Just outside of the gate to the school grounds, activists played videos of bombing exercises on their laptops, and students held posters that read, “No bombs!” Earlier that month, the military had published its plan to use Tinian—the second-most-populous of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in northwest Micronesia—as well as another entire island, Pågan, in order to practice launching mortars, firing rockets, and dropping bombs. The proposal is just one part of a larger reshuffling of US armed forces in the Pacific, and the military’s moves, some of which appear to be illegal, have unearthed tensions between the federal government and its oft-ignored territories.

In the Northern Marianas, people fear that the sounds and smells of aerial bombardment would affect daily life and wreck their tourism-based economy. They know that amphibious-assault trainings would mar their unique coral reefs and limit access to key fishing grounds. They say that artillery, shelling, and mortars would level natural and archaeological sites, destroying the indigenous community’s historic and cultural assets.

“You rent someone your home, and they decide to torch it,” Cinta Kaipat, a local activist, told The Nation.

The military has tried to downplay the destructive aspects of its plan, allegedly going as far as to withhold information from the public. But residents aren’t having it. Even though they’re a small, low-income community facing down the world’s largest military; even though their only elected representative has no voting rights in the House of Representatives; even though most mainland Americans don’t know their islands exist, much less that they’re part of the United States—they’re holding their own in the fight to protect their home.

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