Before the colonial era, Sabånan Fadang, on the United States island territory of Guam, was Indigenous burial grounds. Now, it’s mostly a field of flattened dirt and rock. The US military has bulldozed the site in preparation for construction of a Marine Corps base—part of a buildup of troops and facilities on Guam, a US military outpost in the Western Pacific.
This article was published with support from the Gumshoe Group and Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
“It’s down to the gravel—that’s all you can see,” Senator Therese Terlaje, speaker of the Guam legislature, told me after visiting the site, which is not open to the public. “And there are mounds of soil and grass”—grave pits the military spared from excavation. “In this entire cleared area, just little patches of grass.”
Getting only mostly flattened, Sabånan Fadang has fared better than other cultural sites of Guam’s Indigenous people, the CHamorus. In other areas, the military has found CHamoru bones and bone fragments, as well as ancient tools, ruins, and other artifacts, which it has begun to remove from their original locations and stow away. And it has done much of this effectively without CHamoru consent. Military officials are required to consult Guam authorities when they come across cultural sites, but documents that I and local media have obtained via public records requests illustrate how the military directs historic preservation and strong-arms Guam officials if they express concern over methodology and lack of care.
The military also tightly controls the release of information about the human remains and artifacts it uncovers. Military officials ravaged one historical site without telling locals and have refused to release comprehensive maps of archaeological finds. Many Guam residents think—and documents I obtained suggest—that such maps would reveal networks of ancient villages and burial sites, which could hinder the military buildup.
The hasty excavation and lack of local input has stirred up the indignation of Guam residents and CHamoru groups, who are confronting the military to save their island’s heritage.
“These are sacred sites,” said Terlaje. “But because the military needs to use them, we’re not recognizing them as sacred.”