- The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands
Posing the provocative question, "What is it like to be a colonial subject of the greatest democracy on Earth?" Vanessa Warheit's The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands encourages closer consideration of the complex and ongoing colonial history of the Chamorro people. The 2009 release of the documentary resurrects age-old questions about the cost of the relationship between the indigenous peoples of the Marianas and their present-day US administration. Shot entirely on location in the Marianas and including archival footage, such questions are placed within an "onthe-ground," contemporary context that remains largely relevant and accessible across generational, social, economic, and cultural lines. No longer are Chamorros framed simply as "colonial subjects" as they are so frequently in canonical texts. Rather, these subjects are afforded faces and names giving audiences an intimate and up-close look into contemporary life in the Marianas and the realities of modern colonialism in the region.
Insular Empire takes on a task often avoided by most historians—that of considering the Marianas as a collective unit that shares significant ties despite divergent colonial trajectories following the initial geopolitical [End Page 262] division of the culturally homogenous Marianas in 1898. Insular Empire offers a much-needed, nuanced glimpse into the complex journeys of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands toward US territorial and commonwealth statuses. In doing so, the film offers a broad look at the manner in which US imperialism has affected the indigenous Chamorros and longtime Carolinian residents of these islands in relatively similar ways in spite of their otherwise separate colonial histories.
Warheit's documentary makes great strides in tracing the convoluted histories of US administration in Guam and the Northern Marianas, highlighting the core limitations imposed on the people of the islands by the United States. These limitations rest primarily in limited US citizenship, the absence of absolute guarantees to constitutional rights and liberties, and the retention of plenary powers by the US Congress over the islands and their residents. Such limitations are all too often dismissed as a small price to pay for the benefits of association with the United States. While Warheit acknowledges those benefits, she also offers critical and stimulating examination of the injustices inherent in these colonial situations. In particular, Warheit foregrounds the ambivalence felt among those in these islands who are never completely within the fold of the US polity, nor completely released from it.
Indigenous ambivalence toward the United States is articulated in the film through four prominent community leaders and activists: Hope Alvarez Cristobal and the late Carlos Pangelinan Taitano of Guam, and Lino Olopai and Pete Tenorio of Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Each individual story affords a personal glance at the ongoing struggle in the Marianas toward some measure of parity between the island governments and the US federal government. Ranging from outright protest against US colonialism offered by Cristobal and Olopai, to efforts toward cooperation and collaboration as embodied by Taitano and Tenorio, the individual stories that emerge reflect the extent to which indigenous communities have actively responded to the US presence in and control over the islands.
Although the four individuals featured in the film offer invaluable insight into key resistance movements in the islands, Insular Empire proves limited in its scope in that these individuals largely belong to what can be characterized as elite circles and for the most part represent the indigenous intelligentsia. Grassroots resistance movements and the recent rise in activism among Chamorro youth in particular are almost completely ignored. Moreover, save for a few sparse clips of individuals voicing these concerns that remain in the shadow of the others, Warheit fails to adequately address the more pronounced, and even hostile, calls for political independence and a complete separation of the Marianas from the United States. Although these calls for more radical change...