Guam’s indigenous people, called Chamorros (SHUH-mah-rohs), first settled on the island over 3,500 years ago, likely coming by boat from Southeast Asia. According to Chamorro folklore, the god Puntan created the Earth from his body, and his twin sister, Fu’una, created Fouha Rock, where the first human beings emerged. (This landmark can still be seen in Guam today in the village of Umatac.)
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan brought European settlers to the island in 1521, and he made the island a Spanish colony by royal decree. When Spain lost the Spanish-American war in 1898, Guam (along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines) came under United States rule. But instead of being under the democratic U.S. government, Guam was placed under the control of the Secretary of the U.S. Navy.
From 1898 until 1941, U.S. military leaders controlled Guam, using the island as a military base. During World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, the Japanese occupied Guam for three years shortly after they bombed and invaded the island (just a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii). For three weeks in the summer of 1944, the United States fought to regain control of Guam. (These powerful countries wanted to use the island as a military outpost because of its location in the Pacific Ocean.) Later, the Nation Park Service constructed a monument to the Chamorros who suffered and died during the war.
Guam is the largest and southernmost island in the Mariana Islands chain, situated in the North Pacific Ocean. Formed by two former volcanoes, it’s a tropical island with a year-round average temperature of 85°F. A coral reef surrounds most of the island with over 300 types of coral and almost a thousand species of fish, making it a popular destination for snorkeling and diving. You might spot pufferfish, butterflyfish, soldierfish, trumpetfish, giant clams, sea turtles, and reef sharks in the water. Guam has five marine protected areas (Pati Point, Piti Bomb Holes, Sasa Bay, Achang Reef Flat, and Tumon Bay), created to help preserve the coral.
The Guam kingfisher, Rota white-eye, and the Guam rail are the island’s endemic bird species, meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth. Known to Chamorros as the ko'ko', the Guam rail is the territory’s national bird. For almost 40 years, the species had been extinct in the wild because of the invasive brown tree snake, which probably came to Guam during World War II on cargo ships. But in 2019, the Guam rail was successfully reintroduced into the wild and is now classified as critically endangered. It’s only the second bird in history to recover from extinction in the wild.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Chamorros make up almost 40 percent of the population, while Filipinos (people native to the island-country of the Philippinnes) make up about 26 percent. More groups include people from other Asian and South Pacific countries. About 70 percent of Guam’s population lives in the capital, Hagåtña (huh-GAHT-nyuh).
Coconuts, bananas, rice, and taro (a root vegetable) are indigenous to the island and are a big part of the local diet. Popular dishes include hineksa’ agaga’, which is red rice; chicken kelaguen, which is chicken seasoned with lemon, coconut, and hot red peppers; and Chamorro barbecue, meat marinated with soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar. Grilled seafood—especially tunua—is also important to Guam’s food culture. Finadenne (FIH-nuh-DEH-nee), a dipping sauce made with vinegar, soy sauce, and peppers, is commonly found in homes and restaurants in Guam, and many families have their own unique recipe.
About 85 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, so fiestas—week-long celebrations to honor the patron saint of a village—are an important part of the culture. During the fiesta, large buffet-style meals feed the entire community. Sometimes families spend weeks preparing dishes for the event.
When Guam was governed by the U.S. Navy starting in 1898, the island didn’t have its own government. But that changed in 1950 with the Organic Act of Guam, which established a non-military government on Guam; granted U.S. citizenship to residents of the island; and made official the island’s political status as an unincorporated territory of the United States (meaning that not all of the U.S. Constitution automatically applies to it). The people of Guam elect their governor, lieutenant governor, and members of their Senate and House of Representatives to make laws on the island.
Guam also sends a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives who has a voice in debates and a vote in committees, but no vote on the House floor. Citizens of Guam can’t vote for the U.S. president. A 2016 poll found that most Guam residents would vote in favor of U.S. statehood, but the decision to make Guam a state lies with the U.S. Congress.
- American journalist Ann Curry was born in Guam.
- In Chamorro culture, women are the heads of the family. (This system is called a matriarchy.)
- Guam has one of the tallest mountains on Earth, Mount Lamlam, but most of the mountain is underwater so it only rises 1,332 feet above sea level.
- Ancient Chamorro people constructed large stone pillars called latte structures. These pillars looked a bit like mushrooms, and they were placed in rows so important buildings could rest on top of them, high off the ground.