Editorial | Happy Liberation Day NMI!

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“For every Chamorro and Carolinian family, the invasion was a harrowing experience. Apart from the danger, they soon ran out of food and water, and their clothing was shredded to rags; they were in wretched condition when they finally reached the safety of internment camps.”

— “Saipan: The Ethnology of a War-Devastated Island,” by Dr. Alexander Spoehr

WHEN the local people were finally allowed to leave Camp Chalan Kanoa 74 years ago, they had to return to a new world strewn with the debris of a war not of their making, and not of their choice. The local people had no enemies, but the bullets and the bombs did not know that. The war was not their war, but it was their community that was “torn by the roots.” It was their homes and their livelihood that were destroyed. It was the local people who had lost all their material possessions and, worse, several of their more unfortunate family members.

On July 4, 1946, after being kept behind barbed wire for over a year, the local people were “granted freedom of movement,” as American anthropologist and author Alexander Spoehr would put it. They were “free” to wander on their ruined, ordnance-littered island — except in the “restricted areas.”

No matter. What they still had was just as important and more indispensable: their traditional values grounded in faith and family. And these were enough as they tried to adapt to their radically changed circumstances. Under the U.S. flag, Dr. Spoehr said, a “local economy soon developed that depended essentially on government employment. The extent of farming…was minimal.”

But there was also the American promise of self-determination which the U.S. eventually redeemed. And so the local people freely chose political union with the nation that, even today, remains “the last best hope of Earth.” (Which is why it is only fitting that the CNMI marks its Liberation Day on the same day that the rest of the U.S. celebrates its founding “not on blood, or [religion], or race, or the accidents of geography and colonial history, but on an idea: that all men [and women] are created equal.”)

Since the inauguration of their Commonwealth government, the local people have faced many challenges, the latest of which is a raging pandemic that has pushed the local economy — already battered by natural disasters — off a cliff. Recovery looks like a distant dream. Financially speaking, the NMI has been dragged back to what it was in the early Commonwealth years, but this time with more obligations and fewer economic tools at its disposal.

The CNMI is in crisis, but now the local people can freely speak out to complain or advocate, and to decide which path to take. And so far, many of them have chosen hope over despair, and have even extended their hands to those who need help. For many local residents, the goal remains the same in good or bad times: to create an inclusive and compassionate community that reflects the best of local culture.

The celebration of this year’s Liberation Day may be virtual, but the ideals that underlie it are part and parcel of the local people’s actual daily lives.

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