A beach on Tinian

photo by: Brian Turner

October 28, 2015

In Defense Of: Tinian and Pagan

  • By: David Weible

Our In Defense Of series explores largely overlooked or undervalued historic places that nonetheless make an important contribution to our collective culture and tell an essential part of our shared American story.

In this edition of "In Defense Of," we speak with Brian Turner, a senior field officer and attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco office, about Tinian and Pagan, two small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Chamorro ceremony

photo by: Brian Turner

A traditional Chamorro ceremony.

What are these places?

Tinian and Pagan are two of the 14 islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). CNMI is a U.S. territory, a lot like Puerto Rico, except it’s about 8,000 miles from Washington, D.C. Most people don’t know it exists.

Tinian is a habited island just north of Guam. One of the largest ethnic groups there is the native Chamorro people who maintain their own language and traditions. Pagan is sparsely inhabited volcanic island which many people have the intention of returning to one day.

These are pretty out-there places. No question about it.

Why are these places threatened?

The United States has agreed to break up its base on Okinawa, Japan, so there’s a plan to move about half of those Marines to existing military installations in the Mariana Islands.

As part of this, the military has identified about two-thirds of the island of Tinian, which they have a current lease on, as a prime spot. They are making a proposal to the CNMI government to gain permissions for the island of Pagan.

The Little Boy loading pit on Tinian

photo by: Stefan Krasowski, Flickr

The loading pit for Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August of 1945, at Tinian's North Field.

What is at risk?

North Field, on Tinian, is primarily important for its role in WWII where the Americans staged an amphibious landing. It is also where the culmination of the Manhattan project took place with the launch of B-29s to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But there are also cultural sites in the area that are important to the ongoing practices of the Chamorro people. These include medicinal plant gathering grounds, coral reefs and fishing grounds, and archaeological remnants of ancient village sites.

It’s obvious that the impact of large-scale bombing and military vehicles, if not done extremely carefully, will have considerable effects on a lot of the archaeological sites there.

Chamorro ceremony

photo by: Brian Turner

The Chamorro people maintain their own language and traditions.

Why is it important to defend these places?

The connection and relationship to one’s ancestors in Chamorro society plays a really important role in a way we really don’t see as much in the Lower 48. One of the places those connections are deepest is in places that were inhabited by ancestors before western occupation totally changed their lives.

Latte (pronounced Lah-tee) stones were the foundations of ancient homes and the CNMI flag uses a latte stone as one of its primary emblems. It’s sites like those that are at risk. They’re living cultural sites more than just relics of the past.

Where do these places fit in the American narrative?

There is a self-governing status in CNMI, but they don’t have a vote in Congress and they’re subject to what the U.S. executive agencies decide to do.

Being so far away, it’s just a place that a lot of us forget about, but is subject to our laws. People there don’t have a political affiliation other than being American. These are real impacts that our government is having on a people that most people don’t know about.

Where do these places fit in the preservation movement?

Obviously, we recognize how important it is to give our troops the training they need to defend the country. It’s a question of how to balance that with the consequences those activities have on historic resources.

Exhibiting sensitivity to heritage and cultural traditions sends an important message to people around the world. We want to find that balance that shows that we can respect cultural practices and sites, as well as train our troops.

A beach on Tinian

photo by: Stefan Krasowski, Flickr

A pristine beach on Tinian.

A Japenese shrine on Tinian

photo by: Stefan Krasowski, Flickr

A Japanese shrine left over from the pre-World War II occupation serves as a reminder of the island's diverse culture and history.

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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