The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands

Film. Directed by Vanessa Warheit. 2009. 60 minutes.
Documentary about U.S. colonies in the western Pacific.
Themes: Democracy & Citizenship, Imperialism, Pacific Islander, US Foreign Policy, World History/Global Studies

The Insular Empire is a one-hour PBS documentary about America’s colonies in the western Pacific. Six thousand miles west of California, the Mariana Islands include the U.S. Territory of Guam and the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (or CNMI). Although most Americans don’t believe the U.S. is an empire, by many standards, these “insular areas” are U.S. colonies. And most Americans know nothing about them.

From the beaches of Guam to the White House, from the CIA to the Peace Corps, from beauty pageants to the UN, The Insular Empire follows four indigenous island leaders; Hope Cristobal, Carlos Taitano, Lino Olopai, and Pete A. Tenorio; to discover what it means to belong to America’s insular empire’ in the Pacific. [Publishers’ description.]

“. . .  we rarely discuss the fact that there are places in the world that are actual U.S. colonies. Still less do we consider whether we are complying with our international obligations to respect the right of self-determination for colonized peoples, and if we are not, what we could do to change that. The Mariana Islands comprise two political entities, the territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898 after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American war, while the Northern Mariana Islands were conquered by the U.S. from Japan in World War II. As political entities, the two have several features in common: while they are ruled by Washington, and their residents are U.S. citizens, many of whom serve in the U.S. military, they have no vote in Presidential elections, nor do they have a representative in Congress who can vote on the passage of legislation. In other words: they are U.S. colonies.” —Robert Naiman, Huffington Post. Read full review.

Film Trailer

Biographies of People Featured in the Film

Hope Cristobal is a museum director, former Guam Senator, and creator of Guam’s Commission on Decolonization. For the past thirty years she has been struggling to make her people’s voices heard at the United Nations.

Carlos Taitano, a 92-year old rebel patriot, wants to be a full-fledged American before he dies. After serving as an officer in the US Army under General MacArthur, he led a revolt that gave the Chamorro people of Guam US citizenship. Today his goal is U.S. statehood.

Lino Olopai worked first for the CIA and then for the Peace Corps, to help his family survive after World War II. Today he is trying to bridge the gap between his Carolinian roots and the freedoms that come with his new American identity.

Pete A. Tenorio was a key negotiator of the Northern Marianas’ covenant with the US. He willingly sacrificed his islands’ sovereignty to make them a part of ‘the American political family.’ Today he begs Washington for his people’s basic needs, and struggles to maintain his faith in the American Dream.


“Mention ‘The Insular Empire’ to the average American, and they’d likely have no idea what you were talking about. They probably still wouldn’t get it if you gave them another clue: ‘America in the Mariana Islands.’ These are the title and subtitle of a new film by Vanessa Warheit, which began screening on PBS earlier this year. It is the singular misfortune of the residents of Guam and the Northern Marianas to have been born on tiny islands of great strategic value in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The consequence has been their colonial subordination for four centuries to a succession of empires.” — John Junkerman, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

“I have covered the Marianas for nearly 20 years as a journalist and broadcaster, and this feature captures the essence of the relationship between the U.S. and its possessions more accurately than any single work I’ve ever come across. It is at once brilliant, heartbreaking and beautiful without pandering to anyone’s particular agenda. It will stand, I know as a lasting tribute to the men and women so affectionately and authentically portrayed in this compelling celebration of a truth that remains untold to much of America.” — Travis Coffman, Newstalk K57, Guam

More Information

The Downes v. Bidwell 1901 Supreme Court case regarding the status of the islands is quoted in the film. Here is an excerpt:

. . . no construction of the Constitution should be adopted which would prevent Congress from considering each case upon its merits, unless the language of the instrument imperatively demand it. A false step at this time might be fatal to the development of what Chief Justice Marshall called the American empire. Choice in some cases, the natural gravitation of small bodies towards large ones in others, the result of a successful war in still others, may bring about conditions which would render the annexation of distant possessions desirable. If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible; and the question at once arises whether large concessions ought not to be made for a time, that ultimately our own theories may be carried out, and the blessings of a free government under the Constitution extended to them. We decline to hold that there is anything in the Constitution to forbid such action. [Read the full case.]

One comment on “The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands

  1. Pam Gunkel on

    I have taught high school history for over 25 years. I am still amazed by the new things I learn. This article was very helpful to me, I was preparing a lesson on colonialism, with a focus on South Africa. I want to include a reference to American colonialism. This was very helpful. History textbooks leave out so much, that is why I do not use one, except to provide opportunities for my students to see how limited they are. I hope my students will learn to understand choices are made about what goes in and what is left out. In my American Studies class we emphasize the role perception plays in writing literature and history. I plan to use this resource, thank you.

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