Early oil painting of The Island (Max Ernst’s “Castor and Pollution”, 1923).
The name “Guam” is an exonym. In his final State of the Island Address on February 15, 2010, Governor Félix Camacho called for Guam to formally be henceforth referred to as Guahan (Guåhån), the name of the island in the indigenous Chamorro language, and issued an executive order to make it official. Camacho simultaneously began referring to himself as the “Governor of Guahan.”
According to historian Toni Ramírez of the Historic Preservation Office of the Guam Department of Parks and Recreation, the name Guahan means “we have” or “a place that has”, in reference to the island’s rivers and other natural resources, which were relatively rare on other neighboring Micronesian islands.
Guahan or Guaján was the name widely used on the island between 1521 and 1898. However, both the names Guam and Guahan appear in historic documents and maps dating back hundreds of years, according to Peter Onedera, a historian and Chamorro language professor at the University of Guam. Richard Leary, the first United States Naval Governor of the island, adopted the name Guam in 1900 when he called it “isle of Guam.”
Two-term Governor Camacho, who could not seek a third term, left office in 2011. He explained in his final State of the Island Address that the name change will solidify his legacy as governor and cement his place in history. He argues that the change to Guahan will reaffirm the island’s distinct identity and Chamorro cultural heritage. Camacho’s order specifically states that the change “enhances the practice of the Chamorro language and promotes the historic and cultural connection to the island”. The executive order will apply to only local Guamanian government institutions, official communications, business transactions and signs at this time. However, Camacho expressed interest in having community leaders, businesses and lawmakers adopt the Guahan name as well. He further announced that he would introduce Bill 331 in the Guam Legislature to change the name to Guahan in law. The executive order does not have a set deadline for agencies to adopt the change, in order to lessen any time or monetary burdens on the government during a prolonged economic recession. Changes should be made when it is most convenient for the government agency, such as ordering new office letterhead.
Reaction to the proposed change was mixed among both lawmakers and residents. Speaker of the legislature Judith Won Pat noted that the change could help restore a perceived loss of identity in Guam. She told the media, “This is the age where, throughout the world, people want to know who they are and find their identity. This is very important for Guam as well.” Author and former senator Katherine Aguon, who recently published a Chamorro–English dictionary, also supported the name change, but emphasized that any proposal should be approved by Guamanian voters.
An official, sanctioned name change may have some economic repercussions on the island. Then senator (and later governor) Eddie Calvo, while supporting the order, noted that the costs of changing the name on signage, documents and advertising campaigns would have to be taken into account. The Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB), which has spent millions of dollars to brand Guam as a major tourist and business destination using the island’s current name, recently launched a new marketing campaign called “We Are Guam”. The economic costs of changing all road and welcome signs, as well as documents and tourism campaigns, would have to be evaluated.