21 Jan The Marshall Islands Story Project
In the winter of 2008, I traveled to Micronesia and stayed for 6 months to direct a pilot educational program I had created to help preserve the oral culture of the Marhallese. Called The Marshall Island Story Project, its aim was to train Marshallese community college students 1) to write better English (through story-telling), 2) to learn how to build a website, and 3) then combine these two skills to gather stories from their elders and post these stories on a website the students had helped build. This had not been done before in the Pacific and it wasn’t clear if it would be remotely successful. Now, nearly six years later, the translations of our work have been completed and this first phase of the Story Project is done. You can view it here: Marshall Islands Story Project.
I created the project because I had lived in the Marshall Islands as a teenager and had admired and wondered at Marshallese culture. At the time, I was living on an island that was a top-secret American missile test site. My father was among the civilian engineers working for the U.S. Army on anti-ballistic missiles, that is, missiles designed to shoot down other missiles. That work continues on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands, though it isn’t really secret any more: now called the Ronald Reagan (remember his “star wars” strategy?) Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, it has a website that anybody can visit; there’s a Wikipedia entry about it too.
We American children who lived there are referred to now as “Kwaj kids.” We have a Facebook page you can check out: Friends of Kwajalein. So far, 680 of us have joined that page. What we have in common is that Kwajalein changed our lives. It wasn’t just the obvious things that changed us — the year-round summer, the unbelievably gorgeous, exotic surroundings, the distant remove from the States. Life on Kwajalein was for each of us a very personal passage, in part because of that remove. When my family lived there, for example, there was no TV, so I started reading books. Then I met a guy at school who was writing a novel. I’d never heard of such a thing but was captivated by the notion, so I started writing too.
A big deal for me was witnessing the chasm between American life in the bell jar of Kwajalein and Marshallese life on Ebeye, the neighboring island that had become known as “the Calcutta of the Pacific.” The Marshallese are a fascinating people because they were the greatest navigators in the Pacific, capable of finding their way across a thousand miles of ocean in dug-out canoes by reading the waves, the flight of birds, and the formation of clouds. Until missionaries subdued them in the nineteenth century, they were the fiercest fighters in the Pacific, warding off whalers and explorers for centuries. (They were also heavily tattooed in those days.) Colonized by the Germans, then the Japanese, the Marshallese became peaceable coconut harvesters, exporting copra (processed coconut) to the world. The Japanese made them de facto slaves before and during World War II. Then we Americans liberated them, but that wasn’t entirely a good thing. After using Nevada a few times as a nuclear test site, the U.S. decided to move its nuclear blasts to the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese did not, could not, understand what was happening when the U.S. Army started detonating nuclear bombs in the islands — 67 blasts from 1946-58. Bikini was the most notorious of these sites. It remains uninhabitable and a devastating loss for a people who believe that you are only at peace after death when you are buried in your home soil.
What I saw in the 1960s was a still-vibrant culture riddled with contradictions, confusions, and catastrophes. It was a nation of children, for instance, the average age being 16. Diabetes was rampant. One of the Marshallese’s favorite foods was, and remains, SPAM. In short, my time in the Marhall Islands marked me, haunted me, until — as a mid-career academic — I saw a way to return and put my skills to work for a good end.
After an exhaustive search in 2007, I found limited funding for the Project through the National Park Service. With that funding, I took a leave of absence from my university and began the project. I thought everything would flow more easily from that point but, actually, things got much harder, especially after my grant funds went missing when they were transferred to the Marshallese government. It’s a long story I will recount in a book eventually but the highlights were that, in short order, I was stranded on the capital island and abandoned by my initial Marshallese supporters. Maxing out my credit cards and taking a loan from my university, I had advanced the project $17,000 in anticipation of a reimbursement from the grant funds. But the grant funds were gone and now I was about to go bankrupt. I couldn’t get the project off the ground, was living on oatmeal and bananas, and got so depressed I briefly considered suicide. Then, thanks to pressure exerted on the government because I had been blogging about my plight, some of the grant funds appeared at last.
But that was just the start. Working with the Marshallese students, finding the elders who would tell stories, teaching web design for the first time to students who didn’t own computers — that was the big adventure. We succeeded in the end, gathering 31 stories in three categories: life stories, nuclear survivor stories, and traditional tales. And, ultimately, the students took over, conducting the interviews, filming, and taping on their own. They learned how to build websites. They learned about telling stories. They lived up to every expectation and I was impressed and proud of them. We had a lot of fun too, especially when we ventured to an outer island to search for story tellers. We camped on the beach, trekked through the jungle, ate roasted breadfruit, listened to old men who told us about the old ways, like how to hunt for flying fish without getting eaten by sharks.
I’m still in contact with those students. In fact, they have started a FB page themselves: The Marshall Islands Story Project.
I don’t know if I’ll go back. I don’t know if there will ever be funds enough to continue the project. We’ve proved that the pedagogy works, but the uncollected stories are vanishing with the fast-dying elders. The stories the students have heard growing up are already vastly altered by time and telling, and so, in trying to save the oral heritage of this culture, it often seems we’re grasping at fleeting shadows. The Story Project stands as a monument to what might still be found and listened to.