The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands have endured waves of immigration, exploitation, and America’s nuclear testing. Now under threat from rising sea levels, their storytelling culture offers us a cautionary tale.
The Marshall Islands, April 2008. One of Newton’s assistants finds me at my laptop in a borrowed office in Uliga, a small village on Majuro Island, which has been my headquarters for several months. This morning I’ve been trying to get on the internet, but nothing’s coming through. Some days it just doesn’t work. Nothing arrives or leaves here without a struggle, I’ve decided.
The assistant tells me Newton’s waiting in the van and we must leave now—Newton’s found another storyteller. Majuro is so small, a quarter mile wide and thirty miles long—actually several small islands strung together—you’d think it’d be easy to find the man or woman you’re looking for. But it hasn’t been easy. Life is so fluid here—seven degrees north of the equator in this tiny Pacific nation, just forty thousand souls scattered over seven hundred and fifty thousand square miles of ocean—people come and go with the tide, it seems. From the driver’s seat, Newton waves his greeting. He’s a handsome man of medium height and broad girth, curly graying hair, a slightly graying mustache, and dark brown complexion. Newton and I are trying to preserve this nation’s stories and tales. Until the missionaries found them in the nineteenth century, the Marshallese had lived for three millennia as an oral culture; everything they knew was contained in tales and songs and chants. The value of our project—the Marshall Islands Story Project—is that we are recording the last of the culture’s oral tradition, showing how it has changed, or how it looks and sounds in its last permutation.
My family moved here for two years in 1968, when I was thirteen years old. My father worked at what is now the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Kwajalein Island, a three-mile stretch of white sand occupied by Americans. The Marshallese who worked there lived on a smaller, more crowded island nearby. As a teenager, I watched Nike missiles erupt regularly from Mt. Olympus, the twenty-eight foot launch silo at the western end of Kwajalein. The missiles were about the height of a telephone pole and not much wider than a garbage can. They didn’t look nearly as grand as I thought they should. They took off with a crack—in a flash of white light—and left behind a drift of white smoke.
This morning I’ve been trying to get on the internet, but nothing’s coming through. Some days it just doesn’t work. Nothing arrives or leaves here without a struggle, I’ve decided.
Our American preservation project money is funneled through the Marshallese Republic’s own Historic Preservation Office. Newton has volunteered his services for free. A counselor at the junior college, where he mentors students in Marshallese tradition, he is passionate about preserving his culture. I couldn’t have taken on the project without him. In fact, nobody would have talked with me. The Marshallese are rightfully suspicious of the ripalle—the “pale people” (pronounced “ree-bellee”). After liberating the Marshallese from the Japanese in World War II, the Americans deemed the Marshallese incapable of governing themselves. So the Marshallese and nearly all the rest of the Pacific island nations became “Trust Territories.” Many Marshallese call this an era of occupation. The Marshallese didn’t receive independence until 1986 and only after protests that included a sit-in on Kwajalein, the U.S’s top-secret missile base.
Newton hates driving. When people see him driving me around, they may get the wrong idea. He’s no chauffeur, he jokes. But he drives nonetheless because he knows where we’re going and we’re often going at odd times or without notice, when a driver can’t be found. I call “Iawke!” (literally, “love to you”), then slide onto the van’s shredded front seat. Newton’s assistant hops in the back. Newton recruits assistants either from the junior college or from his neighborhood. Unemployment is over thirty percent here, so help is easy to come by. It doesn’t matter that Newton can’t afford to pay them. He’ll compensate them some other way, sharing food or whatever there is to share. Island tradition has always centered on sharing. If you caught more fish than you could eat, you gave away the rest. It’s not like you could save anything in this climate. Every van Newton borrows is rusted beyond hope; doors won’t open or shut right; windows won’t roll one way or the other; wipers and rearview mirrors are missing. Don’t even ask about radio or air conditioning. Nothing lasts out here. It’s the most corrosive environment in the world. Rain every day, ninety-percent humidity, voracious heat, windborne sand, and biting salt air. The bike I bought new when I arrived four months ago now looks ten years old. I can’t help thinking how futile it is trying to preserve anything in this place. This rapid erosion brings home the urgency of our preservation project.
Recently, Newton and I were directed to an old woman who could tell us about life before World War II. When we got to her dwelling, her daughter told us the woman was too senile to talk coherently. “You should have been here two years ago,” she said. Everyone we speak with recalls one or more storytellers who died not so long ago. The average life expectancy in the Marshall Islands is sixty-five years for men and sixty-nine years for women.
This morning Newton has found Eddie, an old man who’s going to tell us the traditional story of the two ladies and the octopus. Like many tales, this one features a chant or singing portion. Eddie has translated the singing portion into pigeon English. Eddie’s a tiny man with protruding cheek bones and a dark complexion. The Marshallese have mixed with so many ethnicities in the past century, it’s difficult to say what the typical Marshallese looks like. Their appearance, like their geography, places them mid-way between the Melanesians to the west and the Polynesians to the east.
Island tradition has always centered on sharing. If you caught more fish than you could eat, you gave away the rest. It’s not like you could save anything in this climate.
We buy Eddie lunch, stopping for takeout at one of the shacks that grill chicken or beef or octopus. It’s the cheapest food on the island and comes with a handful of steamed rice. Newton parks the van just off the road, near the island’s only bridge. We’re sitting on coral boulders in the shade of some coconut palms, just ten feet from the incoming tide. The wind is always brisk on oceanside and I worry about the recording quality. We capture what we can as best we can, regardless of the conditions. Sometimes we simply don’t have time to be picky. Finished with our fast lunch, we sit Eddie in the shade, then Newton explains the project. Eddie nods politely. He looks uncomfortable. The video camera intimidates many of the people we interview. I’ve clipped a small microphone to Eddie’s shirt sleeve. Usually I don’t start taking still photos until ten minutes into an interview. You’ve got to let the storytellers warm up, but this time Eddie has problems from the start. I don’t know the language, but I can catch the nuance. Newton gently encourages him. Eddie’s expression is almost a wince as he talks. Then he stops and glances at me apologetically. Newton explains that Eddie needs to recollect the story at another time. He’s left out the entire first section and he’s not comfortable enough to offer the pigeon English. So it’s a bust. We drive Eddie back to the Rongelap Atoll town hall, where he works. It’s right next to the Bikini town hall. Both halls represent the nuclear survivors who have been removed from their home atolls. Eddie promises to see us tomorrow, but the next day we can’t find him. He’s drifted away. As we’ve collected Marshallese tales, Newton and I have created a new category: nuclear survivor stories. These are filling the gap left by the older, forgotten stories of canoe building and mat weaving. It’s hardly a fair trade, but nuclear testing is now integral to the identity of the Marshallese and they want to make something positive of the experience.
In a dwindling rain, Newton, two students, and I wade across the reef to a neighboring island. He’s arranged for one of the students and me to interview an elderly couple who survived the notorious Bravo nuclear blast in 1954. We have interviewed other survivors, one of them a senator. All of the survivors were children during the twelve years of testing, which started in 1946. In that period, the U.S. detonated sixty-seven nuclear bombs on or above the Marshall Islands. The explosions comprised 80 percent of all nuclear payload America has ever tested. One of the survivors told us that his father, the king of the Bikini people, took the Americans at their word when the American commanders said that evacuation of Bikini’s thirty-six islands would be a temporary inconvenience. You want to help make the world a peaceful place? they asked the king. The Americans made it sound like it would be an honor to help them. The king had no idea that the Americans would nuke his atoll twenty-three times. The Bikinians—like those from a hundred other islands—are still waiting to return. Some say it would cost billions to reclaim the tainted land.
The Bravo Blast was the largest nuclear detonation ever. It’s the one Americans remember when they associate nuclear bombs with Bikini. Many Marshallese who were not evacuated from nearby islands on that day—and were not told of the testing—were going about their business, fishing and weaving, children playing in the shallows of the lagoon. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red and, remarkably, a second sun appeared on the horizon. “That is why we called it the day of two suns,” one of the survivors told us. “There was no explanation. We did not imagine that it was a bomb.”
“When the fallout came,” another survivor explained, “we thought it was snow. We had never seen snow but we had been told about it. We [children] ran after the falling ash. We were shouting in joy. We grabbed for the snow. Soon we experienced burning where the ash had touched our skin.”
Yet another survivor recounted how, the second day after the blast, small animals started dying. He awoke that morning to find the gravel floor of his family’s hut strewn with dead geckos.
One of our students will conduct today’s interview with two survivors from Rongelap, the atoll that received Bikini’s fallout. The old couple doesn’t trust ripalle. Newton himself will stay outside. I’ve told Newton to make sure the couple understands that I’m just here as a technology consultant. What no one seems to understand is that, once I’m gone in a few months, Newton will take over. Unfortunately, my presence shadows every interaction. I’ve learned to look small. Sometimes I feel I’ve nearly willed myself into invisibility. As I sit on the floor of the elderly couple’s house—it’s a cinderblock house with a linoleum floor, immaculate and stark, built with nuclear claims money—I smile reassuringly as the student explains what we’re doing. Sweat drips from my nose. I feel it coursing down my back.
It is clear the old woman was beautiful in her day. She and her husband sit at a picnic table in their dining room. She wears a sack dress of brightly flowered fabric. He wears a t-shirt and long trousers. Both are barefoot, as we are too: shoes aren’t allowed indoors. The woman looks at me with narrowed eyes. Her husband doesn’t look at me at all. The student is ever so polite. I can tell he’s trying hard. At one point the woman recounts how the fallout burned those who played in it. I can tell by the gestures she makes. The old woman is near tears as she describes this. Then she quits talking and turns away. For the next twenty minutes she doesn’t say a word. The old man talks but seems to ask a lot of questions. Hoarse with emotion, he can hardly utter his last comment. I don’t understand the words but I know what he’s saying: he and his wife want only to go home, back to Rongelap, so they can die where they were born. He shakes his head with regret, then wipes at his eyes.
“That is why we called it the day of two suns,” one of the survivors told us. “There was no explanation. We did not imagine that it was a bomb.”
Soil is so scarce and so sacred to the Marshallese that “to plant” and “to bury” are the same word: kellip. The graves of Marshallese ancestors nourish the crops of their descendants. To be buried outside one’s native soil is tantamount to sending your soul on a journey with no end.
Eddie lives on this same island, among the Rongelap survivors, and Newton has arranged to meet him directly after our interview with the old man and woman. Eddie’s agreeable, but Newton insists we walk to yet another island, which is uninhabited. Otherwise, Eddie might freeze up if he has to perform in front of his neighbors. We find an old log for Eddie to sit on. One of our students (yet another assistant Newton has brought along) gathers coconuts for us. Nearby, we can see the weathered white tombstones of a family burial ground. Farther out, in the shallows, near the rusted hulk of a half-sunken ship, men are casting nets for reef fish. As we were crossing over to the island, I came upon one fisherman who had just pulled an octopus from a tide pool. He held it up for me while I took snapshots. Every few seconds he had to liberate his hand from its tenacious suckers.
After seating ourselves at the edge of the island’s dense jungle, Newton talks gently to Eddie to warm him up. I’ve got the camera and voice recorder ready. The too-blue sky is breaking through mountainous billowing clouds. It’s going to be a beautiful day. Eddie tells the story of the two ladies and the octopus. Newton and the students laugh as he chants the octopus’s part. The octopus is telling the two women all the wrong ways to cook him. There are many tricksters in Marshallese stories. When Eddie’s done, he attempts to retell the story in sailor’s English. But he doesn’t get far before he loses heart. He says he’s too nervous. Newton laughs and pats him on the back and tells him not to worry. “Komool,“ he says. “Thank you.” Then one of the students presents Eddie with a gift certificate to a discount store on Majuro. Eddie is very appreciative. The other student presents us with coconut meat. Called iou, it’s the dried core of the coconut and has the consistency of angel-food cake and is nearly as sweet.
Newton tells me he’s arranged for us to talk to another old man later today. Feeling the pressure to gather as much as possible in the limited time we have together, Newton’s getting little rest these days and I feel bad about that, but I’m getting little rest myself. This much is clear to us now: the only way to preserve anything in this environment is to float it into the virtual world, everything saved digitally.
Americans shake their head in wonder at how blasé the Marshallese seem about all they’re losing so quickly. But explanations for the current state of affairs are complicated. Statisticians would tell you that a country this small simply doesn’t have the critical number of educated people to sustain any effort as lofty as cultural preservation. Only 5 percent of the population has a college degree (usually junior college). Most Marshallese live below the poverty line. Of the two-thousand unemployed teenagers on Majuro, only three hundred get job training each year. It all comes down to limited resources.
For a people who drifted east from Asia three millennia ago and found a home on the most improbable landfall—these many sandspecks in the middle of the ocean—and then, remarkably, flourished, this may be a sadly fitting fate, that they must set the collected gift of their culture adrift on the tide of the internet.
But the erosion isn’t just cultural, it’s physical too. The now-decommissioned Mt. Olympus is, ironically, the highest landmass in the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is six feet. Estimates put the one thousand-plus islands of the Marshalls under water in fifty years, at which time only Mt. Olympus will be visible and the Marshallese will have emigrated to the U.S. Their negotiation for independence in 1986 included something called the “Compact of Free Association,” which allows the Marshallese to live and work in the U.S. without restriction. It’s de facto U.S. citizenship. One American who’s lived in the Marshalls for more than forty years told me the Compact was an attempt to buy off the Marshallese and compel their compliance with missile testing and nuclear claims settlements.
Alele, the nation’s cultural museum, once a jewel of Pacific cultural preservation, is now in ruins. Though it’s ostensibly still in business, it’s never open. Worse, it’s been so poorly managed, it has sat without power for months at a time—which means its archives of audio tapes and delicate artifacts, like woven mats and navigation stick charts, have long suffered in high heat and humidity. Newton and I have visited the museum offices several times. The place reeks of mildew. Nobody can tell us where the old storyteller tapes are. Newton suspects they have been thrown away. “What happened to the Alele?” I ask Marshallese officials. The usual response is a shrug and an expression of dismay. But no one will say a critical word—an extension of an extreme politeness and reluctance to cause discomfort which might have contributed to the exploitation of these islands in the first place. There is a burden but also a grace in this attitude. The Marshallese are renown for their kind, pacific nature. Their heritage of sharing so little land with so many has made them extremely careful with one another. When Newton greets people in passing, he says, “Iakwe waj,” meaning, “Greetings, whoever can hear me.” You don’t want to leave anybody out.
Soon, it appears that the nation’s cultural museum will have to be removed to a website. Our Story Project site, Newton and I hope, will be the model. We’ll digitize the old storyteller tapes and everything else we can find. It will take years, but when it’s done, the story of the Marshallese will be online and saved for all to see. By that time, their Diaspora may nearly be complete, most of them removed to the States. Already three thousand Marshallese are living in Arkansas, where they work at a Tyson’s chicken plant. Another large settlement is in California; another in Florida. For a people who drifted east from Asia three millennia ago and found a home on the most improbable landfall—these many sandspecks in the middle of the ocean—and then, remarkably, flourished, this may be a sadly fitting fate, that they must set the collected gift of their culture adrift on the tide of the internet. In some ways it’s an act of desperation but in others also an act of hope; a disturbing message preserved in a virtual bottle for future survivors to read and ponder.
Ron Tanner has published widely in such magazines as The Iowa Review, New Letters, and The Massachusetts Review, and has won many awards, including a Faulkner Society gold medal and a Pushcart Prize. His collection of stories, A Bed of Nails, won both the G.S. Sharat Chandra Award and the Towson Prize for Literature and is now in its second printing. “Preservation” is an excerpt from a book-in-progress about his time in Micronesia, where, in 2008, he established the Marshall Islands Story Project.