On February 10th, the traditionally designed, fossil fuel-free sailing canoe Okeanos Marshall Islands set sail for a two week voyage for the Nuclear Legacy/Marshallese Arts Project bringing much needed school supplies and a day of literary workshops to Enewetak, one of RMI’s most remote and vulnerable outer island communities still facing the impacts of US nuclear testing from the cold war era.
The Marshallese Arts Project focuses on the long-term cultural and environmental impacts of US nuclear testing in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). It explores how the arts and storytelling can be used to empower Marshallese young people and communities, as they explore their history and share their experiences with a wider national and international community. The project is supported by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund in partnership with University of the South Pacific – Marshall Islands (USP).
“This is an amazing opportunity to come to the atolls where the nuclear testing took place, because very few people get to do that,” says project leader Dr. Michelle Keown of the University of Edinburgh. “The hope is that this will reach many, many people globally to raise awareness of the nuclear legacy. It’s so far been a life changing experience.”
Leading up to the sail to Enewetak, where a total of 43 nuclear explosions were detonated by the US government in the 1940s and 1950s, the project ran creative writing and visual arts workshops with Marshallese children from four other schools throughout RMI, including Ejit Elementary School; the Majuro Cooperative School; Ebeye Public Elementary School; and Central Middle School in Honolulu. The writing workshops were led by Marshallese poet and climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, and Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos led mural-making workshops.
An international team of educational partners joined Kathy and Dr. Keown aboard the sail to Enewetak for the fifth and final workshop at the Enewetak Public Elementary School. Members included photojournalist and Hokulea crew member Dan Lin of Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL), Aileen Sefeti of USP, along with Okeanos Foundation for the Sea’s director Dena Seidel and filmmaker Steve Holloway, who both documented the nearly 1,200 mile journey for their educational documentary on traditional Pacific voyaging, The Starchasers.
Captain Tohitika “Alex” Sanchez of Fakarava led the Okeanos Marshall Islands crew through four days of doldrums, navigating through waves of up to five meters before reaching the shores of Enewetak.
In the 8th grade classroom of Enewetak Public Elementary, Kathy began her poetry class like her previous workshops – calling students to write of memories triggered by specific Marshallese words; foundation blocks that would guide students into assembling their poems. And like the previous classes in the project, it did not take much coaxing for the young writers to dig deep into their personal lives.
“When I’m pushing them to write more descriptively, I’m pushing [the students] to face whatever they’ve been ignoring,” says Kathy on the workshops. “It becomes therapeutic. It’s art as therapy. And whenever I’m in a classroom, it gives students the opportunity to see art as therapy.”
Proceeding the workshops, Okeanos Marshall Islands crew Dustin Langidrik, Ivanancy Vunikura, Elmi Juonran, and Andy Langidrik invited Enewetak students aboard the canoe, or walap in Marshallese, for a lagoon sail and a lesson on ocean stewardship.
“Having the children onboard Okeanos Marshall Islands was, for me, historical. It’s a moment that I’ll cherish for the rest of my sailing life,” says Okeanos Marshall Islands Operations Manager Dustin Langidrik. “It just delivers a message here that we’re somehow bringing back the culture of sailing tradition to the people of Enewetak atoll.”
Outputs for the Marshallese Arts Project will include published volumes of the children’s creative writing and art; a graphic novel exploring the nuclear legacy within the broader context of Marshallese navigation and migration; and a website featuring culturally relevant teaching resources for Marshall Islanders.
As for the Okeanos Marshall Islands sailing canoe, preparations are already underway for their next two-week sail with PREL departing in early March – one of many educational partnerships that the crew hopes to cultivate in the future.
“I’d like to continue this very much in the future,” says Dustin. “This is something that is really needed in the Marshall Islands that brings so many opportunities to the people of the outer islands. To do that we’ll need more canoes to effectively deliver to the needs of the people of the outer islands.”