Sep 11, 2018

In the Marshall Islands, A Traditional Voyaging Canoe Gives Nuclear Legacy Victims Chance to Reclaim their Identity

Just weeks before Nuclear Survivors Day, voyagers and educators brave more than 500 nautical miles of high seas aboard the traditionally designed, double-hulled sailing canoe, Okeanos Marshall Islands, to Enewetak – a Pacific island community once known for its prominence in ocean voyaging and navigation. Home to 850 people challenged by the dark legacy of US nuclear testing, Enewatak is one of the most remote and vulnerable communities in the world.

Okeanos Marshall Islands’ traditional, double-hulled design makes it equipped for open ocean sailing, including the 15-foot swells encountered en route to Enewetak; Photo Credit: Steve Holloway

Fifty-foot Okeanos Marshall Islands arrives on the shores of Enewatak with food and school supplies, a Marshallese sailing crew, a Tahitian captain, a Fijian watch captain, educators from University of South Pacific and University of Edinburgh and Marshallese poet/activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Enewatak is less than 3 square miles of isolated land, hundreds of ocean miles from any other community. Jetnil-Kijiner says the open ocean voyage connected her to her ancestors.

“Sailing here, I developed a trust with the canoe and its traditional design to keep us safe, says Kijiner. “The people of Enewetak saw [the voyage] as a sacrifice because it wasn’t an easy journey to get here, but we took it regardless because we believe in traveling by traditional means and connecting on a deeper level with our culture.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner on deck of Okeanos Marshall Islands; Photo: Dena Seidel

Jetnil-Kijiner’s ancestral culture is impressive. At one time, ancient sea roads connected the Marshallese people across 2 millions square miles of open ocean where their more than 1,000 islands average six feet above sea level and less a half mile wide. A thousand years before Columbus, Marshallese voyagers sailed ocean vessels they called walaps between the remote atolls using only the elements of nature – waves, clouds, stars, birds – a feat that required incredible precision. The people of Bikini and Enewatak atolls were the Marshallese’s greatest boat builders.

Marshallese crew member Elmi Juonran adjusts the sails during the Nuclear Legacy Voyage, a sailed that totaled 1,200 nautical miles; Photo Credit: Steve Holloway

Okeanos Marshall docked at Enewetak – where a small community inhabits a three mile strip of land; Photo Credit: Dan Lin

That all changed in 1947 when the people of Enewetak and neighboring Bikini were forcibly displaced by the US government as a series nuclear explosions destroyed plant and animal life and dispersed clouds of radioactive waste across the islands. In Enewetak alone, 43 nuclear bombs were detonated – completely vaporizing entire islands. With the loss of land came the loss of culture, says Enewetak councilman Paul David. “So much of our traditional knowledge used for survival was lost during the forced displacement from Enewetak in 1947” says David. “Enewetak was once known for its canoe building. The walap was key to life. It sustained people’s livelihoods that brought in goods and fish… Today, canoe building knowledge is gone – sadly a byproduct of the nuclear displacement.”

The tragic irony now facing descendants of the world’s greatest navigators is that outer islands like Enewetak now suffer from inadequate sea transportation. Like many of Marshall islands, Enewetak’s beaches are littered with small diesel-powered motor boats. And like other RMI atoll communities, Enewetak’s population is dependent on imported fuel and goods – most of which are supplied to the outer islands only once every three months by garrish diesel-powered cargo ships.

Sea transport is RMI’s single largest cost for delivery of education, health, environmental programs and disaster relief. “The problem here in the Pacific is sea transport. It’s a huge issue,” says Okeanos Marshall Islands Operations Manager Dustin Langidrik. “It can take up to five months for a Marshall Islands government boat to bring much needed goods to the outer island people. That’s what has inspired me to join Okeanos. It’s a concrete change that brings sustainable, regular and safe sea transport to the local communities.”

Okeanos Marshall Islands delivers dozens of much needed text books to Enewetak’s school PREL’s PCEP: Pacific islands Climate Education Partnership; Photo Credit: Dan Lin

Marshallese crew member Andy Langidrik carries cargo onshore to the Enewetak community.

Operational since July 2017, Okeanos Marshall Islands has already serviced outer island communities in six Marshall atolls transporting passengers, food, medicine and school supplies. This long sail to Enewetak tested the crew. Strong winds and waves pounded at the walap’s hulls and pummeled over her decks. “I had never seen weather like that in the Marshall Islands,” says Captain Tohitika Alex Sanchez. “Lucky for us, the canoe is built from the designs of our ancestors and is very strong and very safe.”

For Tahitian Captain Tohitika “Alex” Sanchez, the Nuclear Legacy hits close to home. His family has lived with the health impacts of the French nuclear testing on Moruroa Atoll. Photo Credit: Steve Holloway

Jetnil-Kijiner has come to Enewatak to work with the children. She is leading an education workshop for 8th graders, an opportunity for them to explore their history and their culture. She uses poetry writing exercises to learn and discuss core challenges facing young people living in the shadows of nuclear testing. She asks the class, what does ‘manit’ ( culture in Marshallese) mean to you? The children begin offering their thoughts – “responsibility, respect” they say. This discussion continues under classroom signs alerting the children to symbols for toxic and irritant.

Kathy leads her literary class in Enewetak – the last of a series of literary workshops hosted by Kathy, USP, PREL & the University of Edinburgh. The students’ reflections can be found on the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative.

Cheery spirits fill the classrooms of Enewetak’s only grade school, yet the students’ artwork is a haunting reminder of the everyday challenges they face.

Okeanos Marshall Islands spends two days offering education sails to every child on the island. Most had never been on a sailboat. 18-year-old Atra is learning for the first time that he is a descendant of the world’s most skillful seafarers and canoe builders.

The next day, Atra and his uncle Terry sail with Okeanos Marshall Islands just 10 miles upcurrent to Enewetak’s nuclear cleanup site. Here on the island of Runit is a concrete dome, 18 inches thick, harboring 111,000 cubic yards of the most contaminated soil on earth. To the people of the Marshall Islands, this alien-like tomb, constructed between 1977 to 1980, is a painful reminder of their nuclear legacy. Recent reports suggest that sea level rise — another urgent threat facing RMI — may cause the dome to leak radioactive contaminants down current to the people of Enewetak.

Eighteen-year-old Atra of Enewetak stands atop the Runit Dome after sailing with Okeanos Marshall Islands – his first time ever on a sail boat despite his family’s rich voyaging ancestry.

Terry and Atra, who have ancestral land rights to the island of Runit, are clearly upset as the canoe beaches just steps from radioactive dome.

Kathy has come to Runit Dome as part of the Nuclear Legacy project sponsored by Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) where she is creating a visual poem, Anointed, with filmmaker/voyager Dan Lin as a strong reminder of the devastating impacts of nuclear testing (see video below).

Okeanos Marshall Islands beaches at Runit, where a massive crater sits beside the dome – formed by one of many bombs detonated on the Enewetak atoll. Photo Credit: Steve Holloway

Kathy says sailing to Runit on a traditional canoe heightened her connection to the dome in ways unexpected. “[The canoe] is something that’s important to the dome, because Runit was once an island. Before the voyage, I didn’t fully understand the significance of the canoe, but after going on the canoe, it heightened the awareness of the tragedy of the dome – the fact that it’s leaking into the ocean and that it’s one of the most contaminated places on earth – even more so than Bikini. Meeting the dome through ocean voyaging gave it much more meaning. It was spiritual.”

The walap then sails east overnight to Bravo Crater where, nearly 64 years ago to the day, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon was detonated; 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima.

The crew is silent as they sail through a one-mile wide cavity where a fertile island that once grew the breadfruit trees from which the Bikinians used to build their massive ocean going canoes. Today, on Nuclear Victims Day, the remaining islands of Bikini atoll are uninhabitable to the Marshallese people due to nuclear contamination — and will be for thousands of years.

What appears to be a lagoon from the deck of the walap is revealed by aerial view to be a crater – the remnants of an island that was completely vaporized when Castle Bravo was detonated. Photo Credit: Dan Lin

“The Marshallese people are survivors” says Alson Kelen, Marshall Islands preeminent traditional navigator and director of the canoe building program Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM). “We’ve survived on these small islands for thousands of years and I believe we can continue to survive for another thousand years by returning to our traditional methods of living sustainably.”

WAM Director Alson Kelen with trainees preparing to build a traditional Marshallese canoe; Photo Credit: Sealand Laiden

Okeanos Marshall Islands has been assisting the peoples of the outer islands with transport of much needed good and medical supplies. The demand for the fossil fuel-free walap continues to be high throughout RMI’s 29 sprawling island chains. Only days after the crew’s return to Majuro, the walap was receiving more orders for outer island cargo deliveries than they could accommodate. “There’s a pressing need for these walaps,” says Marshallese crew member Elmi Juonran, who previously worked with Alson Kelen’s WAM, building traditional Marshallese canoes. “[Okeanos Marshall Islands] is in many ways a part of our own culture and traditions. It’s also cost effective because it doesn’t rely on foreign fuel, and it has enabled job opportunities for our sailors.”

Okeanos Marshall Islands servicing the outer-island, Jaluit, which relies on a single business to provide goods to the entire northern part of the atoll.

Fortunately, RMI’s President Hilda Heine has made sustainable sea transportation a key mandate. “I appreciate Okeanos and its proposal to provide training and opportunity for building more vakas to the RMI, engaging youth, in maintaining and building additional canoes,” said President Heine in November at COP23.

“The Marshall Islands have 24 atolls and therefore, I feel we need 24 Vaka Motus,” says President Heine.

President Hilda Heine steers Okeanos Marshall Islands with the assistance of Managing Director Dustin Langidrik and crew member Elmi Juonran.