Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, acclaimed poet and activist from the Marshall Islands, reflects on her time at this year’s Festival of the Pacific Arts in Guam and what it means for the people of the Pacific to safeguard that which is most important.
This past May I was one of thousands of islanders who flew into Guåhan for the annual Festival of Pacific Arts, alongside the delegation from the Marshall Islands, which rolled more than a hundred deep with Chiefs, weavers, dancers, dignitaries, Tobolar coconut businessmen, canoe builders, and tourism representatives (amongst others).
The festival was an amazing, transformative experience. There was always an event, performance, demonstration or something to see at any point. And if I wasn’t at one of these, then I hung out at the “Chamorro Village” – the center for FestPac that was surrounded with food stands, a stadium and newly built hut-like concrete booths for all of the different Pacific cultures or countries represented. The Marshallese booth was constantly overcrowded with shoppers. It burst with rainbowed Marshallese earrings, yawning woven flowers, an array of fans and fine mats, fashionable hats and just-woven headbands. Each display overlooked by smiling women undoubtedly weaving, talking story, debating prices, and every once in a while breaking out in a dance to the music floating in from the stadium.
And when I wasn’t at an event or the Marshallese booth, I was participating in a two week workshop on how to teach spoken word, run by my former mentor, Melvin Won-Pat Borja and my friend Jocelyn Ng. They both represent the organization, Pacific Tongues, a non-profit based in Hawai’i dedicated to teaching Pacific youth spoken word (of which I’m affiliated with/a product of also).
Mel is a veteran spoken word artist and educator – he was the first to introduce me to the power of poetry on the stage. The participants included poets representing island countries of Palau, Kiribati, New Zealand, Saipan and, of course, Guåhan and the Marshalls. The point of the workshop was not only to introduce the basic workshop format usually used by Pacific Tongues and slam poet instructors, but also to create entirely new workshops based on our discussions. Our ages and differences in experience provided full, enriching discussions regarding how we reach islander youth, how we respect and promote our cultural values (one workshop we created discussed humility and the different purposes of islander humility) – while still giving students the space to be critical and have a voice.
One of the workshops we created focused on the topic of empathy. This workshop arose out of our desires to connect students to the injustices around them, which generally requires a sense of empathy, a sense of connection and humanity. How do we get these youth to critically think about the ways in which histories of colonization, environmental injustices, or struggles with capitalism and tourism – how do all of these present/past issues dehumanize us as a people? And in what ways do we regain/reclaim that humanity?
I was lucky that right after we designed this workshop, I had the opportunity to visit Saipan and give it a test drive with my co-teacher and colleague Dan Lin from PREL (Pacific Resources for Education and Learning).
The hour long workshop took place against a backdrop of rolling hills and overgrown trees, flat plains and abandoned buildings, mom-and-pop shops and rubble leftover from the typhoon of last year – a decidedly muted contrast to Guam’s metropolitan busy-ness flooded with tourists.
When I look back on that workshop what immediately comes to mind was how hungry the students were – I didn’t have to prompt or coax them for participation (a stark contrast to the shy Marshallese students I was used to). Instead, they leapt off their seats to point out the current issues they faced. The most heated one was related to the construction of a hotly contested casino. A source of revenue for many, a loss of land, rights, peace for others. It branched into a discussion of how capitalism, commerce, can many times trump (pun intended) valuable eco systems and land rights that shape our culture and people. How do we speak out against these kinds of injustices?
Writing, including spoken word, is valuable in that it provides a voice against these injustices. It provides a platform to be heard. Spoken word is great for the stage, but it’s also just as great for the screen – youtube videos and viral videos on social media are useful tools to getting these issues seen. Where, in most cases, the issues faced by our islands are unseen, isolated and marginalized by location alone. It also becomes an important stepping stone into practicing critical writing and speaking skills, and entering the literary conversation that can contribute towards scholarship and promotion of literature in our islands.
The workshop in Saipan, as well as well the training, were two of many valuable gifts I received from the Festival, and they will hopefully lay the groundwork for more workshops to come. Storytelling through spoken word, through the marriage of poetry, performance, and media, is a tool that I’ve used to raise issues of social and environmental injustice, and it’s a tool that should be available to more youth.
Another valuable moment of the Festival came during my final, last day at a panel called, “”In Defense of the Sacred: A Regional Forum on Human Rights and the Communities That Defend Them.” The panel, organized by Blue Ocean Law, brought together advocates to discuss decolonization in Guåhan and West Papua, sea-bed mining, and climate change. Guess which panel I was on (it was climate change).
At the opening of the panel, the organizer and lawyer Julian Aguon, who’s also a good friend, explained how he felt the need to create an event for the discussion of these important issues specifically during the Festival. He explained that if we don’t continue to defend our land, cultures and countries, in short, our sacred spaces, from the various threats that encroach them, then there will be no rich soil from which our cultural traditions can grow or flourish. We defend the sacred in honor of our dancers, our weavers, our canoe builders – in short, our artists. The Festival is more than just a tourist destination for us to show of our skills, make some money – it becomes an important space for us to challenge one another, to further deepen our knowledge and our connection as islanders, a space to have important conversations.
I think back to that scene I described of our weavers in our booth, feet propped up, fanning themselves in the heat, trading insults and jokes, fingers quick as whip as they thread those sun-worn stripped leaves – those leaves that were shipped/strapped into a suitcase or a box from our island. Although I was most times caught up in the craziness that was Festpac, I felt compelled to check in to that space time and time again. It made me feel grounded. This, perhaps, is the sacred I would defend. And maybe this is the value of these workshops and overall the Festival as well – it’s identifying, discussing, challenging the threats. And also honoring what is sacred.
Kathy is one of the original collaborators of the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative project and is actively engaged supporting Pacific Island communities to tell their stories through poetry and writing. She is the co-director of Jo-Jikum, an environmental NGO based in the Marshall Islands.