Nan Madol: My Vulnerable Micronesian Identity

The significance of Nan Madol  — elders await willing ears and open hearts to pass on their stories — to strengthen existing connections.

by  C.H. Rilometo

“Ihieng!” A simple word expresses deference. Voiced by children, youths, adults , by Pohnpeians, by visitors to Pohnpei — the word articulates one’s willingness to lower self in front of others. It begs forgiveness for wrong moves, for wrong uttering, and excuses any preconceived misconceptions while in the presence of elders, royalty, sacred grounds — while exploring Pohnpei’s Nan Madol…

“Ihieng” conveys respect for self…respect for who and what is around you.

Last year, Nan Madol was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is now recognized and highlighted so everyone in the world can easily zoom in on it as one of earth’s greatest wonders –the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and Venice are among this world class list. By the same tone, UNESCO also listed Nan Madol as an endangered site. Meaning Nan Madol is finally documented as culturally significant, yet it is in critical condition.


Before the official announcement of Nan Madol becoming a UNESCO site, the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning’s (PREL) Pacific Storytellers Cooperative as part of the Pacific islands Climate Education Partnership (PCEP) brought young Micronesian students from the College of Micronesia (COM) and members of Pohnpei United Youth Media together for a week long workshop. These youths were encouraged to learn more than what is documented about Nan Madol so they could “share stories of Nan Madol.” They were taught different techniques of using today’s digital devices to capture images by renowned globetrotting journalist (and PREL staff) Daniel Lin. They listened to stories of Nan Madol from respected and educated elders such as Dr. Rufino Mauricio, Mr. Estephan Santiago and Mr. Millor Benjamin. They were then asked, “How do you feel that Nan Madol is now part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list?” The question stemmed from a deep desire to educate and embolden today’s Micronesian youths to take ownership of the stories of our places —  stories of Nan Madol… to become Pohnpei’s Storytellers.

Today’s youths are the great-grandchildren of Micronesians taught that honoring their cultural and traditional practices was equivalent to remaining in the dark.

My week with the Pohnpei Storytellers was an enlightening five days of summer 2016. The few elders who humbly shared what little they could about Nan Madol, revealed so much — they warmed my heart and fortified the mixed Micronesian blood coursing through my veins. I watched as the heirs of Nan Madol’s rich history become enthralled during our field-trip thru the old ruins. I listened as they shared new found titbits they never noticed before — when they were just visiting Nan Madol as regular Pohnpeians, ordinary Micronesians who took it for grant. I felt their excitement and got carried right along with them as I was able to not only glimpse the magnificence of Nan Madol, I was finally able to dig deep and find its significance in my life. In almost the same sense that I finally find value to long ago quality time with my (now) 84-year old grandmother.

As Nan Madol is finally globally recognized as a World Heritage Site and an Endangered Site, I now realize just how priceless a grandparent is. I have one grandparent left, my only living grandmother — my father’s mother — the Indian-Kosraean Likatu Bubu.

My Bubu refuses to leave the Marshall Islands anymore. It is the place she has long chosen to call her home. Majõl is where she spent her youth, her life’s work. Where she bore and disciplined her many children and nursed her grandchildren. Today, she continues to do all this…even when her deteriorating health is the first thing you notice every time you look at her.

In the past five years, I visited Majõl more (for work) than I ever did during the first 15 years after first leaving home. Consequently, I did not carve out much time to sit by my Bubu’s side. When I did though, I did not give her much time to reminisce about the good old days or impart much of her wisdom on me. Instead, when I was finally able to sit by her bed, I did more talking than listening — telling her all about my very full life — which sadly did not leave much room for her, her memories, or the strengthening of my eclectic hyphenated identity through her.

My Bubu was born with the gift of music. When she sings, you cannot help but feel humbled in her presence. Today, she is still composing music and teaching songs to anyone with the time and ability to hear. She is still living in the same small house she shared with my Jimma — my grandpa — when I was still in elementary school. The mere fact that she is still there, on a small spec of an atoll in vast Oceania sustains me. This knowledge fortifies me. It prompts me to stand a little taller when in the presence of strangers, yet bend my head and knees lower to the ground whenever I meet elders, a smile at the ready. In my heart, I am smiling at her. By listening to the diminishing number of elders around me, I am listening to my Bubu. I surely hope when the time comes when she quietly leaves this world to join my Jimma and the creator, I have enough of her story stored in my heart.

That her stories and her memories live on in me…in the things I do. In the way I view the world, the way I interact with others, the way I nurture and discipline my children. In the the way my children will inevitably grow up and take my place.

With this partial glimpse into my own family roots, I cannot help but feel… each of us labeled “Micronesian” is in some way symbolized by Nan Madol. Each individual island created from the sweat and determination of our ancestors to serve a specific purpose. Defined not just by our names and our roles, our sizes, or titles, but also by the spaces that separate us, and how we connect to each other regardless of these spaces.


I believe Nan Madol is a critical part of every Micronesian’s cultural identity. I pray we not just recognize this, we work together to strengthen and personify its restoration.

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