although new zealand has had two women prime ministers, jenny shipley (1997-1999) and helen clark (1999-2008), as a member of the oecd (organisation for economic cooperation and development, aka a first world nation), new zealand does not count as a pacific island country on certain indices.
as veteran journalist giff johnson has noted, although she has been a senior public servant and served as cabinet minister for education under the last government, dr. heine will have her work cut out for her. apart from the environmental and economic threats from climate change, the marshalls have a whole lot of other development issues calling out for attention and action. can we say ‘compact of free association’, nuclear reparations, the trans pacific partnership agreement, and those baffling flags of convenience?
but what’s most important to remember is that electoral politics is not the only realm of leadership that matters. hawaiian scholar, activist and poet, haunani-kay trask once proposed that electoral politics is a negation of authentic indigenous hawaiian leadership. to rephrase trask optimistically, the more people feel empowered to take leadership positions outside of electoral politics, the better equipped a society is to keep all of its leaders accountable and its ecology and spirituality in balance. indeed, i would want to, like trask, celebrate those agitating and organizing outside of parliaments and legislatures as much, if not more than, the folks who get themselves elected.
Carmen Bigler, former President of Women United Together, Marshall Islands
The late Darlene Keju-Johnson, founder of Youth to Youth in Health, Marshall Islands
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Marshallese poet and climate warrior, addressing the UN Climate Summit 2014
does it matter that the first woman to be elected a head of government in the pacific islands is a micronesian?
given the incredible diversity of histories and cultures in micronesia, i am not sure we can or should want to attribute this landmark to anything quintessentially micronesian. what we can say is that sometimes big changes are easier to make in small countries. [go micro!]
i wish dr. heine the very best and much strength for her term in office. our pacific island countries need good leaders now more than ever. i don’t believe women are inherently better or less corruptible leaders than men. (i lived in england for a year under margaret thatcher…it was not good.)
but i guess what heine’s election has done is it has rolled out a mat — to use a very pacific metaphor. it is a mat for pacific people to have a conversation about how we support all our leaders to truly represent us once they get into office. her election has rolled out a mat for pacific people to imagine regional heads of government meetings where white women aren’t the only women who get to lead delegations (as when julia gillard represented australia and hillary clinton represented the u.s. in rarotonga 2012, and clark and shipley represented new zealand at regional meetings before them).
US Secretary of State welcomed to the Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Rarotonga 2012
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcomed in Rarotonga 2012
NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark with other Pacific Island leaders in Niue 2008
most clearly, heine’s election has rolled out a mat for pacific people to broaden our definitions and understandings of political participation, not just for women, but for youth, sexual minorities, the displaced, disaffected and all communities who get marginalized either by intent or accident.
the election of the marshall islands’ and the pacific islands’ first woman head of government in 2016 reminds us that in the pacific islands, the most meaningful of exchanges and deliberations take place on or in mats, and most mats of any social, cultural or political import are made by women. in the marshall islands there are particularly fine traditions of mat weaving that are also experiencing a revival. pacific women can claim back mastery over the size, the weave and the function of our mats (material and metaphorical) wherever, whenever we choose to make a difference. jeramman im komoltata.
i finished my phd in 2003 after lots of archival research and fieldwork (i called it “homework”) and then took a break while i taught at uh for 3.5 years. i then dived back into archival work at the macmillan brown centre for pacific studies at the university of canterbury in christchurch in 2006. john macmillan brown had shares in the phosphate company in the early 1900s.
i had to take another break after i began a new job at anu in 2007 with a few trips to the archives every year and visits to rabi in fiji. i had also collected many hours of film footage and archival photographs and transformed some of these into short visual studies and collaborated with artists and curators to share this history in visual and multimedia forms. finally, in 2010 i began to reimagine this as a book proposal and finalized that in 2011 while on a fellowship at the university of rochester in new york. thus began the task of taking apart my masters and phd research, reconstructing parts i could use in a book and writing 5 new chapters. this took almost 2 years and it went through a long process of feedback from 3 reviewers, and 3 editors at indiana university press in the same period. the challenge was to write this story for a wider audience and particularly american readers who are unfamiliar with oceania and pacific studies.
i think reimagining the book in this way made it better but it was a long, challenging process. for a 4-month period i was in my office till midnight on many days and lost at least 7 kilos but was so happy when everything finally came together at the beginning of 2014 and i had a real book ready to finalize for publication. i really appreciated the detail and attention that came to the book because of the rigour of the indiana university press team, as well as the additional readings and edits provided by great colleagues such as margaret jolly, carolyn brewer and rachel harvey, and my husband, nick mortimer.
so, the short answer is 15 years of research and preliminary writing, and 2 years of book writing!
mw: that’s a pretty epic process! but wait–so americans were the main or intended audience of your book?
kt:i tried to write the book for anyone (or everyone) but had banaban, i-kiribati, pacific islander, australian, new zealand, american and global audiences in mind, in roughly that order. i hoped people involved in environmental studies, activism, mining, resource extraction and agricultural research or activities might also pick it up and contemplate the impact of fertilizer manufacturing and mass agriculture on indigenous peoples.
this is a trailer katerina made for her book, using footage she’d either shot or collected while doing the research for the book:
mw: what plans do you have for making sure banabans have access to your book?
kt:i have been in conversation with banabans who have access to the internet through a facebook group- banaba: untold tales- run by kata tawaka. It has 299 members and i’ve posted all news or media and information to that page. i’ve also got a copy of the book for the community library on rabi and have given a copy of the book to the president of the banaban community in brisbane to share with the growing community there. i plan on sending copies to the presidents of kiribati and nauru as well. ummm and teresia, your copy is on its way too, as well as one for the museum of new zealand te papa tongarewa.
kt:indeed, banabans are familiar with certain versions of their history (from maude, grimble, williams and macdonald) and jennifer shennan, makin tekenimatang, ken sigrah and stacey king have produced recent books telling many banaban and european versions of this history and contemporary rabi life. i wrote to ken and mentioned that i do not cover the te aka version of banaban history as this is not something i know enough about. wolfgang kempf and elfriede hermann have also written many articles and book chapters about life and identity on rabi.
but i think what my book does that these works do not, is explicitly link banaban history to that of a deep history of land, global agriculture, phosphate mining and the significance of the phosphorus element. i thought as much about what happened to the land as to the people and previous authors have focused more on people. so i hope banaban readers will say: oh, that’s why they wanted our phosphate so much and this is the role it played in global agriculture. and they might ask: so what is “te aba” really, and why should we know more about the science and technical aspects of phosphate mining and environmental destruction? i argue that what happened to the land is like what happened to the people and both are still waiting to be rehabilitated in a just fashion.
kt:well, as a banaban, i became very, very, very interested in what phosphate and phosphorus were and why these were such valuable elements and commodities. if we lose an island what does everyone else gain and was it worth the sacrifice? turns out that the globe has these planetary boundaries and phosphorus has a key role to play in the maintenance of our ecological systems. this is something i think banabans need to know, the mining destroyed not just our island but phosphorus is a limiting factor for life on earth because it’s normally locked away in inaccessible forms like rock and takes a long time to naturally cycle back through the system. so messing with natural cycles in order to mass produce food might provide short term solutions for food security but results in all kinds of other problems in terms of siphoning off key minerals strictly for human needs while destroying landscapes, oceanscapes, plant and animal life, and cultures in the process.
i used to wonder if i’d ever use my bachelor of science degree from santa clara university but it sure came in handy for this research. i could generally follow the geology, biology and chemistry i had to read to write new chapters of the book but i was still unsure so went to the commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation (csiro) in canberra and spent a bit of time with an agricultural scientist checking things. i hope banabans will rethink te aba, or abara, in these material and global terms and realize what role our small ancestral island played not just in terms of developing australian and new zealand agriculture but as part of a global environmental and agricultural system. tracking banaban lands and peoples is a global tracking in many ways because of the chain of phosphate and superphosphate commodities and the agricultural commodities and processes that are linked to fertilizer production and application.
this is a promotional video the anu released about katerina’s book:
mw: there was also another american guy (not part of the indiana series) who was doing a global history of phosphate, right? what was his name? are you and he saying similar things about phosphate’s role in processes of globalization?
kt:greg cushman wrote about guano: guano and the opening of the pacific world. i discovered it just as my book was finished and wrote to him to say, yay, great, i’m interested in your work. he never replied and I’ve only seen small bits of his book via google books but it does tell some of the banaban story based on archives and sigrah and king’s book. i’m not sure if he travelled to rabi and banaba. his is very much a global history linking south america and the pacific.
but guano and phosphate are a bit different in terms of geological life, access, mining technology required for extraction, and proportions of phosphoric acid available for agricultural use, or in terms of what industries need to do to the raw material in order to unlock the phosphoric acid (that’s what you need to help improve the capacity of plant roots to take in nutrients and thrive).
guano mining played out a bit differently in south america and oceania but the same companies (like the pacific islands company) were involved in both types of extraction and exploitation of labour and indigenous land.
guano really is piled up bird and bat poo while phosphate–which can be formed by guano leaching through and reacting with a coral bed and then sedimenting over time–is locked away in rock formation.
mw: that’s interesting. you did a lot of archival research for the phd and this book, but your doctorate was awarded in anthropology. how important was anthropology for the way you’ve ended up writing the book?
kt:my writing is ethnographic. i tell stories, many in rich detail so i’d say ethnography rather than anthropology per se was very important. however, anthropologists’ previous work was very important, as was that of historians and a few scientists. so this could be described as historical ethnography but it not written to debate some particular theory or issue in the discipline.
mw: so the discipline of anthropology is not the focus. the people are. that’s cool. but your spoken kiribati is minimal, because dad didn’t use it much in our household when we were growing up. did you feel that was a barrier at any point in your research?
kt:it’s not only because our dad didn’t speak directly to us in his first language. i have studied kiribati, fijian, hindi, chinese, japanese and french over the years. and i cannot speak any of them though my kiribati comprehension is best. i believe my japanese teacher thought i was an imbecile and my french teacher similarly. but i can write any word in mandarin with the correct directional strokes—i see chinese characters, i don’t comprehend them.
anyway, yes, not paying closer attention to language did influence my project—the downside was not going deeper into banaban epistemologies and stories rooted in language, the upside was paying attention to materiality, to land, to commodities, to bodies. i am a visual and choreographic person; unlike you, languages are way, way beyond me in spite of time in kiribati and on rabi surrounded by kiribati speakers and listening to my father speak the language on and off since we were little. but i can learn any dance quite quickly; dance is my language. and when i look at a page, i don’t read words, i look at the shape of the text (i’m hypersensitive about fonts), spacing, blocks, tabs and margins, before i read anything.
i did, however, work closely with our father to translate many interviews that were in gilbertese (kiribati) and I published them in the book with english translations.
here are some pictures of katerina using the language of dance over the years–from ballet to contemporary kiribati dance and other genres. we couldn’t find a photograph from her years of chinese dancing in time for publication:
mw: have other disciplines influenced your analysis and writing in this book? how?
kt:history and anthropology have been the major disciplinary influences (i adore archives, they are so exciting) but interdisciplinary pacific studies is where my work sits i think. and that includes the indigenous studies and cultural studies elements of pacific studies. cultural studies and women’s studies on their own have also influenced my thinking and work, especially in terms of the politics of knowledge and cultural production.
it’s not a discipline per se but analytically, methodologically and politically, feminist ethnography had a major impact on my phd years, especially the writing of kamala visweswaran (fictions of feminist ethnography), dorinne kondo, ruth behar, deborah gordon, all the women writing culture folks, especially kirin narayan. she is such a master storyteller.
dance studies also had a massive impact on my work, especially the work of susan leigh foster, deidre sklar and sally ann ness. i think I write as a dancer, even when i’m not writing about dance.
mw: this is a microwoman interview, so can you tell us a bit about how women feature in your book? you’ve been influenced by feminist ethnography, so do you consider yourself a feminist? can you say more about how feminism informs your work?
kt:my two academic goddesses are kirin narayan and kamala visweswaran. yes, i’m a feminist but i find any superficial and simplistic varieties of western feminism irritating. i’m a feminist in a catholic, indigenous, eco-critical, multi or inter-spiritual kind of way. i tell my daughter god is not gendered and definitely not a man sitting in the clouds. i believe in gender equity and equality.
gender was not the focus of my research but i noticed it everywhere, including in the archives, and carolyn brewer, who worked with me on the index, found much more content then i remembered thematically on women, children and gender issues in my book. this was especially the case with respect to land, land rights, colonialism, christianity, spirituality, oral traditions, and resistance amongst the banabans.
mw: just changing tack a bit, we’ve been talking about academic influences a lot so far, but i wondered whether there were other less academic influences you might like to discuss. for example, have you felt our ancestors’ spirits intervene or assist in the process of researching and/or writing this book at any point?
kt:ok, i have. and it’s never popular or a good move to discuss this in an academic (or public) context, except with some indigenous or pacific studies folks in hawai’i, new zealand and the u.s. i have a couple colleagues who i can talk to about such things at anu but it’s usually a no-go zone, as is revealing you have any kind of membership in organized (or disorganized) religion. academics aren’t expected to be spiritual, and definitely not religious as, scientifically, your objectivity will be seen to be compromised.
usually i’m not sure if i’m living up to our ancestors’ expectations. right from the beginning of the research process, if not before, i had many dreams of people trying to instruct me on banaban, kiribati and other indigenous knowledge and ways of doing or seeing things. after i went to banaba i had several dreams of skulls or heads without bodies accompanying me on the research journey and prompting me or pushing me to keep going. keeping ancestors bones was of course a custom on banaba and throughout the gilberts. on tabiteuea—our other ancestral island—i think i was visited by more than a few spirits and on banaba i definitely had waking encounters with vivid things i couldn’t explain. in 2011 my husband said that a tall man visited him in a dream and said to tell me i could do this book and it would be good. he said it was our african american grandfather.
mw: that’s heavy. do you have any funny stories from doing your research or writing the book?
kt:yes, lol. many of them involve bodily functions, like most anthropologists. one of them involves an entire section of betio town in south tarawa accompanying me to the shop to buy toilet paper and then sitting outside the school toilet, waiting, while i went. others involve showering under the stars with some awesome nuns on tabiteuea only to find out that a toddy cutter was up a coconut tree somewhere in the dark and decided to reveal himself by singing one of those toddy-cutting songs.
a not so funny one was when a drunk young man climbed under my mosquito net in tekabwibwi, north tabiteuea, while my two uncles slept not too far away, claiming he just wanted to touch my hair. i woke up while his hand was inches from my face.
another one was when i thought i could play netball for our village, tabiang, on rabi but didn’t quite know the rules of the game and some clever woman put me into a match against the toughest village on the island. i think she wanted to show everyone how no amount of education will help you on the sports field. so i married a former athlete and he played volleyball for tabiang years later and his team decimated all the reigning champions (first time tabiang every won a trophy i hear)!
fun fact: i listened to lots of pop, hip hop, reggae, r&b and world music while finishing the book and danced in the chair as i was writing and editing.
mw: cute. 🙂 do you feel you have exhausted the archives on banaba? is there more work that could be done?
kt:no, no, no. the archives of the british phosphate commissioners, western pacific high commission, and others relevant to banaba, phosphate and mining are MASSIVE. they’re in canberra, melbourne, adelaide, london, auckland, wellington, suva and would connect to other records such as ship cargo manifests from many more countries. and this doesn’t include the content in private collections of former company employees and that of stacey king and ken sigrah on the gold coast of australia. there is a lifetime of work to be done and i’d love to keep going. i think it would also be great for younger banabans to study the humanities and social sciences and write more of our histories and contemporary stories.
mw: what will your next research and publishing projects focus on?
kt: my current work with indiana university’s “framing the global” project is called “indigenous peoples and the global remix” and is about the performing arts, policy, international cultural relations, regionalism and festivals. but i need to clear some months to finish it! i also hope to find funding to do more rabi and banaba research one day.
mw: well, that will certainly keep you busy! thanks for taking time to share with us on the microwoman blog. is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers before you go?
i’ve just come back from a 48 hour academic writing retreat with some colleagues and students. before i unplugged and re-oriented myself towards long overdue and neglected projects, i was excited by some of the stuff that was coming through my social media feeds, which made me think that this might just be the year it rained microwomen!
the first micronesian item to come through my feed earlier this week was this interview with milañ loeak, a young woman from the marshall islands who was one of 30 activists from the pacific who this past october raised a significant amount of international awareness about climate change by paddling canoes out into a major australian port to blockade the huge ships that export coal from there. this was part of a campaign organized by the international NGO 350.org :
the next micronesian item to come through my feed was a notice about a documentary that had won a special prize from connect4climate, a group funded by the world bank and the italian ministry of environment. the film was made by victoria burns, a young woman of i-kiribati and british heritage living in england. you can read the story here. watch the film titled “tinau* (my mother)” here:
what immediately struck me about milañ, victoria and her mother, was the quiet gentleness of their voices. but there was also no mistaking their strength.
as a feminist i’m interested in all kinds of voices–not just the loud ones, or the eloquent ones. in her signature essay “situated knowledges”, donna haraway helped name this interest for me when she described feminism’s love of “the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood.” (1988:589) you can get a pdf of the article here.
while milañ never missed a beat in her interview, what was unusual was her pacing. this was not going to be one of those rapid fire angry activist interviews–and the interviewer has to be commended, too. he seemed at ease with the pace and tone that milañ was setting. it was slow and fluid, almost underwater-like.
the documentary by victoria burns, however, really captured for me some of the issues of “interpretation, translation, stuttering and the partly understood” that haraway believes feminism loves. and victoria explored these issues with such tenderness and self-reflexivity. i wept. i wept for victoria’s mother. i wept for kiribati. i wept for climate change. i wept for the stuttering, for the misunderstanding. at first the contrast between victoria’s polished english accent and her mother’s halting cobbling together of kiribati and english is painfully poignant. but finally i wept at the amazing possibilities of interpretation and translation that victoria had on the tip of her own tongue. ko rangi ni bati, neiko! e rarabwa te tamnei ae ko raweia!
but wouldn’t you know? there are even more microwomen out there! check out “the little island that could”, which is a blog i’ve started following by a young woman of i-kiribati and australian heritage named marita.
so you see why i was excited before going on my retreat on monday. i could not wait to come back, plug in and write up this blog. but when i returned, the next micronesian item that came through my feed took the shine off my microwomen euphoria: on november 3 of this year, the u.s. supreme court ruled that the state of hawai`i is not required to provide medical benefits to citizens of the federated states of micronesia, palau or the marshall islands: story here.
while it may seem like global media is paying more attention and giving a bit of air time to micronesians speaking up about climate change lately…there are some issues for micronesians, particularly in the u.s., that the media have either been part of the problem on or simply have not helped with. my microbruddah, joakim peter, has put a massive effort into the campaign for access to medical benefits for micronesians in hawai`i. and a polynesian ally, kat lobendahn has been instrumental in mobilizing protests and helping to facilitate community discussion around derogatory comments about micronesians in the hawai`i media, and the ongoing racism faced by micronesians in hawai`i. check out some of the stories here.
in more poetic forms of activism, kathy jetnil-kijiner and guam-based pohnpeian writer emelihter kihleng have addressed some of the discrimination and stigma micronesians have been facing in hawai`i. check out emelihter’s poem “the micronesian question” here.
and kathy’s poem “lessons from hawai`i” here:
i use both these poems in my teaching at university in aotearoa new zealand. but having lived outside of the u.s. for close to 20 years now, i’m still learning about the more recent struggles of micronesian migrant communities over there.
so, i started out wanting to celebrate “microwomen everywhere”, and ended up being rudely reminded that for some, seeing “micronesians everywhere” may not be something to celebrate. but as we like to say down under: stuff ’em.
go micro! there’s plenty more to come!
*that’s pronounced see-now, just as kiribati is pronounced kiri-bassey or kiri-bass (as in the fish, not the instrument)…heavy sigh.
paul kelly and kev carmody’s, ‘from little things, big things grow’ chronicles the struggle of the gurindji people in the northern territory of australia. a māori friend of mine introduced this song to me after she spent some time on a writer’s residency in australia.
the ancestors of australian aboriginals settled the continent tens of thousands of years before the ancestors of most pacific islanders arrived in the region, and although there have been some lamentable conflicts between aboriginals and pacific migrants to australia in contemporary times, there have also been many occasions when pacific islanders and aboriginal australians have joined in solidarity–most notably in the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s-1990s. the initial protest that this song commemorates was over the gurindji’s rights as workers. this led to an 8-year labour strike and eventually expanded to a land rights movement led by a man named vincent lingiari. the gurindji’s resolute stand against the exploitation of their labour and the alienation of their lands was finally addressed by legislation awarding indigenous australians in the northern territory title to their traditional lands.
admittedly, the version of the history recorded in this song is very male-oriented. as a feminist, i am of course curious about what the gurindji women’s experiences might have been during this time, and how the legislation may have affected their subsequent well-being, especially in relation to mining and other developments on their lands. i hope to be able to provide a follow-up to this in a future blog. but my awareness of the partial nature of this version of history doesn’t stop me from enjoying the song, and taking inspiration from the gurindji victories of 1975 and 1976.
as a child, i always wanted to be a superhero. bionic woman. wonder woman. a whole raft of comic book ‘heroines’. what little girl in the 1970s exposed to american popular culture failed to have her imagination captured by these icons? i spent a lot of time as a child growing up in fiji dreaming up ways that i could invent rocket-powered boots or web-spinning wristlets so that i could fight local, global and interplanetary crime. (sigh) i eventually grew up to be an academic. a feminist academic of course. a feminist academic from the pacific islands…a region located in the world’s largest ocean, but with some of the world’s smallest nation-states and populations.
there are not many pop cultural renditions of superheroes from this part of the world. (apart from the x-men’s samoan character mondo, my part-samoan husband reminds me.) but we’ve actually produced our fair share of local and indigenous heroes, necessitated in large part by the onslaughts of colonialism and neo-liberal economics we’ve experienced in the past and continue to experience in the present. now that i’m in my late 40s, though, i’m learning to be skeptical of hero discourse…mainly because i have seen too often how it’s been used to sacrifice the brave, and excuse the lethargic, lazy and cowardly from taking positive action. so meet my alter-ego, “microwoman”. she’s no superhero. she’s not even trying to be a hero. she’s just going to keep doing the best she can to make small changes, small interventions…and as they say, “from little things, big things grow.”