Marshallese Face up to Changing Times

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There is a great wave of concern for the future of the indigenous peoples of Marshall Islands in the vast Pacific waters because of their vulnerability to the impacts of climate  change and global warming. The inhabitants in the atolls have seen rising sea levels, inundation, severe weather patterns that cause extended drought and threaten the indigenous people’s food security, including their fresh water sources. The matter of the indigenous peoples’ survival including their traditional heritage, cultural and economic practices, possible obliteration of burial places and other historic sites had to be addressed through the project that contributed to the revival and strengthening of traditional practices to adapt to climate change and included vulnerable sectors like people with disabilities.

Most  cultures  in  the  Pacific such as the Marshallese have  an  oral  tradition  where  legends,  myths,  stories,  skills,  and knowledge  were narrated by  ancestors and relayed down to generations. Sadly however, this body of oral literature and culture was not preserved, recorded or institutionalized in most instances. This oversight has  caused  some  of  their  skills  and  knowledge  to  diminish and die  with  their  forebearers and elders. Thus the project’s teaching and learning mode included story telling or direct practice where for instance, older men taught their sons traditional ways of planting or fishing while the older women taught mat and basket weaving to young women. Songs, stories and dances were taught by the elders or experts to the younger ones in community or family gatherings. These skills, knowledge and practices were appreciated and participants had the realization that these are consciously integrated into their cultural way of life and have practical use in climate change adaptation. 

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With climate change rearing its menace, it is a race with time. The elders’ transmission of ancient skills and knowledge entailed the indigenous communities’ discernment and decision on the usefulness and applicability of such in the mitigation of the impact of  climate change. The  project not only enabled  intergenerational  knowledge transmission and  preservation of some  of  the  ancient  skills  and  knowledge that sustained them long before urbanization and technological advancements took over, but also empowered vulnerable sectors. 

Cultural proof of the Marshallese’ existence and continuity needed immediate conservation through transfer, practice and documentation. Time is essential in the rapidly changing landscape of the Marshall Islands where ancient art and traditional skills may be the answer for the people’s survival. While community decision making processes involved the elders, the indigenous youth and people with disabilities were encouraged to participate or listen and observe. With the changing of climate comes changing cultural perspectives in the light of climate change adaptation.

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The project’s cultural  heritage  conservation took on a  research  approach  with  documentation  and  production of  short  documentaries  on storytelling  and transmission of traditional  skills  and  knowledge acquired by  persons  with  disabilities, with their consent and intellectual  property  considered for public dissemination. The actual practice of the indigenous  way  of  learning  through oral  tradition  or  story-telling  of the  elders  to  the  younger  generation was encouraged and actualized. Indigenous  youths  with  disabilities  gathered to  hear  and  learn  from  their  elders and they, too, had the opportunity of telling  their  own  stories. The indigenous children, youth and women with disabilities were capacitated as members of their community, equipped with skills in crafts and knowledge of their native language. Adapting to climate change comes with reclaiming the traditional wisdom to cope with nature’s changing ways. Waves of change may wash over their landscape, but the Marshall Islands’ indigenous people stand solidly with their roots and identity.

 A Deaf boy learning through observation from a Master weaver, how to repair a fishing net

A Deaf boy learning through observation from a Master weaver, how to repair a fishing net

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The Project entitled “Strengthening Traditional Practices -Adapting to Climate Change was implemented by Pacific Disability Forum with the support of Pawanka Fund.