The Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is calling for submissions for a planned anthology of Micronesian writing.I figured some of my blog posts were good enough for inclusion, so I edited two and sent them in. The two I selected are listed in my Best of Saipan Blog links. I received a lot of feedback when I wrote these pieces.
The Center is soliciting submissions of written work by indigenous writers from Micronesia, including the islands of Guam, Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk, Yap, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Nauru for possible inclusion in this first anthology focused specifically on this region of the Pacific Islands.
I wrote I Found the Jinja in the Jungle around my one-year anniversary on Saipan. I had previously been away for 24 years and I was contemplating what it meant for me to be back on my father’s island after so many years.
Submission #1People later told me that they cried when they read that.
I Found the Jinja in the Jungle
The Force is strong in Saipan. It can be difficult to feel, but when you are able to get away, able to find a place untouched by the modern world, you can feel it. You can call the feeling what you want, whether it be religious or spiritual, but you can still feel it. We've all felt it at some time in our lives, a connection to the past and to something greater than ourselves.
I have been back in Saipan for just over three years now. I joke that the planets aligned to bring me back to this island, but I feel that they did. The Force brought me back to Saipan.
Returning to Saipan was never in my life plan. My mother ran away from Saipan with her two kids when I was three years old. After he divorced her, my father moved on and started a new family. My mother raised my brother, Alex, and me as a single parent. I received the occasional letter from my father, but I saw him no more than once every few years. I was raised as an American, visiting Saipan exactly five times during my childhood. Even when I was about to graduate from college, no one was asking me what I was going to do when I returned to Saipan. I don't think anybody ever even considered me coming back.
In my final week of college, my father suffered a massive heart attack and was evacuated to a hospital in Honolulu. I flew to Honolulu to be with him, his wife, my four brothers, and my sister. I missed my college graduation so that I could be there with them. It was worth it though; it was the last, and only the second, time my father's six children were all together. I don't know if that will ever happen again.
When he stabilized, we brought him home so that he could die on Saipan. We didn't expect him to live long. I thought he was going to die on the plane, but he hung in there for five and half years. During that interval, I went back to America, earned another degree and continued on with my life. Alex and I had an unspoken understanding that we would go back for his funeral and then we would probably never return to Saipan.
Well, that changed.
I made plans to visit Saipan in 2005. I was moving to Japan and before my job started there, my girlfriend at the time and I decided that we wanted to pay a visit to Saipan and my family. We were scheduled to arrive on December 17, 2005.
I moved to Japan on November 18, 2005. It was an exciting time; I was living in a new place and things were going very well. Then my world turned upside down.
On the morning of December 1, 2005, I woke up and opened up my laptop. I immediately started getting chat requests from Alex in Florida. I plugged in my camera, accepted the chat invitation and saw that Alex was bawling his eyes out. My father had died the night before. Alex already had a ticket to Saipan. I told him I would meet him in the Narita airport.
Now, if my father had died at any other time, I would have purchased a ticket to Saipan, stayed for one week, buried him, and I would have left Saipan behind forever. But he didn't die at any other time. He died 17 days before I was going to see him for the first time in half a decade. So instead of coming for one week, I came for one month.
After burying him, I was able to rediscover Saipan. I was able to see Saipan for the first time as an adult. I was able to see the island through my own eyes.
Three months later I was living on Saipan for the first time since I was three years old.
And you know what I have discovered?
I belong here.
I wrote Practicing My Culture as I was getting ready to launch a campaign to create a large marine protected area around the islands 300 miles north of Saipan. In it I try to argue that protecting our natural resources is just as important to protecting our culture as is continuing cultural practices.
Submission #2People have told me that they supported the creation of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument the moment they read this. The week that I published it I read it out loud on Harry Blalock's radio show. Somebody later told me that they were driving when it came on and that they pulled over so they could listen better.
Practicing my culture
Sometime in the last 20 years, indigenous people in the Northern Mariana Islands came to understand conservation as a bunch of haoles telling us not to fish, not to feed our families, and not to practice our culture. We have been mistaken. Conservation has always been an integral part of our Micronesian culture. I learned it from my father and I know other people on this island learned it from theirs. Even so, times have changed. Our islands have changed. The definition of conservation has changed along with them.
Old habits and old technologies result in expected outcomes. About a thousand years ago, when one of our Chamorro forefathers went out to catch fish using the technology available to him at the time, he could safely assume that he wasn’t depleting his resource. No new technology was going to be introduced to help him catch more fish and no huge influx of off-islanders would be coming to his home anytime soon.
The only things he needed to navigate his world were the stars, the waves, and the wind. He lived the way his grandparents lived and after he passed, he could reasonably assume his grandchildren would live the same way. That was 1,000 years ago, however. Times have changed. We now have more people and new technologies.
When people use old habits combined with new technologies, unexpected outcomes occur. Our local Division of Fish & Wildlife will tell you that SCUBA spear fishing nearly decimated our Napoleon wrasse population and that in the 1990s monofilament gill nets wiped out the turtle population in our lagoon.
When these new technologies were introduced, they weren’t introduced with the intent of destroying our natural resources. We just wanted to catch more fish, feed our families, and practice our culture.
Even so, old habits (catching as much as you can to share with family and friends) combined with new technologies (diving deeper and longer with SCUBA and better nets) led to a decline in the resource (an unexpected outcome). Fortunately our leaders were able to identify both of these new technologies as destructive. Both technologies have since been banned.
Culture and conservation are integrally linked. One day when my parents were still married, my father shot a Mariana mallard on our family property. He cooked it and we ate it.
A few days later my mother was visiting with an American wildlife biologist working on Saipan. Inside his office was a picture of a similar mallard and my mother told the him that her husband had just shot and eaten a bird just like the one in the photo. The biologist replied, "That was probably the last one."
My father did not purposely shoot and kill the last mallard. He was just feeding his family. He was practicing his culture. Also, if you had asked him about the bird on the day he shot it, he would probably have told you that he knew where to find more.
I don’t recount that story to try to paint my father in a negative light; I just use it to highlight my point. He had spent his whole life shooting and eating that bird and probably expected his children, my brothers, to spend their whole lives shooting and eating that bird. He was feeding his family. He was practicing his culture. However, old habits (hunting every bird you see) combined with new technologies (more people with better rifles) led to extinction (an unexpected outcome).
Am I less Chamorro because I will never see another Mariana mallard? Am I less Chamorro because I will never taste one again? And is Saipan less Saipan because we no longer have fruit bats, barely any coconut crabs, and fewer turtles and reef fish? If eating certain foods is part of our culture, what does it say about our culture when we allow that food to go extinct? Will our culture go extinct along with the resource?
We say that we are the people of the land and that these islands define who we are as a people. For that to remain true, then it must be the responsibility of every indigenous person to ensure that these islands are passed down to the next generation in the same condition in which they were passed down to us.
I take that promise seriously. That is how I practice my culture.
I don't really consider myself a writer and I took my last English class during my senior year of high school, but I think these two pieces are as about as good a product as I can produce. Not that Killer Saipan Tsunami wasn't inspired.