The Activism of Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner in the Marshall Islands

Image from the University of New South Wales-Sydney

Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner is a writer and performer of Marshall Island ancestry. Kijiner was born in the Marshall Islands and was raised in Hawaii, and she currently lives in Majuro, the capital of Marshall Islands. Kijiner’s work specializes in storytelling, performance, and poetry. She has used her creative practice to pay homage to her people and honor her culture’s oral tradition through storytelling and to engage in dialogue about political issues threatening the Marshall Islands and Marshallese people who live there. Some of the main issues that Kijiner has spoken out about in her performances are climate change, nuclear testing, and the legacy of settler colonialism. Her work and creative practice is largely informed by the community organizing through a Marshall Islands based nonprofit called Jo-Jikum that she leads, directs, and co founded. Kijiner’s nonprofit Jo-Jikum is dedicated to Marshallese youth and environmentalism, and she also serves as the Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands Ministry of Environment. In what follows, I analyze and discuss Kijiner’s poetry and connect it with Indigenous Histories.

In her poem “Anointed,” Jetnil-Kijiner is combating and speaking out against U.S. militarization and the violence committed against Indigenous people by colonial powers. After World War 2, the U.S. was granted authority by the United Nations to establish a permanent base in the Marshall Islands called the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site (Barker 2019, 348). Once this testing site was established, the United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands between 1946-1958, and among these detonations was the March 1st 1954 Bravo thermonuclear explosion that equated to one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs (Barker 2019, 349). In this poem, Kathy Jetlin-Kijiner delineates how the Marshall Islands, the homelands of the Marshallese peoples, were devastated environmentally, culturally, and materially by the U.S. testing of nuclear weapons after World War 2. Jetlin-Kijiner mourns for the contaminated wasteland the U.S. has created and how it has rid the Marshallese peoples of their homeland. She also ponders how her people will be able to remember and pay homage to a land they have held dear after the nuclear damage that has been caused by the U.S. Additionally, this video displays how Marshallese people have to rely on oral histories of what their home once was because of the obliteration nuclear testing has done to their islands. The United States government displaced the people of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from their ancestral islands in order to facilitate nuclear testing and conduct experiments to test the biological effects of nuclear radiation (Barker 2019, 348). The homes of the Marshallese people who were dispossessed are still uninhabitable due to the nuclear testing that was conducted by the U.S. government. Within this poem, Kijiner is speaking to the reality that the United States did not consider Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods or their humanity when they engaged in nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. This lack of acknowledgement of Marshallese people’s reality in Mainstream discourse further perpetuates colonial violence and reifies the erasure of Indigenous histories.

In Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem “Tell Them,” she is combating the erasure of Marshallese people through urging people to spread awareness of their existence. Holly M. Barker analyzes this obliteration of the plight of Marshallese people in her article “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom.” More specifically, she describes how Stephen Hillenburg’s Spongebob Squarepants perpetuates colonial and hegemonic violence against Marshallese people. While Spongebob Squarepants has received notoriety from millions of people worldwide, the tragedies that Marshallese people have suffered where the show is situated is largely unknown, and the storylines of Marshallese people are discarded from mainstream discourse. This is the erasure that Jetnil-Kijiner is speaking to in her poem. Kijiner’s plea for her friends in the states to tell people about the existence of Marshallese people is done with the purpose to dispel the myth that they aren’t a people whose stories are worth sharing. The colonial tradition of violence and erasure of those on the peripheries have been furthered by mainstream media such as Spongebob Squarepants, and it has been done with the purpose of normalizing settler colonial violence (Barker).

This disassociation only furthers the erasure of Marshallese people and excludes them from being the centers of their own storylines. However, in this poem Kijiner is pushing back against hegemonic violence through storytelling. Similarly, she illustrates the love she and her people have for her islands as she emphasizes their birthright of the land and their desire to overcome/withstand the islands’ many environmental challenges. It is very important that we continue to seek knowledge that brings the voices of marginalized communities to the center. Interrogating hegemony and the status quo are essential to decolonizing the production of knowledge. There are untold stories that need to be brought to the forefront in order to dismantle traditions of oppression and affect change. The work and activism of Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner centers the stories of Marshallese people and pushes back against the tradition of settler colonialism in order to inform broader audiences of the issues that are threatening her people and in their homelands. Continuing to seek awareness of the realities of those on the peripheries is imperative to bringing about change.

Bibliography

Barker, Holly M. 2019. “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom.” The Contemporary Pacific 31 (no. 2): 345-379.

Jetnil-Kijiner, Kathy. “Anointed.” YouTube, April 16, 2018. Video, 6:08. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuDA7izeYrk&feature=emb_title.

—. “Poet, Performer, Educator.” Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Accessed November 19, 2020. https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com.

—. “Tell Them.” YouTube, July 18, 2012. Video, 3:21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9D88ST9qbw&feature=emb_title