Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Sailing at the Youth Storytelling through Poetry Workshop in CNMI (2016) © Dan Lin

Storytelling & Transforming Education in the Pacific Islands

My grandpa once told me that if I do not know my history, then I do not know anything. He said I would be like a leaf that does not know it is part of a tree.
—Sasha Santiago (Pohnpei Storytellers)

Storytelling is an important aspect of the human experience. Through stories, we learn, we share, we feel, we express, and we remember. And in the Pacific, stories serve as the thread that connects us with our places. Our stories hold lessons of the strength, struggles, and solidarity that shape the identity all Pacific Islanders, as well as the accumulated knowledge, world views, and ways of knowing developed through firsthand engagement with our environment. However, while critical to survival in our places, our stories and the knowledge held in them are not always valued in school. This leaves a gap in education that alienates communities from classrooms and young learners from the collective wisdom that would guide them into a thriving future.

Bridging this gap becomes increasingly critical in light of globalization, migration, and the rapid environmental shifts in the Pacific due to climate change. So in 2016, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) launched the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative as an online platform to safeguard and grow our repertoire of traditional and place-based stories, and to be part of bringing our rich Pacific storytelling heritage into the internet age.

Why Storytellers?

A group of participants at the Youth Storytelling through Poetry in CNMI (2016) © Dan Lin

The Cooperative arose from the Pacific Islands Climate Education Partnership (PCEP), a larger initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (#1239733; http://pcep.prel.org/), in which climate scientists, learning scientists, education practitioners, and community members came together to work toward advancing climate education in the US-affiliated Pacific islands (USAPI). As PCEP worked within education systems to revise curriculum standards, create new classroom materials, and train educators, we needed a way to help students connect their personal experiences to the big ideas of climate science and climate change impact like sea-level rise, higher air and ocean temperatures, changing rain patterns, and ocean acidification. Something else was also missing in the literature about climate change: the voices of community members, especially the youth, that are most affected by its impact.
The Cooperative is an Opportunity to Democratize who can Contribute to the Growing Body of Knowledge about Big Ideas.

Facts about climate change and other big ideas are often told to us through scholarly literature, authored by those considered to be experts in their field that hold (Western) academic credentials and can navigate the peer review process past the journal gatekeepers. These works are incredibly valuable, but they only hold part of the truth. Observations by local residents of all ages is critical to the understanding of global phenomena and can capture information in local languages and local ways of knowing that may be missed by academic researchers.

The Cooperative seeks to find the nexus between oral traditions of island communities and present-day modalities of communication, especially among Pacific youth. And while we live in a world where each one of us can share a story on social media with just a click of a button, a single voice is easily lost in the noise. The Cooperative was created to weave together and amplify the countless voices of those in the Pacific that are facing global issues like climate change in a very personal way.

We are Just the First to Experience Climate Change Impact. Others Need to Pay Attention

The Cooperative is more than just a way for students to process big ideas. Sea level rise, higher temperatures, and increased storminess due to climate change are affecting everyday life in the Pacific. Ours will be the first communities facing the possibility of climate-induced migration. But we are only the first; we won’t be the last.

The way in which climate change exacerbates existing economic challenges—and how our global and local leaders choose to act—tells us what’s in store for other communities around the globe. And stories from young people living with the physical, political, social, and economic impact of environmental changes make these lessons personal.

What Does the Cooperative Look Like?

Setting sail at the Youth Storytelling through Poetry Workshop in CNMI (2016) © Dan Lin

The Cooperative lives as a website (http://storytellers.prel.org/), as workshops through the Shaping Storytellers Institute, and as edited short films featured at international film festivals.

The Cooperative’s online platform accepts submissions in all forms from Indigenous Pacific Islanders, including written stories, photos, videos, and poetry. Authors can create their own accounts and post their own stories without having to go through an editor. Posts are monitored, but this freedom allows writers to publish directly to the public and truly own their stories. Over 100 stories from young authors in American Samoa, Palau, Saipan, RMI, Pohnpei, and Hawaii have been published through the Cooperative online.

When storytellers submit material to the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative, they provide full permission for PREL to share their story in different types of media. However, a story belongs to its storyteller, now and forever.

The Shaping Storytellers Institute is a collaboration between PREL affiliates Dan Lin (@danlinphotography) and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner (@kathyjetnilkijiner) that provides an opportunity for youth to build and share their stories through poetry, prose, and photography. The workshops vary in size from five to seventy participants. Not every workshop is about climate change, but the majority focuses on environmental issues. Many of these stories are published on the Cooperative’s online platform and some have been shared on YouTube and in local media outlets. Past institutes have included:

Pohnpei Storytellers, the original group of twenty-two young storytellers that started with a creative writing and photography project to celebrate the recognition of Nan Madol as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the group continues to produce stories

  • Environmental Poetry and Storytelling at the 2016 Festival of Pacific Arts in Guam
  • Youth Storytelling through Poetry with the Northern Marianas Humanities Council and over seventy high school and college students, educators, and elders to empower youth to use digital media and storytelling as tools to promote awareness about important issues in CNMI
  • Manua, American Samoa with five high school students and fifteen teachers, focusing on their new solar energy micro grid built by Tesla
  • Climate Science Camp in Palau with fifteen high school students to reflect on their perspectives and new learning about climate change through poetry
  • Multi-day workshop with Micronesian youth in low-income Honolulu neighborhoods
  • Collaboration with the CMI Media Club in the Marshall Islands to provide technical support and artistic guidance, and to create “Fishbone Hair” with Jetñil-Kijiner.

And to raise the profile of the Cooperative and bring global attention to Pacific Island issues, Lin and Jetñil-Kijiner have created two award-winning, powerful short films:

  • Anointed, a voyage to the island of Runit in Enewetak Atoll to visit a nuclear waste site that is home to 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris and
  • Rise: From One Island to Another, a collaboration between Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna (Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland]) that illustrates and connects the realities of melting glaciers and rising sea levels

Why Stories in PREL’s New Direction?

Stories are in PREL’s new direction because the conversation about climate change is not over, and because important conversations among Pacific Islanders extend beyond climate change.
Parts of the USAPI—specifically the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau—entered into Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the United States that allows assistance and free access by COFA citizens to the United States in exchange for exclusive military access. These agreements fund the education and healthcare systems in each entity and have since the 1980s. However, the current COFA agreements, and their funds, are set to expire in 2023, and leaders are anticipated even a greater wave of COFA citizens migrating to the United States and its territories in search of employment, medical assistance, and education.

As an organization that spans the USAPI, PREL recognizes our role in supporting COFA citizens in navigating this new political future. This support includes expanding our work with educators, particularly in Hawaii, to support newly arrived students, as well as with those in COFA communities to prepare students for a global future and families for migration away from home. We also see the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative as one of the ways in which we build this system of support together because, as we know through the voyaging legacies of our ancestors, it is the stories—encompassing languages, knowledge, and ways of knowing—that perpetuate culture through times of transition.