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2020 Pritzker Award Finalist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner — “I envision simple things. Our islands, above water”

The world marks the 10th anniversary of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests today, August 29.  Though the nuclear legacy is considered a cold war relic by so many, this issue still burns bright here in the Marshall Islands. We remember. We carry a torch for this issue – and now for the ongoing threat of climate change as well. 12 years of nuclear tests devastated our lands from above, now decades of climate change aim to take the rest from below, as the sea rises.

When I first learned to write poetry, I was told that good poetry was specific – that it had to be personal, so that it could be universal. The personal is that both my grandparents died from nuclear testing related cancers before I was born – receiving only half the compensation they were promised, which could have assisted in lifesaving cancer treatment.

The universal is that the nuclear movement lives on, albeit nowhere near as loud as the climate movement. The nuclear activists I met in Portland, Oregon, were well-meaning older white people, sharing their paper plates of oatmeal cookies, and asking me why there weren’t more youngsters in this movement.

Climate change and nuclear weapons issues are related – they are the by-products of the most far-reaching and destructive environmental racism, with national actions over decades leading to dire consequences over millennia. The grand experiments with fossil fuels and fission have deemed some people – and now even whole nations – as expendable. Losses start local but quickly expand to global.

I don’t believe in saviors, in one person leading our solutions. I do believe our younger generation, especially indigenous youth, must lead in an interconnected way to overcome the existential threats we face. They need to lead in local action as well as in crafting policy and international treaties. To stay engaged, they need to be cared for holistically.

I chose to be interdisciplinary before I really understood what this term meant. I knew that I loved writing, art, and storytelling, and I wanted to create community. I wanted to help find tangible answers for the problems that I kept writing about. Becoming a climate envoy, running a nonprofit – these were necessary shapeshifts as I realized that we needed solutions at every level. International, national, and grassroots. Communication for intersections requires translation. And art becomes that translator.

I met my friend and now sister Aka Niviana in Greenland for the first time for our Rise poem video, and that was when I learned that their land, too, had been a receptacle for nuclear waste and that they too continued to experience racism, felt the same ripples of colonialism.

Henry Lometo, an elder Marshallese artist, was once told his painting about the nuclear legacy was too angry, too raw. He blacked out the entire canvas, and stopped creating artwork on the topic until he participated in a community art class organized by Jo-Jikum. How many more stories like these exist?

We are embarking now in the Marshall Islands on developing our National Adaptation Plan – our survival plan, as we like to call it. There are so many technical aspects to this undertaking. Atoll nations are all considering the same options: building or elevating land, or migrating. We’ve stopped waiting for the world to believe us – instead, we’ve begun planning for the worst.

I envision simple things. Our islands, above water. Our community, thriving. A youth center where young Marshallese can become activated. An arts infrastructure to connect Marshallese artists to other indigenous artists around the world. Curriculum that teaches our history as world history, as lessons learned and never forgotten. A world-renowned hospital with expertise and enough access to water for dialysis and cancer treatments. The next generation of Bikini islanders sailing to and setting foot on their home island. Enewetak Atoll radiation-free, and without a dome.

To get to these places requires a continuous weaving, between every sector, at every level.

Two years ago, I took a weaving training with a master weaver, Terse Timothy, as inspiration for a performance. She said there should be no gaps between the strands of pandanus leaves when you weave a Jaki, a mat.

This Award’s support would help in securing the current gaps in my work. It would enable critical capacity building of our organization, Jo-Jikum, so that we can continue developing our community of youth artist environmentalists. It would provide a platform for raising the collective consciousness through new collaborations, new artwork. Collaborations with Yakama Nation, Japanese, Black, Kiribati and Maldivian artists. Connecting nuclear legacies, threatened islands, environmental racism. New ways of translating our interconnections.

We’ve experienced some of the worst humanity has to offer. But we are more than victims. We have so many more stories and so much knowledge to share.