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Navigation Chart, Marshall Islands

Marshall Islanders, renowned as the world's greatest navigators, create unique stick and shell maps called meddo or rebbelib. These maps, used on land, help form mental images of the islands and their surrounding currents. Each map is a personal representation of the sea's relationship with the islands, highlighting the ocean as a unifying element rather than a barrier.

Navigation Chart, late 19th century, Marshall Islands, wood, fiber, and shells (American Museum of Natural History). Speakers: Jenny Newell, Steven Zucker and Tina Stege.

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Video transcript

(jaunty piano music) - [Doctor Zucker] One of the practices from the Pacific Islands, that I find most intriguing is map making from the Marshall Islands. - [Doctor Newell] The Marshall Islands see themselves as being the greatest navigators in the world and one of the things that you can see is a material representation of this is the wonderful maps. They're called meddo or rebbelib and they're made of sticks and shells and put together as mental maps of the Marshall Islands and the currents and the swells that link those islands. - [Doctor Zucker] The maps aren't used in the way that we use GPS in the car currently, or the way that we used to use a paper map. These aren't things that the navigators would have taken with them in boats. This is a memory aid. - [Doctor Newell] So it's a thing that will help you to create a mental map, a really good, solid map, so it was only ever used on shore. - [Doctor Zucker] The Marshall Islands represents an enormous number of islands and atolls in the Pacific and it's the first major island group that you reach if you're traveling south-west from Hawaii. - [Doctor Newell] The Marshall Islands are a set of 29 atolls, made up of 1,200, roughly, islands and it takes up a space of about two million square kilometers. - [Doctor Zucker] And this is almost all water. It's so interesting that this is a map not of land, but it's a map of the relationship between land and sea. - [Doctor Newell] The sea is very much the element that Marshall Islanders live with all the time. It's a very intimate part of who they are and their daily lives and their cosmologies and this ocean links them. It's the unifying element. - [Doctor Zucker] I think of the ocean as a barrier, but this is the reverse. - [Doctor Newell] Hm, that's right. - [Doctor Zucker] The ocean is the thing that creates the relationship between the atolls and the islands. - [Doctor Zucker] The great Tongan scholar, Apeli Haloffa has written very eloquently and powerfully about this, that our sea of islands, the way they're all connected by the ocean, they're not separated by it. - [Doctor Zucker] I love that the cowry shells represent the islands and they're really small. Most of the chart is wood, it's sticks. It beautifully expresses how isolated those islands are, but brought together within this greater matrix of the wood, of the ocean. - [Doctor Newell] Each one of these charts is different, because it's made by a navigator to represent the way he sees this ocean with its islands and how to get between them, and this one here is one that was collected by Robert Louis Stevenson. - [Doctor Zucker] The author? - [Doctor Newell] That's right. He and his family traveled to the Marshalls. He bought this here, or was given it, and then later on, it was sold in his estate. - [Doctor Zucker] It seems impossible that you could create a map of the open ocean, but the way that these function, in a general sense, is that they're registering the swells, the currents, the landmarks of the open sea. - [Doctor Newell] In most of the charts, you'll see that there's these curving sticks. Those ones are like the echoes of the swells and the waves out from an island, so when they hit an island, they then echo back out and then you can see the longer sticks, are the ones which are currents and there's also sticks, which are like the pathways from one place to another, that the navigators wanted to emphasize. - [Doctor Zucker] It makes sense that the chart is recording the way in which the water is responsive to the islands. Since these islands are low and probably can't be seen until you're right up against them. - [Doctor Newell] And that's one of the great skills of Marshallese and other Micronesian navigators, is that as soon as you're just a little way beyond your atoll, your island, you can't see land forms anymore. You really have to just be able to read the sea. - [Doctor Zucker] And it's a reminder of how treacherous the ocean could be for somebody who was not a skilled navigator and how important passing knowledge from a senior navigator to somebody who's just learning that craft really is. - [Doctor Newell] The master navigators would take the younger men out on the canoes and they would have them lie down in the canoe and feel the waves, and you can feel when there's one current intersecting another and you can feel the way the boat rocks differently and these are very beautifully designed outrigger canoes and they're very highly attuned to their specific lagoon and sea environment and work in all sorts of difficult sailing conditions. - [Doctor Zucker] And that relationship with the sea is changing rapidly now. - [Doctor Newell] The big issue for the Marshall Islanders now is climate change. During the past, it's been nuclear testing. - [Doctor Zucker] So in the 1940s and the 1950s, this was a place where the United States tested its hydrogen bombs, most famously at the Bikini Atoll. - [Doctor Newell] Marshall Islanders are still living with that legacy and there's still testing going on, but not nuclear weapons, it's more ballistic missiles now. But part of what has come out of that is that there's this compact of free association between the Marshall Islanders and the United States, which means that the people from the Republic of Marshall Islands can actually live and work in the States. - [Doctor Zucker] One can only imagine what a contemporary map would look like now, one that spans not only islands, but actually nations. - [Doctor Zucker] Certainly these maps are now fulfilling a very different role. They're much more about navigating identities and connections to place. They are put on people's walls, so if someone from Majuro, you know, the capital of the Marshalls, moves out to New York, they might take one of these. I've been working with Tina Stege from the Marshall Islands for a number of years and she wrote a beautiful piece to talk about climate change and I just wanted her to read it out for us. - [Tina Stege] I call this We Are Navigating Threatening Seas. Our ancestors sailed to the Marshall Islands over one thousand years ago in canoes. It was a feat of wayfinding that sustains and inspires those of us now looking for a way forward in threatening seas. This is also a story of our children, and the generations to come. What will it mean to them to be Marshallese? Will they know the names of their home islands, and the wato, the land parcels that bind us to the earth and to each other? Will they think of the ocean as a part of themselves? Will it be a source of sustenance in a vast network of waves, each with names, leading like roads to other islands? Will they know the smell of Māan, the pandanus fiber we use to weave everything - clothing mats, baskets, the small flowers we wear in our hair? What will the world be like for them? (jaunty, piano music)