A Micronesian Perspective on Renaming the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

That's me in Kiribati with Senator Kaure Babo of Kiribati and Senator Sherwood Tibon of the Marshall Islands.

President Biden
recently announced a process to rename the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument “in recognition of the deep and enduring cultural significance of this region to the ocean cultures of the Pacific.”  The government has already begun to undertake this renaming, and I was recently interviewed by government staff and was asked to share my thoughts.  

I am the Conservation Representative for the government-organized Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument Community Group.  I participate in workshops and meetings, and review draft documents to make recommendations to the government on the development of a management plan for the monument.  I am specifically tasked with bringing the perspectives of conservation organizations.  But I am also the lone Micronesian voice in the process.

I found it odd that the presidential memo announcing the renaming process did not include the word Micronesia.  Any new name should reflect the people, culture, and history of the region where the monument is located, which is Micronesia.

The islands in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument are Micronesian islands.  The Micronesia region stretches from Palau in the west to Kiribati in the east.  Six of the seven islands within the monument’s non-contiguous borders abut Micronesian archipelagos, including the Marshall Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands.  The seventh island, Johnston Atoll, is in an area between Micronesia and Hawaii.

I am a scientist by training, a policy advocate in profession, but an Indigenous Micronesian from the island of Saipan since birth.  In recent years I have written about the role the Pacific Remote Islands play in connecting  Micronesia and Polynesia culturally and biologically.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but my scholarship features heavily in recent efforts to expand the monument’s borders, so I must have some level of authority on this topic.

I offered the government three proposed names for the monument, and share them here along with my reasoning for recommending them.  If you like them, I encourage you to let me know.  If you hate them, please keep it to yourself.  I also encourage you to come up with your own suggestions.

Ri Bako Marine National Monument

The late Tony Debrum told me once he was a member of the shark clan, the Ri Bako (literal meaning: people of the shark), whose members stretch across Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and other nearby islands.  This is just one human cultural aspect that connects the people who are the historical and traditional owners of these islands.  It reminds me of my friend and mentor Tony, and so while I realize it is meaningful to me, it may not be meaningful to everyone.

American Micronesia Marine National Monument

There is no such place as American Micronesia, but US colonization of Micronesia goes back nearly 200 years to the Guano Islands Act of 1850, and it continued through the Spanish-American War, World War II, Trust Territory of the Pacific, to the Compacts of Free Association today.  This proposed name brings attention to the historical and ongoing colonization of Micronesia by the United States.

The United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands both claim Wake Island.  In 2016, the Marshalls made their claim formal when they filed maritime coordinates with the United Nations.  UN Ambassador Doreen de Brum once told me the story of how her ancestors named the island Enen-Kio – the island of the orange flower.

With the 1979 Treaty of Tarawa, the US gave up claim to several islands which today are part of the Republic of Kiribati.  While this treaty recognized Kiribati’s sovereignty over 8 Phoenix Islands and 6 Line Islands, the US held on to five nearby islands, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, and Baker Island, so that they could continue to be used for national defense purposes.  Four years later, in 1983, President Reagan claimed the US exclusive economic zone, and the 200 mile area radius surrounding each island came under control of the US government.

With the exception of Johnston Atoll, absent this history of colonization all of the islands within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would today be a part of sovereign Micronesian nations. 

The US is a strong and proud nation, and this name pays respect to the historical and traditional owners of these islands, while also making room to bring attention to the more recent colonization.

“Hawaiians and Polynesians Thank Micronesia for the Gift of Voyaging” Marine National Monument

I admit this name needs some work, and it is offered as a theme towards achieving a final name.  A very prominent Micronesian lobbed an accusation at a very prominent Hawaiian last year that was very hurtful, but it came from a place of truth.  For nearly two decades I’ve heard the sentiments expressed in “When permission is absent” while sitting around a picnic table with my elders and relatives.  I assure the Hawaiian reader this is not something new and that this has simmered for decades, but I would like to think that one day we can sit down under a tree together to discuss these very important and sensitive topics in a way that leads to good outcomes.

I do not represent the Polynesian Voyaging Society, nor any navigators or voyaging societies in Micronesia, but the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture, the region’s largest and longest running cultural event, takes place in Hawaii in June 2024 and perhaps someone with more influence than me can broker an agreement where Polynesians thank Micronesians for the gift of voyaging.  I could imagine this taking many forms, perhaps with a ceremony, some sort of monument, or perhaps using a name change of a protected area to memorialize this exchange of Indigenous Knowledge in celebration of the revitalization of the sailing tradition in Polynesia, and the recognition that it has existed in its current form in Micronesia (and the Solomon Islands) since antiquity.

I am very fortunate and privilidged to be able to participate in national discussions around oceans and conservation, and very few other Micronesians have the same opportunities I do. Two years ago a Hawaiian made the case to "Restore the Hawaiian Names of the Remote Pacific Islands," and I implore the reader to join me in ensuring that this does not happen.

These islands are Micronesian islands, and they should be named, co-managed, and stewarded by Micronesians. As colonizers, Hawaiians have a role to play in managing these islands, of course, but they are not Hawaiian islands, and Hawaiians should be aware of their privilege, access to funding, and outsize political power in these situations.


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