- Oceanizing American Studies
Before elaborating on the possibilities of a better confluence between the currents of Native Pacific studies and American studies, I want to call attention first to the bizarre mix of myopia, hubris, and apathy with which American discourses often presume to own and know “the Pacific.” Having grown up on a US military installation in the middle of the central Pacific Ocean in Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands (“Kwaj,” as we affectionately called it), I was never conscious that there was any difference between the United States and my island home. As a little kid, I saw the geographies of Oceania and America as completely contiguous; I was living with my parents and little brother in a small community of Americans who, like my late father, all in some way supported the intercontinental ballistic missile-testing projects there. Ours was a happy small town that many residents referred to as the next best thing to paradise (we all had T-shirts in the 1970s that read “Almost Heaven, Kwajalein”). It was a chunk of 1950s American suburbia nestled beneath coconut palms, a scintillating turquoise lagoon on one side and a roaring dark ocean on the other. The radars and missile launchers, the gargantuan airstrip, and all the military paraphernalia were neatly located on the margins, at the other end of the main islet where we lived and in other locations throughout the atoll. Also mostly marginalized were the Marshall Islanders who worked as our maids and custodians and hamburger cooks by day and then returned to Ebeye, their nearby laborer community islet by night.
As far as I knew, “the Marshallese,” as we called them, were a small minority of “smiley Natives” relegated to the background of our existence, not a population of over fifty thousand spread throughout a vast territory covering over two million square kilometers of ocean and nearly thirty atolls. I had no idea that my hometown was an artificially engineered projection of 1950s Cold War American domesticity that had literally pushed those Marshall Islanders off their land. I had no clue that we were in fact an awkward minority encamped in the middle of the sprawling archipelagos to which Marshallese ancestors had proudly navigated for thousands of years. I did not comprehend that all the waters and lands and reefs and skies that surrounded me were places of [End Page 609] inheritance, imbued with meaning from microcosm to macrocosm. I did not understand that, at that very time, brave Marshallese leaders were already working hard to build their new sovereign republic, to break away from the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that had been foisted on them after the Pacific War. And I certainly did not realize that Marshallese people were not always smiling.
Despite the deceptive illusions of my sheltered life on Kwaj, when I moved to New Jersey in the fourth grade, I was shocked to realize that none of my new classmates had even seen or thought about the Pacific in the first place. To them and their families, Pacific islands were fictional and fantastic places of pleasure or peril located somewhere beyond California and probably near Hawai‘i, not real places where people lived. They were islands where people took vacations, or the stuff of Hollywood movies entailing cannibals, volcanoes, monsters, and unbridled sexual abandon. In high school, we learned about how the United States “liberated” Micronesia (including the Marshall Islands) from Imperial Japan, but we were never taught about how the United States stayed there for fifty years after the war. We did not learn about the histories of America’s illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the occupation of Guam and Eastern Samoa. Nor did we learn about the large role that the Pacific actually played for early Americans in the 1700s.1 I have no recollection of learning anything about the sixty-seven devastating atomic tests that the United States conducted in Bikini and Enewetak Atolls between 1946 and 1958, irradiating many of the northeastern Marshall Islands and their surroundings, adding to the unthinkable suffering already caused by the horrific battles of World War II that had just ended. I did...