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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 216-219

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Stories from the Marshall Islands: Bwebwenato Jan Aelon Kein, by Jack A Tobin.PALI Language Texts: Micronesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.ISBN cloth, 0-8248-2545-4; paper, 0-8248-2019-3; xiii + 405 pages, maps, appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. Written in English and Marshallese. Cloth, US$55.00, paper, US$19.95.

Narratives can make or break a people. At stake are traditioning, identity formation, and cultural creativity. People who forget their own stories risk living out someone else's story.

Stories from the Marshall Islands reveals a treasure held in trust for the next generation by an anthropologist. Jack Tobin has been involved with Marshallese people for a lifetime. He has been a student, a participant observer, and an advisor, but always a recorder of culture. Now, through narratives, he opens a door to Marshallese identity and spirituality. We have been waiting many years for this work.

This volume is a collection of stories that were recorded between 1950and 1975.Tobin arrived on Arno atoll in 1950, as a student working with Leonard Mason on the Scientific Investigation of Micronesia project. Later that year, he was hired as an anthropological field consultant attached to the Civil Administration [End Page 216] Unit of Naval Operations. Under the Trust Territory Administration, he was the one and only district anthropologist for the Marshall Islands. His work, from 1950 to 1957, included a report on the labor camp called Ebeye Village (1954) and pioneering work on land tenure (1958). After helping train the first class of Peace Corps volunteers for Micronesia, Tobin returned to the Marshalls as community development advisor from 1967 to 1975. His involvement with the relocated Bikini and Enewetak peoples kept him on the line between the United States and the Marshallese people.

All this sets the context for how and when the stories in this volume were collected. By Tobin's own account, many narratives were shared in relaxed moments after work when he could savor a different kind of anthropology, recording stories from the past (bwebwenato in etto). Tobin tells us where and when he heard each story and who the storyteller (ribwebwenato) was, including short biographies in Appendix A. What he does not give us is the living context (sitz im leben) in which these stories might be told to others. In this book, the message is in the texts themselves.

Tobin declares his main purpose to be "to record the stories for future generations of Marshallese" as well as to add to "the body of Marshallese folklore that has already been recorded—for the benefit of scholars and others who are interested in Marshallese culture" (xi). The deeper motive is the more noble: "my Marshallese orthography has been translated into the more recent official/standard orthography so that it can be used in the government schools in the Marshalls" (xii).

The objective is also clear in the introductions that are occasionally provided by the storytellers themselves: that Marshallese values are being lost, but if children hear these stories, then they might learn to appreciate and practice Marshallese behavior. This was published in the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage (2002), but these stories are about more than the past.

After a brief introduction, Tobin presents ninety stories, just over half of which appear also in Marshallese text. This makes the stories accessible at several levels. Tobin uses extensive footnotes to clarify the text (story 31 has 127 footnotes), but he rarely intrudes into the text itself. Occasionally, Tobin provides helpful comments after the story, but most of the stories stand on their own.

In a minimalist approach to analysis, Tobin follows Stith Thompson (through Bacil Kirtley) in identifying "motifs." Appendix B lists the motifs for most stories, coded with the appropriate category number, but this approach does not lead us very far. The motif of a cannibalistic ogre may be analogous to the Hansel and Gretel story (70), but once noting that we return to the richness of the Marshallese text itself...