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  • "Between Death and Life":Mobility, War, and Marshallese Women's Songs of Survival
  • Jessica A. Schwartz (bio)

Q: Can you tell me about Marshallese music before the missionaries?

A: I'm not sure about music before the missionaries, but I know that the women always made battle songs.

—Bikinian councilman Majuro, interview by the author, 2009

In 2006 Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI), the nongovernmental umbrella women's organization from the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), released a video intended to address the pervasive domestic violence severely compromising the lives of women throughout the developing island nation.1 WUTMI translated the title of the film from Marshallese, Ekakwikwi Jinen Eṃṃaan, to English, A Call to Arms.2 The longer, more accurate translation, "a call to sons to become angry through jealousy and avenge the injuries that have been done to their mothers," echoes the mother-son [End Page 23] relationship central to Marshallese cosmology. The film draws on traditional narrative and the rhetoric of warfare that reveal the customary power of women in Marshallese society to secure resolution following a conflict. The film also evidences shifting gender roles as women have expanded their traditional vocal and musical roles in times of conflict to include sounding a symbolic and literal ekakwikwi (call to arms). Framed by a modern ideological terrain, the film self-reflexively locates itself in a global context where male-dominated hegemonic warfare as a source of power is normalized. As the film progresses, domestic violence becomes the intelligible analogue for imperial violence, and the women call on their sons to confront the damages done by both the legacies of colonial involvement and current US militarism and neocolonialism.3 The destabilization of women is presented as the destabilization of Marshallese culture in its entirety.4 And what we hear are women assuming the responsibility to sound battle calls amidst unceasing violence with no end in sight.

Cultural productions such as A Call to Arms participate in the complex processes of Marshallese indigenous identity construction by emphasizing the stability of traditional gender relations as an extension of the stability of the traditional Marshallese woman. When the viewer becomes attuned to the cultural significations, many of which are referenced through sound-symbolism associated with traditional instruments that are rarely used today, she can then understand stability as a host of multivalent mobilities afforded to women through their customary attributes that create and maintain affective alliances. Academic literature has, however, reproduced dichotomous gender associations, depicting the women as stable in opposition to the mobility of men, at times positing the complementarity of this gender relation and at other times failing to address the distinction between relational versus oppositional identities.5 While there is historical and cultural evidence to connect women to stability (and social efficacy in doing so), I argue that by examining women's traditional musical and vocal gender roles, specifically during warfare, we can better explore how [End Page 24] women have regenerated culture as a mechanism of stability during times of instability by maintaining "situational flexibility," or the ability to maneuver and negotiate between multiple identities and identifications.6 I suggest that this reading of women's traditional roles breaks from Western conceptualizations of bounded identities replete with polarized binaries, such as "mobile" and "immobile" or "stable" and "unstable." Failing to address, in Joshua Tucker's terms, how "cultural performances can clarify the ongoing resignification of indigeneity itself" runs the risk of marking political projects of indigeneity as dictated solely by the conditions that have necessitated such projects rather than understanding the projects in, or on, indigenous terms, as negotiations of these conditions within spaces that archive the unique traditions and histories of Marshallese and other indigenous populations more broadly.7

In what follows, I listen to how Marshallese women, given their customary attributes and gender roles as musicians during wartime, have composed the musical performances that animate the Marshallese political project of indigeneity, which, in large part, seeks redress for imperial damages. I detail how a focus on the ways in which Marshallese women's traditional musical and vocal authority functioned to enliven battle and achieve conflict resolution elucidates a foundational mobility...


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