a basket of poetry and writing from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

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Fishbone Hair (Full Poem+Video)



“Fishbone Hair” is a poem that was written after the death of my niece, Bianca Lanki, who passed away from leukemia when she was only 8 years old. It’s a reflection on the many Marshallese who’ve passed away from cancer, and other radiation related illnesses, and the legacy of the US nuclear testing program on our islands. It’s a call to remember, to honor, to never forget – it asks who have you lost to radiation related illnesses?

This video was a collaboration of efforts between myself, the College of the Marshall Islands Media Club, and Dan Lin and Corrin Barros from Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. You can read Dan’s blog post featured on National Geographic, which describes our process pretty well. If you’d like a tangible way to support Marshallese on nuclear issues, learn more about the Nuclear Zero lawsuit filed by the Marshall Islands and sign the petition to join 5 million people who support our cause.



Fishbone Hair

Inside my niece Bianca’s old room I found

two ziplocks


with rolls and rolls of hair


dead as a doornail black as a tunnel hair thin

as strands of tumbling seaweed


Maybe it was my sister

who stashed away Bianca’s locks in ziplock bags

locked it away so no one could see

trying to save that

rootless hair

that hair without a home



There had been a war

raging inside Bianca’s six year old bones

white cells had staked their flag

they conquered the territory of her tiny body

they saw it as their destiny

they said it was manifested







I felt

bald and blank as Bianca’s skull

when they closed her casket

hymns wafting into the night sky



Bianca loved

to eat fish

she ate it raw ate it fried ate it whole

she ate it with its head

slurping on the eyeball jelly

leaving only






The marrow should have worked

They said she had six months to live



That’s what the doctors told the fishermen

over 50 years ago

when they were out at sea just miles away from Bikini

the day the sun exploded

split open

and rained ash on the fishermen’s clothes


on that day those fishermen

were quiet

they were neat

they dusted the ash out of their hair

reeled in their fish

and turned around their motorboat to speed home



There is an old Chamorro legend

that the women of Guahan saved their island

from a giant coral eating fish

by hacking off their

long and black as the night sky hair

They wove their locks

into a massive magical net

They caught the monster fish

and they saved their islands






                            fishbone hair








         moon      catch





for you Bianca

for you













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On Birthing New Life, and Fresh Possibilities

*originally published on The Elders website to coincide with a blog post by Mary Robinson, former Ireland president and climate activist, for International Women’s Day. 

Here in the Marshall Islands, International Women’s Day immediately follows a national holiday. On March 1, Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day commemorates the legacy of US nuclear testing on our islands. As these two events collide, I find myself wrestling with connections between gender, international power, nuclear legacies, climate change, and lost land.

From 1946 to 1968, 67 nuclear weapons were detonated, which is the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima bombs being exploded daily for 12 years in terms of radiation exposure. Just the Bravo shot alone, a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Women disproportionally bear the burden of the trauma their society has been exposed to – in this case, they bear the burden of a nuclear legacy. It was women who found themselves with birth defects after exposure to the radiation and fallout. “Jellyfish babies” is what they call them. Tiny beings with no bones.

Limeyo Abon is a Marshallese elder and nuclear survivor who spoke at the ceremony this past Tuesday. She was only 14 years old when the Bravo shot was detonated.


The fallout from the Bravo shot rained on her home island of Rongelap. She thought it was snow. In her speech, she stated that the only thing she’ll be able to pass on to her children is sickness and a rootless existence. Since the day radiated ash fell on her island, she has been exiled from her island.

I have been passionately advocating against climate change because of my deep sense of fear that our islands will one day be wiped off the map, due to the rising sea levels. But I never realized that we, some of us more than others, have already known the pain of lost homelands. Three islands have been literally vaporized because of the power of the bombs. Bikini and Rongelap atoll are forever lost to our people because of high levels of radiation. This is a loss we’ve had to bear “for a greater good” – a reasoning that is very similar to those who are convinced that our need for consumption outweighs the livelihoods of others.

This is all the more devastating when you consider the impacts that loss of land could have on women’s already struggling statuses here in the Marshalls. Our culture is among the few around the world that is still matrilineal. Our mothers bestow land rights and chiefly titles. We believe that it is through our mothers that we receive power.

But what will happen to that power if there is no land to pass down?

In regards to the possible loss of our islands, I’ve asked myself many times – what will happen to our culture? It is only today that I ask – what will happen to our women?

As a November 2015 report  from U.N. Women read, “No policy response to climate change is gender neutral.” This makes me think of two women.

The first is a woman I met while running errands. She was fundraising with her sisters by the side of the road, selling plates of barbeque chicken for two dollars. The funds go towards their family’s sea wall – a wall that most Marshallese people have along the lagoon and ocean side to prevent the tide from destroying their house. Their sea wall had been destroyed during the last flooding from high tides. It wasn’t her husband who organized, cooked, packed, and stood by the side of the road for hours selling those plates – it was her and her sisters.

The second is my cousin. I’ve just received a text message from her inviting me over to a house warming ceremony tomorrow. The construction of her family’s new house is finally done. Her old home, the one she’d lived in all her life with her family, was also destroyed during the last king tides. Her family has spent the past two years moving from place to place, taking out loans, and navigating new sources of family tension. This tension would, more often than not, explode onto my cousin. As the eldest daughter, she bears the burden of responsibility.

In both cases, it was the women rebuilding a new life. And so it would be with our work in climate change. The policies from the Paris agreement will not be successful without proper engagement of women – without structures set in place specifically to support women. But what does this look like? I’m not sure. I only know that it’s a path we need to begin walking down – the sooner the better. Our women lived and survived through the nuclear testing, and we will weather the storms of climate change as well, if given the proper support.

I’d like to close with a poem I wrote about my cousin after she lost her home. It celebrates her resilience – a viewpoint rarely seen when discussing monumental issues such as these.

As we’ve seen with the horrific experience of jelly babies, sometimes, women give birth to the traumas they’ve experienced. And sometimes, if given support (and even sometimes without it) they give birth to a new life, to fresh possibilities. For this International Women’s Day, I celebrate the resilience and strength of our Marshallese women.


There’s a Journalist Here


there’s a journalist here

who wants to interview you


they want to hear

about your old old house

older than you

its cracked plywood walls

like dry, sunburnt skin

how it collapsed

like a lung

as the water rushed in

they want to hear

about your journal

how you awoke

to soggy pages – ink

staining the floor

staining your hands

they want to hear

about the glass shards

from your window

how they carved

jagged pathways

along your stepmother’s leg


they want to hear

how you blame yourself

the way the neighbors

blamed you


shouldn’t stare

at the ocean

too long

they said

it was your


that dared it to come



what they want to hear


they don’t to hear

that maybe

you’re imaging

a house

with new doors

new windows

on a grassy hillside

they don’t want to hear

that, weeks later

you found your breath

filling and expanding your lungs

that all you want now

is to move





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Shadows of Our Past: 2016 Nuclear Day in the Marshalls

*Originally published on Ke Kaupu Hehi Ale blog site 


On Tuesday it was Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day. On this day we commemorate the legacy of US nuclear testing on our islands. It’s the year 2016 – which means it’s been 70 years since islanders from Bikini atoll have been exiled from their homeland, forced to live on Kili island, an island now at risk of going under water.

We have already known the pain of lost homelands – some more than others. But most of us don’t want to remember it.

We commemorated the day with a march that ended with a ceremony at Delap Park – our group, Jo-Jikum had decided on a theme: “Shadows of our past.” Cutouts in cardboard painted black by College of the Marshall Islands students, each a symbol of a family member lost.



Figures of warrior ancestors sawed from plywood by workers from Majuro Atoll Waste Company (MAWC). One side plastered with facts, statistics, like how much money you get if you discover you have leukemia, brain cancer, liver cancer, if your child is born with severe disabilities, if you have a tumor or beta burns.  No one gets money if you die. Over 50% of the Marshallese who have received “personal injury awards” (money given if you discover you have the right type of cancer) have died before receiving full compensation for their injuries. Jortake Enne passed away after receiving only two thirds of her $12,500 award.


How much is a life worth anyways?

After the ceremony and march I came back to the house to basically crash – it had been a long day and it was only noon. My cousin came over to pick up our spare bed. The spare bed is in an unused room, with my mother’s clothes folded and stacked all over it in neat piles.

My cousin’s family is just finishing up the construction of a new house. Their old house in Rita, the one she’s lived in all her life, was destroyed during the king tide season two years ago. They’ve been saving up, moving from house to house, taking out loans and navigating new sources of family tension, since that day. And now they’re nearing the close of this chapter, finally close to moving into their new home. Just one bed away.

I thought about this as I helped sift through mom’s clothes on the bed. We’ve already shouldered the burden of nuclear testing, given to us for the sake of industrialized power, greed and wars. We have marched shouting to a world that wouldn’t listen, that doesn’t remember – advocating peace, humanity, and willing the world to find its balance. All we had, as Teresia Teaiwa aptly pointed out in her recent post, ( was our moral argument. The simple notion that it was wrong. And we’re doing it again. This time – willing the tides back.

At the ceremony yesterday the US Ambassador stated in his speech that, “full and final compensation has been paid.” This is untrue. According to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal over $2 billion dollars are still owed to the Marshallese people. Justice has not been served. But even if it was, at least in the form of monetary payment – would it be enough? Would it be enough now that we are without our islands? With climate change we ask the same questions – how much money will they shove at us to keep us quiet – to convince the world there never was a Marshall Islands?

The fight is long, and it might not never end. But we have to keep going. Keep voicing these stories. Keep willing the world to find its balance. For as long as it takes.



On Marshallese Youth and COP21

It’s taken me a while to pull apart my thoughts at the seams and unravel that one and half week I spent in Paris at the COP21, the world wide conference on climate change that took place in December. But today marks the first official day of Spring 2016 classes at the College of the Marshall Islands. A new semester, new students, a new year, and even a new government administration. And a lot of promise – or should I say, a lot of promises. COP21 itself was another set of promises. For me, COP21 was a whirlwind of performances, panels, interviews, sprinting from one event to another, getting lost on the cobblestone streets and alleyways of Paris, navigating taxi drivers and subways, finding the right words to describe home, and gaping in awe at the sheets of light that is Paris.

I learned a lot being there with the Marshallese delegation especially, under the leadership of Tony deBrum, a climate champion and leader in the arena of climate negotiations. But with the new semester, and with a new administration that is notably marked by its youth, it seems fitting to focus on the ways in which COP21 did something it’s never done before – which is engage our young people.

During the week leading to the COP, our non-profit, Jo-Jikum, launched a campaign focusing on the number 1.5 as a target goal, the global temperature that would ensure the survival of our islands, and that we wanted this number prioritized in the Paris agreement. We planned to have an action on Majuro that would align with all the demonstrations happening around the world. We also identified the untapped potential of young people overseas itching to be a part of the action as well – we figured a social media action was a manageable way to show their support from afar.

Our campaign asked all our supporters to take photos of themselves with “1.5 to stay alive” slogan, as well as “climate justice” and “Marshall Islands” and post it to their facebook or social media networks. And we were all pleasantly surprised many rimajel rise to the occasion. Just a tiny sampling of the posts are below:

Across our newsfeed were photos of students, siblings, families, politicians and even soldiers abroad taking photos with the slogan. I noticed that it even sparked a dialogue here and there, sometimes with adults asking what this number meant, and many times with their children answering their parents’ questions. Art was created. Music was created. Just this past week, I was startled to find that someone (someone awesome) had tagged the blank space of a store front.

For many of you reading this, it might not seem like much. Perhaps you had no idea that there was this tiny population of islander kids taking photos of themselves with this number on facebook. Perhaps social media campaigns seem done, and overdone – or as many have critiqued, it seems too easy to be a “social media activist”. Or perhaps social media just isn’t that important, or impactful, in day to day to lives.

But keep in mind, there are about 1.5 billion active facebook users – social media just can’t be ignored in this day and age. And with our islands being one of the few with fiber optics, we have easier access to internet than most of Micronesia.

Another thing to keep in mind: there are very few opportunities to be an “activist” in the Marshall Islands. It seems that many of us learned long ago, I would say mostly from the tragic legacy that is the US nuclear testing, that we aren’t allowed to demand more. That we can yell till we turn blue, and no one will hear us. That the world can turn its back on us, ignore us, and that we will continue living, even if it’s not really living. Sometimes it seems like our society has learned that it is easier to wade through our lives, and never dive into the depths.

The activist culture that is common and prevalent in the United States such as the Bay area, New York, or in Hawaii with the Mauna Kea movement, is not present at the moment here in the RMI. There hasn’t been a movement that included or prioritized engaging our youth as a population, in doing something, fighting for something that matters, something bigger than ourselves. That’s what made these photos so exciting for me to see.

And it was as if our young people were ready for it. It was as if they’d been thirsting for it. A chance to use their voice. A chance to lend their voice to a choir of freedom fighters, warriors.

We were the ones in Paris, our RMI delegation. But seeing these photos, splayed across our newsfeed, reminded us that they were with us too. We were all in this together. And I can say that we’ve never been engaged in this way at any other COP.

The Paris agreement, as I’ve said to a few journalists already, is no way near perfect. There are gaps, vague spaces to fall into. Women’s needs are ignored, indigenous rights, tragically, was not prioritized. We have a lot of work ahead of us and a long way to go.

But when I first heard the announcement that 1.5 was in the text, I almost didn’t believe it. And although we of course can not take credit for 1.5 being in the agreement at all, we can say we lent our voice to the fight. (Although, it’s of note that at least  Al Jazeera highlighted our campaign. You can fast-forward to 12:40 – 14:00).

What I can see us doing now is taking the formula and the energy that came out of our campaign, and bringing it to other areas in our lives. If we, as a rimajel youth, were able to hold the world accountable, why can’t we hold our leaders in our country, our local council, our community members, even ourselves accountable as well? Why can’t we demand change, demand justice, or even just demand more – from everyone?

As we go into this new year, into this new semester, I can only hope that our youth will continue to demand more – from us teachers, from their local leaders, their family, their community and especially from the new crop of senators, our new administration. Because, honestly, we deserve more. We deserve better. And we just need to keep remembering that. And, more importantly, we need to believe it.


A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21

If you’ve been following this blog you might have seen my past posts struggling with this new role I inherited as a “climate change poet” since my performance at the United Nations Climate Summit last September. All last year I fought with myself as I considered what this role, what these responsibilities, would now mean. I’ve always embraced my role as a poet – a Marshallese poet, who touched on various forms of activism – but a poet first and foremost. I used words and writing to understand the world around me, to make sense of my relationships and people – and sometimes this crossed into territories of social justice. But not always. Sometimes I just wanted to capture a feeling on the page.

Last year however, I was suddenly thrust into global conversations on climate change. I attended conferences, retreats, took interview after interview with journalists, cutting myself open raw each time to discuss broken sea walls, flooded homes, shriveled breadfruits, an impending future of rootless generations.


Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

I’m not sure how many would understand this struggle. I discussed it a little with my mother – she encouraged me to use the networking platform I was getting to establish a Climate Justice Institute at the College of the Marshall Islands where I teach. While sniffing around for grants to fund this dream, I continued to incorporate climate change into the curriculum for my students, push them to understand the connections with our nuclear legacy, globalization, colonization, get them talking, thinking. And between classes I envisioned organizing a monsoon of activist environmentalist youth with my co-director and fellow Pacific Climate Warrior Milañ Loeak.

And yet. I resented the requests for the interviews. I resented the tunnel vision stories sought out by journalists visiting the islands. I resented the salt in the raw wound of discussing climate change, over and over. I resented the photos of each high tide, of each flooding. I found myself stuck during another king tide, during another flooding a few months ago. I was going to go outside to take the picture, post it to social media. But I didn’t want to. I was tired of begging. I was tired of the constant reminder that, to the world, we are just a drowning nation. And nothing more.

I asked myself, more than once: Why was I doing this? Why was I stressing myself out, adding even more of a workload onto my schedule? Isn’t it enough to just sit at home with my desk, my laptop, and write and play with my daughter in the sun?

Then – the wake-up call. This summer. A conversation with a fellow radical disrupter focusing on the 2 degrees versus 1.5 degrees debate. Scientists and climate change specialists have been advocating that we need to lower our carbon emissions so that the world’s temperature doesn’t rise above 2 degrees or catastrophe of the worst kind will hit – think “super droughts, rising seas, mass extinctions.”

Here’s the thing with this very important number. According to those same scientists and reports, while the rest of the world might be safe at 2 degrees, the Marshall Islands and all low-lying atolls will be under water.  The fact that 1.5 is always the afterthought in discussions regarding this simple number, instead of being the bottom line, is the problem. Doesn’t every life matter? And every country? Why is 2 degrees even considered an option if that would mean low-lying atolls drowning?

This – this is why our island leaders have been pushing for 1.5. Most of the negotiators from larger nations have so far ignored this plea. Even in a room full of brilliant organizers, I heard 2 degrees thrown around like it was the priority, like the science that has clearly stated that 1.5 would mean the end of all atoll nations meant nothing. A colleague later tried to convince me that 2 degrees would still be good for our islands. They assured me that the world will “most likely” meet that requirement, and will “most likely” fall “way below” those two degrees.

“But don’t you see that you’re gambling with our islands?”

A few months later, and there I was again discussing this simple number over tea and muffins. And my friend tells me, with their experience and research in climate work and the backing of various other reports, that 1.5 is, at this point, un-achievable. That 2 degrees is as good as it will get. That the science has been calculated and that there is no way we can lower our temperature to 1.5. “It’s not going to stop,” they said. “It’s just going to get worse.”

I was in shock. Perhaps I had been operating under the delusion that things were going to get better, that the work will one day end. Perhaps no one else had ever been so blunt with me. Either way, I spent the rest of that afternoon in a daze, processing this. I valued my friend’s opinion, and I took it at face value that this meant our islands were as good as gone – that there was nothing we could do to save them.

This was when I reached rock bottom. I’ve never allowed myself, even when I wrote “Tell Them” even after “Dear Matafele Peinam,” – I never really allowed myself to feel the full emotion of what losing our islands would mean. I skirted around the edge. I dipped in my toes. But I never dove into it. I feared that if I did, that I would drown. That I would never come up.

And I did drown. I sat outside in the sun and I wept. My cries were more than my own cries – I felt my ancestors sitting beside me, weeping with me. I heard their echoes, reverberating in my sorrow. I felt their/our anguish over our islands, over the next few generations. I felt the shuffling feet of our future generations –  floating adrift, the hopelessness and inability to go on.

This. This was my bottom.

But I dug myself out.

My friend, feeling my loss and agony, opened up a space following our conversation that gave everyone in the room time to breathe, to process the emotional effects that usually accompanies rigorous climate work. Thanks to them I came to understand that my fears, my questions, my doubts weren’t just mine. They were all of ours. And that it was not too late. That there was still time. That I had to believe.

And so I did. I chose. To believe.

This is why I will be traveling to Paris for COP21, despite the horrific recent attacks. Despite the fact that it means real danger. I will be going to perform alongside four other spoken word artists, each representing the communities of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Australia, to perform our poetry and share the stories of our people, to share what has already happened, what’s at stake. This is also why I’ve prioritized working with our youth, the next generation, as we plan a massive march in the Marshall Islands

As Nicolas Haeringer, France’s 350 organizer, recently stated, “This movement for climate justice has always also been a movement for peace–a way for people around the world to come together, no matter their background or religion, and fight to protect our common home.”

I’m going because I’m fighting for our home. I’m going because I have foreseen the loss and the sorrow that awaits our children and grandchildren, because I have fallen into that abyss. I’m going because others will not go into that abyss – they skirt around it. They refuse to feel it. Perhaps, understandably, they have more immediate things to worry about. And that’s ok. I will feel it. Over and over. For them. I will drown the wound in salt. I will do anything to save my islands.




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Luerkoklik and the Role of the Land in the Climate Movement

Just last week I published a blog post to the site – this is a blog site of an amazing collective of Pacific writers sharing stories, poetry, and songs on struggle and activism. The blog I posted about is the role of the land in the climate movement. I had just been visited by a CNN reporter who asked me to explain the relationship of land to the Marshallese people. You can read my response here:


Poem: 2 Degrees

Last month CNN reporter John Sutter came down asking me to write a piece about the importance of the 2 degree number to climate change, as a part of his series on 2 degrees:

I agreed to do it – with a little spin of my own, by challenging the 2 degrees estimate, which actually places more islands under water, than 1.5 (which is what our island leaders have been pushing for).

Here’s the video of the poem:

And here’s the full text of the piece:

2 Degrees

The other night my

1-year-old was a fever

pressed against my chest

We wrestled with a thermometer

that read

99.8 degrees

the doctor says



is a fever

but I can see her flushed face

how she drapes

across my lap, listless

LiPeinam is usually a

wobbly walking

toddler all chunks and

duck footed shaky knees

stomping squeaky yellow

light up shoes across

the edge of the reef

And I think

what a difference

a few degrees

can make

Scientists say

if humans warm the world

more than 2 degrees

then catastrophe will hit

Imagine North American wildfires increasing by 400%

animal extinction rising by 30%

fresh water declining by 20%

thousands, millions displaced

left wandering




At a climate change conference

a colleague tells me 2 degrees

is an estimate

I tell him for my islands 2 degrees

is a gamble

at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands

will already be under water

this is why our leaders push

for 1.5

Seems small

like 0.5 degrees

shouldn’t matter

like 0.5 degrees

are just crumbs

like the Marshall Islands

must look

on a map

just crumbs you

dust off the table, wipe

your hands clean

Today LiPeinam is feeling better

she bobs around our backyard

drops pebbles and leaves

into a plastic bucket

before emptying the bucket out

and dropping pebbles in again

As I watch I think about futility

I think about the world

making the same mistakes

since the industrial revolution

since 1977

when a scientist said 2 degrees

was the estimate

On Kili atoll

the tides were underestimated

patients with a nuclear history threaded

into their bloodlines, sleeping

in the only clinic on island woke

to a wild water world

a rushing rapid of salt

closing in around them

a sewage of syringes and gauze


they wheeled their hospital beds out

let them rest in the sun

they must be

stained rusted our people

creaking brackish from

salt spray and radiation blasts

so so tired, wandering wondering

if the world will

wheel us out to rest in the sun

or will they just

dust their hands of us, wipe

them clean

My father told me that idik

– when the tide is nearest an equilibrium

is the best time for fishing

Maybe I’m

fishing for recognition

writing the tide towards

an equilibrium

willing the world

to find its balance

So that people


that beyond

the discussions

are faces

all the way out here

that there is

a toddler

stomping squeaky

yellow light up shoes

walking wobbly

on the edge of the reef

not yet

under water


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