I have to admit that I’ve been putting off writing this particularly blog post for a while now. It’s hard to admit when you make a huge mistake, and it’s even worse when you do it on a global scale. So here goes nothing.
I wrote a poem, two months ago, called “dear matafele peinam” dedicated to my daughter, speaking on climate change that was performed during the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit. There are three different video versions of this poem on youtube – one has been viewed 108,125 times, another 93,135 times, and still another 220, 563 times. I’m not saying these numbers to show off (in light of how many views a cat playing with a dog will get, they’re actually not all that impressive). I’m saying these numbers to highlight just how many people have witnessed my horrifically shameful mistake.
In my poem I have a stanza in which I say,
is drowning, baby
is losing their homeland
is gonna become a climate change refugee
or should i say
no one else
to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of fiji
I apologize to you
We are drawing the line here
Early on when I was writing this poem, my mentor suggested to me that I include that stanza referencing islanders who have already had to move because of climate change (Carteret Islanders and Taro Islanders). This was an opportunity to highlight the fact the climate change is real and happening now, but also to honor these islanders by saying their names, not just giving some vague, veiled reference. I decided to do some research to make sure I got the details of their move and their islands correct. What I found was an article on thinkprogress.org entitled “Meet the First Pacific Island Town to Relocate Thanks to Climate Change,” which highlighted Carteret Islanders and Taro Islanders:
What happened next was that I wrote into the poem, “Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea” and “Taro Islanders of Fiji” just so people would know what bigger countries these small island towns and cultures were affiliated with.
Unfortunately, Taro Islanders are not from Fiji. They are from the Solomon Islands.
I have no idea how I made this mistake when I read the article. The words “Fiji” and “Solomon Islands” are not even remotely close – nor is their culture, history, or people. And I’m not even sure Fiji was even mentioned in the article!
What I know is that I was reading the article fast, and writing the poem fast, because I had a deadline to finish and memorize the poem within a week, Matafele Peinam screaming in the corner because she wanted to be picked up, and a bunch of lesson plans to write and papers to grade for my students. I also know that none of these are viable excuses.
As a Pacific Islander, and even as a Pacific Island Studies Master’s student, I should have known better. I have had my fair share of, “All you Micronesians look the same” and “How is Pohnpeian and Chuukese different from Marshallese” and I’ve also had people mix up Micronesians with Polynesians, and tell me that all islanders must be the same etc etc. I know how much it means to be recognized – to be really recognized. To have someone say “I know where the Marshall Islands is.” Especially when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know who you or your people are. I also know that in Pacific cultures, name and place are valuable – it’s how you know your roots and your connections.
And so, with this all in mind – I sincerely apologize. To the Taro Islanders and to all Solomon Islanders. For taking away what should have been a moment for them to be recognized – their moment to have their islands and their struggles brought to light.