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  • By Johanna Salinas

A cultural dilemma : While Pohnpei welcomes outsiders, scholars attempt to keep native language inta

Guam delegates to Pacific Island Bicultural Conference hold books they donated to to Pohnpei Department of Education. Photo by Johanna Salinas

Guam delegates to Pacific Island Bicultural Conference hold books they donated to to Pohnpei Department of Education. Photo by Johanna Salinas

Kolonia— Keeping the purity of language and culture is a challenge faced by every indigenous community that is that threatened by the legacy of globalization, migration and technology. Like other island communities in Micronesia, Pohnpei is facing this crisis.

Although the Pohnpeian language is still alive and spoken every day, cultural scholars noted that several native words are in peril of extinction. Pohnpei is larger and more ethnically diverse than any other island in the Federated States of Micronesia, where English is the official language. In this case, the bilingual policy also shares the blame.

“I think some of the problems that bilingualism faces in Pohnpei is that we are losing a lot of words in Pohnpeian and borrowing a lot of words from other languages. Now people do not really follow spelling rules in the social media,” said Nelsin Iriarte of the Pohnpei Department of Education.

The Pacific Islands Bicultural Bilingual Association, or PIBBA, held its 36th annual conference this year in Pohnpei. Educators from all over Micronesia gathered at Madolenihmw High School from June 26 to June 29 for the presentations revolving around “Our Pacific Voices,” this year’s theme.

“For our Pacific Voices to be heard, we must incorporate and revive our language and cultures through our education systems,” said Iriarte, who did a presentation on the Cultural Responsive Observations Protocol, or CROP, model for teaching local cultures and languages. CROP is a strategy that uses traditional ways to of imparting knowledge though the listening skill.

Based on the 2010 census, Pohnpei had a population of approximately 34,000. While the majority of the population consider themselves native Pohnpeians, the indigenous makeup of the population also includes ethnicities of the outer islands, resulting in a mix of Australasian Pacific Islanders. Being home to the capital of the national government, Pohnpei is the FSM's melting pot.

Along with regional migration, more than a century of foreign colonial occupation brought Spanish, German, Japanese, Chamorro, Filipino, American, Australian, western Europeans to FSM’s main island state.

The FSM was formerly a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, a United Nations Trust Territory under U.S. administration, but it formed its own constitutional government on May 10, 1979, becoming a sovereign state after independence was attained on Nov. 3, 1986 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States.

“PIBBA is an opportunity for Micronesians to share their culture and languages,” said Paulina Yourupi-Sandy of the Island Research & Education Initiative. Sandy presented on the first textbook of Chuukese geography, which she helped put together with FSM National Department of Education. “There are other conferences that talk about this but their focus isn’t really on [Pacific indigenous] language and culture.”

Other languages spoken in FSM are Chuukese, Kosraean, Yapese, Ulithian, Woleaian, Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi.

Deborah Ellen.

Deborah Ellen delivers her presentation at the Pacific Islands Bicultural Bilingual Association's 36th annual conference held in Kolonia.

At the conference, educators also discussed how bilingualism and biculturalism is changing in Micronesia. “A lot of the issues facing biculturalism and bilingualism in Micronesia have to do with education that has been brought in from outside in terms of promoting the idea that English and American education is better than anything else. I think that set up a disempowerment,” said Dr. Deborah Ellen of the University of Guam. “It’s like trying to find a way to balance your own culture identity or language with something that has been brought in. There’s always been this idea that these outside influences are better, but it isn’t true. I think that’s what led to the cultural problems we have, not just in Micronesia, but also all over the world.”

Pohnpeian poet Dr. Emelihter Kihleng, the keynote speaker, delved into her experiences of disempowerment. “As we all know, language is a key aspect of having a healthy cultural identity. In contemporary Pohnpei, I find that there is a lack of appreciation for things Pohnpeian. Things American, including the English language, American music, clothing and more are seen as cool and sophisticated especially among young people. Obviously, this is part of globalization and the current state of American neo-colonialism that we live in on the island.”


Kihleng said although the Pohnpeian language is still a mainstream, the native tongue has lost a lot. “Much of the poetry found in the language is being forgotten, including Meing, our respect language, used when addressing those of high status and those older than you, and this is tragic, but unfortunately, we won’t realize the loss until it’s too late,” she said. “There needs to be more of an awareness that even though we still speak Pohnpeian every day, our language is still at risk and we need to cherish and nurture it for the future generations to come.”

But cultural dilution is not a new phenomenon. In his May 1993 treatise titled “Culture in Crisis: Trends in the Pacific Today,” published in the Micronesian Counselor, the historian Francis X. Hezel, S.J. noted the “cruel dilemma” faced by Pacific islands. They are burdened by the task of striking a balance between cultural preservation and economic sustenance.

“Nationhood in the modern world is founded on economic development--that is, conversion of the traditional economy to a modern cash economy,” Hezel wrote. “Island leaders may urge their people to preserve their own ways, but this has a hollow ring to it. First of all, it is often these same island leaders who are working mightily to bring in logging, mining, tourism, heavy industry, and anything else that might increase the gross national product. And all of these things bring about further changes in traditional lifestyles. … The monetization of a traditional economy is a process with an internal dynamic of its own. Generally speaking, the more money made, the greater the changes.” (with reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)

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