By Jon Letman / March 17, 2021
This week poets, tribal elders, military veterans and members of the U.S. Congress will join the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands David Kabua for Washington-Marshall Islands Nuclear Remembrance Week. The six-day virtual event is an extension of Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, observed every March 1, the day the United States conducted its largest nuclear weapon test (a thousand times more destructive than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima).
Among the organizers is the RMI’s National Nuclear Commission, a three-person body established in 2017 to seek justice and address unresolved nuclear issues. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak atolls.
In its pursuit of nuclear justice, and to develop new leaders among Marshallese youth, the commission has employed six college students or recent graduates from Marshallese communities around the country.
The RMI-U.S. relationship is close, but it is complex. Central to the relationship is a Compact of Free Association that allows for migration, health care, and education access for Marshallese citizens.
This is where Marshallese college students come in. Through their research, outreach, and advocacy, they are establishing new relationships in the RMI, the U.S. and elsewhere.
Connecting The Dots
During the 2020 Nuclear Remembrance Day ceremony in Springdale, Arkansas (home to America’s largest Marshallese community), NNC researchers connected with other communities affected by nuclear weapons.
These young Marshallese learned that far from being alone, others share similar experiences. Working with the Coalition of Nuclear Justice Activists, NNC researchers have formed relationships with atomic cleanup veterans who were recruited for cleanup efforts at Enewetak in the 1970s.
They’re learning how “downwinders” including Spokane, Navajo, and other Native American tribes still suffer the effects of uranium mining and the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state.
“Now that I’m learning from others, not just the Marshallese community — they also experienced similar things — that’s where the truth is,” says research assistant Jasmine Alik, a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington.
Leimamo Wase, also a public health student who grew up on Kwajalein Atoll where the U.S. operates a ballistic missile and space operations test site, says she personally recognizes connections between the nuclear legacy and continued weapons testing. “As a Marshallese person, and knowing the past, I do see a connection of the nuclear legacy with the missile testing now.”
This Is American History Too
NNC research assistant and UW medical anthropology student Melaika Andrike says the past can’t be ignored, adding this isn’t just Marshallese history, it’s American history.