As the month of May comes close to an end, we recognize and commemorate the many diverse Asian and Pacific Island communities who have continued to practice and showcase their diversity and beauty. The Asian and Pacific Island diaspora encompasses an array of languages, backgrounds, and histories that have all contributed to their cultural and world views. However, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is more than simply recognition alone. Rather than recognizing these characteristics should come with empathy and action in understanding the important issues occurring in these communities. In particular, the Pacific Island diaspora face hindering obstacles including rising sea levels and other effects of climate change that are engulfing and affecting low-lying Pacific Island nations today.
The Island Ark Project equally sees the beauty of the Pacific, however, understands that there is an imminent threat to it as well. The Island Ark Project was built on the shared understanding and concern that these issues are not only affecting the physical wellbeing and infrastructure of Pacific Islanders' islands and homes but impacting their cultural capital as well. Rising sea levels alone introduce a domino-effect of responses including saltwater intrusion affecting food vegetation and clean water, as well as the evident outer migration islander’s face when moving away from their community’s home island. What Island Ark Project has continuously emphasized was throughout this process, the potential loss of culture occurs as well. The Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of small island nations is in dire threat when out-migration occurs. Many islands already, including the island of Kiribati for example, have faced these unfortunate events and continue to do so today.
As more people move away from their home islands, it removes the linkage between tradition and culture, threatening a community’s cultural practices that have existed for thousands of years. Preserving and safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is important for everyone. In addition to the relocation of island communities away from their homelands and in threat of losing their cultural heritage, this opens the discussion of Pacific Islanders who are already facing the reality of the loss of cultural heritage.
The Island Ark Project’s Connie Ngirchemat is a Palauan Pacific Islander who was born and raised in the Bay Area, California. Ngirchemat heavily deliberated the importance of preserving her own cultural heritage and identity, inside and outside of Island Ark Project. “While growing up, I was neither taught to speak my native language nor learn about my Palauan heritage, which is a common story for many Palauans born and raised in the United States”. Ngirchemat stresses how critical it is to preserve cultural heritage, fear for her generation and future generations losing their heritage. “When you think of the idea of preserving cultural heritage, its importance to those in a current threat of losing their culture, and what that generally means, often times people forget to realize that there are already others facing this issue today.”
Image taken from Ngirchemat’s trip in 2012 to her mother’s home island of Kayangel, Palau
“Culture can embody so many different things and interpretations for different people. For me, the culture that I was raised in in California, in addition to the influence of my parent’s culture as traditional Palauans from a different generation, helped me view how culture interferes with how we communicate and present ourselves. Understanding the diversity within that situation can be conflicting, but is beautiful at the same time.” Understanding these distinct narratives such as Ngirchemat’s and moving about the interests of the community will help Island Ark Project better preserve all forms of intangible cultural heritage important for the Pacific Island diaspora. “It helps me appreciate the past and the culture that my parent’s had come from, in addition to how it has contributed to my life as well”. As a community-based organization, Island Ark Project opens a platform to represent the interests of the Pacific Island community in order to understand and better preserve all areas of intangible cultural heritage. With Island Ark Project’s use of digital technologies for safeguarding ICH, it would offer a unique opportunity for others to define, create, and preserve their individual forms of heritage important for their community. If not working collectively with the community, nothing would be possible. Since Island Ark Project’s two facilitated workshops in Palau, Ngirchemat sees their efforts and intentions behind promoting collective organizing and giving voice to the people.
Although the month of May has allowed Pacific Islanders to raise awareness and recognize their individual heritages, there are more concerns that need to gain surface, not just in the month of May and not just solely by the Pacific Island community. Ngirchemat has shown appreciation towards Island Ark Project feeling thankful for spaces such as the Island Ark Project that have just as much concern for cultural preservation as she does.