Essays on the Marshallese Past

Multi-Culturalism and Historic Preservation In

In the United States, as well as in Australia, the discussion on multi-ethnicity and 'multiculturalism' has finally fully reached the field of Historic Preservation and a conference on the topic has been announced for Miami in October 1992. The Pacific Historic Preservation Programmes, and among them the R.M.I. programme have a perspective different from that of the mainstream U.S. and it is worth to have look at this issue.

In the mainland United States multiculturalism embodies the acceptance and inclusion of the "differentness" of cultural minorities into the framework of white Anglo-Saxon culture - not withstanding that the minorities, taken together, form by far the majority of the population. In the US the dominant form has always been the Anglo-Saxon heritage and secondarily the Hispanic and other European heritage, preferably from the period before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Over time Historic Preservation has moved more and more towards recognising the multi-cultural fabric of the US society. Only very recently were the original owners of the area, the Native Indian Nations, recognised as a potential administrative and policy-making entity and begin to figure in Historic Preservation Programmes in their own right.

In the Pacific, the U.S. Territories of Guam and Samoa, the Freely Associated States (RMI, Palau & FSM) as well as elsewhere in Polynesia and Melanesia the situation is reversed. Here the Anglo-Saxons always were, and always will be visibly the minority. Yet the majority of the funding, the majority of the Historic Preservation programmes, as well as the majority of the outside interest in history and heritage has always gone into the history, the remains and the heritage of that very minority. Historic houses, the landing places of the first European "Explorers" - (note 1)in fact only late-coming visitors to islands long before discovered by the people living there - (note 1) and World War II sites are, with frightening regularity, considered and treated as more important than the indigenous historic sites. The reasons for this rests partially in the fact that most indigenous archaeological and historical sites in the Pacific area are two-dimensional, such as pottery scatters, shell middens or some low earthen mounds. Three-dimensional sites, more appealing to the Anglo-European concept of heritage, such as Nan Madol in Pohnpei, the Royal tombs in Tonga or the statues on Rapa Nui are the exception - (note 1) though they figure prominently in all descriptions.

The main reason is that the colonial or trustee administration applied their own standards to a heritage which was radically different, in an area where most materials are perishable in the unforgiving climate.

In the case of the U.S. this meant that Historic buildings, such as churches and lighthouses, shipwrecks and the like, along with the few extant three-dimensional sites, were documented, recorded, entered in the National Register of Historical Places and thus protected. Traditional sites were left by the wayside. For the Marshallese a coral head sticking out in the lagoon, with all the oral traditions connected with it, has a far greater spiritual and historical importance than any building the foreigners call 'historical.' For European eyes it was just merely a coral head indistinguishable from any other and hence insignificant. The fact that the only (note 2) difference between a so-called historic place and a similar or identical house is the historical figure or event associated with the historical place was, and often still is lost on Europeans. Micronesians involved in U.S. funded Historic Preservation Programmes in the islands have long argued for the recognition of their sites as being at least of equal importance.

Already prior to but especially following independence, the Freely Associated States in Micronesia have developed their own Historic Preservation legislation and their own criteria as to what constitutes a historical place worth protecting. The Micronesian Preservation Programmes more and more focus on the majority of the sites, than on the over-documented, over-recoded and over-publicised minority of Anglo-European heritage in the islands.

As such then, in recognising traditional places and landscapes, far outside the Historic Preservation establishment's concept of Historic Preservation, and in treating such traditional properties on par with historical buildings, the Micronesian programmes can be seen, if not as trail blazers, then at least well ahead in the current drive towards multiculturalism. It is thus not surprising to learn that the recent and long overdue NPS initative to have the definitions for Historic Preservation widened in the dealings with the Native Indian Nations has been orchestrated by NPS staff coming out of or influenced by the Micronesian Programmes.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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