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Interview of Abner Luckner

Life Story


Note: The interviewee is noted by initials, the interviewer by [Q].

Culture and Language

[LA] First and foremost, I want to thank you for inviting me to sit and chat with you. However, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Luckner Abner. I’m a Marshallese. I have no stories nor traditional legends to tell but would like to answer any questions.

I would like to say that I’m the current chairman for the Culture/Language Office of Commissions, which started ten years ago in 2000. There are times we would travel from atoll to atoll for the purpose of collecting pieces of information concerning the customary practices throughout the Marshall Islands. We interviewed twelve participants, including some on Ebeye island, Jaluit atoll, Ailinglaplap atoll, Arno atoll, Mili atoll, and several atolls in the Ratak-Ean region. We visited Ebon and Namdrik atolls. I would like to say that I was very sad, because at the time we did the interviews, there were participants who we thought could be of help for the project. It turned out that the participants had very little knowledge on some of the topics. There was a young man from Ebon atoll found to be knowledgeable. He very much understood what he was talking about even if his age was younger than mine because I found his findings tied in with the other participants. There were others I felt for them because they were old, but the conversations we had obviously untrue.

[LA] This is one of the purposes of creating the Kajin/Manit program, in order to collect and document the [cultural] knowledge. And, we also live broadcast these findings [every Saturday evening]. Also, we are in the process of putting together a book that soon codifies all research subjects about the Marshallese culture/language. There is a lawyer from Honolulu, Hawaii, who has thirty years of experience about language and culture. His name is Bendaik (audio unclear). I forgot his first name. So we’re deciding to see if we could hire him for the codifying process. We haven’t notified the Office of the President, but I’ve arranged appointments to meet with him along with his [the President’s] Minister of Assistance to see if they are interested in bringing this lawyer. This meeting awaits Monday.

[LA] This lawyer will come and bring one of his students along from the University of Hawaii who is interested in Marshallese customs and language. They will come, and we will gain training from them. We will work together to make this project a reality. There are stories and legends we find in books written by non-Marshallese speakers and these are some of the things we need to go through to see if they are valid and accurate. Because no one’s knowledge is the same -- some data are found to be slightly different from those of another researcher and so forth.

We collected data concerning the culture and language and merged any source findings we have. Say, for example, we flew to Maloelap atoll and interviewed some elementary teachers there, assuming that the teachers would share accurate cultural knowledge with us; but, we were wrong. We thought one of the teachers was joking while the teacher answered the questions.

We asked one of them about the word morijin-kop. When he/she answered, I was very surprised because he/she was a teacher, and if he/she teaches, then it is clearly a shame because he/she could be teaching students fallacies. I think it is a warning sign concerning our [note the word “our” is used here as a reference to local educators] elementary teachers throughout the Marshall Islands because they need/must be teaching our children with true knowledge. They must not teach inaccurate information nor from their own opinions or observation. They should not be teaching without checking if the information is accurate.

We flew to Ailinglaplap and interviewed participants there. We also flew to Namrik, but one of the surprising things was there were a lot of women who came to these interviews, so it was quite difficult for their male counterparts to share.

[Q] express their opinions.

[LA] They [the women] would come and sit, but quietly.  I don’t know, I tried to understand why they did not speak. Was it because they did not understand what we were talking about, or what? But I learned that they were quiet because it is the custom. It is not their duty to speak when there are men present because this is their custom, and these were some of the things we saw during the interviews.

We asked for permission to go to Enewetak, but it was never permitted. There were lots of places we tried to go like Kili, but it was never permitted. We tried to go to Namu, but it was not permitted.

You see, Namu Atoll, we wanted to go there because we were told that all lineage and clans started there.  The chiefs in the past shared this story about the beginning of the clans, and we wanted to go there to conduct further interviews, but we were not permitted because the local Namu Council  and the chiefs did not confirm our request for visitation.

There were many other places we planned to visit, like Ujae, Wotho, and so on. As the chairman, when I compare the data to those collected in Ebeye, Lae, they were alike because the majority of the people we interviewed on Ebeye migrated to Ebeye from Ujae, Lae, and Wotho Atolls, and when the participants on Ebeye shared their knowledge, it was similar to those from the Kapin-Meto region. Because there was not enough money to cover all the expense, we suspended our visits. But I know in myself that if we had gone to these atolls, say Ujae and Lae and Ebeye, they would have shared the same knowledge.

As to the custom, in the book we began…and I thank those who helped make the book possible by transmitting their knowledge to the Commissions office. The language and culture are the same because the culture is based on the language and the language relies on the culture. If you know your language, you won’t need to be taught a second time about your custom everything used in the customary practices has a Marshallese word. There is a word inotinawode.

[Q] Inotinawode?

[LA] Yes. Well, what it means is that anything that falls overboard from your medium-sized canoe. No matter what it is: your zorries, your clothes, anything that is valuable to you and falls from your medium sized canoe is called inotinawode . I also heard about this phrase… You know, I am not the kind who knows Marshallese very well because I did not attend high school like the MICHS [Marshall Islands Christian High School on Rongrong islet in Majuro Atoll] and the parochial schools. Instead I went to public schools, and I learned more about English than Marshallese. Anyway, the word is woden-kaanol is a coral reef that attracts a lot of fish. When you relate that to our culture woden-kaanol represents the chiefs.

[Q] The chiefs?

[LA]Yes, because that is where all the commoners obtain their needs. When a commoner needs something he goes to his chief and asks for it. You see a chief has lots of commoners who stay with him and help him. They clean outside his house, they prepare meals for him, and so on. You know, one thing that is true, is that a chief will not know what he can expect to eat for any given meal because he doesn’t know what his commoners will bring to him.  They [the chief and his wife] are not worried about meals because they know they will be brought food.

[Q] Here, take this food [contribution].

[LA]Exactly, and that is what we see today. Being part of this program, helped me to understand many other practices that I never understood before like the language, and you can see that many of these practices are still alive today. You see, when you think of the phrase, woden-kaanol, when they say woden-kaanol, you will hear them say it is the coral which attracts lots of fish, and that would be one way to understand the phrase. After moving around, seeking cultural knowledge, you begin to understand the concept.  And then you would say to yourself, “Oh, I did not know that woden-kaanol means this!” And it is true, that a chief who has very few commoners is more likely to lose in a battle. And I think this is probably what our chiefs are careful about: their commoners. In other words, they say dunin-melaaj.

[Q] Again?

[LA] Dunin-melaaj.

[Q] Dunin-melaaj?

[LA] Yeah, because these are the people who clean outside the chiefly houses. As we know, I lived there in Rubad [Rubar – a section of property just past the bridge heading westward]

[Q] Rubad?

[LA] Yes. Where Irooj Jooba lived.  [At 17:06 Luckner Abner’s cell phone rings and keeps ringing until 17:40]. There were, well, there were lots of people who lived there. They did not clean outside his place, but they did many other things to maintain the culture. Probably today, these things are still practiced, but it is not like it was before. (Geez! Excuse me while I answer this).

[Q] [Continues on in his stead] Yes, I can remember there were two times that I visited that place with my father. We would go to this chief’s place because the chief would call my father to give him massages. So I went with my father, and I asked the chief myself, what does my father do? And the chief told me that my father was an expert masseur. 

[LA][returning to the interview] Exactly, exactly. Well, these were the practices we had. If you will look again into our legends, you will find that several chiefs were exiled. The reason for this exile was because they had so very few commoners and stewards. In the past, the chief was not the one who made decisions, it was his stewards’ job to make decisions. Say if you were the chief and you thought, “I am going to tell my people to bring this and that for my grandchild’s first birthday party.” Rather, it is his people’s job [the stewards] to do.

[Q] … to make the decisions.

[LA] They decide, they plan, and they organize events. There was a story, but I am not really sure about this story about a chieftess there in Arno. After she died… um, what was her name?

[Q] Yes, I can picture her, but I can’t remember her name.

[LA] Well, it is about this chieftess before she passed away: she tried to put one of her adopted children in power, but her stewards, when she asked them, told her, “Please give us two more weeks to think about this.” As the two weeks expired, they visited the chieftess; they had already prepared all kinds of food. They went to her and said, “We are still thinking about it.” What they meant to say….

[Q] We are still thinking about it?

[LA] Yes. What they meant was that they didn’t want the chieftess’s adopted child to be in power. After she died, the stewards appointed Jiwirak to take power, and after he passed away, his younger sister took his place, but a majority of people on Arno did not want her. Today, when you visit some of the villages like Reaarlaplap, you will find no chiefs, only stewards.

[Q] I saw the very last chief, and I sat with him and chatted for two days. He was the chief Liwawe.

[LA] Liwawe?

[Q] Yes, but he was an appointed chief, not chief by succession.

[LA] Yes.

[Q] He told me that his rights and privileges are those of a chief, even though he was an appointed chief.  There were several communities throughout Arno that have no chief.

[LA] The chief has passed away, but the idea is still practiced. Same goes for the practices on Mili. In Mili, the very last chief was called Lingidik.

[Q] Because the official chief has died.

[LA] Because the official chief, yes. Exactly. There are other places throughout the Marshall Islands who use this practice as those I said before.

[Q] Can we take a step back to share more about your current job? Our jobs here are the same, yours and mine here with these students as we try to find a way to preserve the customs. You say you started working 2002, right?

[LA] Yes, in 2002.


[LA] There were… There was a rule establishing the Commission office in 1989, but it was a challenging effort when created.

[Q] Why?

[LA] Well maybe it is due to…

[Q] Financial assistance? Cultural taboos? Or?

[LA] Mostly culture. Yes. It affected the customs. In truth, the founders who started the customs/language program received payments. But as it continued, it became difficult for them for their expectations began to interfere with their performance. Though we picked it up where they last left off, not because we don’t care about the language, but because we would like to  find a way that we all could agree to to follow here in the Marshall Islands. It must be fair for all, not just good for some.

I remembered, in 1979, after  a political side interfered, about half of the people in the Marshall Islands agreed to approve the RMI-Constitution to include a clause about Bill of Rights, namely that of the three stakeholders of Irooj’s, Alap’s, and the Ri-Jerbal’s also to include places that consider senior chiefs.

[Q] Senior chief?

[LA] Yes. Senior chiefs. The Con-Con informants did not weed out the senior chiefs, but they said that there must be three according to the Constitution. And, this is why I was inclined to be part of the commission’s program. I dreamed of this particular kind of job where the duties and responsibilities that deal with one cultural knowledge to make fair for every Marshallese. I did not want unfair statements to be exercised, like people being exiled for no reason or [legitimate] charges…

[Q] Move…

[LA] I think it wouldn’t be very fair for that person to be kicked out of a village for no reason. So I thought there must be a fair way for everybody. I think it is also important for us to agree on the same language and custom that we can live by and that is good and fair.

Now, concerning our language, because, the language is based on the customs, and the customs based on the…

[Q] Language.

[LA] Exactly. I heard collective pieces of stories about how our lands were mishandled and almost went to foreigners during the German periods here in the Marshall Islands. A German headquarter was built there on Jabwor (Jaluit Atoll), which was under operation for many years and almost stopped recognizing our chiefs.

If you wanted to start a business or build apartments, you wouldn’t go to the chiefs and ask for the land. Instead, you would go to this office and ask the Germans for a piece of land. You see, the German period ended and then the Japanese administration took control.

I was stunned when I heard of the emerging tension between the Marshallese people and the Germans about land rights, etc. Some of the storytellers shared their view of how recognition among the Irooj [chiefs] became less of a consideration. And so the same practice continued when the Japanese administration took over the Marshall Islands.

[Q] And they made it even harder.

[LA] Yes. They would come and continue the practice and make it harder. There were places at that time already measured but not leased. These places when combined made acres of land because they wanted to do what they wanted to do. We’re very lucky because He [God] made it impossible. And luckily particularly during the second World War: these places were destroyed, consisting of the major offices that had official documents of the measured pieces of lands. Who knows what would have happened? If the documents hadn’t been destroyed, the Americans could have continued the process from there.

[Q] I agree.

[LA] Instead we would have used our pieces of land for commercial interest. This could force people from the Marshall Islands and other places throughout FSM and Micronesia to sell.  So we’re blessed because our first President foresaw these interferences and worked hard to separate the Marshall Islands independently…Who knows if we would have our pieces of lands today [if he hadn’t]?

[Q] No. We wouldn’t own our pieces of lands today. If I may go ahead and ask another question?

[LA] Proceed please.

[Q] This question concerns interviewees. When they’re brought for a sitting, they respond vaguely or they give very under-informed responses, or they give a tiny bit of information. Given the content-knowledge of their understanding…

[LA] That shouldn’t be your expect…

[Q] Yes. Now from your own perspective, do you think what we do in this project might affect the customs and everyone practicing the customs. Why do we come across these kinds of thoughts which are unhelpful in projects that are dedicated for cultural preservation for us and the rest of the world (once posted on the website)?

[LA] The truth of the matter is that it affects the customs. This [proprietary knowledge] is widely believed by the general population. There are some who understand it, but their freedom of expression is limited. You see, when I shared about the people from the Kapin Meto region having the same goal and knowledge, it is because they share the same knowledge passed on to them from past generations even if some do not share but still the same voice. It is a little difficult for them , but it is sad because it shouldn’t be this way. Everyone should have had a voice in this, no matter who. Also, I talked about the chiefs having to worry very little about daily meals because it is their stewards (or head clans) who bring them food… Remember, there is a word, kajoor. And by kajoor, it is chanted “Kajoor wot wor”, meaning ‘together we can’ [lit. Cooperation/collaboration must be].

[Q] Kajoor wot wor?

[LA] Yes. A chief who has a few stewards and commoners is more likely to be wiped out; because, he has very few people to support him. Not only that, but if he has very few commoners, his commoners are like pillars. Not long from now, you and I will be gone. Though, the younger generations will continue to pass the customs to the future. Given the kind of mentality that influences their views towards Marshallese customs that could...

[Q] With lots of differences and changes taking place…

[LA] As I said, if there is a goal that everyone shares in terms of safeguarding our customs and language, well it will …

[Q] It will be a little difficult for them to…

[LA] It will be very difficult for them to try to document and preserve. Today, the Marshall Islands hosts workshops, trainings, among many other kinds of conferences. The leaders and participants in these events don’t speak Marshallese, instead they speak English. The question then becomes: How would other Marshallese participants understand what is being spoken when they know very little English?

[Q] …Know little English.

[LA] They use English as the language medium, they would say, “Man, what the hell are those guys talking about?”

[Q] …What are they saying?

[LA] Exactly. I heard another story about several young men of Mejit. They were listening to the radio, while the speaker was speaking English. They turned to one another with curiosity trying to understand what had been said. We should really start paying attention to our language. Let’s take the Japanese volunteers, for example. When they come here, they don’t speak English; rather, they speak their own language.

[Q] They have translators.

[LA] They have translators, exactly! And you would assume that they don’t know any English at all.

[Q] Yes, but they hold doctoral degrees and such, right?

[LA] Exactly. You would assume they don’t know any English because they have their translator to transfer the language to theirs. You would find out later in school functions that they know English but they don’t speak it publically. You learn only by talking with them face to face.

[Q] Ah, this guy speaks good English! Though at that time, he or she respects his own language.

[LA] Yes. He respects his language… You see a person…a country that highly values its customs and language has people that speak his native language besides his second, third, languages. For us Marshallese [this is not the case] because we think that everything that American says is true, even though we know some of the things said by Americans are not true...

[Q] True.

[LA] Gone! Vanished! I’m very pleased that your [Marshall Islands Story] project can help preserve the language, and I know if we can work together to preserve our custom and language, I know for certain that there won’t be any challenges -- it will be strong and won’t break apart. [There is no doubt the foundations we build now will remain in the future.]

[Q] My last question is based on the word you just said.

[LA] Which one?

[Q] This question concerns your office’s objectives in considering this project the students and the professor [Dr. Tanner] are trying to conduct. Speaking about these projects, how do you feel about them? Do you think there is still enough time to preserve and document the [Marshallese] customs and language?

[LA] Yes. If and when the Commissions’ program goes under the RMI-Ministry of Education, and is implemented and required in their curriculum, like Head Start or the Elementary school curriculum, up to high school, then it will be… So, you are saying that if we only document these things, but no one is there to forward our agenda, well...

[Q] The files might just “rot.”

[LA] Ye, they will not be very useful. Large amounts of data documented will not be interpreted  [and] therefore, will be of less use.