Breaking the Shell
Voyaging from Nuclear Refugees to People of the Sea in the Marshall Islands
On the atoll of Rongelap in the northern seas of the Marshall Islands, apprentice navigators once learned to find their way across the ocean by remotely sensing how islands transform the patterning of swell and currents. Renowned for their instructional stick charts that model and map the interplay of islands and waves, these students of wave piloting techniques embarked on trial voyages to ruprup jo̧kur, a Marshallese expression roughly translated as “breaking the shell” of the turtle, which would confer their status as navigators. These traditional practices, already in decline with imposing colonial occupations, came to an abrupt halt with the Cold War–era nuclear weapons testing program conducted by the United States. The residents and their descendants are still trying to recover from the myriad environmental, biological, social, and psychological impacts of the nuclear tests.
Breaking the Shell presents the journey of Captain Korent Joel, who, having been forced into exile from the near-apocalyptic thermonuclear Bravo test of 1954, has reconnected to his ancestral maritime heritage and forged an unprecedented path toward becoming a navigator. Paralleling the Hawaiian renaissance that centered on Nainoa Thompson learning from Satawalese navigator Mau Piailug, the beginnings of the Marshallese voyaging revitalization—a collaborative, community-based project spanning the fields of anthropology, history, and oceanography—involved blending scientific knowledge systems, resolving ambivalence in nearly forgotten navigational techniques, and deftly negotiating cultural protocols of knowledge use and transmission. Through Captain Korent’s own voyaging trial, he and a group of surviving mariners from Rongelap are, against one of the darkest hours in human history, “breaking the shell” of their prime identity as nuclear refugees to begin recovering their most intimate of connections to the sea. Ultimately these efforts would inaugurate the return of the traditional outrigger voyaging canoe for the greater Marshallese nation, an achievement that may work toward easing ethnic tensions abroad and ensure cultural survival in their battle against the looming climate change–induced rising ocean. Drawing attention to cultural rediscovery, revitalization, and resilience in Oceania, the Marshallese are once again celebrating their existence as a people born to the rhythms of the sea.
Joseph Genz’s Breaking the Shell is an elegantly crafted tale of the Marshallese people, their island place, and the ingenious means by which adaptation and survival occur. At its core is the struggle of two men to reclaim their ancestral knowledge—of what it means to be an ocean people; of what it means to be a captain and master navigator of the seas. A must read for those who travel the oceans, traipse its beaches, wonder about past ways of life and what the future might bring, and seek inspiration and hope in dark times.
Joseph Genz’s Breaking the Shell is a foundational work in Pacific wayfinding and cultural survival. It is an important example of where collaborative cultural knowledge revival and documentation efforts can lead, given persistent and respectful work over time.
Through Genz’s careful ethnography, we see the deep attachment of the Marshallese people to the sea, as well as their fierce dedication to retain and transmit the knowledge to future generations, even if this requires unconventional methods at times. . . . In addition to the robust scholarly contributions of Genz that put the Marshall Islands into regional and global conversations about the role of canoe revitalization as a form of cultural resilience and strength, Genz’s work builds on scholarship regarding the importance of language to communicate worldviews and cultural meaning. . . . Read this book. Talk about this book. Teach with this book.
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