While their home islands drown, Micronesians living in Oregon struggle to save their heritage.
By Sergio Olmos
Bouncing a baby on his lap in his apartment in Salem, Oregon, Dexter Moluputo recalls the rhythms and simple pleasures of his childhood home in the Federated States of Micronesia, a country comprising more than 600 islands in the western Pacific Ocean. As a boy, he spent most days with his friends surfing on homemade surfboards or spearfishing off the reef.
Moluputo grew up in a hut made out of wood and coconut palms, on an island measuring a little over 1 square mile. His family fished and grew crops like taro and breadfruit, just as his ancestors had for centuries. “Over there you don’t work for money,” Moluputo said. “Just to eat.”
School was never much of a draw—except for the food. The open-air structure where classes were held was one of the only places where Moluputo could consistently get those delicious foods from abroad, namely canned corn and Spam. He savored those flavors from distant lands; like movies, they were a window onto the world beyond.
Now, living thousands of miles away and in a radically different climate and culture in Salem, Moluputo often finds himself thinking about the foods of home and the precarious future of his homeland. His native island, known as Houk, is becoming uninhabitable. Rising seas and stronger typhoons have spread salt over large swaths of the island, denying even the hardiest of crops the opportunity to grow.
In February 2019, a typhoon destroyed an entire year’s taro harvest. The U.S. government responded with $100,000 of disaster aid. It was a welcome gesture, but one that had no impact on rising tides. Meanwhile, transplants like Moluputo continue sending money back to Houk, where family and friends use it to buy food and other essential goods on a neighboring island.
But the exodus from Micronesia continues; according to the CIA World Factbook estimates for 2020, the country ranks fourth in the world in net emigration per capita. People move away, and especially to the U.S., for many of the same reasons that have drawn migrants for generations: economic prospects and opportunity. But Micronesians are also moving away from home for a reason that may soon eclipse all others: climate breakdown.
The U.N. estimates that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate migrants worldwide, according to a 2015 study carried out by the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University, the academic and research arm of the U.N. For inhabitants of low-lying atolls like the islands of Micronesia, that process is well underway. People like Moluputo have little choice but to watch from afar as the ocean overtakes their ancestral homes.
According to the Micronesia Consulate in Portland, Oregon is one of the most popular places for Micronesians to land in the U.S., excluding Hawaii. Moluputo said nobody is sure why, but that it might be because a handful of elders attended Eastern Oregon University many years ago and brought home stories of life in the Pacific Northwest.
Relocated Lives, Relocated Culture
“I think maybe my grandchildren won’t see it,” Berely Mack said of his home island of Kapingamarangi. Mack is a retired home health aide living in Salem. Three years ago, he flew home to visit Kapingamarangi. What he saw was unambiguous and heartbreaking. “The water comes up to higher ground,” he said.
While Mack worries about his home and those who remain there, he is simultaneously dealing with the challenge of adapting to life in Oregon without losing all connection to his past and his culture. Some of those obstacles are subtle. For example, people in Micronesia remove their shoes and leave them outside the front door before entering a home. But at apartment complexes in the Pacific Northwest, that practice isn’t necessarily welcome. Newly transplanted Micronesians have found notices from building managers ordering the new tenants to take their shoes inside.
Other aspects of the Micronesian emigrant experience cut to the core question of identity. Mack and Moluputo both remember the day they became men back home in Micronesia. On their islands, men in each clan wear a traditional piece of clothing—on Kapingamarangi it’s called a “timatta”—that covers a man’s pubic area. Boys in the islands look forward to the day when they can wear one, thereby signaling to all that they have come of age. The expectation is that any boy old enough to wear a timatta is contributing to the clan’s supply of food by fishing the reef and growing taro.
Now, Micronesians raising children away from home struggle to find comparable defining traditions. It’s not that American culture is worse or undesirable, Mack said, but he worries that it fails to provide sufficient guidance. Growing up is about responsibility, he said, yet adolescent boys here don’t have a common understanding of what that means. They have no way to “know when they become men.”
For Pacific Islanders who leave home, there is also a steady sense of disorientation, of something missing. “The ocean is our life force,” Sandi Wells, a health worker with the not-for-profit Micronesian Islander Community, said. “We consider water as a backyard, as a playground, and we depend on the saltwater [bounty] for our protein.”
Wells is doing her part to push back against the forces of cultural erosion. Her approach is through food, specifically traditional Micronesian crops and dishes, grown and prepared here in the Pacific Northwest. On a Saturday last summer at the Oregon Food Bank, Wells gathered with a group of about a dozen people to teach them how to grow water spinach.
Oregon soils are too dry for the vegetable to grow, Wells said. She explained that the plant requires something more like “swampy wetlands.” At the food bank, a group of Micronesian women watched as Wells poured water into a large container of soil before planting. Each person took a turn planting cuttings, introducing the vegetable to its new home. When they finished, they reconvened inside the food bank to eat. It is customary at almost any gathering back home in Micronesia to finish with a shared feast. This particular meal included traditional Micronesian dishes of rice and chicken, as well as some (store-bought) water spinach.
Teaching, Adapting, Enduring
Other people in Oregon’s Micronesian community are taking different steps to preserve their cultural heritage. Mack teaches a language class in one of the 20 Micronesian languages, in the hope that Micronesian children here will be interested in their roots or at least familiar with the language of their ancestors. He wants that way of life—and the words to describe it—to persist, even if the islands are drowned by rising seas.
He also knows that whatever education he can provide about Micronesia will inevitably mix with the customs and language of Oregon. “The culture will be lost. You know when you move, it always changes the culture,” he said. To illustrate his point, Mack described a holiday back home during which Micronesians honor the taro plant. This year Mack and others held the taro celebration in a school gymnasium in Salem.
Some of the activities were traditional pastimes, such as teenagers racing to shave the copra off a coconut. But instead of wearing traditional clothing of Micronesia, participants were dressed in the typical attire of American teens—sweatshirts, jeans, baseball caps—and the celebration was set to a soundtrack of R&B.
Yet for some Micronesians in Oregon relocation has meant empowerment. Kapiolani Micky was once too shy to speak in front of a group. But at a gathering last year, Micky stood before a group of Micronesian women in a classroom in Salem to update them about the hardship local families face when it comes to putting food on the table.
Micky ticked through a list of resources for finding donated foods in the area and provides details about when and how to get that assistance. She also proposed that the women host an event focused on the theme of food security. Soon the group has hashed out plans for a potluck showcasing Micronesian foods and storytelling, during which organizers will share tips for combating food insecurity.
This kind of community effort has only become more urgent since the outbreak of COVID-19. And although the immediacy of problems like unemployment and disease can make the climate situation back in Micronesia seem distant, it never is. When Moluputo traveled home to Houk a few years ago for his sister’s funeral, he witnessed, as so many others have seen and documented, how quickly the islands are changing.
For Oregon’s Micronesian population, the challenge now is maintaining that sense of connection to home and heritage, even as the water keeps rising.
Lead photo by Alex Milan Tracy.