October 1, 2003 - Contemporary Pacific: Marshall Islands RPCV Jack Niedenthal writes History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Marshall Islands: Peace Corps Marshall Islands : The Peace Corps in the Marshall Islands: October 1, 2003 - Contemporary Pacific: Marshall Islands RPCV Jack Niedenthal writes History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-48-41.balt.east.verizon.net - on Tuesday, October 07, 2003 - 3:07 pm: Edit Post

Marshall Islands RPCV Jack Niedenthal writes History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands

Marshall Islands RPCV Jack Niedenthal writes History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands

For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands

Oct 1, 2003 - Contemporary Pacific

Author(s): Kiste, Robert C

For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands, by Jack Niedenthal. Second Edition. Majuro, Marshall Islands: Bravo Publishers, 2001. ISBN 982-9050-02-5; xviii + 264 pages, figures, maps, photographs, appendixes, bibliography, index. US$16.99.

Jack Niedenthal's work is a labor of love. After Ralph Waltz, Niedenthal was the second young American to arrive in the Marshall Islands as a Peace Corps volunteer, marry into the Bikini community, and come to devote his life to Bikinians. Niedenthal's Peace Corps service was a three-year stint on Namu Atoll between 1981 and 1984. Originally from Pennsylvania and educated at the University of Arizona, he was transformed by his encounter with Marshallese and their culture. After Namu, Niedenthal eagerly accepted an offer by Waltz to teach elementary school on Kili Island, where the people of Bikini Atoll were eventually resettled after their home atoll was selected as an American nuclear test site in 1946.

A Wisconsin lad, Waltz had joined the Peace Corps in the mid- 1960s following his university education in Milwaukee. After a year elsewhere, Waltz was assigned to Kili as a teacher. He served in that capacity until Bikinians hired him as their first trust liaison officer, a position involvi ng liaison work between Bikinians and the local Marshallese government, various agencies of the US government, the media, and other outsiders. The liaison officer also managed funds allocated by the US government as compensation and for the rehabilitation of Bikini Atoll. After Waltz's early death from cancer in 1987, Niedenthal succeeded him in the position.

Both men have been key players in the affairs of Bikinians and earned the trust of the people they served. As liaison officer, Niedenthal now spends most of his time at Majuro, the capital of today's Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The first edition of his book appeared in early 2001. It was well received, and the second edition was published in September of the same year. At Niedenthal's request, anthropologist Leonard Mason, who has long been associated with Bikinians, contributed the foreword to the second edition. The community at Bikini in 1946 numbered only a little over 160 people. Their initial relocation at uninhabited Rongerik Atoll was a disaster. The small atoll lacked the resources to support even the smallest of populations. Mason visited them briefly shortly after their initial relocation. On a second visit in 1948, he found them a desperate and starving people, and he was instrumental in arranging an emergency evacuation to the American military base at Kwajalein Atoll.

Bikinians compared his visit with the coming of Christ who had saved his people in an earlier time. Their resettlement on Kili Island occurred in late 1948. Mason conducted research on Kili several times during his career, and he has become part of Bikinians' oral history.

Niedenthal's introduction provides a sketch of his own background. He recalls that during his teaching years on Kili, he became aware that his students' knowledge of their own people was sketchy at best, and it was then that he decided to record Bikinians' history as remembered by the community's elders. There was some urgency to the task; Bikinians who were adults in 1946 were aged and becoming fewer in number with each passing year.

The following text is divided into six sections. In the first, Niedenthal provides a brief overview of the history of the Bikini people. For readers somewhat familiar with the story of the Bikinians, it will serve as a reminder of the major events and issues that have shaped their history since the era of Japanese colonial rule between the two world wars. The uninitiated will probably wish for more.

The next section, "Interviews with the People of Bikini," provides the bulk of the book. Of its twenty-six entries, two are actually reflective pieces by Niedenthal. Twenty are translations of segments of interviews with Bikinians between 1987 and 1991. Four others were recorded in 2001 and were added to the revised edition. Niedenthal provides a useful introduction to each item. He reports that the entries were selected from a larger set of interviews and reflect the "most common opinions" in the community; however, only two women are represented among eighteen interviewees.

A few of the interviews are concerned with the mythological past. Others deal with Bikinians' experience with the Japanese military during World War II, their ordeal at Rongerik, and the many problems that have plagued life and resettlement on Kili. Since the early 1970s, Bikinians have sent numerous delegations to Washington DC to lobby for compensation, assistance on Kili, and a radiological cleanup of and eventual return to Bikini Atoll. The interviews provide accounts of meetings with George Schultz, Reagan's secretary of state; then Vice President George Bush; and members of the US Congress, from both the House and Senate.

Visits to nuclear test sites in Nevada took Bikinians to Las Vegas. The nomination of Radio Bikini for the best documentary film meant a visit to Hollywood, and an Emmy Award nomination for Nuclear Exiles was the occasion for travel to New York City. A delegation of Bikinians also visited the Maralingan Aboriginal people of Australia, who were also dislocated by nuclear tests. The Australian Outback proved too foreign and alien for the Bikinians, and they were eager to end their visit and return to their island world. As the interviews reflect, some Bikinians today are among the best traveled of all Pacific Islanders.

The next section of the book discusses monetary compensation and reparations that have been provided by the US government, the current status of Bikini Atoll, and the prospect of future resettlement there. It is followed by "Bikini Facts," a collection of nine informational packages of data on a very wide range of topics, from the Bikinian flag to weather, demographic data, and a history of the bikini bathing suit. The potential of Bikini Atoll as a tourist destination is next reviewed. The atoll's vast lagoon and surrounding waters have been relatively undisturbed since the end of nuclear testing in the late 1950s.

Marine life is abundant and should excite sports fishermen. The vast fleet of vessels sunk by the nuclear tests lies on the bottom of the lagoon, a unique attraction for recreational divers. The development of a modest tourist industry has been launched with some encouraging results. Niedenthal provides a section on his role as a liaison officer. The final section is a listing of informational resources about Bikini including a variety of publications, films and videos, and the website <www.bikiniatoll.com>.

Since they were first relocated, Bikinians have never wavered in their desire to return to their ancestral homeland. Unfortunately, as Miedenthal's account makes clear, the prospect of a return in the near future is most unlikely, and the long-term future remains quite uncertain. The Bikinians are the wealthiest community in the Marshalls, if not all of Micronesia, but they remain a discontented and often unhappy people. For the Good of Mankind is a compelling account of the Bikinians' troubled history. The strength of the book is found in Niedenthal's skillful use of oral history, enabling Bikinians to tell much of their own story.

His personal reflections about that history and his own involvement with the community enrich the account. The book is a welcome and useful contribution to Pacific studies.


East-West Center

Copyright University of Hawaii Press Fall 2003

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Contemporary Pacific

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Marshall Islands; Writing - Marshall Islands



Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.