Captain Korent Joel, Alson Kelen, and Joe Genz on Rongelap Atoll in 2005. Photo: WAM

National Geographic supports WAM

The plan to begin coaching a new generation of traditional navigators this summer has taken another leap towards reality thanks to a grant for Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) from an organization linked to National Geographic.

The Genographic Legacy Fund is providing $25,000 for the project, which is officially called the Preservation and Training of Marshallese Voyaging and Navigation.

Alson Kelen, Joe Gen, Captain Korent Joel on the yacht Mali in 2006. Photo: WAM

Alson Kelen, Joe Gen, Captain Korent Joel on the yacht Mali in 2006. Photo: WAM

Joe Genz, the Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who has worked on the navigation program for many years with WAM director Alson Kelen, is thrilled with the news of the grant. “The National Geographic grant will substantially move WAM’s navigation program forward by supporting a long-distance canoe voyage on which a younger generation can begin to learn the traditional Marshallese methods of wave navigation.

“Passing on this knowledge now is critical to the safeguarding of Marshallese voyaging for future generations.”

The grant follows an equally generous donation of $31,000 to WAM from the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, which was provided in September last year.

Kelen said National Geographic has long had a relationship with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “He realized that what we’re doing at WAM is the same goal as the Society’s, so he approached National Geographic to see if they would want to support us. Both programs are all about teaching youth about traditional skills by reviving those skills and passing them on down.

“As well, we know that there aren’t too many skilled navigators left today, so time is of the essence.”

There is already a lot of work being done on the project, especially at the university in Hawaii, Kelen said. “There’s a team working on devices that will help us understand the traditional navigation in a scientific way. This is one of the requests from our master navigator Captain Korent Joel. He’s very keen to see the scientific knowledge and compare it to what he knows, so that we can all understand it better.”

Here in the Marshalls, Alson is beginning the process of following tradition in selecting the first group of novices for the summer canoe program. “Joe and I have been working on this for years and we are now about to see our efforts come to fruition,” Kelen said. “This is a time we’ve long been waiting for and now it’s nearly here we’re very excited!”