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The language of the Marshall Islands comes to a landlocked Ohio town

Students sit at a long conference table, looking up at a TV screen. They're learning Marshallese from an instructor over Zoom.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Marshallese youth in Celina are attending language classes, like this one in November, to preserve their Pacific Island culture.

Michael Capelle has spent much of his life listening to the stories of older relatives reminisce about life in the Marshall Islands. Capelle has never visited, but his parents have passed down its traditions and history.

“We sail around the seas, and we don't need navigational tools. That's what sets us apart,” he said. “We're the people of the sea.”

Landlocked Ohio looks a lot different. Still, a small community of islanders made the long trek from the Marshall Islands – a country of 42,000 people that sits a couple thousand miles northeast of Papua New Guinea – to Celina, a small city in western Ohio, where Capelle lives.

Despite the massive distance, Capelle is working to ensure the islands’ culture is passed onto the next generation growing up in Ohio.

Passing on the language

Around 30,000 people have emigrated from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. There’s no official count on their numbers in Celina, but city officials estimate around 1,500 Marshallese people live in the community.

Capelle thinks it’s double that. The younger generation here is growing, he said, but their knowledge of Marshallese culture is fading.

“We can't get to the point where our kids, all of them, don’t know how to speak Marshallese, they don't know our stories, and they don't know our values,” Capelle said.

Michael Cappelle hands a green composition notebook to a teenager, while other students write at a table. He's helping the student translate a sentence into Marshallese at a language class in November.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Michael Cappelle helps a student translate a sentence into Marshallese at a language class in November.

So, in October, Capelle founded the Ohio Marshallese Youth Center.

On a Saturday night in November, nine teenagers are huddled around a table, scribbling notes and sipping Kool-Aid. Their attention is turned to a Zoom screen where Romaldo Kon Kabua, an instructor from Pacific Island Linguistic Services, is teaching them ways to greet each other in Marshallese: How to say hello, how are you, where they’re from.

But he’s not just offering translations. He’s teaching them about the islands’ matriarchal clans, the values of their ancestors, the traditions behind the text.

“Our greeting was very powerful, intentional, filled with love, filled with beauty,” Kon Kabua said, explaining the meaning behind “lakwe,” a greeting that literally translates to “you are a rainbow.”

Protecting a culture

Preserving this culture is difficult but important, said Capelle, especially because many Marshallese people didn’t choose to come to the U.S. Decades ago, they were displaced.

In the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. used part of the islands to test nuclear weapons. In Operation Crossroads, the United States relocated the tiny population of islanders from Bikini Atoll, a remote corner of the country, and detonated more than 200 million tons of TNT.

A dense cloud of smoke erupts from an atomic detonation at Bikini Atoll within the Marshall Islands.
United States Department of Defense
The detonation of atomic weapons in the Marshall Islands in "Operation Crossroads" has left a devastating legacy on the small nation in the Pacific.

Those detonations have done lasting harm to the islands. Atomic radiation has damaged its population’s health, the islands’ environment and the Marshallese people as a whole. It contributed to emigration from their native land and subsequent erosion of the language skills that Capelle is seeking to preserve.

The class is just one way that Capelle hopes to help reverse the gradual erasure of their culture.

“We're thinking about getting to the high schools, getting to the government levels and showcasing our culture because we've had that question like, ‘Can you guys come and show us who you guys are?’” Capelle said.

A place for pride

Many of the students in the class said they speak Marshallese at home with their families, but beyond that it’s hard to find spaces to connect with their culture.

That’s true for Emiko Ysawa, a 17-year-old who moved to Ohio seven years ago. She joined the new language class so she could understand her “manit.” That’s the Marshallese word for “culture,” but it means more than that. One Marshallese essayist describes it as “the core of our being, the spirit in our walk.”

As kids in this generation, we don't really follow that expectation, and we just ignore it,” Ysawa said. “So for us to spread it out, we need to learn more about it.”

Two teenagers write down notes in a composition book at a Marshallese language class in Celina.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Teenagers in Celina use this class as a way to not only practice their language skills, but learn about the cultural stories and values of their homeland.

Her classmate Kayla Edejer agreed. The 14-year-old said leaving her home country was difficult. She’s grateful for the opportunity to keep in touch with its culture and ensure she has the language skills to talk with her family that remains there.

“I love how they reassure us, and they make sure that we feel comfortable in our own space and in this room,” Edejer said.

Capelle founded the Ohio Marshallese Youth organization so his young students can learn to find joy from their heritage, he said. He wants to continue to build places where pride in their home country is not just possible, but applauded.

The Marshall Islands could sink, but I feel like it would always be with me,” Capelle said. “The Marshall Islands is not a land, it’s almost just a people.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.