Indigenous Poets Read Urgent Climate Message On A Melting Glacier


As Greenland’s glaciers melt and flow into the sea, Pacific island nations are on the receiving end of some of that water. It’s a familiar story about climate change: One nation crumbles into the ocean; others risk drowning under rising sea levels.
It’s also the backdrop for a unique artistic collaboration between two indigenous poets from opposite ends of the earth. Last summer, these women — who had met for the first time days earlier — stood side by side, one dressed in black, the other in white, reciting a poem they’d written together:

Rise: From One Island To Another
Two indigenous poets, one from the Marshall Islands and another from Greenland, 
meet at the source of our rising seas to share a moment of solidarity.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner* traveled from the Marshall Islands in Micronesia to Greenland’s capital city Nuuk where she met Inuk poet Aka Niviâna*. Together, they embarked with a small film crew to a remote spot on southern Greenland’s ice sheet where they recited their poem “Rise” on top of a crevasse-scarred melting glacier.
With dramatic orchestration and mournful cries sounding urgently in the film’s background, the poets tell of the lands of their respective ancestors, the sunken volcanoes and hidden icebergs. They speak of angry seas, evoking the legends of sisters turned to stone, and Sassuma Arnaa, Mother of the Sea.
Dan Lin / Rise
Addressing one another as “sister of ice and snow” and “sister of ocean and sand,” Niviâna and Jetnil-Kijiner ceremoniously exchange gifts of shells and stones in a story that is cinematically beautiful, but whose message is stark:

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner | Aka Niviâna

Sister of ice and snow
I’m coming to you
from the land of my ancestors,
from atolls, sunken volcanoes–undersea descent
of sleeping giants

Sister of ocean and sand,
I welcome you
to the land of my ancestors
–to the land where they sacrificed their lives
to make mine possible
–to the land
of survivors.

I’m coming to you
from the land my ancestors chose.
Aelon Kein Ad,
Marshall Islands,
a country more sea than land.
I welcome you to Kalaallit Nunaat,
the biggest island on earth.

Sister of ice and snow,
I bring with me these shells
that I picked from the shores
of Bikini atoll and Runit Dome

Sister of ocean and sand,
I hold these stones picked from the shores of Nuuk,
the foundation of the land I call my home.

With these shells I bring a story of long ago
two sisters frozen in time on the island of Ujae,
one magically turned into stone
the other who chose that life
to be rooted by her sister’s side.
To this day, the two sisters
can be seen by the edge of the reef,
a lesson in permanence.

With these rocks I bring
a story told countless times
a story about Sassuma Arnaa, Mother of the Sea,
who lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean.

This is a story about
the guardian of the Sea.
She sees the greed in our hearts,
the disrespect in our eyes.
Every whale, every stream,
every iceberg
are her children.

When we disrespect them
she gives us what we deserve,
a lesson in respect.

Do we deserve the melting ice?
the hungry polar bears coming to our islands
or the colossal icebergs hitting these waters with rage
Do we deserve
their mother,
coming for our homes
for our lives?

From one island to another
I ask for solutions.
From one island to another
I ask for your problems

Let me show you the tide
that comes for us faster
than we’d like to admit.
Let me show you
airports underwater
bulldozed reefs, blasted sands
and plans to build new atolls
forcing land
from an ancient, rising sea,
forcing us to imagine
turning ourselves to stone.

Sister of ocean and sand,
Can you see our glaciers groaning
with the weight of the world’s heat?
I wait for you, here,
on the land of my ancestors
heart heavy with a thirst
for solutions
as I watch this land
while the World remains silent.

Sister of ice and snow,
I come to you now in grief
mourning landscapes
that are always forced to change

first through wars inflicted on us
then through nuclear waste
in our waters
on our ice
and now this.

Sister of ocean and sand,
I offer you these rocks, the foundation of my home.
On our journey
may the same unshakable foundation
connect us,
make us stronger,
than the colonizing monsters
that to this day devour our lives
for their pleasure.
The very same beasts
that now decide,
who should live
who should die.

Sister of ice and snow,
I offer you this shell
and the story of the two sisters
as testament
as declaration
that despite everything
we will not leave.
we will choose stone.
We will choose
to be rooted in this reef

From these islands
we ask for solutions.
From these islands

we ask
we demand that the world see beyond
SUV’s, ac’s, their pre-packaged convenience
their oil-slicked dreams, beyond the belief
that tomorrow will never happen, that this
is merely an inconvenient truth.
Let me bring my home to yours.
Let’s watch as Miami, New York,
Shanghai, Amsterdam, London,
Rio de Janeiro, and Osaka
try to breathe underwater.
You think you have decades
before your homes fall beneath tides?
We have years.
We have months
before you sacrifice us again
before you watch from your tv and computer screens waiting
to see if we will still be breathing
while you do nothing.

My sister,
From one island to another
I give to you these rocks
as a reminder
that our lives matter more than their power
that life in all forms demands
the same respect we all give to money
that these issues affect each and everyone of us
None of us is immune
And that each and everyone of us has to decide
if we

Filming on top of a melting glacier wasn’t physically easy, Jetnil-Kijiner said. And yet, when she found herself face-to-face with a physical body that threatens to submerge her ancestral homeland, she felt reverence, not anger.
“It just felt like I was meeting an elder,” she recalled. “I was just in awe of the ice, of how large it was, how expansive, how beautiful.”
Niviâna, who is from Greenland’s far north, was also visiting the southern ice sheet for the first time. She was struck by the change in landscape. She described the shock of seeing a boulder fall near their campsite after it was dislodged by melting ice.
“It was a huge rock,” Niviâna said. “It was really overwhelming to see how rapidly the ice was melting.”
Dan Lin / Rise
That melting ice is a reality — not something that can be denied. But the film was not made for climate deniers. “I’m not here to convince someone else of my humanity or the reality of our situation,” Jetnil-Kijiner said. “I’m just trying to create a different sort of experience that speaks more truth to my own.”
For Dan Lin, the director of the film Rise, the underlying science behind the story is important. But at its core, he says it’s a project about climate change as viewed through the eyes of two indigenous female poets. Together, they weave a story of beautiful yet fragile landscapes and of resilient peoples in the face of injustice.
Lin hopes the collaboration will build an awareness of the connections between seemingly disparate communities.
Dan Lin / Rise
The idea for the video grew out of a conversation Jetnil-Kijiner had with 350.org founder Bill McKibben at a climate change conference. McKibben (who is a Grist board member) suggested she recite a poem on a glacier. Jetnil-Kijiner liked the idea, but was uncomfortable using another country’s landscape and climate crisis as a backdrop for her own story.
McKibben put Jetnil-Kijiner in touch with glaciologist Jason Box who introduced her to Niviâna. Despite the distances that separated them, the poets began an online correspondence which led to their creative partnership.
It wasn’t until the poets finally met in person, by which time the poem was mostly finished, that they really got know each other.
This unlikely sisterhood, conceived of in water and ice, evolved on paper and by email. More poetically, Jetnil-Kijiner reflected, “It felt like we wrote our relationship into being.”

*Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a poet of Marshallese ancestry. She received international acclaim through her performance at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in 2014. Her writing and performances have been featured by CNN, Democracy Now, Huffington Post, and more. In February 2017, the University of Arizona Press published her first collection of poetry, Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter. Her work has recently evolved and begun to inhabit gallery and performance art spaces – her work has been curated by the Honolulu Biennial in Hawai’i in February 2017, then the Smithsonian art lab ‘Ae Kai in July of 2017, and most recently the upcoming Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia in November 2018. Kathy also co-founded the non-profit Jo-Jikum, dedicated to empowering Marshallese youth to seek solutions to climate change and other environmental impacts threatening their home island. She has been selected as one of 13 Climate Warriors by Vogue in 2015 and the Impact Hero of the Year by Earth Company in 2016. She received her Master’s in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

*Aka Niviâna is a Inuk writer and this is her on-screen debut. Aka started doing poetry with a wish to create nuanced conversations about not only climate change, but also colonialism and indigenous peoples rights. She believes in the importance of representation and the inclusion of black, brown and indigenous peoples.


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