A favourite reef, a beloved atoll: Marshall Islands parents name children after vanishing landmarks | Marshall Islands
Every summer when Tony Paul was a child in Kwajalein, an atoll in the Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands, his parents sent him and his siblings to spend time with their uncle on a remote chain islands that their ancestors once called home.
By day, they darted over scrub-covered dunes and waded through turquoise water. During the evening they fished in the lagoon or hunted coconut crabs. And every night, before they went to sleep, their uncle would take out a battered guitar and sing old Marshallese pop songs. “Those were the best times of childhood,” says Paul. “It was a chance for us to learn a lot of Marshallese ways.”
Paul later moved to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. It became difficult and time-consuming to visit the islands of his childhood. But he still carried those memories. And when he met Ellen Milne, who would later become his wife, they discovered a surprising connection: she too could trace her family’s ancestry to nearby islands.
So when it came time to choose their second daughter’s name (Milne-Paul’s mother chose the name of the first), the islands came to mind. They named their daughter Elenak, after the second largest island in the chain. By doing so, they hoped to give her “something that connects her to her Marshallese roots”, says Milne-Paul. Later, when their youngest son was born, they named him Tarlan, after an old coral head in Kwajalein’s lagoon.
Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. The low-lying nation faces more frequent king tide flooding due to climate change. Photo: World Bank
It was once rare for Marshallese children to be given such names: most received the names from family members. However, in recent years, and among better-off Marshallese, there has been a small increase in children being named after the places their families come from, highlighting the emotionally charged ways in which the Pacific Islanders grapple with the future of ‘ a region struggling with economic challenges. and climate unrest.
Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner (left), with her mother, Hilda Heine (centre) and her daughter Peinam, who is named after a piece of land belonging to Heine’s family. Photo: Provided by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner
The increase in place-based names – which is difficult to quantify due to a lack of hard data – is largely due to the increasing likelihood that Marshallese children will one day leave home. Education in the Marshall Islands is poor, few students who graduate can find work, and most jobs that do exist pay little: the median annual income is $9,600. Because the country is a former American colony, its citizens can live in the US without a visa. Faced with these economic conditions, many chose to do so: between 2011 and 2021, the country’s population fell from 53,158 to 43,594.
This is further complicated by climate change. The low-lying atoll nation is already feeling the impact from intense droughts and more frequent flooding from king tides and outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases. Saltwater is increasingly moving inland, spoiling crops and freshwater supplies. In 2018, the US Geographical Survey released a study of a representative Marshallese island indicating that if moderate greenhouse gas emissions continue, sea level rise will render Marshallese freshwater supplies undrinkable by 2035 and cause annual flooding of the majority of Marshallese land by 2055. As a result, Marshallese migration is expected to accelerate in the coming years.
The Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. Faced with poor economic prospects and problems caused by rising sea levels, many Marshallese chose to leave for the US. Photo: Shilo Watts / Getty Images ‘Forever rooted to this reef’
Milne-Paul says their decision to name Elenak and Tarlan after the islands they love so much was driven primarily by the Marshall Islands’ economic challenges and their hope that their children will one day pursue opportunities overseas. When they do, she says, their names will give them an important connection to the country of their birth.
She says she is still coming to terms with the growing impact of climate change on her islands. However, as she does, she grows to realize the deeper meaning of the names. “It would mean so much more that it is an island that used to exist, and no longer exists,” she says.
Notable Marshallese whose children share their name with local islands or plots of land include the country’s highest civil servant, Kino Kabua, and its most famous poet, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, who named her daughter Peinam, after a plot of land that to her mother’s family.
Elenak Milne-Paul, which is named after the second largest island in a chain of remote islands belonging to the Marshall Islands. Photo: Provided by her family
She says most Marshallese name their children after ancestors to keep those people’s legacies alive. She hopes that by naming her daughter after Peinam, she can similarly ensure that the place’s legacy is preserved, even if the land itself sinks. The name represents their choice “to be forever rooted to this reef”, she says.
Jetñil-Kijiner now serves as a climate advocate for the Marshallese government. As Peinam grows up, Jetñil-Kijiner says she hopes her name helps tie her to the islands. “I definitely prioritize making sure she feels a connection to these islands that are threatened, that are under siege, and that are going to change because of climate change.”
Milne-Paul agrees. “We are going to live and die here,” she says. But for Elenak and Tarlan, “should they leave, if they decide to become a permanent resident abroad, they will still be connected to this country”.