© 2008 WAAN AELON IN MAJEL
ABOUT WAAN AELÕÑ IN MAJEL

Dennis Alessio
Alson J. Kelen
Rachel Miller
John Kawakami
Mentil Laik
Justlina Parker

Trainees


DENNIS ALESSIO

Dennis has had a passion for building most of his life. In the mid-70’s he bought 40 acres of land in a high mountain valley in Northern California and built a solar home and a woodworking shop that he powered with an old Lister diesel engine that ran his power tools. During that time he lived off of the land and did woodworking jobs from home construction and remodeling, to making redwood windows and doors, furniture, water storage tanks and hot tubs while managing a wholesale Redwood lumber business he founded.

In the early 80’s after returning from extended trips to Fiji, where he unsuccessfully tried to start a local boatbuilding and fisheries training program, Dennis decided to get back to the water and boats full time, so he moved to the Puget Sound and met master boat builder, Robert Prothero, who had just started a boatbuilding school. Bob, a Welshman, had decided to share his family knowledge of building boats, which had been held secret for 500 years. He taught Dennis the art of economic craftsmanship through the medium of traditional wooden boatbuilding and lofting and together, they designed a philosophy of instruction related to international vocational studies with traditional boatbuilding as the medium of skill exchange. Dennis stayed with Bob until he passed in the late 80’s.

In 1987 Dennis was hired to coordinate and supervise all joinery woodworking on the Tole Mour, a 156 foot, three-masted topsail schooner built as a floating clinic for outer island heath care in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Upon commissioning of the vessel, he served as shipwright and deck crew on the maiden voyage, down the coast of Washington, Oregon and California, to Honolulu, where he coordinated the outfitting of the ship’s medical facilities before they ran downwind and landed in Majuro on December 2, 1988.

Shortly after arriving in the Marshall Islands, Dennis was asked to work with a traditional canoe builder, Jinarde Leon, who was from Jaluit Atoll. Jinarde had donated his canoe to the Field Museum in Chicago, who used it in a permanent exhibit called Traveling the Pacific. In payment, Jinarde wanted a replacement canoe, but with the hull built from plywood. Dennis thought this was a great project but had already agreed to another ship project in Europe. While there, he began researching about the indigenous canoes of the Pacific. The information he found was done mostly by scholars, finding no information about the craft documented by a boat builder, which he was especially interested in finding.

His interest in the project with Jinarde grew and in the summer of 1989, he returned to the Marshall Islands to help Jinarde build his canoe. Jinarde adopted Dennis as his son and then taught him how to build a canoe from a breadfruit log, teaching him the secrets of the design tools, describing how to build five different designs and three different styles of canoes. From the information Jinarde supplied, Dennis was able to make a full size drawing, which he built the hull from. Jinarde built the other parts and together, with the help of one trainee, Konou Smith, a high school student at the time, they built a beautiful 18’ tipnol.

While building the canoe and talking with Jinarde and many others, Dennis realized that the knowledge of building canoes was rapidly disappearing, as the skill was not being passed down to the younger generation. This gave Dennis the idea of documenting the designs and styles of Marshallese outrigger canoes, so he brought up the idea to Alfred Capelle, who was the curator of the local Alele Museum at the time. Alfred liked the idea and from that, the documentation phase of the Waan Aelon Kein (Canoes of These Islands) Project was born. During the 7 years of the documentation project more than 160 aspiring canoe builders were able to learn the skills.

When the documentation phase of the program ended, both Alson Kelen and Dennis realized that many of the youth were interested in learning these skills. They founded the Waan Aelon in Majel Program in 1996 and in 1999, they incorporated WAM as a non-profit non-government organization, and the fun goes on...

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ALSON J. KELEN

Alson J. Kelen is a young native Marshall Islander who has been working with WAM for close to 14 years now. For the first 4 years with the program he translated the final two documentation reports from English into his native Marshallese language and narrated and assisted with editing two 45-minute canoe building documentation videos of the construction techniques of these last two projects. He assisted in the documentation during the construction of the Ujae Voyaging Canoe, the last project of the documentation phase of the program. After completing the canoe, he voyaged 350 miles with the canoe from Ujae to Majuro via Kwajelein Atoll. He continues his involvement with translation and narration of ongoing education projects relating to traditional canoes and culture, one of which is the film The Canoes of the Marshall Islands.

In 1996, working closely with the designer of the canoe documentation project, Dennis Alessio, together they co-founded and eventually incorporated (1999) the Waan Aelon in Majel program into a non-profit, non-government organization. He is now the WAM Program Manager and has received training in many aspects of administration and the implementation of a documentation program, conducting a feasibility study and documenting traditional knowledge. His training with Dennis continues with the development of this training program. Over the years he has given many lectures to different schools, public and private, international educational organizations, women’s groups, and the general public about the Marshall Islands canoes and culture.

In early 1999, Alson was a member of the crew of the traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe Makali’i on the first 2,400 mile leg from the Big Island of Hawaii to Majuro Marshall Islands, of the 7,000 mile voyage to Saipan in the Northern Marianas. This voyage was to honor the traditional navigator Mau Piailug, who trained native Hawaiians 25 years ago to regain their lost knowledge of non-instrument navigation. “Papa Mau” is from Satawal Atoll in the Caroline Islands.

Alson also represented the RMI and WAM when he and three traditional sailors participated in the Millennium Dawn Ceremony in Gisborne, New Zealand, a sacred indigenous ceremony to bring in the new millennium.

Alson continues to represent WAM and the RMI in international events throughout the Pacific and remains passionate in assisting with the transfer of traditional skills and knowledge to the future generations of Marshall Islanders.

Recently Alson became certified through a two-year training program offered by the College of the Marshall Islands as a Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Counselor.
alson@wamprogram.org

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RACHEL MILLER

Rachel was born and raised in the mountains of Northern California, with absolutely no knowledge of the Pacific or the Marshall Islands. At age 16 she moved with her family to Florida, where she finished high school, and upon graduation in 2001 she began attending Vassar College in New York.

Rachel was immediately drawn to the Anthropology department at Vassar, and ended up majoring in Anthropology with focuses in Linguistics and Archaeology. The small environment of Vassar encouraged extensive teacher-student interaction, and she got to know an Anthropology professor who did fieldwork in the Pacific. The more she learned, the more Rachel developed an interest in the Pacific region, especially its thousands of unique and interconnected languages. In 2004 Rachel did a semester study abroad program with the School for International Training in Samoa, Polynesia, and has been hooked on the Pacific ever since.

Before she graduated from college Rachel traveled to American Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, but never had a chance to visit Micronesia until she graduated from Vassar in 2005 and was accepted by the WorldTeach organization as a volunteer teacher in the Marshall Islands. She was posted to the outer atoll of Namdrik, one of the southern-most atolls in the Marshalls, and the smallest inhabited atoll in the world. Rachel lived with a family on Namdrik for a year, learning about Marshallese language and culture, and teaching English at the local elementary school. Namdrik is also one of the few atolls in the Marshall Islands where traditional canoes are still commonly used by all people in everyday life, and she became fascinated with the beauty of the canoes and the Marshallese people’s obviously extensive knowledge of canoe building and navigation.

In June of 2006 Rachel finished her year with WorldTeach, and by that time had fallen in love with life in the Marshalls. She began looking for a job in Majuro (one that paid this time!) and the first office she stumbled into was WAM. Two months later Rachel officially joined the WAM team as Program Administrator. She is thrilled to be involved with the development of such a vibrant cultural center, helping to reawaken and safeguard the vital tradition of the Marshallese canoe for generations to come.
rachel@wamprogram.org

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JOHN KAWAKAMI

John has had a varied career from the time he left a four-year term in the Air Force working in photo-optics, telemetry, radar - which included reviewing magnetic data tapes for radars, telemetry, and optical systems - and reported on the findings. He also maintained and overhauled high-power transmitters before leaving the Air Force and returning to his native Hawaii to work with his father’s construction company.

In 1978 John moved to Kwajelein Missile Range at Kwajelein Atoll in the northern part of the Marshall Islands and for the first 10 years there he installed, repaired and overhauled their high-power transmitters. He then worked for another 8 years as the Performance Assurance Supervisor for different US Government contractors until he decided to move to Majuro in 1997.

Throughout the years John built many boats both here and in Hawaii ranging from 16’ to 48’. In 1980 he built a 45’ “Hoale Sanpan” motorboat in Hawaii for fishing and decided to motor it the 2,600 miles from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands, which he did in the summer of that year, an accomplishment that not too many people can claim. John has been in Majuro Atoll for a few years, mainly fishing, and in 2003, John came to work with WAM as the fiberglass trainer when we began adding contemporary skills to the program. He helped Dennis set up the fiberglass shop and has been building and training the youth in that medium until now. John also steps in to train in woodworking and carpentry.

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MENTIL LAIK

The Mentil is the Marshallese name for the Shearwater, a sea bird that flies very close to the water surface over the swells in the open ocean. It’s easy to see why Mentil was named that, as he comes from Ailuk Atoll, which until today is well known for having the most tipnol - mid-sized outrigger sailing canoes - in the Marshall Islands. The sailors in Ailuk still sail the outer reefs to fish the schools of tuna and other pelagics that move through the waters around the Atoll.

Mentil started sailing and fishing from canoes when he turned 13. He sailed for many years before his grandfather agreed to train him in the art. In Marshallese custom, the master will only pass on his knowledge when a family member shows their sincere interest to learn. The more questions that are asked, the more information is given. A master does not give freely the knowledge, it has to be earned, and this is how these skills are passed down from generation to generation. If no one shows the deep interest to learn, then the knowledge dies with the elders. Mentil began learning how to build canoes from his grandfather when he was in his early 20’s. His first canoe was 22’ long and Mentil used his canoe to support his subsistence life-style on Ailuk, much like his ancestors did before him. He fished, gathered food and made copra to sell, to be made into coconut oil. Mentil helped other people repair their canoes and was a full contributing member to his family and community, living with very little money, but a richness of life that is hard to compare.

Mentil first came to Majuro in 1989 when he was 34 years old to go to the dentist. He never left. At that time he had one child with him and four others who live with family in Kwajelein. He had four more children and decided to stay in Majuro so that his children could be raised and be closer to the local schools in Majuro. Mentil did all he could to raise the money to stay in Majuro. He worked as a security guard and  a carpenter before joining WAM in 2003. Since that time, Mentil has been training the youth at risk in building full size canoes, museum quality canoe models, making the world famous stick charts, and coconut sennit.

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JUSTLINA PARKER

Our new Accounting Assistant, Justlina Parker, joined the WAM team in April 2007.

Justlina grew up on Majuro, the capital, although her family is from Jaluit atoll. A motivated woman, she made excellent grades throughout her school years and joined the Majuro workforce only a few years after her graduation from Jaluit High School. She is also the proud mother of a growing family, including her youngest children, twin baby boys.

WAM is very lucky to have Justlina, as she has experience in business administration from her previous employment at Good Earth and MGAS Automotive Repair. Her skills are a welcome addition to the WAM organization. Justlina will also participate in WAM’s Administrative Training program, learning accounting and administration for non-government organizations (NGOs).

Justlina is an excellent example of WAM’s well-respected position in the Marshall Islands community. She wants to work at WAM because she had heard from numerous sources that WAM is an organization doing good work for the many “lost” youth of the Marshall Islands, helping them learn important skills and values so they can improve their lives. For our Marshallese-speaking readers, she says “WAM ejelã ta eo emman, im ta eo enana.”
justlina@wamprogram.org

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TRAINEES

Ejnar Aerõk
Started with WAM in 2001. Involved in building WAM’s 18-foot racing canoe “WIA” in 2001, participated in construction of our WAM Bungalow and the Youth To Youth In Health’s Youth Center. He represented the Marshall Islands in the 2004 Festival of Pacific Arts in the Republic of Palau, and the 2003-2005 Maui International Festival of Canoes in Lahaina Hawaii. Involved as a teacher in the WAM-Upward Bound Summer Elective course in 2005 and was a trainer in the 2006 Summer Program. He has sailed in canoe-racing events throughout the Marshall Islands. He is currently training at WAM to become a trainer in the WAM’s Canoe Building, Sailing and Maintenance Program.

James Jelai
Started with WAM in 2001. Involved in building WAM’s 18-foot racing canoe “WIA” in 2001, participated in construction of our WAM Bungalow. He represented the Marshall Islands in the 2004 Festival of Pacific Arts in the Republic of Palau. He has sailed in canoe-racing events throughout the Marshall Islands. For two years, he was a Deck-hand man on a cargo boat “LONA”. He has come back to attend the WAM’s Trainer-Trainee Program.

Andy Caleb
Started with WAM in 2001. Involved in building WAM’s 18-foot racing canoe “WIA” in 2001, participated in construction of our WAM Bungalow. He represented the Marshall Islands in the 2005 Maui International Festival of Canoes in Lahaina Hawaii. He has sailed in canoe-racing events throughout the Marshall Islands. He is currently training at WAM to become a trainer in the WAM’s Canoe Building, Sailing and Maintenance Program. As part of his training, he is currently involved as a teacher in the WAM - Upward Bound Summer Elective Course.

Isocker Anwel
Started with WAM in 2002. Graduated from the WAM’s 2-year training program in 2004. Involved in building a 24-foot fiberglass catamaran for the people of Ailuk Atoll, and four 14-foot fiberglass canoes for the Majuro Atoll Elementary Schools. He is currently in training to be a Carpentry and Fiberglass Technology trainer.

Johnny Boutu
Started with WAM in 2002. Graduated from the WAM’s 2-year training program in 2004. Involved in building a 24-foot fiberglass catamaran for the people of Ailuk Atoll, and four 14-foot fiberglass canoes for the Majuro Atoll Elementary Schools. He is currently in training to be a Carpentry and Fiberglass Technology trainer. Represented WAM in a Tourism Trade conference in Japan in 2005 also in a Youth Conference by South Pacific Forum in the Republic of Palau. He is currently in the WAM’s Trainer-Trainee Program.

Maston Hicom
Started with WAM in 2001. Involved in building WAM’s 18-foot racing canoe “WIA” in 2001 and a 14-foot canoe that was given to the Taiwan President by the RMI President. Participated in construction of WAM Bungalow. He represented the Marshall Islands in the 2004 Festival of Pacific Arts in the Republic of Palau, and the 2003 and 2004 Maui International Festival of Canoes in Lahaina Hawaii. Involved as a teacher in the WAM- Upward Bound Summer Elective course in 2005. He has sailed in canoe-racing events throughout the Marshall Islands. He is currently training at WAM to become a trainer in the WAM’s Canoe Building, Sailing and Maintenance Program.

David Janer
Started with WAM in 2002. Graduated from the WAM’s 2-year training program in 2004. Involved in building a 24-foot fiberglass catamaran for the people of Ailuk Atoll, and four 14-foot fiberglass canoes for the Majuro Atoll Elementary Schools. After graduation, he worked at ELM Auto shop as a body repair person. After a year, he came back to WAM to get more training. He is currently helping his father on their land.


Since incorporating into an official training center, WAM has trained 94 youth and has developed the training curriculums and infrastructure for training a total of 72 youth per year in the different skill sets.


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The WAM family, from left to right: Program Manager Alson Kelen, Program Administrator Rachel Miller, Accounting Assistant Justlina Parker, Administrative Trainee Tatiana Zackios, Carpentry & Fibreglass Trainer John Kawakami, Traditional Skills Trainer Mentil Laik, Traditional Skills Assistant Trainer Ejnar Aerok.