“Get up, get up!” rapped 23-year-old Dakota Camacho, on stage at the University of Washington’s Ethnic Cultural Theatre. “Say: ‘All life’s sacred!’”
An audience of young Pacific Islanders whistled, applauded, and echoed back at him: “All life’s sacred—get up, get up!”
Camacho was one of 13 passionate performance artists featured in last week’s production of “Pasifik Voices.” The multimedia arts and culture showcase, started in 2008 by the UW’s Pacific Islander Student Commission, strives to celebrate indigenous Island artists in the Seattle area and provide a creative outlet for what current PISC President Taylor Ahana calls “the most underrepresented community out there.”
“We’re almost invisible,” he said. “Most people don’t really know who we are, and there are a lot of stereotypes that go along with that. When people think of Pacific Islanders they just think of big Samoan football players, they think of the Rock.
“The point I was trying to get across with Pasifik Voices is that … we are a very diverse people. We have different voices and different talents that take many forms—whether it’s stories or spoken word or singing and dancing.”
For many performers, Pasifik Voices is a rare opportunity to share their artistic talent with a rowdily supportive audience, most of whom are part of the same community.
Ahana said Pasifik Voices is especially crucial to the preservation of traditional island art forms that are ignored elsewhere in American culture. For example, the UW Micronesian Islander Club’s performance Monday night told the story of creation through traditional Chamorro chanting.
Social Change Through Hip-hop
For Camacho, Monday night was about much more than just creative expression. It was a chance for him to convey a politically mobilizing message—and to use his talent as a hip-hop artist as a powerful medium for change.
When Camacho told his audience to “get up, get up!” he was calling on them to stand up against one of the gravest and lesser-known threats to the Pacific Islands today: U.S. military plans to turn Pagan, a pristine, culturally sacred island in the Northern Marianas, into a full-spectrum artillery training site.
Camacho organizes stateside for the global movement to save Pagan from becoming “another military waste dump.” The movement gained momentum with last month’s launch of the social media campaign #OurIslandsAreSacred, which spreads awareness about the situation in the Marianas via Twitter.
Using Pagan for weapons testing is part of a greater plan by the U.S. Department of Defense to dramatically expand its military presence (including more live-fire training exercises) in the Northern Marianas and Guam over the next year, according to a recent statement released by the Navy. The Mariana archipelago already houses the largest U.S. military range in the world.
Protesters say turning Pagan into a weapons testing site will destroy the island’s thriving yet fragile ecosystem, which is home to countless rare, endangered species not found anywhere else on the planet. It will also wipe away nearly 3,000 years worth of sacred ancestral ruins left behind by ancient Chamorro tribes.
“There’s so much more to do to organize against the military buildup,” Camacho said. “It’s clear to me, though, that my role in the movement is to be here in the United States, spreading awareness about what’s happening back home through my music and my poetry.”
At last count, there were 2,500 signatures backing the campaign’s petition to leave Pagan alone. After Camacho’s call to action Monday night, there were even more.
“It was a huge, huge success,” he said.
Camacho said he always felt a deep spiritual connection to his family’s homeland on the island of Guam—a connection that compelled him to make indigenous culture, and the militarization of indigenous land, the focus of his art over the past eight years.
It also drove him to co-create Arkiology, a virtual Pacific Islander artists’ collective, during his first trip to the Marianas in 2010.
Camacho said that “part of the goal of Arkiology is to connect people in the homeland to the diaspora,” recognizing that solidarity is now more important for Pacific Islanders than ever before.
He said an unprecedented number of Pacific Islanders are now being displaced due to economic challenges in the Mariana territories. But when they migrate to the United States, they find mainstream society ill-equipped to receive them.
“It’s as if there’s no space for us here,” he said. “Not only has our history been erased from schoolbooks, but we never see our culture reflected in the mainstream media. Events like [Pasifik Voices] remind us that our culture is what keeps us strong and connected.”
A Voice for the Voiceless
Camacho wasn’t the only one promoting social awareness and cultural preservation at Pasifik Voices.
Filipino Youth Organization Anakbayan Seattle also used the opportunity to successfully raise money for Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts, while PSIC leaders incorporated the event into their informal youth outreach program that helps Pacific Islander high schoolers—who are often underserved in public education systems—plan for college.
The show’s MCs also made a point throughout the evening to talk about the lack of Pacific Islander study programs at UW—an issue affecting many Pacific Islander Huskies in the audience—and what’s being done to address it.
“Pasifik Voices is really an important forum to create awareness about important issues in the community,” Ahana said. “And it’s a chance for us to finally have a voice—to speak out to the crowd and to have ourselves be heard.”
Melanie Eng is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.