06.02.2012 - UNESCO Office in Apia

Help Kiribati Stone Warriors Fight

Nabakana(c)Kiribati MISA

“They set up thirty stone men, to spans high, armed with multi-pronged wooden spears, they resembled Gilbertese warriors.” “Thirty stone men, to spans high, armed with multi-pronged wooden spears…” .*

Kiribati is a nation of around 100,000 people who live on a raised coral island and 33 atolls. It is one of the low-laying islands in the Pacific with its highest point of just three metres above sea level. The country is one of the islands that have been most seriously threatened by climate change effects. A further sea level rise of only one metre would make a big impact on the lives of inhabitants on the atolls. As such, “There is no time to waste,” Ms Palenise Alofa, a member of the Kiribati Climate Action Network stated in the Weekend Observer, 7 January 2012. “We need to build more seawalls and work on water projects. The biggest threat to Kiribati is coastal erosion and water salinisation. We need to address these problems before 2020,” she said. While the international community is delaying actions, the country of Kiribati in itself is at risk of disappearing together with its peoples and their memory.

Kiribati is a state party to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the east of Kiribati, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2010. 

The wealth of Kiribati heritage is found not only in nature but also in culture. The Culture Division of the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs that is in charge of cultural affairs at the Kiribati Government recently organised a workshop on the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Kiribati in order to discuss a safeguarding strategy in cooperation with the UNESCO Office in Apia and with financial assistance of the Government of Japan.

One of the most notable outcomes of the workshop was the support expressed by the Elders to Kiribati’s ratification of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention. In Kiribati, the Elders have been responsible for overseeing matters relating to the community life in the country. Historically, they have been regarded as source of wisdom by community members and their authorities still prevails even nowadays. The effectiveness of any external interventions therefore depends on the endorsement of the Elders of the country. A draft of five-year strategy and action plan for Intangible Cultural Heritage safeguarding in Kiribati was also prepared during the workshop by the participants and endorsed by the Elders.

Like many other Pacific islands, in Kiribati heritage is an all-embracing concept. Tangible and intangible cultural heritage co-exist together in living environment. For example, in Kiribati there remains a unique cultural heritage, called Nnabakana. Its history has been known to this date through oral histories and traditions transmitted from generation to generation among local communities.

Nnabakana, located at Tabiteuea, one of the southern islands of Kiribati, contains huge stone monuments with associated stories of battles that were fought among islands around the 16th century. These monuments are human-made stone pillars, six of which remain unspoiled, resembling giant human warriors built to scare away enemies. Some of them are more than three metres high. When placed six metres apart in a row on the coastal side of the islet and seen from the distance, the pillars look like an army of giants marching ready for war.

The Kiribati’s Culture Division recently undertook research on the site. Through the research, the Culture Division obtained GPS data, images and video footages relating to Nnabakana site as well as interviews with locals living nearby. The outcome of the research clearly showed the unique value of the Nnabakana site in Kiribati for the cultural history of early civil wars between islands. This evidence remains today through the manmade pillars, signs of art and warfare skills. The rich oral stories on the civil war makes the site particularly interesting for Kiribati where foreign contents still dominate its history education at school. Pacific islanders have been taught about “The Battle of Waterloo by Napoleon” through foreign-made curricula and text books, while they have not had a chance to learn of Pacific civil war. The research result also shows the urgent need of its safeguarding since the site located at the coastal zone is exposed to harsh weather conditions facing threats from rising sea level. The site is fully exposed to the hot sunny days, affecting most pillars that cracked and toppled. The strong winds from the west, high tides and big waves are also forcing the pillars to fall and get destroyed.

The Kiribati’s Culture Division presented the outcome of the research at the Pacific World Heritage Workshop held in Apia in September last year. The presentation caught the attention of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and resulted in the financial assistance from the European Union through the Secretariat to support a mapping exercise of the site in 2012. This new grant will allow the Culture Division to obtain carbon dating information and to carry out further documentation and recording. The steps to be followed would be to organise consultations with the Elders of communities concerned and to formulate a long-term management and safeguarding plan for this unique heritage.

Nowadays, the stone warriors are fighting primarily against the new enemy of climate change, since Kiribati may exist only as underwater cultural heritage in the future if the international community continues to delay actions. It is hoped that safeguarding the Nnabakana site will help Kiribati to further advocate for the emergency of its situation, paving a way for long-term solutions by, for example, nominating the heritage for international recognition under the UNESCO Culture Conventions.

Oral Stories on Civil War in Kiribati

According to the oral traditions, there was a civil war long time ago in Kiribati. It was started when a little island called Beru in the south of Kiribati was overpopulated, and Kaitu, its leader, set out on a mission of conquest sometime around 1550. Kaitu selected Uakeia from Nikunau (which was part of Beru at that time) as his strategist. And he launched a military expedition with an army of 600 men travelling in 37 large war canoes and outriggers. The first landing was made at the southern end of Tabiteuea. The locals at Tabiteuea fled, warning the northern villages and gathering forces to fight with the army under Kaitu.

Expecting a battle with the Tabiteueans, Kaitu consulted his strategist Uakeia. Uakeia turned to god for advice. The god told him that the battle would take place on Tabiteuea at Tabuaeroa where a piece of land between two islets was left uncovered at low tide. Then the Beru & Nikunau army spent an entire day and night in setting up 30 stone men who were twice as high as an ordinary man. These stone men armed with spears and placed to defend the islet looked like mighty and intimidating figures. On the next morning, the Tabiteueans saw these colossal warriors defending the islet and took them for the Beru chiefs. They were scared by the sight and fled. Then Kaitu continued his advance up the atolls.

*Quotes from Arthur Grimbles writing….and Janeresture website.



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