Author’s Disclosure: While interviewing the former leader of the Banaban Dancing Group, Maraki Kokoria, he explained that he had tried to organize a special reunion performance of the group for an event commemorating the Banaban displacement on Fiji’s Rabi Island, but found he could not afford to pay for the dancers’ transportation to the event from their different villages. In an effort to help Kokoria organize this reunion performance, I provided financial support to help cover the dancers’ transportation and their food expenses during their rehearsals.
In December, former residents of Banaba Island, now part of the island nation of Kiribati, marked the 70th anniversary of their displacement from Banaba to Rabi Island. But the commemoration ceremony also brought about an unexpected reunion: Decades after disbanding, the Banaban Dancing Group came back together for the first time.
The Banabans—also known as the “forgotten people of the Pacific”—were displaced from their home island during World War II, then relocated by the British Phosphate Commission to Fiji in 1945. (You can read more about that history in my post, “Our Heart is on Banaba.”)
Traditionally, Banabans have passed down their history from generation to generation through storytelling, dancing, and drama. The Banaban Dancing Group once specialized in this storytelling, performing dances that dramatized the peoples’ culture, mistreatment, and displacement throughout the 20th century. Until the early 1990s, the group performed these historical dances on Rabi each year and toured internationally. But the members gradually dispersed throughout the Fiji and Kiribati islands as they accumulated more family and employment-related obligations.
In the decades since, several of the dancers and village elders have been concerned that the younger generations are losing interest in telling these stories of Banaban history through performing the dances. Maraki Kokoria, the former leader of the Banaban Dancing Group, is especially concerned that the dances are gradually dying out.
“The tradition is slowly vanishing and the culture is not entirely upheld, it’s slowly fading. As much as we can we are trying to keep it intact through the stories and the dancing, but that too is changing with the new generations,” Kokoria said.
The only way of passing on the story and the history of Banaban Islanders is through storytelling, “which is why we came together as a dancing group, it’s how we keep our culture alive” — Maraki Kokoria
A youth dance group performed at the December 15th commemoration ceremony, but did not include the historical dances in their program. Instead the young people performed newer, Polynesian-influenced dances. This surprised and saddened Kokoria, who feels it’s his duty to ensure the dances and stories that capture Banaban history are passed on to the next generation. “The only way of passing on the story and the history is through storytelling, which is why we came together as a dancing group, it’s how we keep our culture alive,” he said.
When I interviewed Kokoria soon after the ceremony, he explained that he had tried to organize a special reunion performance of the Banaban Dancing Group during the commemoration, but lacked the resources to gather the members in time for the event. He hoped such a performance would inspire young Banabans to learn the dances themselves. I was able to provide some financial assistance to make the plan a reality (see the disclosure above), and soon the dancers arrived in Rabi.
People hadn’t seen the group together in years, so the dancers’ rehearsals drew attention from villagers on the island. After a week of rehearsing, the group performed at the landing place where the original Banabans arrived on Rabi in 1945. Dozens of spectators gathered for the surprise show, excited for the unexpected reunion and interested in learning about the dances.
Perhaps most excited for the reunion were the dancers themselves, who felt a renewed sense of pride in performing after so many years. Kaiao Boreirei, 60, is now the oldest member in the group, but she was only 16 when she joined. She explained that when she performed again this year, she still felt the same sense of honor, pride, and identity that she felt as a young dancer.
“Once I performed our dramas and dancing then I understood who I really was, the values of our tradition, and the knowledge of our culture” — Kaiao Boreirei, 60-year-old Banaba Island elder
“Before I joined the group, I didn’t really know who I was. But once I performed our dramas and dancing then I understood who I really was, the values of our tradition, and the knowledge of our culture told through the dances,” she explained. “We are proud to be the Banaban Dancing Group because we are able to share our pride in who we are. At this age, while I am old, I am willing to do it, for my people.”
After the reunion performance, some of the the group members decided to continue dancing on Rabi in hopes of inspiring interested youth to learn the dances. Maraki Kokoria, who lives in Tarawa, Kiribati, extended his stay on Rabi Island to continue teaching and performing the cultural dances in the villages.
In addition to the dances commemorating WWII and the Banaban islanders’ displacement, the dancers’ repertoire includes dances that illustrate life on Banaba before colonization, the coming of Christianity to the islands, and traditional war dances. I will share these performances in a future post.
Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past 70 years. She also follows the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She is telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.