The Wing


We Are the Ocean

An Indigenous Response to Climate Change

On view November 3, 2016 - November 12, 2017

Global temperatures are on the rise. Coral reefs are slowly dying. Islands are now gradually disappearing due to rising waters. Storms are increasing both in frequency and in strength. The Pacific Ocean is now filled with plastic debris.

These are just some of the issues facing our ocean today.

In this space, explore how indigenous communities are responding to the ways climate change is affecting our waters and our lives.

Listen to stories that have traveled from Guam, Pohnpei and Yap, from Tonga, Hawai’i and Alaska, from people who both know and love the ocean.

Hear their words as they speak about the legacy we are leaving for our children, and the ways we are building a world for those after us.

Hear their thoughts as they reflect on the sacredness of salt water, canoe journeys and sunlight on crystal blue seas.

Hear their voices as they navigate rising oceans, and how the phrase, “We aren’t drowning, we are fighting,” spurs a movement to save and conserve.

These are some of the stories of those who call the Pacific home. It is a place of great immensity, full of mysterious power. It is also full of healing and wonder, deserving of respect.

No matter your thoughts on climate change, know that our oceans are hurting and our waters are changing. But also know that we all have an important role in caring for this place that has given us so much.

It is our duty, our legacy, our kuleana (responsibility). For ourselves, and every generation after us.

"We sweat and cry salt water. The ocean is in us." - Professor Teresia Teaiwa



Learning as an indigenous person that we can’t always have the answers to everything is something I find important, that we have to feel comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing and not having access to all knowledge. That is something that is so beautiful about the ocean and the Pacific - its mystery (in some ways) because you don’t have to know everything about it in order to love it and respect it.  Patricia Allen, Alaska Native

I went to a talk on biodiversity at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)this past weekend in Hawai’i. One of my acquaintances is a navigator on the Hokule’a (a Hawaiian voyaging canoe travelling the oceans) and he was talking about the importance of the cultural relevance of diversity. It was something that I’ve known, but to share it in the open, in an arena that was packed with at least 200-300 people - it was very moving for me. He would say that we plant kalo (taro in Hawaiian) because without planting kalo we are dead. And that’s exactly right. There is a part in the Kumulipo which is our origination chant, our birth chant, that talks about kalo and planting kalo. It basically says that when you plant kalo you plant yourself. You cannot remove the two from each other. There’s been a lot of systems that have been created to remove us from that, and once you start to do that then you fall into alignment. Tiare Kaolelopono, Hawaiian

…in the field, it’s based on numbers. So, I feel like even though the goal is to restore the environment, it’s to a certain extent, so we can continue doing what we want to do. So for example,, at the COP 21 -- I think it was just last year or two years ago – the conference in Paris on climate change, there was a movement for the number two degrees. We cannot let the Earth, the global average temperature, go above two degrees, otherwise, all hell will break lose. That’s just like a number that we’re working towards. But at 1.5 [degrees] is when a lot of the low lying islands are actually already be swallowed by the ocean. But, as a scientist, your number’s two degrees because that what’s better for the average world. I think that’s the difference. You’re going off numbers, and there’s a quota you have to meet. But if you’re doing it because you love the environment or because people, then your baseline is different. Shaylin Salas, Chamoru

It kind of goes back to just like Pacific Islander values. We are a community and you are never the first. you are always the last. I see often people just kind of you know neglect their needs and want sometimes to make sure that the community is surviving. We have to translate that to our earth now. Rachel Tamngin, Yapese

People in the islands – some that I have spoken to – they don’t see their islands as something that’s sinking. They absolutely do not believe that their islands are going down. They believe that they are climate change warriors. They’re survivors. They’re people that are going to overcome. And to me it’s like wow, because here in the States we’re like “Poor islands, it’s gonna go down, we’re gonna lose whatever.”  But the people in the islands are like, “Nah, we’re carrying the legacy of our ancestors.” Mario Teulilo, Tongan


Stepping Stones, 2015 | Maika'i Tubbs | plastic shopping bags, cardboard, cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic containers, junk mail, paper towels, posters, parking tickets, ocean plastic, glue

Stepping Stones is inspired by a new type of rock called plastiglomerate, a fusion of microplastic, wood, stone, coral, basalt, sand and seashells discovered in Hawai‘i. Plastiglomerate is being formed naturally as lava flows down from the active volcano on Hawai‘i Island towards the sea. Microplastics on our shores arrive via the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The lava melts the plastic onto the organic matter as it cools in the sea, creating a type of plastic rock. I wondered what the Earth would look like if these stones continue to form. Would all land eventually be covered in a sedimentary layer of plastiglomerate? Stepping Stones imagines a plausible future with these manmade and artificial hybrids. Using trash collected from my homelands, the streets of New York City and the beaches of O‘ahu, I create new idealized rock forms. Each rock is sliced and displayed as a trash geode to serve as a type of future fossil record along an imagined shoreline.

Micronesian Portrait Series, 2012 | Yvonne Neth | Charcoal

The islands of Micronesia seem to float atop a blanket of deep blue. Beneath the surface, you find the toppling waves and the swift pursuit of currents cloak an entirely different world of color and energy. Above the surface, these speckles of land are covered – from the highest peaks of the cloud forests to the beach sands and breathing stakes of the mangroves – in folklore, just as colorful and pulsating with energy as the world underwater. Subjects of folklore manifest themselves physically in the form of stone, vegetation, even living creatures; examples of these include the mysterious ruins of Nan Madol of Pohnpei, the distinctive figure of the Sleeping Lady of Kosrae, the immense weight of the stone money of Yap, and the ominous powers within the Chuukese masks.

As is the nature of lore, time will have elements disappear from one story, will have words lose the ease of translation and understanding. And so we witness change in our stories, our traditions and our ways of life. My artwork is a tribute to the evolving elements – the color and energy -- of our island cultures. With the current and dire circumstances of the islands and climate change – evident from the multitude of video documentation, scientific data and from the very words of the islanders themselves – it is frightening how one can deny the existence of climate change… the thought is akin to logic sinking with the islands against the rising sea level. It is my sincerest hope that this art exhibition will enable the viewers to gain a more concrete hold on the issue of climate change and, though it has become scary and ugly what we have done to the earth, let's come together and make it right the best we can.

Community Partners and Sponsors

Prime Sponsor
Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation

Major Sponsors
Seattle Office for Civil Rights

Additional Sponsor
US Bancorp Foundation