Published: May 19, 2021

Home Is Where the Jaki Is

Monisa Ahmed, Exhibitions Developer, Exhibitions
Ryan Schuessler, Exhibitions Developer, Exhibitions

Alert

“The jaki is a hand-woven floor mat that can be found in nearly every Marshallese household. It is a place of rest, a symbol of identity, and a tool that connects us.”

By Terry Mote, Enid Micronesian Coalition, and Monisa Ahmed and Ryan Schuessler, Exhibition Developers, Field Museum.

A photo of a girl, identified 72 years later

In 1947, at the end of World War II, Field Museum anthropologist and U.S. Marine Alexander Spoehr found himself on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands after the American campaign to take the islands from Japan. While on the island, Spoehr purchased items for the Field’s robust collection of Pacific Islander cultural items, and also photographed the people he met—including a little girl whose name he did not write down. 

In 2019, that girl’s son—Terry Mote—recognized her face in that photo while visiting the Field Museum’s collections. Now, we know her name: Mojina Jinuna Mote.

Black-and-white photo of a young girl looking at the camera, with palm trees in the background.

 An archival photo of Mojina Jinuna Mote, Terry Mote’s mother, taken by Field Museum anthropologist Alexander Spoeher in 1947 on a fieldwork trip to Majuro. Until Terry recognized her, the photo remained identified only as “Schoolgirl.” 

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and the Field Museum holds and cares for a significant collection of Pacific Islander cultural material. For much of the Field’s 125-year history, its curators and exhibitions staff used that material to make exhibitions, most often without the input of the very people whose cultures were on display. In recent years, the addition of indigenous voices to share in curation and storytelling has been a change the museum is increasingly embracing.

In 2019, a group of Marshallese students from Enid, Oklahoma, visited the Field Museum to partner with us and help create an exhibition celebrating their heritage and exploring how they relate to their culture—one so intrinsically shaped by the sea—in a landlocked place. The exhibition, which opened to the public on October, 16 2020, is part of the rotating gallery space in the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific exhibition. 

The Enid co-curation group came together with a welcome ceremony on the marae of the wharenui (meeting house) Ruatepupuke II, organized by Chicago’s Aloha Center, the American Indian Center, the Chi-Nations Youth Council, members of the city’s Filipino-American co-curation team, and Field Museum staff.

A group of eight people pose for a photo in front of the Maori Meeting House at the Field Museum.

 From left to right: Cindy Black (former Vice Principal of Enid High School); students Harrington Lavin, Faith Tommy, Evencilla Malolo, Ezola Hong, and John Sibok; Lori Palmer (ELL coordinator at Enid High School); and Terry Mote (head of the Enid Micronesian Coalition).

John Weinstein

Creating an exhibit that celebrates home

The Republic of the Marshall Islands and Enid are separated by over 5,000 miles of land and sea. Yet, Enid is home to one of the largest Marshallese populations in the US—over 3,500 people. The students, as representatives of their community, were accompanied by Terry Mote, head of the Enid Micronesian Coalition, two of their teachers, and Stephanie Camba, a Philipinx Marshallese co-curator then based in Chicago. Together they visited the Field, toured the collections, and worked with museum staff—from Collections, Anthropology, Exhibitions, the Learning Center, and more—to envision their own exhibition. 

For those of us who worked on this project, it is hard to put into words how powerful of an experience it all was. The students hit the ground running, asking engaging and critical questions of the museum and its history, and coming up with ideas for what they wanted to share in the exhibit. They worked with the Field’s designers to draw floor plans, and visited the Marshallese collections to connect with their ancestral heritage and select historic objects to help tell their cultural story. 

Representatives of Chicago’s Pacific Islander and Native American communities also welcomed them with open arms. Before the Enid group returned home, Chicago’s Aloha Center, American Indian Center, and Chi-Nations Youth Council threw them a potluck with food, music, and dancing.

The student group visiting the Marshallese living culture collections cared for by the Field Museum.

Monisa Ahmed

Lanialoha Lee (left) and Harrington Lavin (right), jamming together on their ukuleles during a community potluck welcoming the Enid group to Chicago. Lee is the director of Chicago’s Aloha Center, a Pacific Islander community group.

Ryan Schuessler

The warm welcome was returned later that year when the Field Museum staff and co-curators who worked on this project also had the chance to visit Enid. They visited Enid High School, met more Marshallese students and community members, and—of course—had to try Marshallese food. Ezola Hong, one of the students who visited Chicago, famously asked, “How can you make an exhibit about Marshallese culture without trying Marshallese food?!” 

Most notably, though, they had the chance to meet Mojina Jinuna Mote, the little girl Alexander Spoehr photographed in 1947. She now lives in Enid with her son and grandchildren, and was glad to receive a copy of that photo and, finally, an explanation of who had taken it at all. She still remembered that afternoon all those years ago.

Sitting on a couch, Mojina Mote holds a framed photo of herself as a young girl.

72 years later, Field Museum staff presented Mojina Mote, who now lives in Enid with her son Terry, with a print of the photo.

Ryan Schuessler

Using collections to tell a story

The exhibition co-curated with the students features an array of historic and contemporary Marshallese items from the Field Museum’s Anthropology collections, including canoe models, a navigational stick chart, and several examples of handicrafts, or amimono, selected by the students. It also includes items acquired by Collections Manager Christopher Philipp during an outreach trip he and exhibition developer Ryan Schuessler took to Majuro in October 2019. 

In addition to celebrating Marshallese culture across time and place, the exhibition explores the ongoing impacts of colonization, US nuclear bomb testing, and climate change on the Marshall Islands and its people. These are the very things causing Marshallese people to move to places like Enid. COVID-19 unfortunately delayed the opening of the exhibit, and the original student group has still not had a chance to see the result of their work in person. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Marshallese communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

When they finally make the trip, one of the first things they will see in the gallery is one of their own ideas brought to life: a jaki (JAH-ghee) — a woven mat, laid out on the floor and in the open. It was important to the students that the jaki be displayed like it would in any Marshallese household, and not in a display case. 

The jaki is a hand-woven floor mat that can be found in nearly every Marshallese household. It is a place of rest, a symbol of identity, and a tool that connects us. As climate change devours our islands, many of us in the United States are losing a sense of our home and culture. Despite this, our families try hard to help us remember who we are. The jaki helps us do just that.

Marshallese student group

Home is where the jaki is will be on display through March of 2022.