Warrior Traditions Honor All Those Who Have Served
By Kate Murray, Sepir Yakana, and FD Sakate
The state of Texas is home to one of the largest populations of Compact of Free Association (COFA) citizens nationwide, collectively representing individuals from the three Pacific Island countries of The Republic of Palau, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, and The Federated States of Micronesia, with whom the United States entered a unique treaty in 1986 and which remains in effect today.
Born and raised on the tiny island of Pingelap in Micronesia, Retired U.S. Army Combat Medic and Instructor Sepir Yakana is one of many COFA citizens who enlisted in the U.S. military and now resides in Texas. Originally a participant in Texas Folklife's annual Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts with his daughter Sabrina in 2019, the pair was supported in their effort to pass on and preserve the traditional art of Pingelapese Warrior Stick Dancing.
Retiring from the U.S. Army and settling in San Antonio, Sepir is one of - if not the sole - practitioners of the art form in Texas. Starting at the age of nine, Sepir has performed these dances for nearly 52 years, and is able to complete the extremely difficult task of reciting all four chants and their associated movements. He chose to participate in the Apprenticeship Program to preserve and pass on this living tradition to others in the Micronesian community.
"Through stick dance, it makes them know who they are," Sepir said. "It's like you're finding yourself when you look back."
In two new videos produced alongside Texas Folklife - which build out from continued collaborations with the local COFA community over the past two years - Sepir shares about his childhood growing up on Pingelap, his introduction to the stick dance tradition, his U.S. military service, and the ways in which he continues to uphold his micronesian culture today.
The second video shares a more in-depth, step-by-step introduction to two of the four stick dances. Sepir's daughter Sabrina (captured in purple in the video above), chose to participate in the program as a way to learn and perform all four chants and associated dances. She and Sepir have also started to teach her son (also featured in the videos above), representing three generations of the Yakana family learning the tradition.
"We all want to be connected with someone, especially in a world filled with identity crisis," Sabrina said. "To belong to a group, a family, and to know this, will be something that you do that makes a difference."
Sepir and his family are just one example of numerous COFA families carrying on living traditions here in Texas, many of whom are U.S. military active duty service members, veterans, or otherwise military-connected. COFA citizens play a major role in the Unites States' national security, with individuals enlisting for direct service, as well as the countries dedicating their land and air space to the U.S. for military defense.
In 2008, Micronesia had a higher per-capita enlistment rate than any U.S. state, and had more than five times the national per-capita average of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. A study by the Heritage Foundation of US enlistment rates cites "Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander" as the most overrepresented group as of 2005, with a ratio of 7.49, or an overrepresentation of 649%.
This military service correlates and connects to the growth of COFA residence in the United States. Census data between 2008 and 2018 shows a 68% increase in COFA residence in the U.S., meaning that one in three COFA citizens now reside in the U.S., one of the world's largest migrations by proportion of population. COFA citizens reside legally in the U.S., pay all taxes, and yet face undue barriers, such as limitations on drivers licenses, healthcare access, in-state tuition privileges, and more.
Most notable within these inequities is the restrictions on health benefits and other VA services that COFA veterans and their families face, whether in U.S. or returning to the islands. Many of these individuals are enlisted from their islands with the promise of full benefits, but face a range of restrictions after the fact. Barriers to access are placed between these veterans and the care they are owed on the mainland, and are non-existent on the islands themselves. If a veteran returns home to the islands, they have to pay out of pocket for extremely expensive tickets to Guam or Hawai'i to receive any medical care. More so, military service affects the families who stayed home on the islands. The documentary Island Solider follows members of the Nena family from one of the most remote islands in the world to the training grounds of Texas and the battlefields of Afghanistan, documenting the multitudes of impact that U.S. military service and COFA casualties have on the island of Kosrae.
On May 19, 2019, the State of Texas passed a resolution to express and urge support for the rights of COFA islanders residing in Texas, recognizing their extraordinary support to our nation, particularly honoring five members of the community. We extend a big komoltata (Thank You) to Sen. Nathan Johnson and Rep. Brad Buckley for sponsoring this resolution (SR-763 and HR-1783).
COFA citizens continue to be a growing part of our military and our state. This Veterans Day, we hope you will join Texas Folklife in honoring all those who have served by learning more about the COFA community here in Texas and their living traditions, whether that is warrior stick dancing passed down through generations, or new practices born out of community here in Texas.
Most notable of these developments is the annual Island Warriors Memorial Softball Tournament. Each year the COFA islander community comes together to those who served and those soldiers who have fallen. Team registrations have already passed, but you can view the games this weekend, November 12-14th, 2021 at the Killeen Community Center, 2201 E.Veterans Memorial Blvd., Killeen, TX 76543
Texas Folklife extends their thanks to the COFA Alliance National Network Texas (C.A.N.N.T) for their partnership, particularly Fransico D. Sakate and Sepir E. Yakana. C.A.N.N.T is a non-profit organization that unites Texans from The Republic of Palau, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, and The Federated State of Micronesia. Found and led by COFA Islanders, they amplify COFA voices through civic engagement, preserve cultural traditions for future generations, and educate the public. Learn more about C.A.N.N.T, their work, and how you can support on their new website, www.cofatexas.org.
Video editing was contributed by Pete Breithaupt of Texas Folklife and Egan Kolb of El Rancho Pro. Initial support for the creation of these videos was provided by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Additional support was provided by Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs and the state and local art agencies.