Shoreline Creeps Closer To Kiribati’s Sacred Sites

The Nei Rotebenua shrine is now located on the beach--it used to be several meters away from the shoreline.
The shoreline is moving closer to Marakei Island’s Nei Rotebenua shrine.

“If, one day, the waves take away these sacred places and they’re gone, we will keep on telling the stories,” explained Takirua Tiare, a traditional storyteller on Kiribati’s Marakei Island. “But I can’t stop that—I don’t hold the answer of the waves.”

As a taani karaki, as the storytellers are known, Tiare, 68, is in charge of looking after Marakei’s four shrines and passing along their oral histories—stories of the island’s connection to spirits, gods and goddesses, and ancient battles—to the next generation.

These sacred places have been on the island for centuries. But in recent years, the rising seas that surround Marakei and the other Kiribati islands are creeping closer and closer to the shrines, particularly the one known as Nei Rotebenua.

“Before, the sea was far away from [Nei Rotebenua]. That place was more inland. Now it’s just over the beach, but it didn’t used to be,” Tiare explained.

But it’s not just the sea that has the island’s elders worried. Some feel that the younger generations are taking less interest in the community’s storytelling traditions. These two simultaneous threats, the elders say, endanger Marakei’s heritage: The sea is growing closer to the physical shrines just as interest in the history they represent wanes.

Te Katabanin: A Marakei Tradition

As I sat with Tiare in his thatched home, he explained the importance of paying respect to the shrines, which represent the island’s four goddesses. Upon arrival, newcomers to Marakei travel counterclockwise around the ring-shaped island in a practice called te katabanin. Visitors must leave offerings of tobacco or money at each shrine. If they don’t, Tiare said, there is a good chance they will be cursed.

Takirua Tiare, a traditional storyteller on Marakei, is concerned about what sea —> Read More