Outrigger Canoe Project introduces students to Marshallese culture

In collaboration with Living Islands and several other campus clubs and organizations, the Native American Student and Community Center invites the Portland State and Portland community to watch a traditional Marshallese canoe build. During fall term, master builder Tiem Clement will hand-carve a canoe in the Oak Savanna.

The Outrigger Canoe Project is much more than building a water vessel. The project will allow the community to learn more about the Marshall Islands and its culture.

More than just a canoe

Kanani Porotesano, the PSU campus visit program coordinator, said this project is ultimately about more than just canoe building. Clement, the award-winning Marshallese outrigger canoe builder who will carve out most of the craft, wants to teach students about the Marshallese people and their culture, Porotesano said.

“One of his ideas behind it is that he didn’t just want to come to campus or come to a location and just have people watch him carve out a canoe,” Porotesano said. “He wanted it to really be a learning process for people.”

The project represented an important opportunity to give visibility to both Marshallese students as well as the greater Marshallese community in Portland. Porotesano explained that events like PSU’s annual luau and services like Pacific Islander-run food carts give Portlanders only a glimpse into Pacific Islander culture.

“There’s so much more to the Pacific Islands than just kind of the food and dancing,” Porotesano said. “That’s definitely a huge piece, but this is going to be able to teach people about a different aspect of it.”

Giving visibility to the Marshallese people

Kianna Juda Angelo is the founder and executive director of Living Islands, the nonprofit partnering with collaborators on campus to organize the Outrigger Canoe Project. While growing up in Vancouver as a Marshallese-American adoptee, information on her people was hard to come by, she explained.

Living Islands was inspired by her desire to learn more about her heritage and to provide the people of the Marshall Islands with the same opportunities that she had growing up in America.

“That’s where Living Islands kind of developed into ‘Well, how do you create opportunity?'” Angelo said. “That’s through education. Start there.”

She chose to bring the outrigger project to Portland because she felt that it was something that Portlanders would appreciate, considering their enthusiasm for water and the outdoors.

“We knew that since we’re a new organization—we’re about 2 1/2 years old—we had to do something to introduce our people. It will be doing two things; it will introduce the people, but it will also introduce Living Islands as well,” Angelo said.

The outrigger canoe embodies several traditional trades in Marshallese culture, something that will give students a variety of ways to contribute to its construction.

“Not just digging and carving with Tiem, but there’s also going to be weaving classes,” Angelo said. “It’s important to make the rope, so we’re weaving the rope and we would love to show people how to do it.”

The outrigger is a strong representation of Marshallese culture because each of its components represents something significant to the Marshallese people that built it, explained Jesper Angelo, the technical director of Living Islands and Kianna’s husband.

“If you want to introduce Marshallese culture to a place like Oregon, like Kianna was saying, a boat is a really obvious choice,” he said.

The art of boat-crafting ties together many different cultures, including both Oregon’s contemporary maritime culture and the traditions of Native American tribes at places like PSU’s NASCC.

The location of the Outrigger Canoe Project should give it a lot of visibility to students—something Angelo hopes will increase participation.

“What better place to build an outrigger than Portland?” Angelo said. “It doesn’t seem unnatural—you go anywhere in the world and say, ‘I want to build a Marshallese outrigger,’ it’s a special project.”

For more on this story, go to “Traditional canoe build gives PSU a special opportunity.”