Boating Across Traditions: Marshallese Canoes and Fishing Gigs in the Ozarks
What do gigging for fish and Marshallese outrigger canoeing have in common? The narrative session “Boats Across Traditions” at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival took this answer beyond the titular “boating” to the Ozark waters that support these traditions.
In the session guided by sixth-generation Ozarker Curtis Copeland, Marshallese canoe maker Pastor Liton Beasa, Marshallese artisan coordinator Litha Ralpho, and gig makers Anthony and Rebekah Martin explained their practices and found common waters not only in boats but in family.
Ralpho began by introducing the Marshallese diaspora in the Ozarks: “There is, the last time we checked, 50,000 Marshallese in Arkansas itself.” During the Cold War, the U.S. government conducted nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands, an island nation in the central Pacific, about 1,900 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea. As a result of the radiation, Beasa’s mother and oldest sister died from cancer. The entirety of Ralpho’s father’s side of the family died of hepatitis B.
“Doctors told us, if our parents got that radiation, their children would get it too,” Beasa said in Marshallese, as Ralpho translated. “I thank God because today I am here in Washington, D.C., and I am able to ask for help from those who can arrange doctors, education, housing—because the reason we are here is the Marshall Islands are destroyed.”
With the Compacts of Free Association agreement in the 1980s, Marshallese citizens could enter and work in the United States without visas. Immigration from the Marshall Islands increased, and many headed for the Ozarks.
Today, the city of Springdale houses the largest population of Marshallese in the country. This Northwest Arkansas city is also home to the Marshallese artisans who journeyed to the Festival to share their weaving, dancing, and canoe-making traditions. Springdale hosts the annual Stroll the Atolls event, of which Ralpho is the director. There, Marshallese present their culture to residents. This past year, Stroll the Atolls focused on the ancestral skills of the Marshallese people in navigating their ocean.
“In our tradition back home, our life is on the sea,” said Beasa, a master maker of outrigger canoes called kōrkōr which were central in transportation and fishing. Back in the islands, he built over fifty canoes.
Landlocked Arkansas might be markedly different from the islands, yet Marshallese culture flourishes there. All the materials Beasa uses to craft his canoes, such as the one that sat next to the Marshallese tent during the Festival, come from Arkansas.
On the waters of the Missouri Ozarks, the Martin family makes use of a different kind of boat: the flat-bottomed, sharp-cornered aluminum “johnboat,” perfect for gig fishing.
“A fish gig is similar to Poseidon’s trident, only on a smaller scale,” explained Anthony Martin, who demonstrated the process of making gigs at the Festival. Pinning the orange-hot metal between hammer and anvil, pounding echoing into the trees, he shaped three- or four-pronged gigs, ranging from eight to thirteen inches long. Once gigs are attached to the end of a sixteen-foot pole, fishermen take them out on the water on winter nights, lights illuminating the prey swimming below the johnboats. Hoisting the gig, they stab at bottom-feeding fish such as northern hog suckers and yellow suckers.
“Our waters are pretty crystal clear,” Rebekah Martin said. “On a good night, you can see almost ten feet into the water.”
Anthony explained the significance of gigging for him: “It’s a way to feed our families. It’s a way to just get together and have some other family time, like a reunion—people we might not see all the time.”
Anthony is a fourth-generation gig-maker, involved in the practice for about three years. His grandfather passed away before he could teach him how to forge gigs, but he still found a way to apprentice with a master. Nonetheless, his grandfather is a major inspiration.
“Grandpa kind of perfected gig-making,” he boasted. “It became an art form to him. He wanted people to look at his gigs and say, ‘I want that.’ And so, I do the same thing. I take a lot of pride in making that.”
Beasa also owes his craft to his grandfather—plus his great-grandfather and father—expanding on a fascination he forged as a ten-year-old. “All the boys at that age would always make a smaller canoe, and we would have a race to see who has the fastest canoe,” Beasa said. “I dreamed of becoming a canoe builder.”
In the narrative session, he eagerly described the small canoe he brought to Washington, D.C., pointing to the various wood tones of structures his hands have spent decades creating. As this boat bobs across the waves, he told the crowd, it is controlled by the pandanus leaves woven into the sail, the slim canoe body balanced by an outrigger.
One of a dwindling number of canoe builders, Beasa has worked hard to pass down the craft. He taught his son and is working now with his grandchildren. “I brought four grandsons with me on this trip to also learn about the canoe and also make the canoe,” he said. In fact, every day of the Festival, his grandchildren were the ones who set up the canoe and raised the sail in the morning and then took it down in the evenings.
Anthony shares a similar goal. “Eventually, I will pass it on to my son,” he said.
“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of family stuff,” Rebekah summed up. “Our son is nine, and in the last year or two he has been able to get out on a boat and gig a fish himself.”
While these Ozark boating traditions vary in materials, styles, and geographies of origin, they were brought together at the Folklife Festival. From the hands of grandfathers, shaping metal and wood, these practices are vessels of tradition shaped by generation after generation who found their way on the water.
Delaney Marrs is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Kenyon College, where she is studying art history and English.