Wilbert Alik, a 2021 Northern Michigan University anthropology alumnus from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, recently donated a flag from the island nation in the northwest Pacific to the collection of world flags hanging in the Whitman Hall Commons on campus. After earning his NMU degree, Alik returned to his home country and became director of its Historic Preservation Office and the national historic preservation officer.
Alik is responsible for surveying and identifying places with cultural and historic significance, then nominating them to the National Register of both the U.S. and Marshall Islands. He finds it rewarding to collaborate with local residents and spend much of his time in nature.
It is intriguing how someone based near the equator, west of the International Date Line and a 15-hour flight from the U.S., found his way to Northern. Alik was not the first to make the journey. He heard stories from several Marshallese alumni who enrolled at NMU in the ‘70s and ‘80s at the suggestion of a Peace Corp volunteer assigned to the region.
Alik was the founding chair of the Marshallese Studies Department at the College of the Marshall Islands. He was actively teaching when he decided to further his education to enhance his commitment to preserving the country's legacy. He arrived in Marquette for the fall 2018 semester. Alik encountered “a very rough first winter, even by Yooper standards,” which marked the first time he witnessed snowfall in real life. It was an abrupt departure from the tropical heat and humidity—not to mention the perpetually green landscape—of his homeland.
“The people at Northern were warm and welcoming,” he said. “I really appreciated the smaller class sizes and the professors' accessibility and willingness to interact with students. The courses were very rigorous, but that intensity prepped me for a real-world job. Dr. Scott Demel in anthropology would have what we called quizams—more demanding than a typical quiz. Dr. Liz Monske's technical writing course helped me to write documents and publish our five-year national preservation plan. To round out my experience, I took classes with Ms. Sheena Ketchum, where I learned to be inclusive and appreciate a diverse community.”
Alik is collaborating with Monske and Demel on opportunities for students to gain experience in producing informational materials and conducting anthropological and archaeological surveys that support his Historic Preservation Office's mission. There is also a sustainable component, as the five-year plan includes a goal of establishing national parks throughout the islands.
While at NMU, Alik—a member of the M̗ōkauleej clan—wrote a paper titled “Translating Indigeneity” that was published in the undergraduate scholarly journal, Conspectus Borealis. The paper compared Columbus Day in the United States with Kam̗m̗oolol (Gospel) Day in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which celebrates the arrival of the western missionaries. It also compared Indigenous People's Day in the U.S. with M̗anit (Culture) Day in the RMI, which celebrates Marshallese customs and traditions.
One of Alik's distinct NMU memories was participating in excavating field work led by Demel at the Chocolay Bayou in Harvey. The group came across foundation remnants from a former railroad station, as well as a furnace that contributed to the mass production of World War II artilleries.
The latter discovery hit close to home for Alik. The Marshall Islands, which he compares to the Florida Keys because of their similar width, were long occupied by the Japanese and used as a base for military operations. They became targets of Allied attacks during a series of battles in the Pacific theater during World War II.
“My grandparents who attended schools near the Japanese bases were commanded to collect local resources for the Japanese,” Alik said. “Their stories of going through that period make me realize how lucky I am. There are also many dangerous explosives from the war remaining on the islands. We recently established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a group of former U.S. Marines who are IED specialists. They collected, consolidated and set off seven detonations destroying a total of 43 munitions that weighed roughly 9,100 pounds in September 2023.
“I got involved with the organization by working in sites with properties that are historically significant. My role was going into communities and gathering all the residents in one place, then giving the signal that everyone was accounted for before they were detonated. Previous Golden West teams were there between 2015-2018 and collected more than 10 tons of explosives, both Japanese and U.S. in origin. We are thankful for these efforts to keep our communities safe because lives are precious.”
The U.S. assumed administrative control of the Marshall Islands following the end of WWII. While the republic is now independent, it remains associated with the U.S. For example, Alik said it is eligible for grant funding through the National Park Service.
Alik is based in one of the four urban centers, Majuro, where the capital is located. He said it has about the same population as Marquette. He also reports that the Great Lakes during the summer remind him of the Pacific, with their captivating sunsets, “except that they are freshwater, colder and don't have sharks.”
His trip home after graduating from NMU was made even longer by the pandemic. The Marshall Islands had closed its borders, so Alik had to spend a month in “the bubble” of a Honolulu hotel and undergo frequent Covid testing before he was able to complete the journey.
His recent U.S. vacation in December and January, with stops in Michigan and Seattle, went far more smoothly. Alik said he enjoyed reconnecting with friends and family, visiting NMU's campus again, and leaving behind a flag representing the country he is proud to call home to be added to the colorful display in the Whitman Commons.