Li John Ecknilang speaks at conference with Mayor Matayoshi. Brandy Mayo

Finding hope amidst fear
Two Skagway girls share a message of peace with the world


It is common to hear the question, “What kind of world are we leaving our children?” Everyone expresses hope it will be a better one.
Since the first atomic weapon was detonated in 1945 the world has changed significantly. Today, phrases such as “nuclear fallout,” “nuclear waste,” and ‘Strategic Defense Initiative” have become part of our everyday vernacular.
As nuclear stockpiles grow exponentially alongside the terror they represent, the world becomes more tedious and complicated. It can be disheartening to look into this mystery and attempt to discern why humanity has accepted the prospect of terminal horror as a mundane reality. Even worse, finding a solution seems foolhardy and naive.
Two Skagway High School girls have not given up, and at times it hasn’t been easy.
Shelby Surdyk and Erica Harris, along with the Hiroshima Peace Museum, the Marshall Island Government, Veterans for Peace, and the University of Alaska Southeast, UAS Chancellors office, and Alpha Phi Omega, organized the World Nuclear Awareness Conference in Juneau on April 18-20 at UAS in Juneau.
The girls performed their state champion DDF dramatization of Marshallese legend “Jab Bo Kake,” and another internationally recognized piece detailing the history and fallout of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands called, “For the Good of Mankind.”
Drama, Debate, and Forensics coach Kent Fielding, said that while traveling to the Marshall Islands last fall to perform, Surdyk learned of the prospect for hosting a nuclear awareness exhibit from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial website.
The site posted requests for interested parties to host 101 exhibits across the country, two in each state and one in Washington D.C. Surdyk and Harris were the only responders from Alaska, and the HPM jumped at the opportunity.
Other aspects of the conference began to take shape during the girls’ Marshall Islands visit.
It was Li John Eknilang’s eighth birthday when the United States’ “Bravo shot” hydrogen bomb test rained fallout on her Rongelap Atoll home in the Marshall Islands. Surdyk describes Ecknilang as a woman with deep religious convictions who felt God’s purpose for her was to tell her story to the world.
“It is powerful to meet someone who is that way,” said Surdyk.
By the 1970s Ecknilang was a peace activist extolling the virtue of a world without war and telling the story of her childhood nightmare.
Fielding said those years left her frustrated as nuclear proliferation during the cold war expanded, and her voice fell on the deaf ears of the U.S. government.
“It’s difficult. She bared her soul and nothing happened,” said Fielding.
Eknilang’s frustration led to her silence, and she had not spoken publicly since the 70s.
While in the Marshall Islands, Surdyk and Harris performed their piece in a parking lot while Ecknilang watched a portion of the performance silently from an upstairs window. During a scene where the girls reenact fallout descending on Rongelap, Ecknilang was deeply moved.
“It reminded her – she lived it,” said Harris.
Eknilang’s years of silence were at an end, and Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi paid for her travel expenses to speak at the Juneau conference.
During the conference, Ecknilang became close friends with Shigeko Sasamori, a Hiroshima survivor. Sasamori was sent to the conference by the HPM to speak.
Sasamori first came to the United States in 1955 for reconstructive surgery. She was outside and within one mile of the atomic blast over Hiroshima. One third of her body was burned, including her face, and many of her junior high school classmates were killed.
Sasamori turned her personal tragedy into an opportunity to educate others on the reality of nuclear weapons, and despite years of bad health associated with the blast, remains good-natured and jovial.
“She is the funniest woman I have ever met in my life,” said Harris, who described Sasamori as a “small, petite woman.”
Harris said her speech at the conference elicited laughter from the crowd when she compared making nuclear bombs to making “pooh-pooh.”
“She said, ‘In life, you can make gold or pooh-pooh. We are standing on the edge of oblivion,’” quoted Harris. “She said that reality was heartbreaking and sad for her.”

Erica and Shelby perform their piece at Egan Hall on the UAS campus. Cody Burnham

Surdyk and Harris performed their pieces on Saturday at the Egan Hall. It was the first time Ecknilang saw the performance from beginning to end.
Surdyk said she was nervous, as though she were taking a test, hopeful Ecknilang would approve of the piece.
“She told Mr. Fielding she expected to be impressed, but she said it was 100-times better than what she expected,” said Surdyk.
Harris said Ecknilang gasped with emotion during one scene where the girls interpret the birth of a “jellyfish baby,” a stillborn mass resulting from the effects of nuclear fallout.
“It was energizing to hear it had such a moving, emotional impact,” said Harris.
John Pugh, Chancellor of UAS, donated $5,000 toward the conference. Fielding said. “He was blown away by Erica and Shelby’s performance.”
The girls received a standing ovation for their Saturday performance, and have been offered to perform in Washington D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland by persons in attendance.
“Many doors have opened for them,” said Fielding, who added Mayor Matayoshi personally offered to take them to Rongelap.
The path for Surdyk and Harris has not always been easy.
Surdyk said the pressures of fund-raising and apathy made her wonder at times if it was worth the stress.
“It gets depressing when you consider all the nuclear waste there is out there, and more building up. Things like weapons development – it makes you want to give up,” said Surdyk.
The friendships the girls forged at the conference renewed their resolve.
“(The conference) gave me a reaffirming appreciation of life,” said Harris.
Surdyk added, “I am a lot more convinced now the project is just right, it needs to be done. It’s powerful to meet people who have faith that what you do can make difference.”
Harris will graduate next month but hopes to return to the Marshall Islands in the future.
“I hope to go back and contribute,” she said.
Surdyk will begin her senior year next fall and hopes to continue with her work, including compiling raw footage of their travels with a professional recording of their piece – potentially creating a documentary.
She also hopes to finish transcriptions of interviews and journal entries and compile them online for teachers to use as study aids.
There is also a possibility the conference could become a yearly event.
Regardless, their hard work has reaped dividends.
Harris and Surdyk both extended thanks to all involved, everyone in attendance, and the students of APO.
“I made friends I am never going to forget,” said Surdyk.
For Fielding, who was beaming with pride in his two students, the experience was sublime.
“The whole conference was extremely powerful and beautiful,” he said.
We all say we want to leave a better world for our children. It turns out the children might just make it better for us.