The anthropologist who dedicated her life to keep Palauan culture alive

The late Katharine Kesolei, or Kathy as she was better known, devoted more than 30 years of her life to the cultural, educational and economic advancement of the Palauan people.

“In today’s world, people are beginning to reconsider these indigenous cultures. They now realize that this ‘white’ society that imposes some of their values on us is a kind of oppression…I’m not saying it in an antagonistic way but I’m saying it so that we can try to understand and know how to deal with it and know the constraints” explained Katharine Kesolei, anthropologist, historian, cultural advocate and politician from Palau.

Kathy started out in her career as an anthropologist and understood the crucial role that Palauan culture could play in her country’s development.  While she served on many boards, commissions, and authorities of the Government and represented the women of Palau in regional and international conferences, Ms Kesolei is perhaps best known for her tireless efforts in the protection and preservation of Palauan culture.

Her sense of community and social activism was evident early in her career by her involvement in initiatives including the inauguration of the Micronesian Girls Association in 1960 to which she was elected to be a club officer.  Ms Kesolei was a staunch member of Mechesil Belau, Palau’s traditional women leaders’ group. From 1994 until her passing, she was a dedicated contributor to the annual Mechesil Belau Conference, a nationwide public forum where traditional women leaders discuss and propose resolutions for government to enact in response to cultural, social, health and environmental challenges faced by the people of Palau.

Specializing in history and anthropology, she was a leading expert in cultural conservation and championed initiatives celebrating Palauan culture, history, and transmission of knowledge. In 1980, Ms Kesolei directed the compilation of a four volume anthology of Palauan legends and history, and directed the Palau History Development Project in her role as Director of the Palau Community Action Agency.   She was a long-serving chairperson for the Palau Cultural and Historical Advisory Board prior to being elected to the Palau National Congress.

She became a senator in the Palau National Congress in 2009, and was re-elected in 2012.  Her 2012 campaign motto was ‘Promoting cultural awareness and stewardship to safeguard our heritage for future generations; supporting a better Belau towards sustainable development and economic growth; supporting healthy lifestyle and living for our Belau’.

She was Vice-President of the Senate of Palau when she died in 2015 at the age of 73.

(This portrait of Katharine Kesolei was first published by the Pacific Community for the 70 Inspiring Women campaign, it is reproduced here with their permission.)

The 70 Inspiring Pacific Women campaign has been produced by the Pacific Community (SPC) in partnership with Australian Aid and Pacific Women. The campaign marks the 70th anniversary of SPC, and leads up to the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 6th Meeting of Ministers for Women in Suva (Fiji) from 2nd to 5th October 2017.

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