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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 22) - A Bikini islander, who led a campaign that produced multi-million dollar nuclear test compensation trust funds from the United States government after years of neglect, died in the Marshall Islands Saturday night.

Nathan Note, whose age was estimated at 85 because birth records were not well kept in the early 1900s in these islands, died of natural causes at his home in Majuro, the Marshall Islands capital.

He was described as a "skeptic" who refused to believe U.S. government scientists when, in the early 1970s, they told the Bikinians that the former nuclear test site was safe for resettlement. He convinced most of his people not to believe these American government pronouncements of safety, so only a small percentage of islanders returned home in 1971.

"Nathan didn’t believe a word the U.S. was saying about Bikini being ‘safe’ and he went out of his way to convince other Bikinians not to return," Jack Niedenthal, an American who has worked for the Bikini Council since the late 1980s, said in an interview Sunday. "Although some did return, the majority of Bikinians did not, mostly because of Nathan’s convincing way of speaking. It turned out that Nathan was right about Bikini being unsafe."

In 1978, the approximately 100 Bikinians living on the atoll had to be evacuated after ingesting the largest amount of radioactive cesium by any human population. U.S. government scientists seriously miscalculated the contamination in well water and food crops that the Bikinians consumed while living there during the aborted resettlement.

Bikini was ground zero for 23 U.S. nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. These included the first post-World War II tests in 1946 and Bravo, the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested by the U.S. on March 1, 1954 — a date that is now marked by a national holiday in the Marshall Islands because of the severe consequences the Bravo fallout caused to thousands of islanders and many islands.

Nearly 60 years after their first evacuation, Bikinians remain in exile, living dispersed on Kili Island and in Majuro, as well as throughout the U.S.

Although Note was not on Bikini when the 167 islanders were first evacuated in 1946, he became involved in efforts in the early 1970s to bring world attention to the deprivations experienced during their then-more than 25 years in exile on an isolated island where fishing and farming was difficult, and food shortages were frequent.

"Nathan was a member of the first Bikinian delegation to go to Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s," said Niedenthal. Since then, Bikini delegation trips to Washington have become commonplace. But 30 years ago, few had heard of Bikini or knew of their suffering despite U.S. government promises that it would take care of the islanders until they could be returned safely home.

In an interview in 1988, and posted on the Bikini Council’s Internet web site, Note said during his first trip to Washington in the early 1970s, U.S. government officials seemed more concerned with knowing when the Bikinians were returning home than with helping them.

"It seemed that every time an official from the U.S. government would call," Note said, "they would anxiously ask us when were we planning to leave the country. Our standard answer to this question was: ‘We would stay forever, unless, of course, we could have some form of an agreement to take back to our people.’"

Note and two of his Bikini colleagues stayed for nearly a month, trooping from the Pentagon to the Congress to the Department of Interior and back again.

"We held talks with as many officials as possible," Note said.

"Eventually it became clear to us that, while everyone sympathized with our plight, no one seemed to want to take responsibility for helping us. First, we would go to the Pentagon and after some handshaking and a short dialogue, they would send us to some Congressional staff members. Then these people would put us through the same routine, and send us off to Department of Interior officials. Round and round and round we went."

But the visit put the Bikinians on the map in Washington and with the media, and paved the way for future visits and negotiations.

"He helped the people of Bikini gain access to the U.S. Department of Agriculture food program and was an outspoken leader during most of the scientific/resettlement discussions between the Bikini Council and various U.S. and Department of Energy representatives during the 1980s and 1990s," Niedenthal said.

Today, the Bikinians have U.S.-provided resettlement and compensation trust funds of more than $150 million, which support their population living on Kili Island and elsewhere.

Note is an uncle of Marshall Islands president Kessai Note and a cousin of Tomaki Juda, who represents the Bikinians in the Marshall Islands parliament.

Funeral services are to be held later this week in Majuro.

June 22, 2004

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