Things That Matter With Peggy Oki
In her late teens/early 20s, Peggy Oki was a Dogtown skateboarder. There’s a photo of her from a 1975 skate magazine in which she does a low-slung backside carve, front hand pointed forward, rear hand petting the concrete, her long black hair streaming behind. It’s the quintessence of great style. It’s a move that could easily take place on a wave — Peggy is a lifelong surfer. And it was in the surf, in 1999, that kismet would point Peggy toward what is her biggest mission in this life: activism.
First and foremost a visual artist, Peggy lives in Carpinteria, California. She eats vegan. She’s very conscious of the ill effects of our gadget-filled world. She practices yoga, cycles, and surfs with great flow. And she works ferociously on her projects, which keeps her super-busy. We hoped to meet in person, but the old ‘not enough hours in the day’ got the better of us. We communicated via phone and email. Here’s our exchange.
How did you become an activist?
As a long-time surfer and being inspired by dolphins, I wanted to learn more about them. And so I was studying field zoology, environmental biology, and in the course of my studies I was learning about different human activities that were out there killing them, threatening dolphins and whales out in the oceans. I felt very compelled to give back because they're really incredible, fascinating creatures that are a source of inspiration to me. I've been an activist for dolphins and whales for now almost 40 years.
Tell me about your Origami Whales Project.
My Origami Whales Project is something I started in 2004 to raise awareness about commercial whaling activities by Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Like me, most people celebrated the “Save the Whales” movement when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) announced their 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. I didn't even know until the year 2000 that despite the moratorium Japan and Norway continued to hunt whales.
It was after I had a profound experience on Christmas morning in 1999 (the last Christmas of the millennium) that I discovered that whales were still being killed. I was stoked surfing Black's Beach on one of those classic winter days — great conditions of sunshine, perfect, glassy, slightly overhead, uncrowded. Paddling back out to catch my next wave, and right as I sat up on my board, there was a gray whale that spyhopped. Spyhopping is when a cetacean (dolphins and whales) will lift their head straight up out of the water just like a submarine periscope, and they look around. And this gray whale did just that and looked at me, eye to eye. I went, ‘Oh, man!’ I wasn't freaked out at all. I was just stoked. This whale was literally 60 feet away from me, then went back underwater. And then another gray whale surfaced real gracefully right in the same spot where the other whale was.
I just thought that there was something really significant about that experience, and wondered, ‘Wow, what's happening with the whales? Are they trying to tell me something?’ I then looked online and found out that the commercial whaling was still being done by Japan and Norway. And I just thought, ‘That's terrible.’ So I started doing things about it, such as going to schools and talking to kids about it and asking them to do paintings of whales and write letters to President Obama urging him to protect whales from commercial whaling. Then, in 2004, when invited to again coordinate art activities at the Santa Barbara Whale Festival, I had an idea.
Basically, my heritage is Japanese-American. Both my parents are from Hiroshima, and when I was seven years old I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum (dedicated to the atomic bomb incident there) and that really had an impact on me. It shaped my perspective on nuclear weapons and war. Sometime later I learned the story of Sadako Sasaki who was a little girl exposed to the radiation when the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. She ultimately developed leukemia, which is a rather common cancer that happens to a lot of people after being exposed to this type of radiation. This story is about her being in the hospital when her friends visited and urged her to fold origami cranes because of a Japanese folk legend that if you can fold a thousand cranes, the gods might grant your wish. Wanting to be cured and to live, she started going around the hospital collecting pieces of paper to fold into origami cranes. She got to over 600 and then she died, so she didn't make it, but her story's been told around the world. There’s probably at least a half-dozen children's books dedicated to her, and calling for peace and nuclear disarmament. Being aware of that story, I thought, ‘Let's fold origami whales.’
I love that. That's so cool.
Yeah. So that first year of the campaign in 2004, instead of the traditional 1,000 for the cranes, I set a goal of 1,400 origami whales because that's how many whales there were in the whaling quotas between Japan and Norway. Just in that year, these two countries intended to kill that many whales! So I said 'OK, let's go for it.'
After reaching the goal of 1,400, I was then offered the opportunity to show the IWC delegate of the U.S. the origami whales in Washington, D.C. That’s when I conceived the idea of how to exhibit them in the most impactful way: as a curtain. Then, wishing to draw more media attention to the issue of commercial whaling, the first large exhibit happened during the International Whaling Commission meetings in 2007 with 30,000 origami whales hand-stitched into a curtain that I displayed at the Performing Arts Center in Anchorage, and then the Alaska Ocean Festival.
“The Big Curtain,” which began at 30,000, is updated each year, and has been exhibited at other events, such as Whale Day Maui a few times. We keep updating the curtain to represent as a memorial the number of whales that have been reported killed since the IWC moratorium was supposed to be in effect. Now that number is at about 40,000, so I have a curtain of 40,000.
What is a typical day like for you?
Oh, boy! Don't ask me now [laughter]. Right now I'm hardly doing any painting as I'm mostly focused on my activism on top of producing a livelihood. The Origami Whales Project has expanded into a number of campaigns. While aware and continuing to volunteer as art actions coordinator at Maui Dolphin Day for over 14 years, I started the “Let’s Face It” Visual Petition campaign about six years ago. This is for the critically endangered Maui dolphins of New Zealand. “Maui” is the name of a Polynesian god. It's not a dolphin that's found on the Island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. It is endemic to New Zealand, found exclusively of the west coast of the North Island of NZ. There are now about 60 or less of these dolphins left. They are a subspecies of the Hector's dolphin, which is found in other coastal areas of New Zealand, and also endangered. Over 90% of the cause of death to these dolphins is drowning in gill nets. I’ve also taken on two more causes: to help Tokitae/Lolita, a lone female orca at the Miami Seaquarium, so that she can return to her home waters and hopefully be reunited with her family (of the Southern Resident Orcas, L-Pod) and still-living mother Ocean Sun. The most recent campaign is to save the Endangered Southern Resident Orcas (J, K, and L-Pods), a fish-eating ecotype of Orca that only eats fish, over 90% of their diet being Chinook/King Salmon.
What is the most rewarding part of your activism?
I would say the most rewarding part is to see victories. However small some may be, people are making changes for the better. I also enjoy public outreach, being inspired by how kids care, and how I can get them stoked and involved. Engaging and empowering children, as well as working with adults and meeting fellow activists, is really great because sometimes I feel alone in the sense that there is hardly anybody that seem to care and are willing to do anything. So when I'm actually at a protest or other event of like-minded people it’s encouraging to see that there actually are people that care and are willing to do something for a cause.
I love my public speaking as a way to raise awareness and hopefully inspire a lot of people to step outside the box and follow their passion. I say to my audience that while I don’t ask them to necessarily join me in saving cetaceans, I urge everyone to take action by doing something about even one thing that matters most to them. There’s a lot going on in the world, where people can contribute their abilities towards making a difference. When people move into action, they give back the gift of empowerment and hope. We need to see more of that in the world!