Friday, December 11, 2009

The Culture of the Marshall Islands

Culture Name

Marshallese; Marshall Islander

Alternative Names

Rālik-Ratak, Marshalls; formally known as the Republic of the Marshall Islands


Identification. The Marshall Islands derive their identity from British Captain William Marshall, who explored the area with Captain Thomas Gilbert in 1788. The atolls were not a cohesive entity until Europeans named and mapped them, and Rālik-Ratak, the Marshallese designation for the leeward and windward chains of atolls, was considered an appellation at the time of independence.

Location and Geography. The Marshall Islands occupy a vast expanse of ocean in the west-central Pacific, from 2,000 to 3,000 miles (3,220 to 4,830 kilometers) south and west of Hawaii. With a mere 66 square miles (171 square kilometers) of land, the twenty-nine low-lying atolls and five coral pinnacles that make up the Marshalls are like fine necklaces of reef and sand spits strewn across the 780,000 square miles (1.26 million square kilometers) of ocean that unifies and separates the atolls. The major atolls are located between 160° and 173° E and 4° and 20° N. The surrounding ocean helps maintain an average temperature of 81° F (27° C) with very little diurnal or yearly variation. Rainfall increases as one nears the equator, with around 60 inches (152 centimeters) per year in the north and 180 inches (460 centimeters) per year in the south. The dry part of the year, November through April, is typified by brisk breezes, and the central month of the wet season, August, often has periods with very little wind. For much of the year northeasterly trade winds provide natural air conditioning. Typhoons are not uncommon in the winter months.

Demography. Since World War II the capital of the Marshall Islands has been located on Majuro, in the southern part of the Ratak chain. With a very high rate of population increase, the Marshall Islands has changed rapidly from 43,380 people in 1988 to a projected population of well over 60,000 in 1999. Residents are very mobile, and nearly 80 percent are now urban. Approximately one-half of the population resides on Majuro Atoll where government employment created a post-independence population explosion. The other urban enclave is Ebeye (Epjā islet), Kwajalein Atoll, one of the world's most densely-populated locations, where many residents work on the United States military base on nearby Kwajalein islet. Other Marshall Islanders choose to reside on one of two dozen inhabited outer atolls or coral pinnacles where a more traditional style of life can be maintained.

Linguistic Affiliation. All residents speak Marshallese, an Austronesian language that shares numerous affinities with other Pacific languages, particularly those of eastern Micronesia. Marshallese dialects began to disappear after missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) arrived on Ebon, in the southern Ralik Chain, in 1857 and developed a transcription system. At least three mutually intelligible dialects remain: Ratak, Rālik, and an Enewetak/Ujelang variant. Former eras of Spanish, German, Japanese, and American administration and intermarriage between Marshall Islanders and other Pacific Islanders mean that Marshall Islanders often learn multiple languages. Many residents understand and/or speak a pidgin English, which has become a lingua franca in the west-central Pacific.

Symbolism. The independent Marshall Islands is perhaps too new to have developed core symbols, metaphors, or traditions, but the image of the rising and setting sun, emblematic of the Ratak "facing toward the windward" (sunrise) and Rālik "facing toward the leeward" (sunset) symbolism forms a central element of the flag. Stick charts which were once used to instruct novice sailors, outrigger canoes, and finely woven pandanus and coconut fiber art produced by Marshallese women, have assumed extraordinary value as images of national integration. Atoll specific celebrations that recognize the end of World War II and the elaborate celebrations of Kūrijmōj (Christmas) are popular communal events.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Beginning with the establishment of the Congress of Micronesia in 1965, local elites representing the various island groups that made up the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands established the Micronesian Political Status Commission in 1967 to explore political options for the future of the region. The range of options that were discussed with representatives of the United States included total independence, a status of free association with the United States, continuing status as a Trust Territory, and integration with the United States. Even though the original negotiations had posited a common future for the Trust Territory, the United States, based on its own differential interests in the region, soon began to negotiate separately with the Northern Mariana Islands. The United States Department of Defense also wished to maintain special rights of access and use in the Marshall Islands and Belau and, on the basis of these strategic advantages, these two districts were also granted separate opportunities to negotiate their political futures. The remaining districts of the Trust Territory, lacking in special resources or strategic value to the United States, were not granted separate negotiational status. The United States favored commonwealth status for the region in 1970, and in 1975 the Northern Mariana Islands voted to become a commonwealth of the United States. Prior to the formal establishment of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, however, the United States reconsidered its initial rejection of free association as a viable option, and the Marshall Islands, Belau, and the remaining districts of the Trust Territory, now known as the Federated States of Micronesia, began to negotiate constitutional governments that would be linked to the United States by compacts of free association. Most elements of self-government were assumed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1970, with formal statehood in free association with the United States decreed by the United States president in 1986. The Republic of the Marshall Islands was welcomed as a member state of the United Nations in 1991.

central element of the flag. Stick charts which were once used to instruct novice sailors, outrigger canoes, and finely woven pandanus and coconut fiber art produced by Marshallese women, have assumed extraordinary value as images of national integration. Atoll specific celebrations that recognize the end of World War II and the elaborate celebrations of Kūrijmōj (Christmas) are popular communal events.

National Identity. National identity remains formative due to recent independent status. People often rely on their atolls of birth and residence to ground their identities, but a cohesive identity is forming. Residence in the United States and elsewhere has fostered people's sense of being, first and foremost, Marshall Islanders. Urbanization also contributes to a homogenous identity, but policies that create an unequal distribution of wealth and a glut of new missions act as counter-cohesive forces.

Ethic Relations. While ethnic diversity on most atolls is limited, Majuro is becoming multi-ethnic in character with representatives from many Pacific and Pacific Rim locales. While no distinct ethnic groups exist in the Marshall Islands, people from atolls with substantial colonial contact—notably Ebon, Jaluij, Kwajalein, Majuro and, to some extent, Wotje and Maloelap—have been historically advantaged by these contacts.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Throughout the Marshall Islands food is not only valued for sustenance, it is used to create and maintain cohesiveness. Meals always balance a drink with a food and use fish or meat to complement the staples. Local staples include breadfruit, arrowroot, pandanus, and taro, and are now supplemented with imported rice, flour, and sugar. Indigenous complements are seafoods, birds, and eggs, supplemented with pig, chicken, and an increasing variety of tinned meats. Coffee and cola have replaced coconut milk as the primary drink. While outer islanders still rely on many indigenous foods from fishing and gathering, overpopulation on Majuro and Ebeye makes residents almost entirely reliant on imports. The limited array of affordable imported foods has resulted in epidemic levels of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and other diet-related diseases.

Basic Economy. The Marshall Islands have successfully marketed their strategic location for military purposes, northern Marshall Islanders' incomes have been supplemented through compensation for post World War II nuclear tests, and attempts have been made to revitalize copra production and energize the fishing industry.

Land Tenure and Property. Land in the Marshall Islands is held in perpetuity by members of clans and extended families, and certain lands and fishing waters are held by the entire community. Practices vary from atoll to atoll, but anthropologists have depicted land as passing through matrilines, though the offspring of male members of the matriline also have residence rights as workers of the land. Other anthropologists have noted bilateral features of land tenure that allow for flexibility in land transfer. On outlying Enewetak and Ujelang, land is a mark of identity claimed bilaterally. Copra production in the nineteenth century greatly increased the power of Marshallese iroij chiefs and alab land heads, since Europeans relied on them to oversee the growing, collection, and processing of coconut. Japanese land registration in the 1930s increased the amount of communal land to which the Japanese-controlled government had access. During the American and post-independence eras, pressures have multiplied to create alienable land that can be bought and sold. Long-term land leases have become popular in Majuro, and a lease that allows the United States Army to use large segments of Kwajalein Atoll provides income for chiefs and land-holders of Kwajalein.

Commercial Activities. Whalers from Europe and the United States were originally attracted to Marshall Islands' waters in the 1830s to 1850s but by the 1860s copra (the production of dried coconut) dominated Europeans' interest in the islands. Copra production under German rule (1885–1915) substantially altered Marshallese social relations. Under Japanese control (between World War I and World War II) copra production continued, supplemented by a fishing industry (dominated by Okinawans), and by exports of phosphorus, coconut husk mats, and handicrafts. Following World War II, the United States had a strategic interest in the Marshall Islands with few attempts at development. As copra prices declined on the world market, Marshall Islanders relied more on the meager income from handicrafts to supplement the subsistence economy. By the 1960s and 1970s, financial assistance programs were instituted to make up for United States neglect of the region and became the major source of income. Since independence, United States aid has been supplemented by programs from other Pacific Rim countries.

Major Industries. A small garment manufacturing industry has been started, and many government officials hold out hopes for future tourism.

Trade. Other than the islands' strategic location, which has been marketed to the United States as part of the Compact of Free Association agreement, the main exports include fish and fishing rights in Marshallese waters and products derived from dried coconut. In addition, the re-export of dyes figures prominently in the list of 1990s exports. Foods, fuel, automobiles, machinery and transportation equipment, manufactured goods, materials, and beverages and tobacco make up the bulk of imported goods.

Division of Labor. Division of labor is largely based on gender and age, with special positions held by chiefs, land heads, extended family heads, and by local pastors. In urban areas, an elite made up of chiefs, the descendants of half-caste families, and, increasingly, educated young adults, hold most government positions and public or private sector jobs.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. In the past highly ranked persons were at the center or windward end of discussion circles and elevated above compatriots or were seated on the ocean side of persons of lesser rank.

Since independence, an emergent class structure has become apparent in urban sectors with radical differences in wealth between the rich and poor. In part, the class structure reflects the distribution of jobs but, at its highest levels, reflects a monopoly of political power among a group of chiefs and a small set of English-speaking half-caste residents and other elite families. The distinction between chief and commoner is long standing. Until the mid-1800s chiefdoms were small, seldom including more than one or two atolls. With colonial support, the power and influence of the chief increased.

Symbols of Social Stratification. In the past intricate tatoos distinguished men and women of higher class from commoners. Renowned warriors and those respected as navigators and medical specialists also displayed their identities through distinctive tatoos. Restricted speech genres were also used to interact with those of highest rank. Speaking styles are divided into honorific and ordinary styles today. Marshall Islanders commonly wear American-style dress modified it to local norms but elite styles of costly dress and personal adornment are increasing as signs of emergent class distinctions.

Marriage, Family and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage is permitted between members of different clans who are related as immediate or extended cross-cousins, but due to internal and trans-national mobility, marriage with non-related foreigners is also frequent. Youths select spouses from the large group of cross-cousin and unrelated potential marriage partners, but many marriages do not last. Once a couple has a stable relationship divorce is infrequent, though not prohibited. Stable couples have typically resided for a period of time on lands of one of the couple's parents, have established ancestral status with the birth of one or two children, and have become recognized members of the community. Polygamy, at one time permitted, was prohibited by missionaries and now is not condoned. Urbanization has created stress in many marriages, and domestic violence is not uncommon. Nevertheless, on the outer atolls, marriage provides an entry into the community exchange system balancing the husband's provisioning tasks with a wife's responsibility to transform raw foods into edibles, combining a woman's ability to transfer core clan identity to offspring with the man's ability to shape the child's physical features, and providing pathways that embed the couple and their offspring in extended families and community of which they are an integral, contributing part.

Domestic Unit. Elevated sleeping platforms have always separated highly ranked family members from others. Members of one to four or five households that are part of the same extended family comprise typical cookhouse groups. The extended family may be from one matri-clan but often cookhouse groups are comprised of residents related through male or male and female ties. One or more respected elder, female or male, heads the cookhouse group, though robust young males and females often do the provisioning and food preparation. Girls and boys from about age five perform household duties, and elders too old to cook or fish weave mats and handicraft or repair tools, dwellings, and watercraft. The irrelevance of this once-integrated extended family task orientation, from more nucleated residence patterns, and from a reliance on cash provisioning rather than sharing, has placed strains on urban families.

Inheritance. The core of one's identity, derived from one's mother, provides the central item of inheritance, though bio-cultural links with one's father determine external features of self. With warfare prohibition and the focus on copra, land holding transmittals were largely restricted to matri-clan pathways, but males in good standing retain worker's rights on the land for one or more generations. On Ujelang and Enewetak atolls, land may be transferred along male or female pathways though, as throughout the Marshall Islands, actively working the land to transform it from bush into living space is a critical way to establish rights to use clan or extended family lands. In ancient times, a person's possessions were burned at his or her death and, until the recent appearance of class distinctions, meager amounts of personal property remained to be distributed. While immediate family members might keep small mementos, all other property is distributed to distant community members.

Kin Groups. Beyond the bounds of cookhouse groups, Marshall Islanders are members of large extended kin groups and remain linked to those relatives through shared companionship, shared land, shared clanship (transmitted through females), or shared blood (transmitted through males). These identity groups often extend beyond the bounds of an atoll. One's position as a member of a village segment, a village, a district, and an atoll are important elements of identity, and one's position in a religious organization, a Christmas–time song-fest group, a handicraft and mat manufacturing circle, or a sailing group may be of equal importance. In the outer island setting, most of these groups interact regularly, creating overlapping networks of close-knit relatives. While identity groups are fairly effective in urban settings, high mobility and the market economy do not provide time or support for shared daily activities that are the substance of such identity groups.

Please visit the site to read more on these topics: Urbanization, Architecture, and the Use of Space, Political Life, Social Welfare and Change Programs, Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations, Gender Roles and Statuses, Socialization, Etiquette, Religion, Medicine and Health Care, Secular Celebrations, The Arts and Humanities, The State of the Physical and Social Sciences.

Anonymous. 2009. "Culture of Marshall Islands". Every
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