Page 1


Marshallese Time

because real time is overrated

A Changing Paradise: 67,000 people cling to a culture that crumbles beneath them


Islanders’ magic word­ Canaries in a Coal Mine

As low-lying coral atolls, the Islands are an environmental disaster waiting to happen

Interviews with Lieutenant-Colonel Mills & Stan Jazwinski SPRING 2012 The College of Wooster

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


features Changing Face of 6 The Paradise Between zealous missionaries, its isolated location and inevitable modernization, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) faces innumerable challenges that threaten its very survival as a country.

24 Unnatural Isles

For isolated tropical islands, the Islands at large are not quite exotic, natural beauties. Innumerable changes and improvements have altered them to a point most of what you see is artificial — including the ground beneath your feet.

28 Canaries in a Coal Mine It doesn’t take a seasoned climatologist to predict that if climate change proceeds as expected, this nation will be one of the most quickly and dramatically affected.

24 Unnatural Isles

The Matrilineal Recession

33 Living on the Edge

The restrictions and isolated location of the Islands lead their residents to try a variety of new experiences — some that are safer than others.

31 Interviews & 38

A Nuclear Past

Longtime resident Stan Jazwinski and Director of Host Nations Activities Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Mills speak with unique perspectives on Island life and the Army’s relationship with Marshallese.


Marshallese Time Spring 2012



40 Yokwe; you are a rainbow

A peek into the intricacies of the Marshallese tongue, and the sounds, meanings and uses that outline its role in a modern world.

11 Tōpe?

It may not mean “please,” but tōptōp is still the “magic word” ­in Marshallese and a custom that’s survived for millennia. Islanders use tōptōp to acquire possessions, from jewelry and clothing to televisions — all in the name of tradition and equality. And once you’ve given away a possession, there’s no getting it back.

opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living 5



Facts Everything you need to know about the Marshall Islands — from total population to people to religions.

Kwaj Kids Speak Past residents of Kwajalein Island explain the fierce attachment they have for their home island.

Tales of a haunting With a past of hostile occupations and bloody battles, Kwajalein Atoll has more than its share of ghostly occurrences.



A day at the races In lieu of horse or greyhound racing, Islanders have developed a sport entirely of their own — hermit crab racing.

Bare Necessities Some crucial items visitors and new residents need while on this Pacific military base.

Recipes 32 Make your own moonshine or Kool-Aid ramen; (recipes not for the faint of heart or liver).

& Now 37 Then “The Rock” has experienced some dramatic structural and aesthetic changes over the years.

Scoop on ‘nuts 43 The In addition to impacting the language itself, coconuts have a huge variety of uses in the Islands, from food to building materials and even emergency IVs. Marshallese describe their unique uses for the fruit on page 43.

Marshallese Time Marshallese Time Spring 2012


Marshallese Time [Because real time is overrated] SPRING 2012 THE COLLEGE OF WOOSTER WOOSTER, OHIO

EDITOR IN CHIEF H. Kris Fronzak ADVISOR Suzanne Daly PHOTOGRAPHERS Ivy Springer, Scott & Jeanette Johnson, Callie Hendrix, Catherine Layton, Sheila Gideon, The Kwajalein Hourglass, H. Kris Fronzak Following seven months of intensive research, brainstorming, overthinking, interviewing, abandoning stories, designing pages and general tirelessness, I am pleased to present the inaugural edition of “Marshallese Time.” I was hesitant to choose the Marshall Islands as the subject of my undergraduate thesis, for fear that the topic was too time-consuming, too broad, or too far beyond my capabilities. Suzanne Daly, my advisor, helped allay these fears by being wholly encouraging and knowledgeable, and by letting me launch directly into the research and writing when many of my peers were still mulling over ideas and forcing their way through enormous, convoluted texts. Within these pages, you’ll find articles, stories and testimonials that are both inspiring and quietly heartbreaking. The saga of the Marshallese people is both fascinating and depressing, as they struggle to maintain a cultural identify while adapting to a new and “modern” lifestyle. I hope the content strikes a chord in your psyche, the kind of chord that provokes thought and goes on humming long after you turn the final page.

H. Kris Fronzak


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

INTERVIEWEES Fumiko Kemem, Herden Lelet, Helpert Alfred, Jeff Fronzak, Jelton Anjain, Jesse Riketa, Junior Anitak, LTC Christopher Mills, Mike Sakaio, Prescilla Consul, Scott Johnson, Sheila Gideon, The Sholar Family, Stan Jazwinski, Stella Lorok, Steve DeLange, Terri Hibberts

Island Time is brought to you by Hannah Kris Fronzak, and represents a portion of her thesis project, completed at The College of Wooster, Ohio.

ON THE COVER Photo by Callie Hendrix, taken on Kwajalein Island, RMI. Says Hendrix, “I photographed the flowers this year while on a photo safari around the island trying to capture some island scenery.” Several of Hendrix’s other shots can be found throughout the magazine, and are the featured images on pages 6, 19 and 28.

opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living

National Anthem: Rammon Aelin kein am (Forever Marshall Islands)

Constitution: Adopted on May 1, 1979

Currency: U.S. Dollar

Agriculture: Copra (dried coconut meat) and breadfruit

GDP: $133 million (in 2008)

Population: Approximately 67,000

Ethnic Groups: 90 percent Marshallese, 10 percent American, Filipino and other

Main religions: Protestant, Assemblies of God, Roman Catholic Marshallese Time Spring 2012



Marshallese Time Spring 2012

A few degrees north of the equator, in the Pacific Ocean, lie a series of islands where everyone is laid-back and friendly. If an event starts on time, it’s cause for surprise — and frustration by most of the attendees, who arrive at least 15 minutes late. Walking or bike riding is the preferred mode of transportation. In fact, the outlook is so sunny that visitors can’t help but feel happy. Now, look closer.


The Changing Face of

Paradise of 2008. At the time, our biggest concerns consisted of whether the family poodle, Ginger, was allowed to make the move with us, and how we would transport our earthly possessions there. You may be wondering why anyone would go to the Islands in the first place. I certainly did, and sometimes still do. My family (the Fronzak clan) moved there two days after my high school graduation, in a flurry of boarding passes, overstuffed suitcases and crushed, oozing sandwiches in plastic baggies. My father’s job was wrapping up, so we had known for about a year that a move was inevitable, but it was still a shock when it happened. Our options included Washington State, which my dad took to calling the “armpit of the country,” despite the fact that he’d never actually been there, or the Marshall Islands, which seemed sunny, exotic and far more exciting. The choice was obvious, and at any rate, the U.S. economy was slowly but inevitably

collapsing. In the interest of avoiding the depression, we sold the house and cars and were soon on our way. The journey to and from Kwaj is nothing short of exhausting. Even if the total flight time doesn’t bother you,

photo courtesy Linn Ezell

These balmy and sunny tropical islands may sit mere degrees from the equator, but they’re several thousand miles from any sizable land mass. The only cellphone service is local, so you’d better make concrete plans over a landline before you gather with friends — not that there’s anywhere to go unless you enjoy water sports or need to run errands. Shopping, entertainment and restaurants are few and far between, unless you enjoy perusing the shelves of a hardware store or eating at Burger King. Internet might as well not exist. And unless you’re in the water and slathered in sunscreen, you’d better not be outside between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. You may not be a witch, but you’ll still melt. These are all things I wish my family had known before we made our way to Kwajalein Island (fondly referred to as ‘Kwaj’), part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), in the summer

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


Kwajalein Island population over time

the eight-hour time difference almost definitely will. Memories of my eventual arrival to Kwaj are hazy and revolve around being sweaty and uncomfortable — my father’s coworkers graciously met us at the airport and were determined to give us a thorough tour of the island before we even brought overstuffed luggage to our new home. After several good nights of sleep and days that consisted of finding my bicycle legs, being alarmed by the man who rode his bike wearing only a Speedo and trying not to get lost, I decided I could learn to love the island lifestyle — even the heat, isolation and dial-up Internet. With that love came a deep awareness of things amiss. The RMI has played host to a series of oppressors throughout the centuries. It started with Spanish explorers, who came across native people thriving in the vast Pacific and decided to claim the land and its people for their own. The Islands were then occupied by Germans, Japanese and, most recently, Americans. The transient and unpredictable lifestyle of the Marshallese has been irrevocably altered from this up close and personal contact with different cultures. Occupiers touched every aspect of Marshallese lives, from the traditional religions to the language, diet, social structure and priorities in life. Over a remarkably swift period of time, Marshallese shifted from a traditional, subsistence-based lifestyle to one invested in money, earthly possessions, Christianity and connecting with the world at large. More recently, the U.S. occupation has created a Marshallese appreciation of technology and education which changed the culture in a multitude of ways.

statistics courtesy Stan Jazwinski

Non-native civilians and military personnel living on various islands within the archipelago have experienced their own loss of place and culture, even within the past few decades. The advent of technology to the nation has taken a toll on residents, especially those who remember the days of sitting on friends’ porches drinking lemonade and complaining about jobs and the heat. Today, many residents of Kwaj simply stay indoors and watch television. Americans’ loss of place is acute for other reasons as well, since the U.S. government has been slowly but steadily downsizing the number of civilians on islands within Kwajalein Atoll, as evidenced by the graph above. The total number has decreased from a peak of almost 3,000 people in 1989 to a mere 1,232 in November of 2011. The population is even smaller today, and rumors abound about the permanent closing

of Kwajalein Jr./Sr. High School and increased outsourcing of jobs to the States. Luckily, the U.S. recently extended the Compact of Free Association with the RMI until 2066, which allows us to continue utilizing the military bases in exchange for providing financial assistance and defense for the Islands. The Compact may not be enough to hold the pieces of these changing islands together, however. As coral atolls, the Marshall Islands are extremely low-lying and do not fare well under weather disasters. They’ll be among the first casualties in the silent battle with sea level rise. With an average height of seven feet above sea level, any sort of climate change could be catastrophic, and permanently change the face of this island nation. The Marshall Islands invoke strong emotions in their inhabitants. Newcom-


Over a remarkably swift period of time, Marshallese shifted from a traditional, subsistence-based lifestyle to one invested in earthly possessions.



Marshallese Time Spring 2012

photo courtesy Ivy Springer

The destination: Kwajalein Island, the southernmost island of Kwajalein Atoll, is an anomaly within the greater mass that is the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Kwajalein (shown at bottom right) is one of several islands for which the U.S. Government pays millions of dollars to “rent” for our military, as part of our joint Compact of Free Association. The bases function as a refueling ground for ships, a hub for Marshallese-American relations and, most importantly, as the heart of military defense tactics — namely, missile tracking and defense against hostile countries that might decide to launch a big one over to the continental U.S. Ideally, the systems and personnel on Kwajalein would react quickly and precisely enough to intercept the enemy projectile, harmlessly exploding it in midair. The question of whether we’re actually capable of doing so remains unanswered, since no country has been aggressive enough to launch more than an ill-defined threat against the U.S., let alone open fire on its land. But Kwaj is just one island. Surrounding this strip of land are dozens of other small islands that make up the atoll, which, in turn, is surrounded by 28 other atolls. In total, the RMI has about 1,225 islands totaling about 70 square miles of land — a difficult number to calculate when you consider that some islands only surface during low tide. The other islands are generally either uninhabited or, conversely, host native populations of thousands of Marshallese, packed into crude homes. At last esti-

mate, there were 67,000 people packed onto those 70 square miles of land. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than on Ebeye (shown at right), an island located immediately north of Kwajalein along the coral reef. It is one of the most densely populated islands on the planet, with approximately 13,000 people (as of 2011) located on a mere .36 square miles. According to the World Atlas, the country as a whole is the twenty-first most densely populated in the world, even with its many uninhabited islands factored in. Ebeye’s proximity to the thriving American population on Kwajalein makes their destitution all the more noticeable. In contrast to corrugated tin and plywood homes, spotty electricity and contaminated water, Kwajalein is a community with everything you could need. Sure, there might not be cars, a restaurant or a movie theater, but all the essentials are there — residents really have no reason to complain, though many still do.


ers either love the heat and the lifestyle, or get off the plane onto tarmac blurry with heat waves and decide within a few hours to leave immediately. In my three years on Kwajalein, I met several people who sold cars and homes and spent thousands of dollars on travel in order to fulfill a two-year contract that they broke a week after arriving on the Islands. Even my blossoming loyalty to Kwaj pales in comparison to that of long-time residents. The native Marshallese remain fiercely proud of their homeland, and fight vigorously to retain their values and culture despite immense poverty and strong influences from other cultures. Many emigrate to the U.S. to pursue bet-

ter jobs and send money back to their families in the Islands. Emigrant Marshallese tend to congregate together, clinging to familiar foods, language and people while in a foreign land. Island love extends to Americans living there under contract as well. When jobs are complete and families forced to return to the States, many ex-residents find themselves returning to the Islands one or 20 years later, through some quiet determination and love of the lifestyle and community. The most passionate of these are “Kwaj Kids”; people who spend a portion of their childhood on Kwajalein Island. Kwaj Kids are so devoted to the island that many of them graduate from high school and spend a

month at college in the real world before declaring the entire institution useless and seeking gainful employment back home on Kwaj. The place attachment they demonstrate is almost tangible (see interview on page 10). By now, it should appear clear that the RMI isn’t only a sweaty, flat spit of land in the middle of a vast ocean. It’s home to people who have spent thousands of years crafting a culture of their own. It’s also home to less permanent residents — Americans willing to change their lives by flying across the world to work and raise families there. Losing the RMI and the irreplaceable features within from downsizing, emigration or climate change would be tragic indeed. MT Marshallese Time Spring 2012


opinion - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living Kwaj Kids

Speak Barry C. – I tell people it is my home

not only because I was born there, but also because it is the place where I developed most as a person. I learned how to live life while out there. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Farrah M. – Kwaj dramatically

shaped the person I am today, in more ways than one. The current Kwaj is different from the one I remember, and that’s sad, but the memories I have will never change. The number one item on my bucket list is to make it back for a visit.

Philip W. – I have lived most of my

life in Massachusetts but spent three years on Kwaj. [Those years] deeply influenced my life and worldview. I am nostalgic for the memory of what was, but not what we did to the native culture. It was idyllic as a young child but I could not go back there in such a naïve state now.

Marni C. – It was strange to live on an island paradise with missiles and engines of war turned all around you. It was strange to go to school with the children of rocket scientists, and then see those same scientists going to work in flip-flops, on a bike. It was strange to know that “The Slum of the Pacific” was


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

Previous and current residents of Kwajalein, called “Kwaj Kids,” discuss their time on the Big Island, and the place attachment they experience today.

our next-door neighbor and that we were considered a country club (even in our 20-year-old trailers). It was strange, but I wouldn’t have traded growing up there for any other place in the world.

When folks left, reality hit. Rent or mortgages had to be paid, vacations were to grandma’s rather than an exotic destination ... I feel fortunate to have spent so much time there and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Shannon M. – I think one connection is that everyone was in the same Brett M. – Few people had the opboat. There were no mansions, no one portunity to live on Kwaj. That unique had a fancy car; we were all the same. My experience bonds us regardless of era, friends were Filipino, Korean, Japanese, duration or age. I remember adults sayand there weren’t any ising they “need to go back sues with that. There to the real world” and were so few kids in I always thought, why each grade it made it Kwajalein was a fan- leave? If I had a mila closer group. lion dollars I’d want to tasy life, and a damn live the way I do now Cliff G. – It can’t good fantasy at that ... I — tropical island, no be described, can’t be worries, great wouldn’t trade the expe- financial explained and can’t be people and all of this understood. Can only flying under the U.S. rience for anything. be experienced, apflag ... paradise. preciated and missed dearly. Andrea M. – Most of us can’t explain why we call Kwaj Alan T. – Kwajalein was a fantasy life, home or are especially nostalgic for it. and a damn good fantasy at that. No cars, Not even our spouses understand it! free movies, golf course, sporting events They just know that when we have a getand a close community where if sometogether it is going to be a good time. No one did something bad, they were on the matter how long we have been apart, we next plane out. A bit of a police state that pick right up where we left off. The years way, but it helped perpetuate the fantasy. fall away.



mericans have a tendency to look down upon cultures that rely on gifts as a method of declaring status or repaying debts. It’s much easier to stick with the dollar, which has a consistent (though changing) value and an agreed-upon purpose. But, in truth, almost all societies engage in the practice of “gifting,” whether we openly admit it or not. If you’re presented with something nice for your birthday, aren’t you going to reciprocate when the giver’s big day comes around? In Marshallese society, where elders are held in high regard and family is everything, remarkable exchanges are made. The encompassing term for these exchanges is tōpe (pronounced “the-bay”), which means “you have” when loosely translated. The noun form of this concept is tōptōp. Tōptōp is a kind of compulsory gifting — once someone sees that “you have” an item that they appreciate, it’s theirs. It’s an integral part of their manit (customs and values) that can lead to unexpected loss of possessions. The practice also causes intentional misdirection, where possessions are


now we lock up the house and rent a hidden from a potential recipient. First room at the Plaza for parties,” said birthdays are widely celebrated among Stella Lorok, a resident of Ebeye. “If Marshallese, since the traditionally high there’s any resentment, you aren’t supinfant mortality rate drops precipitously posed to show it. You aren’t allowed to if a child survives his first year of life. ask for something back, either.” As a result, first birthday parties (kemem) It may seem foreign and incredible, are a public affair, and parents are exbut gifts are a very transparent part of pected to invite family, the community many societies — even in electoral proand nearby royalty to the celebration, cesses. In Samoa, for example, fine mats which is usually held in their home. are given out to influence voters. TransTo minimize tōptōp-related damage parency International, an organization during the festivities, some hosts take that raises awareness about corruption, large items (couches, televisions, etc.) explained in a 2004 report that gifts to into a locked room for the duration of chieftains are “an integral part of electhe party. Smaller items such as shirts tion campaigns” in Fiji. In the Marshall and handcrafted goods are hung from Islands in the 1960s, Chief Lejolan Kathe rafters of the main rooms, inviting bua returned from a trip outside of the attendees to take whatever they like. Islands bearing “fairy lights, a stereo It is a complete reversal of traditional system and a small car” for his people. U.S. birthdays, where gifts are generally given to the host. “I had six kids, In certain situations, refusing to which means I hosted six firstgive or accept gifts is the equivalent birthday parties. of refusal of friendship or interMy husband and I figured it out course. pretty quickly —

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


Breadfruit is just one of the many traditional Marshallese foods that were widely shared using the custom of tōptōp. On Kwajalein Atoll, the tradition is still very much alive. Resident Anram (Chi-Chi) Kemem once traveled with his immediate family to visit relatives on another island. Chi-Chi’s family is an interesting example of a purely Marshallese, royal family that have become first-generation “Americans.” They live on Kwajalein Island, where Mr. Kemem works as the island detective, but most of their extended family and friends reside on surrounding, non-American islands. To keep close to relatives and show respect, the Kemems often visit other atolls. On one trip, Chi-Chi made the mistake of bringing along one of his most prized possessions — the guitar his parents had given him a month prior. The family planned to sing traditional songs together and play music. All ChiChi wanted to do was demonstrate his newfound skills, but the moment he pulled his guitar out of its case, one of his older relatives noticed and complimented the guitar. In accordance with respect for elders (especially elders to whom you’re also related) Chi-Chi was obligated to offer him the guitar. It was accepted — once an item is offered, societal norms prevent the recipient from refusing a gift, whether it be 12

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

food, jewelry, or even sistence-based. After all, it makes sense expensive electronics. for a man to give fish or breadfruit to Nancy Pollock, an his friends or relatives if he has more anthropologist, has exthan enough for his own family. plained that even after exRMI Relations Specialist Mike Sakaio tensive research, no reports agrees. “In this cultural setting, it’s natuwere made of gifts deemed ral for family members to ask you for so excessive that they were things if you have more than they do. returned. Marshallese I You have an obligation to family to spoke with on the subshare and try to help them. It’s one of ject disagreed, saying that the challenges that adults and caretakers anyone can refuse to give face today.” if they so desire. HowThough the practice is still wideever, no one could recall spread, it has adapted to the times. Most an example of people actually modern examples of tōptōp coincide doing so. with holidays or other special events — “If you’re friends with someone, but though Marshallese still share food and not related, they could take anything. personal items with one another. They could pick up my TV and walk “We have a saying; ‘to share is to out of my house, and I wouldn’t say love,’” said Harden Lelet, an unofficial anything. You’d even do it to someone Marshallese translator and USAKA’s of a lower rank than you,” said Jelton special assistant for RMI affairs. “If Anjain, the RMI Representative to you ask for something valuable, they’ll USAKA [“U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll,” give it to you, even if you just complithe official name of this particular miliment it.” tary installation]. Tōptōp is a silent understanding beBeyond this, author Marcel Mauss extween parties, as well as a gesture of replains in “The Gift” that refusing to give spect. But neglecting to follow this manit or accept gifts is the equivalent of “refusal can make tōptōp a harrowing experience. of friendship or intercourse.” It is also an Although most Marshallese converted invitation for bad luck, since it’s an unspoto Christianity in the 19th century, traken belief that failing to give results in ill ditional beliefs linger. Black magic is still fortune. greatly feared, especially among natives From that point on, many of Chi“People think that if you don’t invite Chi’s friends found themselves lending others, they might put black magic him their guitars, on you. It’s part of the reason often for weeks at a time. The Kemems Marshallese are so friendly.” lost an additional guitar and several -Helpert Alfred beach chairs that day, though neither of those losses cut as acutely as the loss of Chi-Chi’s perof the outer islands. To offend somesonal guitar. one, especially a person of high rank, is As Chi-Chi discovered later, his famto guarantee they will put black magic ily knew what was expected of them on you, which can cause a variety of ailwhen they visited the island. His parments, unhappiness and bad luck. Many ents had brought along the additional people shared stories of friends and relguitar and the beach chairs as a gesture atives possessed by spirits that had been of respect and out of superstition. angered by past transgressions. The practice seems to be a carryover “If you walk down the street in the from when the culture was wholly subouter islands and see someone cooking,

it’s customary for whoever’s cooking to invite you to sit by the fire and eat. We think that if you don’t, people might put black magic on you,” said Pilot Helpert Alfred. “It’s part of the reason Marshallese are so friendly. We share because it’s what we’ve grown up doing.” Even infants aren’t safe from the clutches of demons and black magic. In fact, they are more vulnerable than older children and adults, for a variety of practical and superstitious reasons. “Evil spirits can affect an infant if they move around too much, spend too much time in the dark, or if you leave them alone for even a short while. Birth through the first year of a person’s life is when they’re the most vulnerable to anything, so passing that first year is a huge relief,” said Alfred. “That’s why tōptōp is so important during first birthday parties.” In an intriguing extension of this idea, gifting even applies to Marshallese in-

In a more universal sense of the concept of giving, a Marshallese girl shares some of her sno-cone while parents look on.

fants. Community and kinship are vital parts of Marshallese life, and adoption of children between relatives is a common phenomenon, regardless of whether or not the birth parents have the ability to care for their offspring. The practice is explained more fully in “The Matrilineal Recession,” which begins on the following page. MT

tōptōp in action

The role of yokwe

“The culture used to be that you’d say ‘yes’ to anyone, but it’s not so much that way anymore. We had a lot of love a long time ago. You know the term ‘yokwe’? [‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘I love you’]. Yeah, we had a lot of yokwe back then. That’s why we give things so easily, and why even extended families will stay together, and we’ll take care of them.” -Junior Anitak

Bigej Island

Gifts are essential when traveling to or using land that rightfully belongs to Marshallese. Bigej (shown here) is a small island located north of Kwajalein. Very few families choose to eke out a living amongst the jungles and tar pits that dot the landscape. But for non-natives, Bigej is an exciting adventure, perfect for fishing and camping trips. Upon arriving on Bigej, visitors are expected to seek out residents and present them with gifts such as uncooked white rice in exchange for using their land.

Taking advantage

“A few years ago, an American friend of mine who knew of the custom went up to a Marshallese woman and said “That’s a lovely purse.” Immediately, the woman emptied her purse and just gave it to her. It was awful — my friend knew better than to compliment her.” ­-Cindy Friesz

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


church day. It seems wrong, but then you look at the way men treat their wives, and it’s obvious that they have great respect for women.


Social Structure

Although many values once held sacred by the Marshallese are falling by the wayside, compelling traditions remain (Photo courtesy Ashlee Skinner).

The matrilineal recession

The role of Marshallese women in politics, at home and beyond


o the outsider looking in, women in the Marshall Islands seem oppressed. They are generally relegated to a domestic lifestyle, are not terribly outspoken in public and wear dresses that cover their bodies from elbow to calf. A peek into the lives of Marshallese women is nothing short of fascinating 14

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

as they contrast so strongly to those of Americans. We have countless unions and labor laws and forced equality. We are horrified by the idea that women still make approximately 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. In the Islands, however, women stay home to mind the children and do little more than shop, make commercial crafts and sing in a choir on

Marshallese generally follow a matrilineal social structure, with land passing from female to female. Much of the power also goes to the wife of the household. Though men are expected to provide for their families and may seem controlling in public, “The New Shape of Old Island Cultures” by Francis X. Hezel asserts “women’s behindthe-scenes decisions often dominate.” Men often consult women to gain their approval before making decisions. Their position in society has been likened to that of a shadow government that may not operate publicly but has great power and control nonetheless. The overarching theme is one of respect, with women deferring to men and the men trusting the opinions and choices of females, especially those related by blood or marriage. Modern complications stem from the slow but inexorable decline in the traditional matrilineal structure. Marshallese lived under the rule of various foreign administrations for centuries before independence, and according to, the country’s population has more than doubled in the last 30 years. The population’s rapid expansion and the transplantation of Western values have seriously undermined customary roles in many nations in the Pacific. Thousand of Marshallese have moved beyond the islands, further complicating the issue of land rights and ownership. “We typically took land titles and clan names from the mother’s side, but when the Europeans came, it started to change somewhat,” explained Helpert Alfred, a native of Majuro Island. “Today there’s a lot of confusion about clans and what land they own. Families have grown larger and some have left the Islands completely, so you have to go back through the family tree to figure all of that out.” Remaining matrilineal areas such as the RMI have not been well studied in terms of women’s roles and relationships to the land. Much of the current

information on the anthropological record is based on statistics and profiles of individual women, which are instructive but fail to explain the true underpinnings of women’s roles today. As noted in a recent Millennium Development Goals report, “the current political environment is not ‘gender’ sensitive and/or does not readily view women’s issues as a national priority.” Little progress has been made in raising awareness of issues such as domestic violence or income disparities between men and women, though Marshallese women do not hesitate to speak out when their land rights are under attack. “An Kora Aelon Kein,” a study by Kristina Stege, found that ties to the land provide these women with a critical power base in a political environment predominated by men. As with many Micronesian nations, chiefs are typically chosen by women of rank. Lerooj (female chieftains) are among the few females who have managed to succeed in the realm of electoral politics. Stege found that within the 33-member Parliament, there has never been more than one female senator at any given time. A 2010 report on the Islands to the United Nations General Assembly explains that although the presence of women in local government has

“improved slightly over the years,” the the traditional legends and were able overall numbers are negligible. to tell me about the old giant who kills Tradition seems to dictate that women people by casting his net over them, or reign in the domestic sphere, and wield the way to determine when someone was subtle but dominant power. This is repossessed, but no one could remember peatedly demonstrated in ancient legmore than a few aspects of any story. ends that are of vital importance in a so“When I was young, they used to tell ciety that, until recently, was fully based me lots of stories, but I didn’t really lison oral history. In “Marshall Islands Legten. Ebeye has the most modern stuff, ends and Stories,” by Daniel Kelin and so we were more excited by that than the Nashton T. Nashton, women often outold legends. We’d say, ‘Oh, those are lies!’ wit demons and the men who prey on and run off to play,” said Junior Anitak, them. The sex, as a whole, is portrayed a USAKA contractor living on Ebeye. in contrasting ways in these stories — Due to the advance of Western values cunning but generous, and patient but and government, and without legends vengeful. Woman in these stories mainand oral histories to serve as reminders, tain family traditions, wield magic and often ALL ABOUT MUUMUUS trick unwitting men. – To gain a better unMarshallese families, especially those living on Kwaderstanding of women’s jalein Island, commonly allow teenage girls to wear modern roles, I decided “American” clothing. A majority of older females, to discuss the more pophowever, exclusively wear muu-muus. These colorful ular legends with Islanddresses reach from elbow to knee, and boast bright, ers. Unfortunately, during floral patterns on the hemlines and bust. I sat down my years on the Islands with Fumiko Kemem to discuss the custom. and even on my latest visit, which was exclusively KF: I’ve noticed that Marshallese women only for research purposes, I cross their legs at the ankle, as opposed to could find no one able to Americans who cross at the knees. Why is that? bwebwenado (“talk story”) FK: Necessity — you have to make sure your dress is with me. Many Marshaldown. And your knees can’t ever show. lese knew portions of KF: Why the knees? FK: I don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s because after the knees, your legs go all the way up here [gestures to pelvis]. KF: The Islands are pretty windy. What happens if your dress flies up? FK: I’ve never seen it happen. Everyone is careful and uses their hand to hold it down if they must. KF: I see a lot of younger girls in shorts and pants. What age do girls start wearing muumuus? FK: It depends on the parents. I never wore pants, even when I was really young.

Power and status are determined by land ownership, which used to fall exclusively to women — but emigration of Marshallese and an influx of Western values are changing that tradition.

KF: Anything else? FK: You can never give your brother’s wife a dress you’ve worn, because if you’re sitting properly, you put dresses between your legs. Sometimes the husband will lie down on the wife’s lap, so it’s not good if you’ve worn a dress already.

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


the roles of women are slowly but inexorably declining.

Above all else are the issues of cost and privacy. Dr. Julie Walsh, a specialist for the Center for Pacific Studies in Birth Control Hawaii and coauthor of a RMI history Intense pressure from dominant forbook used by the Islands’ Ministry of eign administrations such as the U.S. has Education, has studied the culture extenother effects as well. Historically, the sively. She has found that even if a wombirth rate was kept low using traditional an has enough money to purchase birth birth control methods and fertility maincontrol, the public nature of the culture tained at two to three children per womprevents her from taking it without the an. According to the Food and Agriculentire family’s knowledge. ture Organization (FAO) of the U.N., It’s an uncomfortable enough issue for westernization of Marshallese lifestyles adults, and one that proves even more has facilitated higher birth rates. Infant problematic for sexually active teens. mortality rates have also plummeted “Because parents do not discuss sex as overall lifespans lengthen. Despite with their children, and sex education these advances, the is not taught in role of women in schools, most Marshallese society Marshallese chilJined kibid has not evolved. dren and teens In fact, women are “Our mothers are the are not presentfalling behind. With with adequate rudders of a canoe” ed the introduction of information to U.S. government make informed jobs and a new system of Marshallese decisions about birth control,” Walsh exparliament, women are limited to materplained on an online forum. That, comnal roles. bined with the culture’s disinclination for “Birth control was only introduced in planning ahead, led to high rates of teenAmerican culture, which is part of the age pregnancies in the islands. Dr. Jimmy reason why Marshallese families are so Santos, an ob-gyn from Majuro Hospihuge,” said Stella Lorok, an Ebeye resital, found that from 1996-2001, teendent. “Plus, in old days, the larger the age pregnancies accounted for around family, the better the chance of being 18 percent of total births in the Islands. well-known.” Overall rates have decreased somewhat Since value is placed on having large in recent years. families regardless of the consequencWhen used, the most common forms es, birth control is generally not wanted. of birth control are Norplant implants, One woman even declared that conthe Pill and Depo-Provera shots. The doms “look funny,” and said she would shots are administered once every three not use them. months, thus providing some privacy Birth control is available; however, its for women. Norplant implants last up presence is a silent one in most comto five years, but a high initial cost may munities. Prejudice exists regarding its deter potential users. use. Some people believe it’s an indica“I use the Depo-Provera shot betion that a woman is cheating on her cause I wanted to do family planning. husband. Others have entirely different reasons. “Marshallese men perceive birth control as us thinking they aren’t ‘man’ enough,” explained Lorok. It’s not a perception likely to change in the near future, since acknowledging the matter is culturally prohibited. The nin plant is “I discuss it with my two younger used to treat many ailsons, and it’s a big taboo that my family ments in the Marshalls, has given me. But if I have to be labeled from menstrual cramps a bad Marshallese, then so be it,” Lorok and fever to cancer. continued.


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

It is against my beliefs, though, because I’m Catholic,” one woman explained. “I don’t really discuss it with people.”


Post-birth traditions are a memorable example of the strength and resiliency of Marshallese culture. Though manit such as gifting and story telling are falling by the wayside, any “true” Marshallese woman religiously undergoes a full month of traditional medicine after a child is born. The routine includes drinking “muddy-tasting” herbal tea, sitting in pans of boiling medicinal water, and receiving massages inside the vaginal canal every day except Sunday. Women also lie supine while someone walks across their stomach to rearrange vital organs. During that month, a woman is quarantined from nearly everyone in the community, including her husband. Only healers, respected elders and the midwife may spend time with the new mother. “Marshallese medicine will not work if the husband is there,” said former Ebeye resident Prescilla Consul. “He can visit, but shouldn’t touch you and definitely can’t stay in the same house.” Penalties for not following customary post-birth practices are severe. One woman stated that she would not let her kids associate with children whose mothers hadn’t used the traditional methods — a bold statement for such a community-oriented society. The consequences can be serious for the mother, as well. “If you don’t do this medicine, your husband will leave you and you won’t be considered a Marshallese woman,” said Lorok. On the chance that a woman’s husband does defy the odds and remain faithful, the risk of condemnation by friends and other family members is enough to convince


You mentioned that someone brought Anna* to you. Are you saying she’s adopted? Yes, she is. Do your children know that she’s adopted? No, none of them know. Only Anna knows. Who did you adopt her from? I had a skin problem where I would get itchy, red spots whenever it rained. The only person that could fix them was Anna’s grandfather, because he was a rikemour [doctor/healer]. He had a sister who died in childbirth. The baby didn’t survive either, so they had to throw the sister in the ocean. If they had buried her underground, she would have come up and killed everyone. She was angry because she and her baby died. When I went to Anna’s grandfather to be healed, he said, [translated] “It is the old lady who came from the sea.” He realized that his dead sister was homesick and chose me to be with. That is why I had the skin problems. When he was almost finished healing me, Anna was born to one of his relatives so my mom brought her to me from the hospital. So she thinks of you as her mother? She doesn’t call me ‘mom,’ but my kids don’t know. Why don’t you tell your other children? My mother doesn’t want us to, and now I don’t either. We consider her one of our own. *Name changed to protect privacy

women that following these traditional methods is worth the inconvenience. If a woman isn’t healed after the month of quarantined care, the original healer is dismissed and another healer takes over. The mother’s inability to heal can also be blamed on the ill will of others — either persons within the community or mischievous demons. “I’m going to learn how to do Marshallese medicine for my daughters. A big fear here is that someone will put black magic on you, and I don’t want any of them to be cursed,” explained Consul. Cases where Islanders intentionally harm one another, through black magic or otherwise, are rare. In fact, the society is notoriously friendly. It’s bad manners to not eat something when you visit a Marshallese family, even when they’re living on $15 a day. Ambiguously blaming other people or spirits for a new mother’s illness may be a coping mechanism, a way of shifting the blame

without pointing accusatory fingers in a tightly-knit community. Unfortunately, some women don’t make it through Marshallese medicine with their child. The possibility of a sudden death always hovers, since the infant mortality rate in the Islands is still appallingly high. Just as likely, however, is chance that relatives will later kajiriri (adopt) your child.


Adoption is typically enabled by the desires of others. To take in a relative’s child for the rest of his or her life simply requires you to ask. Like tōptōp, each of the dozen people interviewed about kajiriri asserted that a Marshallese parent could refuse to give away his or her child, but could not think of an instance where someone had done so. If a family has a child under three years old and a relative asks to adopt him or her, social obligations require the family to give the child away. The only way to

avoid doing so without causing offense is to mislead or put off the asker. Short of moving to another island, deception proves nearly impossible. Unlike American adoption, however, kajiriri in the Islands does not necessarily mean that birth parents are forever ostracized from their child. In fact, adoption is more commonly viewed as a way of uniting families, similar to marriage. “Adoption is a common and very open thing in the Marshallese community. It brings families closer together,” said Alfred. “If one of your siblings has a kid and they come to your house, you’re as responsible for the kid as they are. They’re a part of you. For example, I didn’t just grow up with my parents. I spent my childhood with different families, especially my uncle and both sets of grandparents.” The practice serves other functions beyond uniting families. In “Negotiating the Borders of Empire,” Dr. Sandra Crimson argues that families adopt to share resources such as land and wealth. In stark contrast to American ideals of the nuclear family, Marshallese view extended relatives as part of the family unit. Barren couples may adopt to pass on land rights. The custom also helps families balance offspring — as one interviewee explained, if her sister had three children already and she herself had none, asking to adopt the youngest child would be second nature. Several personal interviews led to my discovery that speakers were adopted, or that one or more of their children were. This information was never volunteered, though it was explained casually once I directly asked interviewees. Although the practice seems open, some families view it as a private matter. As shown in the interview at top left, many children are unaware that they’re adopted. “We don’t do paperwork for adoption. We just take the kid and raise it as our own, for his whole life,” said Consul. “Parents will treat you like a biological child whether or not you’re adopted. If you don’t want your kid to know, you don’t have to tell him. Sometimes the whole community might know, but they won’t say anything.”

Continued on page 26

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living The following is an excerpt from a letter I composed to friends soon after my family first moved to Kwaj:

Dear Diary, The water here is gorgeous. It’s every imaginable shade of blue and green, from just-cleaned-toilet blue to lime green, to a shining, transparent blue that shows clear through to the bottom. This is especially cool when you’re out in a boat and can see coral heads and schools of fish swimming around 50 feet below you. There are palm trees everywhere with tons of coconuts. Whereas I’m in awe of real coconuts, everyone else considers them a nuisance. Evidently ripe ones have to be cut down all the time and thrown away, otherwise innocent passers-by run the risk of death (or at least brain damage) by falling fruit. I kept the first coconut that I found on my dresser until it started oozing liquid all over the wood and my mom threw it away. Despite the fact that I’ve only been here for a few days, I already love it. In part, I think it’s because everything is so slow. People go by ‘island time,’ which is an

actual, recognized term that means you can be late to things, and no one rushes anywhere. We don’t have cars, so everyone rides bikes or walks at an incredibly slow pace. No one gets road rage, and people say hello even when they don’t know you and chat as they cruise by on their bikes. I feel like I’m in the past, or at least Amish. Being here has really made me think about what we (as in, everyone who lives in the developed world) are doing to ourselves. We work and work and are stressed to a breaking point, but what for? So we can have money to retire with, then travel the world at 70 years old, when we’re too jaded and feeble to really appreciate it anyway? When I go back to the U.S. this August, and hopefully in all of my future as well, I’m taking a step back to reassess what’s really important in life. Carpe Diem! Enjoy the relationships and talents that you have right now, because it’s the only guaranteed thing you’ve got. Hope you’re all doing well! Kris

The Road to Independence

After discovery by Marshallese around 2000 BC, the Islands went through almost 500 years of occupation by various nations. They did not officially become a country until the late 20th century. 18

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

1526 1788 1859 1874 1885 1886 1914 1935 1944 1947 1979 1990

— — — — — — — — — — — —

“Discovered” and claimed for Spain by Alonso de Salazar Rediscovered by British Capt. John Marshall, named the Marshall Islands Germans establish permanent trading stations Spain reasserts its claim to the islands Marshall Islands are sold to Germany by Spain; administered by Jaluit Company German protectorate formally declared Japanese occupation Japan mandates the islands as an "integral part of the Japanese Empire" U.S. occupation (Kwajalein on Feb. 4, 1944 and Majuro on Mar. 1, 1944) Japanese mandate revoked; part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands Autonomy (Republic of the Marshall Islands) Final independence (Security Council ratifies termination of trusteeship)

photo courtesy Callie Hendrix

island living ghost stories

A lot of people think that after all the battles on the island, the people who died here just didn’t leave.” -Mike Hendrix USAKA Pilot

JELTON ANJAIN: Last month I was fishing off of Emon [a beach on Kwajalein Island]. I came back and was fixing something on my bike, and happened to glance up toward the road next to the beach. It was a full moon, so the dirt road was reflecting really brightly. It was all white except for a tall, dark image in the middle of the road that began moving toward me. I got goosebumps and knew it was something bad, so I threw my stuff on my bike and ran away. I told my cousin who lives on Kwaj about it and he knew exactly what I meant. We [Marshallese] believe that when you come into contact with that kind of stuff, you should sit down Indianstyle and show that you aren’t scared. It will go away. RESLINDA HAFAKORN: I used to have this favorite pillow that I’d always sleep with, but one night I woke up suddenly, looked over and a Japanese girl was sitting on it, right next to my head. I closed my eyes, thinking that I was just imagining it, but when I opened them again she was still there, staring. I jumped out of bed and ran into my grandparents’ room. It fits, since a lot of Japanese died here during the war. Plus, my house is one of the oldest on the island... We believe in black magic and that sort of thing, you know. A lot of weird things have happened out here. I had a little brother named Leviticus who died last year. A few days after he died, my younger sister said, ‘Hey mom, I see Leviticus! He’s right here.’ She doesn’t say he’s scary, just that he’s there and watching us. MIKE SAKAIO: I believe in Christianity, but the Bible also preaches about things like spiritual Satanism. That knowledge has created a weird sort of awareness in me. When I jog by the graveyards on the south side of the island, the hair on my skin stands up. Whether I actually do that to myself or not, I don’t know, but it does make me run faster. I’ve had some unusual experiences out here — and it only happens at a certain place and only at night.

HARDEN LELET: My grandfather owns 11 of the small islands in the northern side of the atoll that were used for missile testing and whatnot. My grandfather and grandmother used to go to these other islands to clean graveyards and tidy up. Usually when you’re on those islands, you stay quiet and observe. There are things on the other islands that you can and cannot do, and being loud is one of them. My grandmother was talking very loudly as they cooked dinner that night, because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t believe in that sort of thing. Within a minute or two, something had grabbed her hair and was yanking her back and forth. It laid her flat on the ground. My grandfather used to know people who lived in those islands, our great ancestors, so he addressed the spirit and said ‘I apologize for her, but she’s my wife.’ It stopped, but my grandmother ended up really hurting her neck because of that. CALLIE HENDRIX: My cat has really bad arthritis and can’t really use her back legs, so she’s really loud when she walks up and down the stairs. One night, when my sister Emily was visiting from the States and staying in my room with me, she woke up and heard dragging noises on the stairs. She figured it was Roxie coming up to her room, so she sat up to pick up the cat and put her in bed, but Roxie was already there next to her. On that same visit, when Emily was here, she and I both woke up to what sounded like a glass dropping and heard someone cursing angrily. We both figured it was my mom dropping a glass, so we went back to bed. But my parents swore they were asleep the whole night. It’s strange because I’ve had all of this stuff happen here, but in the 13 years I’ve lived in the states I’ve never experienced anything like it. HELPERT ALFRED: I spent my early years of aviation in Majuro [the capital of the RMI]. My little girl, Victoria, was about one or two years old. For some reason, she would always tell us that she was seeing things that weren’t normal. It might have been because we lived next to a cemetery. She used to see a lady in our trailer, especially when she was about to go to sleep or just waking up. It would be quiet, and suddenly she’d be screaming. She’s still afraid of ghosts today. MT Marshallese Time Spring 2012 19



Above, a recent missile test in Kwajalein Atoll. The islands have also played host to the testing of 67 Hydrogen/nuclear bombs, including “Bravo,” at left, a bomb over 1,000 times larger than the infamous “Fat Boy” that fell upon Hiroshima in WWII. (Photo courtesy The Kwajalein Hourglass).

“The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before.” -General Thomas Farrell


hanks to my father’s job, my family has lived in several cities that play host to national labs — in particular, cities that directly supported the Manhattan Project, which covertly developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The possibility of lingering radioactive material is a very real one, and something that residents treat both as a danger and a long-running joke. 20

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

In Oak Ridge, Tenn, the belief was that anyone who had lived there long enough set off Geiger counters and glowed green at night. While I can say with certainty that neither I nor anyone I know from Oak Ridge has developed any kind of alien glow and probably haven’t been exposed to any more radiation than the average beach bum, the reality for many Marshall Islanders is very different. Once annexed by the U.S. during World War II, the Marshall Islands were

used for a variety of purposes. Publicly, the Islands play the role of a refueling ground and missile defense base. More privately, and for only 12 years in the 1940s and 50s, several atolls were used for experimental nuclear testing. The most disastrous of these tests concentrated on Bikini Atoll, which is located about 250 miles northwest of Kwajalein. It was a logical decision to use it for testing. Compared to the U.S., the RMI as a whole is sparsely populated and extremely isolated. Only 167 people lived on Bikini at the time, and the atoll is remote even by Marshallese standards. Beyond that, the Islanders had few legal rights at the time, and were promised that “if they moved to allow for nuclear weapons-related testing, the U.S. would take care of them forever,” writes Dr. Julie Walsh in her dissertation.

Little did nuclear scientists and government officials know, the testing program was destined to become both the most productive and the most terrible in U.S. history. Bomb “Able” alone was potent enough to earn the label “America’s Chernobyl” by some critics. Lawyer Jonathan Weisgall called it the “world’s first nuclear disaster.” The hallmark of the program, however, was the explosion of “Bravo,” the first and largest hydrogen bomb the U.S. has ever detonated; a bomb that was specifically designed to maximize radioactive fallout and was over 1,000 times more powerful than the one that annihilated Hiroshima and effectively ended WWII. The eve of Bravo’s detonation, weather conditions were declared unfavorable. The wind, which almost consistently blows west, reversed direction, blowing directly toward the Bikini evacuees. Despite advice to delay the test and the American promise to look after evacuees, Bravo was detonated. The bomb’s yield tripled expectations, coming in at 15 megatons and leading to the worst accidental radiological contamination the U.S. has ever caused. Oblivious evacuees on an island a few hundred miles east of Bikini experienced fallout so thick, people had to brush it off their food as they ate. Children playing in the lagoon rubbed it in their hair and pretended it was soap. Belief in the seemingly innocuous nature of Bravo’s fallout was short-lived. “Shortly thereafter, the 64 people on Rongelap began to suffer the ill effects of acute radiation exposure: their hair fell out, their skin was burned, they began to vomit and they suffered from a thirst that water could not quench,” said author and anthropologist Stuart Kirsch. Fallout also affected Japanese fishermen off the coast of the Islands, contaminating their haul and the people onboard. Discovery of radiation in the fish caused mass hysteria in Japanese fish markets, which were shut down for the first time since a 1935 epidemic of cholera, causing many sellers to go bankrupt. Conditions were even worse in the RMI. Islanders on Rongelap and Utrik Atolls, who were still experiencing pain-

ful side effects, were evacuated a few days after the detonation, and a secret medical group monitored their health. Meanwhile, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement assuring the press that Bravo was a “routine” atomic test and that although Americans and Marshallese were “unexpectedly exposed to some radiation… all were reported well.” Unbeknownst to the ill-informed RMI residents, fallout was not only farreaching, but long lasting. Studies by the

On some islands, the fallout from the bombs was so thick that ... children swimming in the lagoon rubbed it in their hair and pretended it was soap.

National Cancer Institute estimate the testing resulted in over 500 cancers in the Islanders. Thyroid tumors developed in 69 percent of young children who were on Rongelap at the time of Bravo. Recently, a Marshallese woman named Lijon Eknilang told the International Court of Justice that women had given birth to “monster babies,” even when they hadn’t lived on contaminated atolls. The most common of these were “jellyfish babies,” explained by author Rob Nixon as “headless, eyeless, limbless human infants who would live for just a few hours.” The babies had translucent skin, so parents could see their brains and their hearts beating until they died. Despite a cover-up that lasted for decades, in 1956, the Atomic Energy

Commission (AEC) declared the RMI the most contaminated area on the planet. Their label greatly intensified the negative stigma that exists toward RMI today. “To many people around the world, the name Bikini Atoll has become synonymous with nuclear destruction, military colonialism, and radioactive contamination,” stated geographer Jeffrey Sasha Davis. Thermonuclear and atomic testing continued for several years after Bravo, since the U.S. government refused to release comprehensive information on the effects of radiation and the Marshallese were in no position to protest. In 1958, the testing wrapped up with bomb No. 67, codenamed “Fig,” over Enewetak Atoll. This testing, beyond having an adverse impact on the people and the formerly pristine environment, also had an undeniably negative effect on the citizens of RMI. In 1975, they filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. The resulting radiological testing was convincing enough to send Bikini Atoll inhabitants back to other islands. Even today, conditions on the Atoll are dangerous enough that the U.S. government recommends that Bikini Island itself not be resettled. The island is visited by daring SCUBA divers as part of a tourism program, but, as of 2012, remains uninhabited. In 1994, several U.S. Representatives informed the chairperson of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments that there could be “no doubt that the AEC intentionally returned [Marshallese] to islands which it considered to be ‘by far the most contaminated places in the world,’ but which it told the people were safe. Nor is there any doubt that the AEC then planned and conducted test after test on these people to study their bodies’ reaction to life in that contaminated environment.” It is a sentiment that’s echoed by both Marshallese and American cynics. During one evacuation, Senator Jeton Anjain of Rongelap stated, “We are the forgotten ‘guinea pigs.’ The US poisoned us, covered up their crime and now they use my people as animals for their studies.” Marshallese Time Spring 2012


Walsh agrees. “The zeal with which American scientists pursued their knowledge of nuclear power left no room for the consideration of the health of the native people or the fact that their home of centuries was being permanently destroyed,” she said. The Bikinians’ current home is Kili Island, which was available and uninhabited because of its inhospitality. Kili has no lagoon, inconsistent rainfall and poor accessibility. The relationship between the RMI and the U.S. has improved since the days of forced bombings. Dissension lingers, however, and seems to revolve around the Compact of Free Association, which was signed in 1986. The Compact, beyond setting standards and protocol for U.S./RMI relations, included an agreement forcing Marshallese to drop legal cases in all U.S. courts. It also prevents affected Islanders from seeking future redress, in exchange for financial compensation from an underfunded and ailing “Nuclear Claims Tribunal.” The U.S. abandonment of legal assistance hasn’t stopped Islanders from exhibiting their dissent, either quietly or brazenly. As recently as March of 2012, Marshallese protestors gathered in Maui, waving signs and marching down the streets. They believe the U.S. failed to hold up their end of the bargain to look after the Bikinians for life. Others think the testing was an unnecessary venture. William Gideon, a Marshallese man living on Maui, told The Maui News that the bombs dropped on Japan to end WWII “should have told scientists everything they needed to know about what atomic weapons were capable of.” The happiness, social advances, and economy of the Marshallese have been seriously and negatively affected as a direct result of these nuclear tests. Citizens are still living under the American chokehold today. The need for money and property and possessions incited hostility and depression in their people — feelings that are expected to linger as long as the restrictive Compact remains in place. They love their islands — one inhabitant described his home as “a 22

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

paradise, a place where you have everything you need. It is a place where God puts you where all is within your reach.” But the American military has left a huge mark on these isles, a mark that, according to Weisgall, has brought inhabitants out of their “backwards” way of life and into the modern world, effectively turning them into wards of the nation, with all of the problems but no lasting advantages. “The relationship is changing and I see and hear much more dissent and frustration today,” said Walsh in an email. “The main issue is the unilateral changes being made to the Compact agreement by the U.S.” She goes on to explain that Marshallese who currently live on the Islands are reluctant to overtly voice their discontent. The Marshallese she works with, most of whom live in communities in Hawaii and

Arkansas, are much more apt to discuss the issue. Due in part to this reluctance, personal interviews I conducted on Kwajalein Atoll on nuclear testing and current relations between the RMI and the U.S. were fairly unconstructive. Civilians on Kwajalein Island feared being misquoted or appearing hostile to the military’s actions. Military personnel were reluctant to show opposition in a publication that could be read by their superiors. Marshallese citizens did not want to taint or undermine the relationship between the RMI and its protector, the U.S. Most interviewees stated that the relationship had improved, or that it was a thing of the past. Some of the opinions voiced on the matter can be found in the interviews on pages 31 and 38 with Stan Jazwinski and Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Mills. MT

Give a man fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach him to decapitate fish with his teeth, and he'll eat for a lifetime. Americans have had other effects on the Marshallese as well. A few years ago, a man was fishing for his dinner on Roi-Namur Island while waiting for a boat to pick him up to travel to another island. He caught a fish and brought it up to his mouth to rip the head off and kill it. Unfortunately, the fish had other ideas. It wriggled out of his grasp and jumped straight down his throat. The man tried pulling it out, but the fish’s scales prevented it from coming back from the way it came. Friends quickly realized that something was going on and rushed to his aid. To add to all this, the man was epileptic. His concerned friends immediately assumed he was having a seizure and stepped away from the man as they were supposed to. By the time they figured out what was actually going on, the man and fish had died. This story is appalling, but the fact remains that this was a normal practice for the Marshallese for hundreds of years. It was really the man’s fault for not paying attention and biting the head off directly instead of angling it to the side and ripping it safely. As a result of this incident, USAKA has banned the practice on military bases. photo courtesy Greenpeace

opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living

photo courtesy Catherine Layton

And they’re off! A Day at the Races Island-dwellers learn very quickly how to entertain porary owners. At the start, owners step back to send the themselves when jobs or academics aren’t demanding crabs on their way — or try to. All but the boldest of crabs their attention — either that, or they find themselves need several seconds to emerge from the safety of their arranging for a permanent return to the States. In lieu shells. Shouts of encouragement from an over-enthused of horses or greyhounds, neither of which can be found audience only exacerbate their fear. Sometimes a whole within a 1,000-mile radius of the islands, thrill-seekers put minute passes before the racers move anywhere. great stock in racing an entirely different breed of creaThe race itself is a combination of thrilling motures — hermit crabs. If done correctly and with active parments when a crab moves in the direction it is supticipants, hermit crab racing can be fulfilling for both the posed to go, and disappointment when the same crab audience and the competitors. loses its purpose and wanders aimlessly back and forth To begin, a track is drawn into the sand using shells or is trapped behind a pebble. Because of this, human or cupped hands to scoop out sand. It is advisable to intervention is a necessary handicap. keep the track a good distance away from the rising The end of a race is generally even less exhilarating than tide. Races sometimes take a long time, and drowning the beginning, since most crabs are either immobilized or crabs don’t make very good racing crabs. stuck behind obstacles. Assuming the audience is patient Once the track has been drawn, small obstaenough to wait for a crab to tear through (or at least crawl cles such as bits of coral, twigs and particularly under) the grass “ribbon” to cross the finish line, the winwide pieces of grass are laid out at varying places. ner is awarded by posed photos and more terrifying cheerParticipants generally place bets on their own ing from human observers. In what probably marks the crab, which they hand-choose from the beach. Qualibest part of that crab’s day, it is finally set free near a ties such as bravery, long legs and colorful shells are tasty piece of decaying leaf or seaweed. The remainprized in the racers. Size is both a downfall and a benefit ing competitors, shamed and dishonored, are left to — larger crabs can cover long distances quickly, but may be their own devices. MT trapped behind obstacles that smaller crabs find easy to bypass. Once contestants are chosen and arbitrary bets placed, competitors are placed at the starting line and held steady by their tem-

Marshallese Time Spring 2012



Unnatural Isles

Though it isn’t spotted with factories or bogged down by thousands of cars, Kwajalein Atoll still couldn’t be called a “natural beauty.”

∞ Shipwrecks, rusting machinery, concrete bunkers — for a collection of isolated tropical islands, the RMI isn’t high on my list of natural places. Kwajalein and Ebeye Islands are prime examples of this spoiled yet unspoiled landscape. Kwajalein has been enormously affected by various occupiers and wars over the last several centuries. Ebeye (shown above) has been 24

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

affected as well, but suffers from the added indignity of hosting a population of around 13,000 on an island that measures only half a mile in length. Size-wise, Kwajalein Island has a slight advantage. It measures in at an impressive three and a half miles long and half a mile wide. It was much smaller in 2000 BC, however, when the Marshallese people came onto it and claimed it. The is-

lands remained relatively unchanged until World War II, when the U.S. bombed every place inhabited by unfortunate Japanese occupants. Kwajalein Atoll was decimated, along with the people and wildlife. The U.S. had won a victory in claiming the island, but the victory came at an enormous ecological cost. In an ironic twist, bringing the islands back to a “natural” and livable state was a pro-

cess almost wholly completed by human interference. One of the initial moves in recovering Kwajalein was to increase its size so that more people could inhabit it. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged tons of sand from the ocean floor and laid it down on the shallow coral reefs, elongating the island by over a mile. The entire north side, where residential housing is located, is artificial. In fact, dozens of islands in the RMI have been artificially expanded this way. Majuro Island, the nation’s capital, is composed of multiple islands, which allows it to stretch around most of the atoll. The government of Ebeye spent several years building a causeway running from the northern tip of Ebeye to Gugegue Island, several miles up the reef. Instead of thinning out the population as projected, the causeway functions as a reminder that even the noblest of intentions can be rendered useless without proper planning and upkeep. The causeway itself is nearly impossible to maneuver by car — enormous potholes are at least as common as flat stretches. On Gugegue itself, only

a few basic streets and houses dot the stark landscape. Even if the causeway is improved and amenities on Gugegue are developed, this outlying island won’t be widely utilized until absolutely necessary. The culture’s focus on community and togetherness makes it better suited for the crowded conditions of Ebeye, despite the host of problems experienced by its residents. Expanding the islands didn’t just affect the land — in one of the most vivid examples of the natural/industrial clash, the coral reef itself was also permanently altered. From a distance, it looks wild and beautiful and untouched by human hands. On the inside of the islands (“lagoon-side”), waves brush against the shore. Ocean-side, five-footers crash into the rocks and beaches. Most people don’t venture ocean-side without plenty of previous experience and a taste for perilous situations. In fact, the one place that most people (including myself) venture to explore ocean-side of the atoll is the tide pools. Normally, the word “tide pool” conjures up restful images of large puddles with

starfish, colorful crabs, sea cucumbers and swaying anemones. You can find all of the above in tide pools on Kwajalein Atoll, but also much more. These pools are over 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep. It’s uncommon — but not unheard of — to encounter agitated sharks that were unwittingly trapped inside when the tide fell. Colorful coral, sea urchins and

Continued on page 26

A water tower and historic concrete bunker on Kwajalein Island. photo courtesy The Kwajalein Hourglass

Kwajalein Island is a fascinating illustration of the collision between the “old world” and the

Industrial Age.

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


Unnatural, from page 25 all manner of fish glide about, raising their fins if humans venture too close. These things all sound wild and fascinating, but in truth the tide pools aren’t natural at all. One aerial glance is enough to discern that. The pools were formed by Japanese and American occupiers who needed building materials more stable than sand. The laborers lined dynamite down the coral reef and detonated it, creating large, rectangular holes. It didn’t take long for nature to take over again, but the pools remain fairly rectangular and uniformly deep, so an indelible mark remains. Most islands host a variety of flora and fauna in spite of their size — most of which, in accordance with the theme at work here, is also not indigenous. Stray dogs, pigs and oblivious chickens overrun Ebeye. Residents of Kwajalein are

Matrilineal, cont. from page 17 For all that the Marshallese are a closeknit society that embraces Western values, some subjects remain taboo. Problems concerning the body are largely ignored, and most Islanders take an interestingly laissez-faire attitude toward family planning, adoption, and the future of their social structure. This outlook meshes closely with the cultural attitude of the day. Marshallese live in the present, choosing to enjoy the time they have rather than worrying about future concerns. Various customs reflect this, or may even plan for it — for instance, unwanted pregnancies are easily solved by the good will of relatives who kajiriri the child. It’s simple to blame illness on black magic and rely on traditional medicines for an effortless fix. Another example is the concept of “Marshallese time” or “island time,” in which events consistently start late or are forgotten. It’s a unique outlook that many Americans take issue with, from employers who don’t understand why employees are late, to missionaries attempting to lecture on the dangers of premarital sex. 26

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

allowed a limited number of pets to the island with them, with the understanding that unleashed pets are restricted indoors. Palm trees on the islands were replanted at uniform distances to obscure swathes of cleared land. Cuttings from native trees and bushes were mainly imported. The only remaining species of land animal are non-native sparrows, geckos, irritating flies, boar and seagulls. Many islands are also home to large, persistent rats, which were unwittingly brought over on supply barges. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) is another byproduct of battles on the islands. Dig more than four inches in the ground and you risk death by buried missiles, grenades, mines and so on, which makes everything from construction to planting gardens a dangerous process. Small but no less glaring indicators of human interference remain in the water as

well. I often come across plastic or glass bottles, sheets of plastic, hairbands and Styrofoam cups. There are also shipwrecks, including the Prinz Eugen, a massive German warship that sank during World War II. It’s a historian’s dream, and though fascinating to dive and explore, these ships are no more a part of the natural landscape than the trash that litters the ocean floor. Human impacts are everywhere. On land, in the water — in fact, the only place that remains untouched (as least to the naked eye) is the sky. If “natural” is synonymous with “unaffected by human influences” then there really is no natural world anymore. Islands within Kwajalein Atoll are a fascinating illustration of the collision between the “old world” and the Industrial Age — as long as you aren’t the one accidentally stumbling across UXO or being cornered by fearless rats. MT

“Marshallese have a different perspective on priorities and urgency that can be hard for Americans to understand or agree with,” contractor Jeff Fronzak explained. “They have very much of a “Hakuna Matata” mindset.” Marshalls’ unique take on life is a vivid reminder of the impossibility of universalizing cultural issues or setting a global standard for lifestyles. Our view of the

nation should instead hinge on cultural relativity — rather than undermining or criticizing the culture for seemingly inexplicable customs, view them in terms of their own standards and values. It might be practical, however, to think twice before experimenting with traditional medicines — and think even harder before rejecting birth control out of a fear that your husband might leave you. MT

Cindy Friesz on adoption

“Back when we took Jonathan in, it wasn’t as common for American families to adopt Marshallese kids, so the main struggles we had were cultural differences. We lived on Kwajalein, so we had to bring Marshallese friends to translate when he visited his family on Ebeye, since he doesn’t speak much Marshallese and his family doesn’t speak English. Jonathan followed a lot of customs, though. Sometimes he would come home from school without a jacket or shirt, because his Marshallese friends complimented something and he’d feel obligated to give it to them. We also had to watch out for teen pregnancy. The Marshallese have a shorter lifespan, and live more in the present, rather than planning for the long-term. They often have children in their teens, but since it’s a matrilineal society, there’s no such thing as not belonging. If you’re a woman or young girl who has a fatherless baby, it doesn’t matter because you’ll always be in your mother’s clan. It was really hard explaining to him that, yes, he is Marshallese, but he was being raised as an American and couldn’t go to college if he had already fathered a child. It was interesting to see what traditions carried over in his life.”

opinion - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living important items you'll need to survive — and even to visit — Kwajalein Island Beach Chairs

It seems like a no-brainer, but for the past year or so, Kwajalein Island and its surrounding islets have been completely devoid of commercial beach chairs. Unless newcomers have enough foresight (and packing space) to bring chairs to the island, most end up sitting on towels on the sand, or bringing kitchen chairs out on the front lawn.

Dairy Products

Dairy is just one of the many products that Surfway, the Kwajalein grocery store, may or may not have on the shelves when you go in to stock up on groceries. It can be difficult to preserve these products, but is worth the hassle when the only cheese in stock is the kind that comes in a box with macaroni noodles.

Potato Chips

Ask anyone from Kwajalein about the Great Chip Shortage of 2008. It was a dark time — under-pressurization of the supply plane’s cargo hold caused every bag of potato chips onboard to explode. Well-informed residents swooped into the grocery store and snatched up the remaining bags, leaving unaware civilians to fend for themselves. It was a time to keep your friends close and your enemies closer — you didn’t want other people finding out about the next chip shipment before you. When they finally came, several bleak weeks later, the grocery store was swamped by overexcited shoppers who only wanted one thing — potato chips.

Books & Movies

Until the advent of high-speed Internet and clear TV, surfing the nternet and watching your favorite programs will remain next to impossible. I often played two rounds of Hearts on the computer while waiting for my email inbox to load. As far as TV, the combination of terrible satellite reception, 10 channels in total and prolonged freezes in programming (called V-Bricks) makes watching a show from start to finish a trying task. Bring along your favorite books, TV shows and movies, and you’re sure to save yourself hours of boredom and frustration.

Travel Orders

Though Kwajalein Island is more relaxed than the typical military base in many ways, some restrictions will never be overlooked. One of these is the 480 form, commonly known as “travel orders,” that visitors need to enter the base. It needs the signature of the base’s commander or a representative, the police department, office of the provost-marshall and your sponsor. Without it, you cannot enter the Island base, so the $1,800 you spend on flights could amount to nothing. It’s advisable to procure one of these well before you embark on your journey.

Bear in mind that this is not a remotely comprehensive list. Indeed, most of the truly necessary items for island survival are intrinsic qualities that cannot be acquired though typical, material means. Good luck! MT

Marshallese Time Spring 2012



photo courtesy Callie Hendrix

ine lm y coa munit n a al com es i coast ari ht of a Canthe plig

As ever-increasing warnings come from the scientific community at large, low-lying and coastal communities are at a loss to sort out what The New York Times calls “the most complicated issue facing world leaders” — climate change. It’s a problematic issue on many levels. Climate change is responsible for all sorts of transformations of the Earth’s processes — drought, rising sea levels, shifts in animal and plant ranges, the spread of disease due to flash floods and extreme weather events, to name a few. Around 10 percent, or 600 million, of the Earth’s population lives on islands, which are often low-lying and virtually defenseless against occurrences such as tsunamis and floods. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates a temperature rise of 2.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. This increase will displace as many as 200 million people 28

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

by 2050. Unless these environmental refugees can move inland, their reality is bleak. The plight of native Marshallese is particularly alarming. Although the RMI Embassy ostensibly concerns itseld with the issue of climate change, few preventative measures have been taken should the population be forced to leave the Islands. The RMI government actively participates in United Nations negotiations on the issue, but their probable impact on international actions is negligible. Considering the factors involved and the high-risk position of the islands themselves, it seems safe to assume that any global impact to the climate would dramatically and lethally affect the Marshallese people and their culture.

Just the facts, ma’am

In “The Fallen Palm,” anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould explains that there is a “powerful assumption in the outside news media that small island nations will inevitably disappear both physically and culturally.” This assumption is strongly backed by evidence from both within and outside of the Islands. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated in a 2008 report that lesser-known effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands include “more intense cyclones and droughts, the failure

[ ] In Kiribas, we used to picnic on a tiny island in the middle of the lagoon. Now it’s nothing, just completely underwater. -Mike Sakaio

photos courtesy Scott & Jeanette Johnson

Left and above, several bleached Heteractis magnifica from the RMI warming event in the fall of 2009. of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, and the spread of malaria and dengue fever.” The past few decades have brought to the Islands some of the longest and most severe El Niño events in recent history — meaning drought and increased temperatures. Human health issues aside, the coral reefs that created these islands and are responsible for protecting them against storm surges and providing food would be all but destroyed. According to the FAO’s report, an increase of just a fewdegrees could dramatically affect reef health and stunt growth. Those islanders who are still subsistence-based would have to radically alter their lifestyles and probably rely solely on international donations to survive, since only a healthy reef can support edible marine life. In a 2009 video conference on climate issues hosted by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, a Marshallese consultant named Mark Stege reported that the current estimate in sea

level rise is “16 inches … in the next century. This would definitely impact the Marshall Islands, which are only a foot above sea level in some areas.” The numbers on Kwalajein Atoll are eyeopening as well. In routine measuring, the Weather Station located on Kwajalein Island noticed a definite upward trend in sea level of the Islands. In the 1950s, the average height above sea level was just under 51 centimeters. The level rose dramatically over the next few decades, coming to nearly 62 centimeters in the 2000s. Australian Marine Science and Technology Ltd (AMSAT) confirmed these numbers in their 2002 Pacific Country report. Their stated sea level trend is +.8 cm per year, as shown by eight years of measurements taken in Majuro, the capital of the Islands. The overall global trend over a longer period of time is significantly lower, indicating an accelerated rate of sea level rise over the past few decades.


The numbers are jarring enough, but the reality of the situation is even more severe for the people themselves. Unusual floods have inundated the Islands several times in the past few decades — most memorably in 2008, when floods on Ebeye and Majuro Island displaced hundreds of people. Residents of Kwajalein Atoll have their own stories to tell about increases in temperature and sea level, and many feel strongly about the issue of climate change. Scott Johnson, a computer engineer and former biologist, has spent much of his life on Kwajalein with his wife Jeanette. The two dive frequently and maintain an extensive website cataloging marine life in the Marshall Islands. Around 15 years ago, Johnson noticed an unusual disturbance underwater. “In 1997, all of the Heteractis Magnificant anemones started to bleach out. But then they came back and it seemed to be Marshallese Time Spring 2012


On some islands, fish are a vital source of food. Ocean acidification and mass coral loss could devastate marine life, forcing humans away from their homes.

Rudiak-Gould reported that in the past 30 years, part of the shoreline of the island of Ujae have receded by 10-15 feet. “By the end of the century, coral reefs might be not only uninhabitable but nonexistent,” he explained. Other employees have contradictory opinions. Steve DeLange is an AttorneyAdvisor for USAKA, and is currently working on environmental issues within the Marshall Islands. He says the Army has seen only improvements in marine life they’ve been monitoring. “Part of [USAKA’s] purpose is to ensure that we’re maintaining good stewardship of what we have control over, and we’ve seen only improvement in coral health,” he explained. When pressed, DeLange added, “Sometimes corals just die, but that can be a result of several things. It’s like forest fires. People get worked up about them, but the reality is that fires are a natural part of the earth’s processes.” The evidence is conflicting, a problem compounded by Kwajalein’s Environmental, Safety & Health Department. Though under the jurisdiction of five

photos courtesy The Kwajalein Hourglass

no problem. It was only after that event that scientific publications really started discussing coral bleaching — though no one here talks about it, even now — so I kept on the lookout for it. It wasn’t until September of 2009 that I noticed anything unusual. During several routine dives, my dive computer kept saying that the ocean temperature had risen to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually the maximum we see, even during the hottest time of the year, is 85 degrees. “By the next month, three different species of coral had entirely bleached. A few other species also started to pale out or turn patchy white. At that same time, all of those anemones from the event in 1997 bleached out too, which made me much more certain that it was a temperature-related problem. I’ve never seen that happen since, but I’ve also never seen the water temperature that high,” said Johnson. In one remarkable speech, Ujae Atoll Senate Candidate Alee Alik declared, “the Marshall Islands will be inundated.” Most Marshallese, however, are notoriously silent about the issue. RMI Relations Specialist Mike Sakaio remembers living near islands that don’t exist today. “In Majuro, at the end of the island, there used to be a great stretch of sandy beach where we would swim around as kids. When I went back last year, it was just gone,” Sakaio explained. “It may have been a natural thing or something to do with coastal management. And in Kiribas, we used to picnic on an island in the middle of the lagoon. Now it’s nothing, just completely underwater.”

Emon Beach (shown above), is one of the main beaches on Kwajalein Island and a great illustration of sea level rise in the Marshalls, which is currently +.8 cm per year. 30

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

different environmental regulatory agencies, ES&H does not monitor any kind of global change. Their main purpose is to make sure army operations are in compliance with safety and environmental regulations, not to keep an eye on average temperatures and sea levels. Comprehensive data only comes from outside companies.

Worst-case scenario

It seems probable that the Marshallese can and will migrate to the U.S. should the worst happen, since the Compact allows their citizens to work and go to school in the States. No formal legal agreement currently exists, however, to allow all 67,000 Marshallese to permanently flee to the land of the free. With the threat of half a meter of sea rise in the next century, resettlement plans are absolutely necessary. The RMI’s average height above sea level is only seven feet, thus any change could be catastrophic. Short of leaving the Islands permanently, there doesn’t seem much to be done. Ebeye and Majuro, which collectively house two-thirds of the entire country’s population, are so densely packed that moving inland, away from high tides and extreme weather events, would be impossible. Even if the Marshallese managed to construct great, floating cities to house dislocated people, getting above-water would only solve a portion of the issue. The RMI faces another problem that’s confounding political experts and soci-

Canaries, cont. on page 42

opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living KF: Did you ever picture yourself on an island when you considered places you might PCS [personal change of status]? LCM: To a certain degree. I never pictured Oceania, it was always somewhere in Southeast Asia. Indonesian was my primary language, so that’s an archipelago right there. I kind of expected it, but not quite as small of an island as this.

INTERVIEW by H. Kris Fronzak

Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Mills

Director of Host Nations activities Kris Fronzak: Where did you grow up and go to school? Lieutenant-Colonel Mills: I was born in New Jersey and grew up between North Carolina and Virginia. My undergraduate degree was in Political Science. From there I went into active duty army in field artillery. I did that for 10 years, then went to my current career field as a Foreign Area Officer, which is focused on southeast Asia — FAO is what we’re called.

KF: Can you explain what that means? LCM: We’re basically the Army’s regional specialists. Our region is southeast Asia and most of Oceania, which encompasses most of the Pacific. KF: What prompted this career path? LCM: Being a FAO was actually my second choice — first choice was to go back to jump status. You have to have a strong language capability for this job, and I scored high enough on tests that they thought they’d send me to language school.

KF: So, describe your current job as the Director of Host Nations Activities. LCM: My office conducts all working-level interactions between the command and the RMI government, both at a national level and on the local government level. KF: What does that entail? LCM: It can be any request from RMI government. Most recently we worked on the request for assistance spraying for dengue. Our office did most of the coordination, then reached out to other military specialists who came into the country and did the spraying and education campaign. KF: What's your biggest challenge with this job? LCM: We’re a secure military installation. Balancing access and security on the base with RMI citizens coming here is challenging. Their society is not as regimented, with cultural norms of everything being free flowing and easygoing. KF: How do you deal with this? LCM: The key from the start is communication. Constant communications and making sure regulations are clear-cut and understood, even when we can’t explain exactly why, just that the regulations are there. KF: Do you find that the RMI is ever overlooked when it comes to big policies and strategic visions of the U.S. at large? LCM: We’ve ratified the Compact of Free Association, which takes us out to at least 2066. We view them as an important

partner. And the U.S. will defend the RMI from outside aggression, so I wouldn’t say we’re overlooking them at all.

KF: Can you explain the role of the RMI on this base? LCM: USAKA is the second largest employer in the RMI, second only the RMI government. They’re an important part of the workforce. They do a lot of the base operations, maintenance and such. KF: Have you discussed the future of the RMI workforce with their government, considering the recent budget cuts and overall job loss? LCM: We are in open communication with the RMI government. In the past when we knew we would have significant budget issues, we advised their government early on so they weren’t caught offguard. In the interim, we did everything we could to mitigate jobs lost and were actually quite successful in reducing the number. KF: How would you describe American/ Marshallese relations now? LCM: From the USAKA standpoint, we seem to have a solid relationship. KF: Can you describe your life on Kwaj, beyond work? LCM: When I first got here, I worked my way through to Divemaster. I used to do a lot of diving. My wife and I had our first baby, and we have another one on the way. So now it’s all about family time and raising our daughter, Dorothy. Our second is due on January 25. KF: Are you ready? LCM: You know, someone asked me that about my first daughter, and I didn’t know how to answer. I thought for the second I’d be able to answer ‘yes,’ but I still don’t know. We’re very excited, but ‘ready’ is a relative term. MT

Marshallese Time Spring 2012



opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living Tender for tinned meats? Where to start? Fresh-caught fish is so last century. Spam is now an essential part of many Marshallese diets. Spam and eggs, Spam sandwiches, Spamghetti, Spam with rice ‌ its versatility, cost and durability make this canned ham product a true wonder of the Island world. Scores of bodegas and grocery stores around the nation have shelves upon shelves of this tinned meat, introduced by the American military. Many who have lived in the Marshall Islands and embraced the culture will actually become nostalgic for Spam, and reference Spam and egg breakfasts with a doleful sigh. Beware, though; the amount of sodium in any one can is enough to tide you over for several days, or cause a little throb in your left arm.

Kool-Aid ramen

Open package of ramen and set aside seasoning packet. Break up dry noodles into bite-sized chunks. Pour a spoonful of Kool-Aid mix (fans recommend Black-Cherry flavor for optimal taste) and seasoning packet into noodle package. Shake well and enjoy!

Marshallese Moonshine STEP ONE


Find a large, empty jar. Fill 2/3 full of cool water. Add half a bag of granulated sugar followed by several packets of active yeast. Be sure to save the remaining sugar. If low on sugar or water, or on an outer island where it might not be available, substitute with coconut juice.


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

STEP THREE Every few hours, add small amounts of sugar to the solution. Do not add too much, as it will cause the jar to bubble over and pour out the fermenting alcohol. Add a larger amount of sugar to the jar if leaving the solution alone for a long period of time. Solution will ferment after several days, but it is advisable to continue for 1-5 weeks for increased purity and volume.

Mix the sugar, yeast and water together slowly over a few minutes, using your fingers to break up chunks. One the solution is entirely mixed, place it in a dry, safe place to ferment, preferably with the lid off. Be advised that at this stage in the process the solution can smell quite noxious.

STEP FOUR Enjoy (responsibly)


Living on the Edge


or a by M mom can arsha ent, lo o l plac strug occup l Islan k past d i the e in a gles an ers. B ers an the is s i e d The slands fast-m d the yond their ues fa c o s r acci e’s ver seems ving w earch the p Ameri ed o i t d y aris ents. little dyllic a orld, l o find wer W e i lan , it te hen a crime nd sec fe on a do u wne nds to n issu and fe re. mes e w r b tic s ship o e one does qua r bbl a do- of e. Marshallese Time Spring 2012


photo courtesy The Kwajalein Hourglass

Compared to the U.S., where every gap in the concrete is blocked off, playgrounds are covered in bits of worn rubber and people who walk alone to the grocery store are considered daredevils, policies and people in the RMI are remarkably unconcerned and freewheeling. But dangers do exist — Exhibit A is the Islands’ nuclear past. The nature of the risks, however, is generally more obscure and less life threatening than the immediate perils of mugging or car crashes that Americans are hyperaware of. At a conference with civilians shortly after his arrival, the commander of USAKA, Colonel Joseph Gaines, shared his opinion of how dangerous the islands were, and how easily he could increase safety for residents. It took several months for civilians to learn what he meant by “increasing safety.” Residents of Kwajalein Island used to obtain their boat licenses at age 16 after taking a driving course — a huge thrill to kids who couldn’t have cars. Under the leadership of Colonel Gaines, licenses became restricted to those over age 18. The Marina has alse reduced the range of casual fishing/

A member of the Kwajalein “coconut crew” prunes fronds from a large palm tree.

Something in the water…

Last year, the Islands elected to throw a perpetual shark fiesta by making their 768,500 square miles of ocean into the largest shark sanctuary in the world. This sanctuary exceeds the size of its closest competitor, the Bahamas, by over three times. I encountered curious sharks countless times while in the water, but the kicker is that I’ve never felt threatened. Once I came across two five-footers hanging out in the shallows while swimming with my mother. I paused to face them, out of curiosity. They eyed us warily for a few seconds before my mother realized what was going on. She dragged me away with strength comparable to that of mothers who miraculously lift large trucks off their offspring. Another time, I was the designated shark-spotter on a memorable dive while interning with the Environmental, Safety and Health DeMy A great deal of danger lies in those partment. colleague and dive partner was gleaming depths that surround the collecting sand Islands — the Pacific Ocean. samples to test contaminants that were leaching into the water. I floated a pleasure boats, much to the dismay of few feet above him, turning lazily in cirmany civilians. cles to see if anything was approaching. To be fair, some of the Colonel’s All was quiet and blue until suddenly I fears are legitimate. The Pacific Ocean saw an extremely large shark. I jerked to hosts a variety of treacherous creaattention and sank down to alert my cotures, as shown on opposite page. As a worker and make the telltale “shark” siggreat boon to those who fear the vast nal with my hands. When I looked back, unknown, the Pacific has incredible the creature was gone. Needless to say, visibility. The water is generally crystal I was overly twitchy for the rest of that clear to over 100 feet. With that clardive, and spent most of my time cranity comes pros and cons. Pro: You can ing my head around and reviewing all the see anything approaching you in the defense techniques I’d ever heard were water. Con: Well, you can see anything effective against 6+ footers. approaching you in the water, and MiIn the summer of 2010, my parents, chael Phelps himself couldn’t outswim sister and I embarked on a scuba trip a determined shark.


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

photo courtesy Catherine Layton

that was destined to be our first and last family dive ever. It started innocently enough. My family was relatively experienced at the time, so we took a boat out to dive a few other islands. We explored the remains of Prinz Eugen, a massive German warship allegedly guarded by a testy tiger shark. After decompressing, we cruised to the longitude and latitude of Troy’s Coralhead, a pinnacle of diving in the Islands. We expected to see all sorts of fish — eels, parrotfish, maybe even a few octopi. The sky was deeply blue, a group of dolphins played alongside our boat and I spotted some bright, spectacular coralheads from the railings. It was, by any standards, an inspiring day. We arrived at the exact coordinates, looked down into the depths, and saw nothing. Ocean, ocean and more ocean. In a moment of senselessness, my father and I agreed to toss the anchor down into the depths and explore the area. The two of us suited up and swam around the boat in search of the buoy that we knew would lead us to the coralhead. To our relief, the coralhead was only about 100 feet north of where we had anchored. However, the anchor was firmly attached to something on the ocean floor, about 120 feet below us. I was only scuba certified up to 60

The Marshall Islands host of wide range of marine life, some of which is dangerous to humans. Clockwise from top left: Nurse sharks at the Kwajalein marina, an Aurelia aurita jellyfish, a vibrant Pterois volitans lionfish, the Himantura stingray, flavimarginatus Triggerfish, Arothron meleagris Pufferfish and a Ophiothrix spiny starfish.

photos courtesy Scott & Jeanette Johnson

feet, so my dad nobly offered to dive down, untangle the anchor and come right back up. He reappeared after an age and a half, eyes wide as saucers. We climbed back onto the boat, where my dad laid in a sort of stunned silence for a few minutes before uttering the same statement he holds to today: “That was, without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have done in my entire life.” As we discovered later, my dad was surrounded by dozens of deep-water sharks as he untangled the anchor — not the type of creature we were accustomed to seeing in the shallow lagoon area. No one in my family has gone diving since. Aside from that afternoon of bad decisions, my family is remarkably logical and law-abiding. This isn’t true for many Kwajalein residents. It’s a rare breed that decides to drop everything and live in the middle of nowhere. Even if that weren’t the case, the banality of life on

isolated islands has led plenty of people to do stupid things. My friend’s aunt visited Kwajalein with a friend several decades ago. As part of the “island experience,” they were taken to Bigej Island to snorkel and explore the jungle. The two enjoyed the seats of honor on the way there, clutching the railing at the prow of the boat. As I’ve been told, a particularly large wave suddenly unseated both women, flipping them off the front of the boat into the surf. It was only the lightningquick reaction of the captain who killed the engine that saved them from almost certain death. Other daredevils haven’t been so lucky. Several old “Kwaj Kids” recall a friend who was crushed after he fell off the front of a boat on a similar trip. If that isn’t horrific enough, the guilt-ridden driver of that boat committed suicide soon thereafter. Thanks in part to these incidents, riding on boat prows has been banned.

Unfortunately, it’s a law that hardly stops anyone, as long as they’re out of sight of police boats. It’s an irresistible ride, as many residents will attest today.

The Killer Coconut

As a child, I was fond of a Roald Dahl story set on an island resort, called “The Boy Who Talked With Animals.” As part of the backstory, the narrator describes the death of a resort guest that had supposedly occurred many years previous — a tragic yet comical death by falling coconut. I’d always chuckled at the description, but never took it seriously; when you live in the mountains of Tennessee, errant coconuts aren’t high on your list of fears. This attitude changed when I moved to Kwajalein. Coconuts were everywhere. It only took a few months for me to become annoyed at the fruit, as my peers had been for years. After all, coconuts are fairly useless without the Marshallese Time Spring 2012


strength and skill to husk a ripened one — true Islanders can do this on a sharpened stake in a matter of minutes. The trees they come from don’t provide shade and are basically un-climbable. Worst of all, unless vigilantly pruned by the “coconut crew” (shown on page 34), coconuts have a habit of falling to the ground and terrifying innocent passers-by. I experienced this firsthand one morning while relaxing on a beach chair, eyes closed, with the strings of my bathing suit blithely untied. I was just beginning to doze off when a large thud forced my eyes open. Two feet from my chair lay a large, brown coconut, rocking back and forth in a deceptively gentle way on the sand. Alarmed, I looked up at the palm tree whose fronds had been shading my face. Sure enough, a large bunch of coconuts dangled precariously from the top. In an act of self-preservation, I dragged my chair several feet away, opting for a slow death by heat exhaustion rather than annihilation by overgrown fruit.

photo courtesy Scott & Jeanette Johnson monotonous island lifestyle encourages all sorts of risky behavior — even for adults, alcohol is often consumed in excess. Newcomers quickly learn that riding a bicycle drunk can be as dangerous for the driver as driving a car — and has legal consequences that are just as severe. The vast majority of A giant clam. Though beautiful, clams have a reputathe population does tion for clamping down on gear attached to unwary ride bicycles, and divers, trapping them underwater. current laws don’t require headgear for riders. Years of practice and ease on “Flies in cuts and cuts from coral or bicycles aren’t helpful when friends are sand are worrisome because they cause goofing around and crash into one anstaph infections. I know that I had sevother — especially when those friends eral disgusting, pus-oozing wounds are inebriated and showing off by riding whereas my children in the states have without hands. had none,” explained former resident Other teenagers ride sitting on the Kathleen Taylor. A Landlubber’s Perils handlebars of friends’ bikes when Amy Tayloe agrees. “When we first arCoconuts aside, residents bring a host they’re feeling lazy, even though doing rived, they drilled into us that infections of other dangers upon themselves. The so is illegal. I know several people with were super common, and we had to perinitial drinking age on Kwajalein Isimpressive scars that serve as testaments oxide every scrape so that we didn’t get land alone seems to be about 13 or 14 to reckless bike accidents. Said scars are sick. It scared me good.” — of the 25 people informally polled, made more serious by the human body’s Many residents still stumble across only one started after age 18. Anyone inability to heal quickly in humid cliUXO (unexploded ordnance) on land and mates, like the Islands. I once in the water, though required orientation sliced my foot open while courses and regular advertisements warn Twinkle, twinkle, traffic light, windsurfing, rode to the hosagainst touching even small bullets. MelaShining on the street so bright. pital with my sandal slippery noma is also a very real issue for many and dripping with blood, Red means stop, Islanders, especially since the country is followed all of the doctor’s located just north of the equator. Yellow means slow, orders and the wound still Disease on the American bases isn’t Green means go, go, go, go, go. didn’t heal properly for alany more widespread or serious in naTwinkle, twinkle, traffic light, most a month. ture than most of the U.S. This is not the Shining on the street so bright. If the humid climate case on most Marshall Islands, where the doesn’t get you, contaminataverage lifespan is only 59 years. Tuber(A version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” sung to ed coral will. The Marshall culosis and pneumonia run rampant and children raised in the RMI to teach them the meaning Islands are mainly covered largely untreated, and the Islands still of traffic lights, which do not exist on the Islands.) in sand, which is miniscule have one of the highest rates of leprosy pieces of coral. Falling and in the world. Sexually-transmitted infecwho starts later than that is considered cutting yourself on that coral is just tions are another leading cause of death, a prude, and only admits the fact with asking for a swollen, pus-oozing injury. a problem that’s exacerbated by Islanda certain amount of sheepishness. Only Kwaj Kid Justin DeCoster still has severs’ aversion to condoms. A country four of those polled did not drink at eral pieces of coral lodged in his foot profile by the World Health Organizaall, and another four started at age nine thanks to infections that made them too tion reports that many deaths in the RMI or 10. The laid-back and sometimes swollen to remove. are caused by conjunctivitis (pink eye), a


Marshallese Time Spring 2012

disease that’s no more than a nuisance in the U.S. When I visited the Islands in December of 2011, they were combating an outbreak of Dengue Fever. Obesity-related diseases are another huge danger to Marshallese. Used to a diet of fish and plants, Marshallese were taken completely by surprise when foreigners came and offered something that made their taste buds sing — sugar. Before long, sugar was one of the most sought-after commodities in the entire culture. Foreigners obviously didn’t bring warning labels with the candy, and the natives were ignorant of things like nutrition, since all they had previously eaten was fish and plants. So they grew shockingly obese, and none the wiser as to what the problem was. Money was suddenly far more important, stores sprang up and the Marshallese began growing — outward. According to the RMI Ministry of Health, diabetes-re-

lated disease is the principal cause of mortality.


Current and past residents have their own harrowing memories and unique fears from life in the Marshall Islands. One resident can attest to seeing a fluorescent light bulb illuminate while out of a socket on Roi Island, where several enormous transmitters are located. Another remembers an octopus latching onto his friend’s arm as they tormented it off a main beach. In what is probably one of the only true octopus attacks on humans, the creature managed to tear the up boy’s arm, and was only stopped after being forcibly removed. Other memories are jarring in their own ways: Tim Stuart — “I remember walking around the island after an enormous hurricane and seeing three mobile homes in the ocean. They were blown

over and washed about 100 feet from their foundations.” Cathy McCoil — “Maryann Miller’s bicycle chain broke and went into her spokes, stopping her bike. She fell over, went into a coma and never recovered.” Kathleen Taylor — “I feared cockroaches and geckos creeping under my nightgown at night. This was not a baseless fear, as both of those events happened to me.” Luke Riley — “I spent a few days in a hospital bed from a staph-infected spider bite received on Bigej Island.” Dick Buckley — “Living across the street from the ALTAIR on Roi, I experienced the way it would overwhelm our electronics when they fired it up. Who knows what it was doing to our DNA.” Russ Taylor — “Coconut crabs hanging on the screen window 5 inches from your face while you sleep… that’s what I was afraid of on Kwaj.” MT

Kwajalein: then & now For a secure military base, Kwajalein Island has gone through some dramatic changes, even in the last 50 years. Some changes improved safety — others were purely to improve function or aesthetic appeal. At right is the Lifeguard tower at Emon Beach, the main beach on Kwajalein Island. The old but futuristic design has been replaced by a more practical tower (far right), which increases protection from the sun’s rays and is nearer to the ground.




2011 At left is the George Seitz Family Pool. The current pool has safety rails and a large, concrete divider that separates the “kiddie” side of the pool from the adolescent pool. The concrete has been overlaid with a soft, green turf that prevents slips and trips (photos courtesy The Kwajalein Hourglass).

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living

Manager of Liquid Systems INTERVIEW by H. Kris Fronzak After an impromptu tour of the Kwajalein Water Treatment Plant, Manager of Liquid Systems and long-time Kwaj resident Stan Jazwinski and I sat down to discuss his life, wife and experiences on the island. Kris Fronzak: Before you came to Kwaj, what did you do? Stan Jazwinski: I was a self-employed aquarium fish collector. I got a Zoology degree from the University of Hawaii. I was interested in research, but it’s an extremely competitive field. I was happy being a fisherman, so I did that for 13 years. KF: Can you describe what this was like? SJ: I would go out and fish five or six days a week. I took my fish to a big warehouse. They were the ones that sold them to pet stores or big importers in the U.S. and overseas, so I was just a tiny cog in the giant system that equipped people with fish for their living rooms. 38

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

KF: Why did you move back to Kwaj? SJ: I was ready to leave Hawaii – traffic was terrible. I had some old Kwaj friends who lived here, so I came back to go diving for a month. That’s when I met Bess Buchanan. I tried to convince her to move to Hawaii but she didn’t want to, so I ended up getting a job here. We ended up getting married a year later, then we signed another contract and another contract and have been here since ’89. KF: How did you meet Bess? SJ: The people I visited in ’88 knew two of the nurses who had seven aquariums but couldn’t catch fish. I obviously knew how, so my friend Scott [Johnson] introduced me to Bess and her roommate, and they took us diving and we caught aquarium fish for them. It was kind of a meeting of convenience. KF: Do you still catch fish? SJ: We have two aquariums right now. Bess cleans and organizes them and makes them look beautiful.

photo courtesy Ivy Springer

Stan Jazwinski

KF: Can you tell me an anecdote from your experience doing that? SJ: One day I was working by myself in Hawaii, when I saw some damselfish dart into a hole in the reef. I brushed my hand through the cave to make them come out and didn’t see a huge moray eel in the cave with them. As I went by, he chomped down on my finger. I pulled out my hand and saw the water turning red, so I left the little 50-cent fish and swam back to the boat. Blood was everywhere, so I wrapped my shirt around my hand, drove my boat an hour back to the boat ramp, somehow pulled it ashore, drove home, and put some surgical tape on my hand. I didn’t have insurance, so I waited a week for it to heal, and started diving again. That was one of three eel bites I got over the years.

A zebra moray eel, similar to the one that bit Jazwinski as he dove to collect aquarium fish. KF: What’s in your aquarium now? SJ: Right now we don’t have anything super rare, but occasionally we’ll find really cool fish. We had an Emperor angelfish that was an inch long when we caught it three years ago. As a juvenile, it looked like a black and white bullseye. You’d never forget it if you saw it. KF: What did you do when you first came here? SJ: I was a wastewater plant lab technician. I relied on my degree and the chemistry classes I’d taken, since I didn’t have any experience with wastewater plants. KF: How would you say Kwaj living differs from U.S. living? SJ: Here, you can get off of work and 30 minutes later you can be underwater. You can’t do that anywhere else in the world. You can go diving in other places, but it takes a lot more effort. KF: How has the island changed over the years? SJ: When I first came out here, in second grade, there were 5,000 people. There was no making phone calls back to the states, no TV, and people didn’t have a lot to do. So in the afternoons after school, kids just played outside.

When adults came home from work, instead of staying inside the house, they’d socialize. It was like a small town without cars. People are more introverted now, and everyone has the Internet and TV. There are still things to do, but Kwajalein isn’t quite as social. KF: So would you say it’s changed for the worse? SJ: Well, that’s subjective. If someone’s sick in the states, you don’t have to get a call over HAM radio and then have someone bike over and tell you, ‘Your Aunt Bessie is ill.’ We would even find out that people had died over HAM radio! So there are advantages now. KF: Have you seen any improvement in USAKA/RMI relations? SJ: I think that, from the Marshallese point of view, the average person feels like his situation has gotten worse. 1015 years ago, Marshallese guys would stay here after work to hang out, cook or go spearfishing, and go home when they wanted to. But now the restrictions on their freedoms here have increased phenomenally. KF: Can you explain some of these restrictions? SJ: I believe the Marshallese have an hour or so to get back to Ebeye after work. They can’t stay unless someone gives them approval. I was told this was done because there was too much drinking. There are some people that drink a lot, but you’re penalizing all the Marshallese because of what maybe five or 10 percent are doing. The guys that I work with feel like USAKA treats them as second class citizens because of the color of their skin. And I think that’s something that’s much more widespread now. KF: How has the US shaped the culture? Is it positive or negative? SJ: Their culture is thousands of years of them living here without any westerners. In last 60 years the U.S. has drastically changed their culture. Is it better or worse? That’s not really for me to say, though they do often pick up the worst habits of Americans — soda pop and Spam and so on.

KF: Can you talk about the water problems on Ebeye? SJ: There just isn’t enough money for the operation of the water plant and sewer system. Plus, spare parts aren’t available, so when something breaks, is a crisis for the entire population, not a problem. And any time this happens, it takes weeks to be resolved. KF: What about the sewage problems Ebeye has been having? SJ: It’s unfortunate because they don’t have the money and there’s no one really in charge of the sewage system. They tend to get a lot of sand and twigs and marbles in there. KF: Marbles? SJ: Little boys love to put things down holes, and when you see a manhole with a little hole in it, of course you’re gonna stick twigs and marbles down there.

Creatures of Interest photos courtesy Ivy Springer

Giant Pacific Octopus

Octupi have the ability to camouflage with their surroundings, thus making them a rare sight to the casual diver. Adults can attain lengths of over 30 feet.

Green Sea Turtle

Several species of sea turtles can be found in Islands, both on deep-sea dives and snorkeling excursions.

Christmas Tree Worms

These aptly named worms are sedentary, come in a variety of colors and eat using a filtering system.

KF: Why is this happening? SJ: They’ve just never had the money to buy the equipment to maintain their sewer system. Politicians in all countries are corrupt, and theirs are no different. When you don’t have billions of dollars to waste, it makes a huge impact if a politician is buying condos in Hawaii and flying everyone he’s related to back and forth to his condo instead of spending the money on the people of his country. KF: How long do you plan to stay here? SJ: Possibly as short as two or three years. We just bought a house on the big island, which is a nice place to live —

uncrowded and with a beautiful climate. It’s expensive but still better than the states. KF: What’s your favorite Kwaj activity? SJ: Fishing. Bess and I take our boat about 30 miles up the reef. We dive in the daytime, and whenever we aren’t diving, I’m fishing. KF: What is your biggest takeaway from your time on Kwaj? SJ: The most interesting thing about Kwaj is that you make friends easily, and they are solid friendships that last a long time. MT Marshallese Time Spring 2012



e w k Yo


like to consider myself a fairly educated person. I may not know how many countries exist on this planet, which team won the 1995 Super Bowl, or precisely what a “dash” of garlic is, but I’m well rounded nonetheless. Until my family decided to move to the Marshall Islands, however, I had no idea such a place even existed. When my parents first brought it up as a possibile destination, I had trouble taking the idea seriously. Luckily, the all-knowing Internet made it simple enough to Google the RMI, skim some overly kitschy blogs and get a pretty solid idea of what these 1,000+ strips of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean were about. We learned to expect exotic foods, perpetual summer and unnaturally large cockroaches. We researched what to bring and what could be left behind. We even visited the family doctor to get the necessary immunizations — diseases such as tuberculosis supposedly ran rampant on many Islands. Unfortunately, no amount of Internet surfing could have prepared us for the fascinating and terrible thing that is the native tongue of the RMI. Marshallese is an Austronesian language that comes with a host of distinct grammatical rules and pronunciations. It is utterly foreign to the romance languages we’re accustomed to learning in mandatory high school language classes. Picking up meaning through root words and similar sounds simply isn’t possible. Bonito, lindo, bello — all mean “beautiful” in

The intricacies and oddities languages to which we’re accustomed. In Marshallese the word is oleo, unless you’re talking about a pretty woman (likatu) or any number of other connotations. Many Marshallese words operate in this fashion. The term for “hello” is actually interchangeable with “goodbye” and “love.” Its original meaning was “you are a rainbow.” The word is yokwe or yokwe yuk. It’s perfectly acceptable to spell this iakwe as well. Yokwe is also the only Marshallese word I’ve heard spoken in the States. A friend was singing a song made of nonsense words and inadvertently said yokwe, much to my delight. Aside from that chance occurrence, Marshallese might as well not exist. Spanish, Mandarin and English are spoken by billions of people over several continents. Marshallese is spoken by tens of thousands, and in an isolated area. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to just hap-

Culture Do you speak English? foreigner Marshallese Marshallese language English language Please say it again 40

Kwo jela ke kajin Pälle? ri-Likin ri-Majöl kajin Majöl kajin Pälle Bar ba mok

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

pen to know any phrases of this remote language. Adding to the difficulty of understanding Marshallese are the two chains of islands that make up the country. The Ralik and Ratak (“sunrise” and “sunset”) Chains have distinct dialects of their own. If that isn’t enough to overwhelm you, consider that original Marshallese writing is “all but wholly lacking,” according to the Peace Corps language training manual. Virtually none of the language was written down until Christian missionaries arrived in the Islands — and each religion came with the intent to independently translate the Bible and convert the people. More recently, a new system was developed to “more accurately and consistently represent the sounds peculiar to Marshallese.” The Peace Corps language training manual explains that these spellings are “intended to be the standard for all writ-

You are a rain bo


of the Marshallese language







Yes No/don’t Please Thank you You’re welcome My name is ______ How are you What is your name I’m sorry/Excuse me I don’t know

nasty word he refused to translate. It took hours of investigation, working in collaboration with research librarians and experts in Marshallese culture, to finally discover (from one of the authors of the Marshallese-English Dictionary) that the word was tōptōp. For obvious reasons, Marshallese is notoriously difficult for English speakers to pick up. Even when newcomers begin to grasp basic phrases, pronunciation is sometimes so poor that native speakers laugh outright. Many of my half-Marshallese friends refuse to speak the language out of shame, even though they grew up hearing it. Technically, the Republic has both English and Marshallese as official languages. Marshallese is generally used for elementary education, and secondary education is conducted in English. In comparison to many developed countries, however,

aet jaab jouj Kommol Kin jouj Eta in _____ Ej et am mour? Etam? Jolok bwid ijaje

Eating Fish ocean lagoon Eat I’m hungry Drink I’m thirsty

ek lik ar mönä Ikwöle idaak Imaro

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

juon ruo jilu emän lalem jiljino jimjuon ralitök ratimjuon joñoul



ing in the Republic.” The likelihood of this new system being accepted in the near future is slim. It would be like forcing a professional soccer team to dribble a basketball to improve their footwork. Spelling is a also problem. Scores of native Marshallese speakers freely admit to having little idea how to spell the language. Even professional writers spell words according to personal preference. One speech, written in English and translated by two highly competent Marshallese men, had such radically different spellings that the original writer thought she had gotten back two different speeches altogether. I encountered this myself when looking for the spelling of tōptōp, which refers to the Marshallese custom of giving personal items to admirers. Those familiar with the term had varying guesses of how to spell it, and one man told me that its current spelling made it uncomfortably close to a

education is not nearly as advanced. Few students make it into high school at all, let alone graduate. The RMI Statistical Yearbook has found that these islands have among the lowest rankings for education in the Pacific Region, which may be due to parents’ reluctance to send their kids to school, a lack of support shown to those children who are enrolled and the high rate of teenage pregnancies. There is little discussion of life dreams and career paths. Kin always come first, so if a family needs near-constant support and help with child rearing, all but the most determined students find themselves putting their aspirations aside. Unless natives plan to leave the islands (or want to read their home newspaper, which is written mainly in English), Marshallese is the only language they need to get by. Since secondary education usually falls to the elite, even truly bilingual Islanders don’t interact with others using English — why use the more difficult language when both parties understand Marshallese perfectly well? The Pacific Resources for Education and Learning have discovered that less than one percent of Islanders speak English at home. When anthropologist Peter RudiakGould first moved to the Islands to teach English for the Peace Corps, he was appalled at the students’ lack of knowledge. “The idea that words have one correct spelling was a foreign concept,” he explains in “Surviving Paradise.” “Some students rendered even their own names according to the day’s whim. Was it … Steep or Steve? Croney or Groney?” Rudiak-Gould later assures the readers that the children were not dim, and that “their

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


only fault was being born in a place where the education system was still in its birthing contractions.” This is not to say that true islanders can’t communicate with Americans. Assuming listeners can muddle through the accent, many Marshallese speak enough rudimentary English to hold casual conversations and get a message across — that’s more than can be said for most English-speakers trying to communicate in Marshallese.

A rose by any other name:

Unlike the relatively soft noises made by the English tongue, Marshallese is choppy and harsh-sounding. Here’s an example of a sentence: Kwojela ke kajin majol? Ijela kajin majol. Na ijriab. The language clearly favors the letters k, j and i, as opposed to English’s love of s, e and n. (For the record, the example sentence says “Do you speak Marshallese? I speak Marshallese. I’m lying”). Certain sounds do not exist in the language at all,

Canaries, from page 30 ologists everywhere — if a country disappears underwater, is it even a country anymore? Would they be allowed a seat in the UN, a president, laws of their own? Much of their GDP comes from the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which comprises 750,000 square miles of ocean territory. The EEZ allows the RMI government to distribute fishing licenses for the area, but laying claim to an area is more difficult when you don’t have land or residents in the zone itself. The Marshallese language is also bound to disappear should they be forced to leave the archipelago. To the distress of many natives, a number of English terms have already entered Marshallese language and are used to express important foreign concepts. Historically speaking, languages in the U.S. tend to wither within a few generations, such as when the grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants cannot speak the primary language of their older relatives. The immense cultural pride of the Marshallese may help the language linger, but lingering is all it would be capable of doing. What’s the use of a language spoken by 42

Marshallese Time Spring 2012

as evidenced by native speakers’ pronunciation of my first name, Hannah, which usually becomes “Anna.” Even “okay,” one of the most recognized and common words worldwide, is different in Marshallese. The word is ebwe. For all that the language is dissimilar to ours, Marshallese has adopted a number of English words for the sake of convenience. Author Francie Diep of Scientific American holds that this is a common side effect of living with a different culture on your doorstep. “Every Pacific island that is a former U.S. protectorate has thousands of what linguists call loanwords taken from English. The loanwords describe pencils (pinjel), radios (retio), cars (kaar).” The unifying aspect of these loanwords is their ability to describe unknown objects or concepts — a vital thing for a culture that’s constantly inundated with foreign ideas. In nearly any given paragraph of modern Marshallese, there exist at least a few English words. Below is an excerpt from a

1992 issue of The Marshall Islands Journal, the national newspaper. Even a reader who knew no Marshallese could probably determine the paragraph is school-related, though the specifics are unknown: “Elane ej maat an school ko jet supply im rumij an ilok kein school ko aer, eon ene in Likiep ejanin wor an problem elkin an bed iumin management in an Maryknoll. ear ba. Aljo ear kobaik lok im ba ke ear kanuijin lon training ko im rekein koman Saturday school yiio eo lok jen sister ro nan kelaplok jela eo ibben staff eo an school en, ekoba curriculum eo ekaal” Below are a few other Marshallese verbs and nouns, as defined by the University of Hawaii’s Marshallese-English Dictionary.

less than 100,000 in a land swarming with more than 300 million fluent English speakers? Certain aspects of Marshallese culture present unique difficulties in the battle to survive on a warming planet. Food is a crucial component to Marshallese life. It’s a way to express yokwe [love], share resources and build unity. Rudiak-Gould has explained that eating traditional Marshallese foods is “one of the main indicators and symbols of embracing mantin majel,” which is the Marshallese concept of the good life. Many staples to their diet grow only in Micronesia — relocating and not having access to these foods would detract from their concept of a satisfying life. Their all-important connection to ancestral land and use of this land for clan divisions also makes environmental migration a harrowing prospect. Leaving would mean the complete annihilation of their social structure. The Preamble to the Constitution clearly states that the Marshallese value “nothing more dearly than our rightful home on the islands within the traditional boundaries of this archipelago.” Since a majority of Marshallese living on the Islands are unemployed and education is not a high pri-

ority, a majority of the people would be leaving their homes with only basic job skills and a rudimentary grasp of English — factors that don’t bode well for the hustling, technologically advanced lifestyle of the U.S. The crowning glory of this many-layered cake? It’s the fact that a halt or reversal of the effects of climate change requires global reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Marshallese are preparing for the inevitable by planting trees to guard against saltwater spray, raising community awareness and modifying planting methods to prevent infiltration of saltwater into crops. The lifestyle of the Marshallese, however, is already environmentally friendly — especially in outer islands where populations are largely subsistence based. If anyone is to blame for the world’s carbon footprint, it’s not them. RMI Representatives are currently fighting for better climate change measures with the U.N., but their expected impact on negotiations is negligible. As with the occupation of different explorers and the nuclear testing of the 20th century, Marshalls are yet again becoming casualties of a war they did not choose to fight. MT

jokutbae – to wave goodbye arōnpe – shark kōkajoor – go away for fresh air aje – give without remuneration kowawa – cross the legs mmōjānjān – footsteps on gravel/dry leaves jok – heavily loaded boat wajerakrōk – sailboat kinji – pinch with fingernails MT

opinions - entertainment - food - facts - history - interview

island living “If they’re out of fluids and you need an IV at the hospital, especially in the outer islands, you can substitute with coconut juice and water.” -Junior Anitak

The Marshallese word for coconut is “ni.”

“We make seafood with coconut oil, coconut rice balls, anything. I have a huge bottle of coconut oil that I cook with all the time. But it’s all made to taste. People never write recipes in Marshallese.” -Helpert Alfred

cultural icon

THE COCONUT The coconut is a staple in Marshallese living, used for everything from food to building materials, medicine and as a source of revenue.

The Marshallese dictionary lists 11 different types of coconut. Many other terms exist to describe the different parts and stages of ripeness of the fruit.

“The Nin plant, coconut oil, bone… they can all be used for Marshallese medicine. It helps with skin cancer, burns, headaches, anything.” -Fumiko Kemem

Ta kijim in jota, Ta kijim in jota, Ma ma ma, iu iu iu, keinabbu, bub u bu a bu Ta limom in jota, to limom in jota Jakaro-ro, jekamai-mai, jekajeje, je je je a je What are you eating for dinner? [x2] Breadfruit [x3], Sprouted coconut seedling [x3], papaya, ya ya ya ah ya. What are you drinking during dinner? [x2] Coconut sap-sap, coconut syrup-syrup, coconut sap by-product, product product product ah product.

translated by Peter Rudiak-Gould

Marshallese Time Spring 2012


SPRING 2012 44 Marshallese Time Spring 2012 The College of Wooster

photo courtesy Ivy Springer

Marshallese Time  

The Marshallese culture is rich in heritage and unusual "manit" (customs). Nearly everything — from the language to food, beliefs in black m...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you