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Marshallese have been migrating from their remote and beautiful North Pacific archipelago to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas since the 1980s to earn money, educate their children, and seek medical care. The second-largest U.S. continental population of Marshallese is concentrated in Springdale (Washington and Benton Counties).
Historical Background on the Marshall Islands
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) comprises twenty-nine shallow atolls—rings of coral reef—and five islands arrayed over the eastern Ratak (Sunrise) and western Ralik (Sunset) chains. The nation encompasses 750,000 square miles of ocean just north of the equator. According to the RMI government, the national population is estimated at 55,000 as of 2013. The nation is burdened by deep poverty, disease, and the enduring effects of a decade-long covert nuclear bomb testing program conducted by the U.S. military during the Cold War. The unemployment rate hovers around forty percent. The RMI’s gross domestic product (GDP) ranks near the bottom among 229 nations. Due to chronic inflation, the cost of living is high, yet average annual income nationwide is less than $10,000. The island nation imports more than it exports, profiting from sales of copra (coconuts) and tuna. Tourism and the service industry—retail, restaurants, insurance, and banking—provide cash income. The largest employer in the islands is the U.S. government, which maintains a military base at Majuro, the nation’s capital.
The Marshall Islands were first settled around 4,000 years ago by early Micronesian explorers. The indigenous people referred to their home collectively as “Aelon Kein Ad”—meaning our islands. Identity and local governance is tied to individual places such as Enewetok, Rongelap, Utrik, and Bikini. Ancient islanders were adept circumnavigators, able to travel great distances by sea, charting the way via constellations and wave patterns. Island and atoll societies were matrilineal, developed independently, and were governed by chiefs. Indigenous spiritual practices were tied to the ecosystem.
First colonized by Spain in the 1500s, the island nation was named and mapped by English captain and explorer John Marshall in the late 1700s. The Germans purchased the islands from Spain in 1885. Japan captured the Marshalls from Germany in 1914 and was granted a mandate six years later by the League of Nations to administer the islands. Japan withdrew from the league to occupy the Marshalls as a military outpost during World War II, but a 1943 Allied invasion led to U.S. occupation three years later. Islanders were forced to assimilate with each new cultural incursion. Christianity displaced indigenous spiritual practices.
The United States took possession of the Marshall Islands as a trust territory in 1944, constructing a strategic military weapons base on Kwajalein Atoll. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated sixty-seven atmospheric nuclear bomb tests on the northern Marshalls, including the Mike Shot, the first thermonuclear bomb test, on Enewetak Atoll. Islanders living in test areas had been relocated, but communities downwind from the immense March 1954 hydrogen bomb test, the Bravo Shot, were exposed to deadly radioactive ash. U.S. scientists saw this as an opportunity to study human subjects exposed to deadly radiation. Thirty years later, the U.S. government struck an agreement with the RMI to pay $150 million in compensation, facilitated by a Nuclear Claims Tribunal, for any loss of property and damage to health. Health problems persist among the exposed population and their descendents. Bikini and Rongelap were rendered uninhabitable, creating a permanent population of nuclear refugees. A 2004 U.S. National Cancer Institute study found the entire island nation was and remains affected.
Islanders sought and won political sovereignty, adopting a constitution in 1978, becoming self-governing within one year. The Compact of Free Association with the United States was signed in 1986, settling all claims arising from the U.S. nuclear tests conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from 1946 to 1958. Renegotiated in 2003, the compact provides the Marshall Islands with $70 million in trust fund payments and Department of Interior grants as well as access to many U.S. programs and services. The Compact of Free Association allows islanders to freely travel to the United States as migrants on just a passport, without visas or foreign employment credentials. Islander children born in the United States are conveyed citizenship.
Marshall Islanders in Arkansas
The unique migration arrangement led to a Marshallese diaspora in the late 1980s. Islanders have settled in Hawaii, California, and Washington, but the largest continental population is located in Springdale, where the Marshallese found plenty of factory work, affordable housing, and excellent schools.
Most Marshallese in Arkansas labor in poultry slaughterhouses but are increasingly finding jobs in other sectors, professions, and self-established businesses. High school graduates are able to enroll in local community colleges and universities. English is widely spoken, especially by youth, but Marshallese (also known as Ebon, a Malayo-Polynesian language) remains the primary language.
Marshallese in Arkansas generally live in multi-family, multi-generational, and sparsely furnished households, laden with island artifacts, sea shells, woven wreaths, and faux flowers. The common practice of removing one’s shoes before entering the home, to prevent beach sand from being tracked inside, is still practiced. Islanders arrayed in traditional flowered dresses, shirts, and sandals often gather at nearly a dozen Marshallese churches, annual Memorial Day events, first birthdays, and festivals. Assimilated islander youth remain strongly devoted to family.
The 2010 federal census counted 4,324 islanders in Arkansas, compared to 7,400 in Hawaii. The RMI has embassies in Washington DC, New York, Hawaii, and Springdale. Longtime Marshallese social advocate Carmen Chong-Gum serves as consul general of the Springdale embassy. In 2013, the State of Arkansas certified the first Marshallese court interpreter in the nation, Springdale resident Melisa Laelan.
Despite the amenities the Springdale area offers to the Marshallese, only American-born Marshallese children have access to U.S. entitlements. Compact migrants cannot participate in the American political system or legally apply for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, or ARKids First (S-Chip) supplements—even though taxes to support such entitlements are deducted from many U.S. migrants’ paychecks. As a result, Arkansas communities are burdened with providing healthcare to islanders lacking resources. The population, which now consumes a western diet, is plagued by diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis, and obesity. Hansen’s disease is endemic. A remnant elder population suffers from effects of the Cold War–era nuclear bomb tests, and some experts believe that the entire population may be immune compromised.
With federal start-up funding and support from the Arkansas Department of Health, a Marshallese clinic for working poor islanders opened in Springdale in 2011. Operating costs are shouldered by the state. An interdisciplinary and voluntary taskforce called “Gaps in Services to Marshallese,” made up of both public and private social and healthcare experts guided by stakeholders, is dedicated to serving the pressing needs of islanders. Of some assistance is the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010, which will allow Marshallese to purchase health insurance through the national health insurance marketplace (coverage beginning in 2014). They will be eligible for tax-credit subsidies to aid in the purchase of the insurance.
Aside from the health clinic and state public health outreach programming, little assistance has been conveyed to Marshallese migrants in Arkansas. Under U.S./Pacific Island compacts of free association, millions of dollars of compact impact funding is provided to help certain host districts defray social welfare costs. Traditional recipient jurisdictions are the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands and Guam, as well as Hawaii, which receives $13 million annually. Yet Springdale receives no impact dollars. The Arkansas congressional delegation in 2011 signed a letter to the Department of State and the Department of the Interior requesting a medical screening policy for inbound islanders, asserting that the current compact migrant arrangement is unsustainable.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, pressed by Marshallese advocates, initiated an audit to determine if compact impact funding should be allocated to Arkansas, but a census discrepancy has barred full consideration. The 2000 federal census counted 712 persons in Springdale who claimed to be “Other Pacific Islanders,” which excludes Native Hawaiian, Guamanian, Chamorron, or Samoan. A special 2005 federal census counted 1,907 such individuals. The 2010 federal census enumerated more than 4,300 Marshall Islanders in the state, but some believe the number to be much higher. Nationwide, the U.S. Marshallese population has surged to 22,400 in 2010, up from 6,700 in 2000. Census enumerators may miss any number of Marshallese living in Arkansas, given a cultural propensity to resist discussing personal information with authorities and frequent travel to and from the islands, so compact impact funding languishes.
Still recovering from being used as a Cold War–era U.S. nuclear weapons test theater, the Republic of the Marshall Islands now faces a new threat: rising seas due to climate change. Only a few feet above sea level, the RMI could be completely inundated by the end of the twenty-first century—forcing even more out-migration of the population.
For additional information:
Beherec, Sean. “Arkansas Court Certifies Marshallese Interpreter.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 1, 2013, pp. 1B, 7B.
Bernet, Breda. “Census Puts State’s Count of Marshallese above 4,300.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 9, 2012, p. 7B.
Bowden, Bill. “Legal Status Hinders Islanders, Study Says.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 9, 2013, pp. 1B, 10B.
Brewer, Kenneth. “The Atolls of Arkansas: Marshall Islanders Were among the First Climate Refugees to Reach U.S. Shores.” Sierra Magazine 103 (January/February 2019): 20–27. Online at https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-1-january-february/feature/atolls-arkansas-marshall-islands-marshallese (accessed January 31, 2019).
Chen, Diana. “Got Breadfruit? Marshallese Foodways and Culture in Springdale, Arkansas.” PhD diss, University of Arkansas, 2018.
Froelich, Jacqueline. “From the Islands to the Ozarks: The Marshallese Nuclear Legacy.” Living on Earth, June 30, 2006. http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=06-P13-00026&segmentID=6 (accessed January 31, 2019).
Joyce, Kathryn. “‘Do You Understand That Your Baby Goes Away and Never Comes Back?’” New Republic, April 21, 2015. Online at http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121556/arkansas-adoption-preys-cultural-misunderstanding-marshallese (accessed January 31, 2019).
Marshallese Educational Initiative, Inc. http://www.meius.org/ (accessed January 31, 2019).
Mitchell-Eaton, Emily. “New Destinations of Empire: Imperial Migration from the Marshall Islands to Northwest Arkansas.” PhD diss., Syracuse University, 2016.
Moss, Teresa. “Marshallese Get Insurance Access from Health-Care Law.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 23, 2013, pp. 1B, 7B.
Neal, Tracy M. “Courts seek qualified interpreters for Marshallese.” ArkansasOnline.com. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2019/jan/22/courts-seek-qualified-interpreters-for-/ (accessed January 31, 2019).
Schulte, Bret. “For Marshall Islanders, Hopes and Troubles in Arkansas.” New York Times, July 4, 2012. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/us/for-marshall-islanders-hopes-and-troubles-in-arkansas.html?_r=2&hpw& (accessed January 31, 2019).
Smith-Norris, Martha. Domination and Resistance: The United States and the Marshall Islands during the Cold War. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016.
Watts, Darrell James. “Factors Affecting Marshallese Student Achievement in an Elementary School: A Case Study.” EdD diss., University of Arkansas, 2011.
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Last Updated 1/31/2019
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