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Marshall Islanders are known throughout the Pacific and the world for their friendly and peaceful nature. Sharing with family and friends, a warm welcome for the stranger, and caring consideration for others are values inherent to the Marshallese culture. The people have nurtured these values over the centuries. Cooperation and caring are necessary elements of survival on these small islands, surrounded by the sea.
The concept of family and community thus remain inextricably intertwined in Marshallese society. People still consider grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and far-flung relatives among their closest family. The strong family ties contribute to close-knit communities rooted in the values of caring, kindness and respect.
Time has also introduced new elements into the culture. While the local population is mostly indigenous, there are many mixed German, Japanese and American Marshallese.
Both Marshallese and English are the official languages of the Marshall Islands. Marshallese belongs to the Austronesian Language Family, the most geographically widespread language family in the world. Of the Austronesian languages, Marshallese is a member of the Malayo Polynesian group, a group which contains 880 different languages. In the Marshalls, two major dialects have emerged, one in the Ralik chain and one in the Ratak chain of atolls. The differences between the two dialects is minor.
Rainbows are a common sight in Majuro. Local legend tells that the expression "iaKwe!" (You are a rainbow) once developed into the traditional Marshallese greeting, "Iokwe yuk," which means "Love to You." You can find other pronunciations in our basic Marshallese phrasebook.
A formal linguistic classification of Marshallese is as follows:
See and Hear Marshallese Phrasebook HERE
Cultural values and customs, or manit, make Marshallese society unique. Land is a focal point for social organization in this island nation. All Marshallese have land rights as part of a clan, or jowi, that owes allegiance to an Iroij (chief), is supervised by the Alap (clan head), and supported by the Rijerbal (workers). The Iroij have ultimate control of such things as land tenure, resource use and distribution, and dispute settlement. The Alap supervises the maintenance of lands and daily activities. The Rijerbal are responsible for all daily work on the land including cleaning, farming, and construction activities. The society is matrilineal and, therefore, land is passed down from generation to generation through the mother.
With the land to tie families together into clans, family gatherings tend to become big events. One of the most significant family events is the kemem, or first birthday of a child, where relatives and friends come together to celebrate with feasting and song.
Most Marshallese are Protestants, and as a whole they are very religious. While the largest church in the nation is the United Church of Christ, there are many other Protestant denominations represented, like Assembly of God, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventists. The Catholic Church also has established a strong presence in the islands. In recent years, the Church of Latter-day Saints has also become established. Sundays are set aside for rest and relaxation and attending church services.
Life has never been easy in the Marshall Islands: the effort demanded to produce food continues to be great and the diet austere. Fish from the surrounding seas has naturally been the traditional support of life, while the scanty land has yielded three grudging crops - breadfruit, pandanus and swamp tare, in addition to the. ubiquitous coconut. By skillful management of the harsh terrain, its cultivation has sustained existence over the centuries in a system perfectly adapted to the demands of the region.
The breadfruit trees are most carefully tended when young: they are planted (on a rainy day) in a hole at least a foot deep, which is filled with all kinds of compost. Soil is added, sometimes rotted coconut gratings, and the seedling protected by a fence. Breadfruit is prepared in many ways to bring variety; it can be preserved too as an out-of-season food. Pandanus is grown from rooting slips, their leaves bound, tamped into a damp hole in cleared bush and no further attention given to it since it will either perish or bear fruit within a year or two. The cult of the wetland tare depends on the making of pits. These are dug at a level suitable for their plants to take root in ground-water -- whose height varies with the tide - and much care is needed to supply their needs adequately but not to drown the roots. Great pits were excavated in the middle of the larger islands with constant ground-water; cultivation was systematic and intensive, using pots of pandanus leaves, humus stakes, and intensive observation.
In the north, where rain is scarce, the culture of arrowroot was developed -- the richest natural starch to exist. The plant grows with little attention, but in their natural state its valuable roots are bitter. In the process of making these tubers into flour they are scrubbed, macerated, pounded and sieved repeatedly until a lump of pure carbohydrate is produced, which is left to dry in the sun. By this stage, the bitterness has gone and the dried flour will keep almost indefinitely.
The RMI Embassy in Washington D.C. is committed to empowering the Marshallese people through the sale of their specialized handicrafts (in a culturally appropriate manner) here in the United States. Although handicrafts are not sold by the Embassy, we feel that the promotion of these crafts contributes to the economic independence of the artisans, particularly women, and would be happy to put you in contact with these talented individuals.
Marshallese handicrafts are known throughout the Central Pacific region for their high quality workmanship and originality, and for their use of natural products. Although the handicrafts are extremely specialized, they are certain to please a broad range of consumers. You will find woven baskets, fans, hats, wall hangings, purses, mats, coasters, Marshallese stick charts and much more! They are made in the homes of the Marshallese people and with the natural resources found mostly on the outer atolls. These include such raw materials as coconut, pandanas leaves, and likajir shells. One can also find a wonderful array of coconut oil products ranging from hand soaps to laundry detergent. Not only are these products good for your skin, but will not harm the environment.
The mastery of craft-making remains an important art form in the Marshall Islands. Accessibility to U.S. markets will help encourage this traditional art form to flourish despite a world-wide trend toward mass production of goods. Artisans depend on crafts as their primary source of income generation. It is hoped that the identification of markets outside the Marshall Islands will provide the artisans with more dependable salaries and greater economic opportunity.
An initiative to revitalize and refine traditional Marshallese ship building skills is currently underway in the Marshall Islands. Look to these pages for more information in the near future.
The double canoe was never in use in the Marshall Islands -- nor generally in Micronesia: the typical fast sailing craft of this region had a double-ended hull with asymmetric sides and a sharp, very narrow, keel, passengers and goods being carried on a transverse platform. This led from the outrigger float and projected over the lee side of the hull. The crew sat as ballast on it, their number depending on the weather -- a gentle breeze being a One-man Wind and a strong blow needing four. The mast stays were fastened to two independent main booms and their pull ingeniously used to strengthen the attachment between the float and the auxiliary booms. Cargo could also be stowed in the hold but had to tolerate water since much was shipped and baling ceaseless.
The canoes of the past could reach a length of 100 feet and carry up to 40 people, with supplies for open-sea voyages that lasted well over a month since these large vessels, called walap, were not fast. The tipnol was smaller and speedier and used mainly for fishing inside the lagoons: it could still carry 10 or more and be serviceable for ocean voyaging. The korkor was a small paddling outrigger, sometimes fitted with sail, used for lagoon work. Sails were triangular and often extremely large, with a yard and boom on two sides.
Woven in matting strips from the strongest pandanus leaves, they were sewn together most securely. They were set with apex down; tacking was accomplished by reversing the boat, so to speak, the stays being hauled to slant the mast's forward lean in the other direction and the tack of the sail moved and lashed to the opposite end of the ship, all of which took place in less than a minute. Sail was shortened in squally weather by a spiller which raised the boom and reduced the total area.
The hulls were made of the breadfruit tree, the best wood available but far from ideal; the necessary dimensions were achieved by skillful edge-jointing and patching, by drilled holes and lashings made of coconut cordage.
Western contemporaries acknowledged the canoes as "remarkably handsome and well furnished ... our cabinet-makers do not polish the most costly furniture better." Captain Cook recognized their great speeds -- 12 knots, much more with racing craft -- and that they sailed considerably faster than his ship could. And a nineteenth century sailor left a vivid description of a trip:
"Up went the huge sail, down went the great steer oars and away we shot like a racehorse. The mast bent like a reed, and at the great rate at which we were going the sea was like a hissing cauldron on either side of our course."
For more information on Marshallese canoes, visit the Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) website, click HERE
From necessity, the sailors of the Marshalls were among the best in the Pacific: their islands were the smallest and they traveled the most. Their brilliant voyaging was based on their skills of observation. Meticulous observation of the only two things visible -- sky and water, the stars and the swells of the sea.
The voyages themselves were made in that fraction of the year when the Trades were not blowing and the weather was settled, and their craft grouped themselves together in large numbers -- which was not to say that all could not perish, as happened to over 100 canoes in 1830 and 35 vessels three decades later. Navigation was of course from island to island, or to sea-marks -- areas of ocean or reef that were recognized by the initiated. These objectives were reached by following the star paths above or the patterns of the sea around, or both. An apprentice would spend years memorizing hundreds of star courses between the atolls, as well as the marks, sea-ways, cloud shapes, winds, and the flight of birds. These, collated with his internal log and mental chronometer, added to the sailing masters retaining a wonderful and infallible sense of position through tacks, currents, gale-set without any sight of land, or sometimes even, clear sky.
The stick-charts were used to teach and record the swells of the sea itself. The science of swells is unknown outside the Pacific. The charts were hardly maps in a western sense: the cowrie shells did signify islands, but they could often be taken to be any island. Distances were quite arbitrary and charts were meaningless without the guidance of their maker. They were not taken to sea, all being set in the memory.
There are two basic kinds: the meto and the rebbelib, the first for instruction only in swell-patterns, the second showing the place of islands in the group or one of its chains. A third type, the mattang, was more local, placing a few atolls only. Some believe these last two to be of recent introduction, influenced by western chart-making. The maps were made of strips of coconut midrib or pandanus root on a frame: strips which were curved show the altered direction of swells deflected by an island, and their intersection an area of confused sea -- a valuable indicator of position. Island-currents may be shown by short straight pieces.
A typical meto is pictured to the right: being symmetrical, it has no correct alignment and is applicable to many situations. The central island refracts the swell into two areas, to the N. and S. as shown by the right-hand curved piece, while the balancing strip to the left stands for a corresponding and weaker pattern. Many other formations are implicit in the chart: all have names and are known. The effect of small islands may be noticed for more than 20 miles in the Pacific swell, and its conformation compared attentively with the pattern of the water undisturbed. Once a swell is identified, a general direction is given which is progressively refined by the shape of succeeding indicators. Many Marshallese sailors could lie in the bottom of their canoe and sail by the feel of the waves and the current on the hull.
Before the missionaries came, all Marshallese people were tattooed. The fact greatly impressed von Kotzebue in the early nineteenth century. The ceremony was long, extending over a month, most painful and held to confer beauty and bring honor; it was a rite of passage to man or womanhood and was believed the only attribute to be carried beyond the grave; partaking of religion, it served as well to confirm ties of family and birth. Facial tattooing, intended to conceal the wrinkles of age, was reserved for chiefs - to whom was permitted the richest and most widespread adornment.
The patterns employed were repetitive and abstract, their meanings taken from nature and particularly the sea -- shells, waves, fish-markings -- the elements of design being dots, straight or zigzag lines. A man's frontal torso was divided into three zones: upper, and lower chest, and the wavy stomach band. The vertical design which ascended from the navel was known as the Mast; other fields had such names as Ocean Swell, Clouds or Boat. The symbols of the lower chest decoration meant Waves reflected by the wind. The back had three fields also, the most important, the Big Tattooing, of heavy vertical bars, running from armpit to armpit. Women were decorated only on their arms, shoulders and thighs, the wives of the chiefs on the backs of their hands also.
The punctures were made with a fish-bone lance struck by a small mallet, the color being coconut carbon. While the tattooing was in progress there was constant drumming to mask its pain, and the face of the subject was covered by a mat.
Another Marshallese characteristic that struck the early discoverers was the extensions of the ears, considered the longest in the world. The pierced lobes depended at least 3 inches and could often stretch over the head. If a lobe broke it could sometimes be repaired by a graft of skin from the cheek.