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.
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.
Traditional Marshallese Food
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
Both Marshallese and English are the official languages of the Marshall Islands. Marshallese belongs to the Austronesia Language Family, the most geographically widespread language family in the world. Of the Austronesia languages, Marshallese is a member of the Malaya 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 are minor.
Unique Cultural Skills and Technologies
Over the last 2,000 or so years, Marshallese have developed, refined and perfected a number of unique skills and technologies, all of which illustrated their keen adaptation to the atoll and oceanic environment.
Fishing technology, for instance, developed into one with very high specialization. The wide range of fishing environments coupled with the great variation in fish species led to a diverse and highly specialized range of fishing techniques. Few other cultures in the world have developed as many fishing techniques and styles as the Marshallese.
Marshallese canoes, or wa, which range from small rowing canoes to massive high-speed voyaging canoes have amazed Westerners from Otto Von Kotzebue, who visited the Marshalls in the early 1800s, to modern day world-class sailing enthusiasts. Marshallese canoes are recognized and revered throughout the Pacific for their advanced technical refinements, including the asymmetric hull, the lee platform, and the pivoting midship mast.
Traditional Marshallese navigational skills were equally sophisticated. When the initial settlers of the Marshalls arrived, they were already equipped with complex navigational skills- otherwise, they could not have found their way to these low-lying islands. As time progressed, these skills were only sharpened. Ultimately, Marshallese learned to literally read nature’s faint and subtle signs. Stars, clouds, waves, currents, winds, birds, and even the color of the ocean, bore recognizable clues which were easily read by trained navigators. These advancements in both maritime knowledge and canoe design allowed Marshallese to commonly sail as far as Hawaii to the east, Enenkio (Wake Island) to the north, Pohnpei to the west and Kiribati to the south.
Religion in Marshall Islands
Most Marshallese are Protestants, and as a whole they are very devout. 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, and 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.