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Marshall Islands, then and now

Interior of a house in the Ratak Chain

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Influence and contact with different groups of European explorers brought huge changes to the once-simple life of people in the Marshall Islands. These changes could have flushed the islanders' traditions and beliefs into oblivion if not for the stories and legends written to help preserve the Pacific nation's culture.

The Marshall Islands is a sprawling chain of 29 atolls, five islands and 1,225 islets in the western Pacific Ocean between Hawai'i and Australia. About 2,500 years ago, before the Europeans set foot in the Marshall Islands, life for the Marshallese was very different.

Every day, the early settlers faced the challenges of an environment where fresh water, animals and plants were very scarce. The people started to plant food crops and developed skills in sailing and fishing to survive.

Back then, each family occupied a piece of land that they planted with coconut, pandanus, breadfruit and taro. The men were responsible for fishing and food gathering. The women took care of the household tasks, including food preparation and preservation, and taking care of the children. They also mastered the art of weaving clothing and sleeping mats.

At least 44 clans were spread all over the atolls, and each family belonged to a lineage and a clan. The society was divided into two classes: the chiefs, who exercised the most power, and the commoners.

There were no churches, but the people believed in gods who possessed different powers and inhabited different places and objects. They believed in ghosts and spirits and gave offerings to Wullep, the god who enhanced the pandanus harvest.

Written material or books were unheard of then. Parents and elders orally passed on the history, customs and Marshallese traditions. The children did the same and passed the same stories to their own children. Parents taught their children skills in fishing, farming, cooking, weaving, canoe building and healing the sick using plants and herbs.

The simple life of the Marshallese people ended when they came into contact with different groups of European explorers and visitors. The Marshall Islands was then called Ratak and Ralik Chains. It was changed to the Marshall Islands in the 1830s after Captain John Marshall, who traveled through the atolls in 1788 from Australia to China.

In the book titled Bwebwenatoon Etto a Collection of Marshallese Legends and Traditions, author Jane Downing said the people of the Marshall Islands had probable contact with the settlers of Micronesia, Nauru, and Kiribati long before the Europeans saw the islands in the early 1600s.

Downing said the European ships just sailed through the atolls without stopping by until the early 19th century when a scientific expedition from Russia under Otto von Kotzebue came and gathered information about the Marshallese way of life.

From the 1840s onward, the Marshall Islands got visitors from different groups, with some of them staying to become residents and live on the atolls and influence the Marshallese population.

Among the foreign visitors to the Marshall Islands were the whalers who came to hunt for whales and wanted to replenish their food and water supplies from the island. The whalers were not always welcome, and their visits resulted in fights and brutal killings on both sides.

In 1857, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or the "Boston Mission," introduced Christianity, education, and Western clothes.

Downing said the missionaries did not record the traditions and beliefs of the Marshallese because they were only focused on changing their local way of life.

Then came the copra traders and some beachcombers who introduced new foods, clothing, and ironware to sell in exchange for copra and beche-de-mer or large sea cucumbers. Unfortunately, this group also brought prostitution, alcohol, syphilis and many other diseases that sent many Marshallese to their deaths.

Japan took over after World War I and ruled the Marshall Islands and other nations in Micronesia.

In 1945, the United States took over the Marshall Islands in a United Nations Strategic Trusteeship. Rapid cultural changes took place. People now used money to buy things instead of traditional goods exchange. Schools were built in most atolls, and kids went to the Majuro and Ebeye high schools to study. Bars and shops sprang up, and most of the population moved to these islands.

The Marshall Islands became independent in 1986, and the UN Trusteeship ended in 1991. With its independence and all the influence from the other countries, the traditional way of life was pushed to the back burner.

In 1905, Father Augustin Erdland, a German Catholic priest, and two others came toward the end of the century to write down legends and stories about the islands to preserve them. Years later, some American writers wrote more stories.

Downing said today's generation is a far cry from the past. Children go to school to study and learn skills most of the day. At home, they are glued to their smartphones. The traditional stories about the islands were slowly forgotten under the influence of cultural change.

To help fill in the gap to preserve the traditional Marshallese culture and way of life through the printed pages, Downing and Australian archaeologist Dr Dirk H.R. Spennemann published "Bwebwenatoon Etto: A Collection of Marshallese Legends and Traditions" in 1992.

The book, available on Amazon, contains interesting legends about creation, the origins of the islands and places, animal tales, tales of social customs and oral history, among others.

*Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to

-This article was first published by Pacific Island Times.