Marshallese Community in Arkansas
More than 15,000 Marshallese live in northwest Arkansas and in nearby communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Springdale boasts the largest population, however, with more than 12,000.
The first Marshallese to relocate to the Midwest did so seeking education. Under the governance of the U.S. administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (1947-1986), Marshallese were not allowed to travel freely. However, a few students sought and received special permission to study at colleges and universities in the United States.
The first Marshallese believed to have migrated to northwest Arkansas was John Moody, who received a scholarship to study at an Oklahoma college and moved to Springdale in the early 1980s, and later found work at Tyson Foods.
In 1986 the Compact of Free Association was signed between the U.S. and R.M.I. governments, which allows Marshallese to travel between the two nations. Since then, thousands of Marshallese have left their island homelands for a variety of reasons: employment and educational opportunities, access to healthcare, the lingering effects of radiation due to nuclear testing, the evident consequences of sea level rise, and simply to join their families in the United States. Given the extant pressures in the Marshall Islands, the population in Arkansas and communities across the United States is expected to increase steadily over the next decades.
A dock on Ejit.
Following World War II, the United States held onto the Marshall Islands after defeating the Japanese and ending their occupation of the north, central archipelago. Beginning in 1946 the U.S. military commenced 12 years of nuclear testing, which irradiated the atolls and resulted in forced relocations, biological, ecological, and cultural consequences that the Marshallese community continues to endure today.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (R.M.I.) became self-governing in 1979. Four years later the U.S. and R.M.I. signed the Compact of Free Association. The agreement allows Marshallese to travel freely between the two countries, prevents the Marshallese from taking further legal action against the U.S. for damages incurred as a result of nuclear testing, and made provisions for the continued operation of the U.S. missile test site on Kwajalein Atoll.
The majority of Marshallese initially relocated to Hawaii, the Los Angeles area, and the West Coast, but due to a more favorable cost of living, the majority of Marshallese in the U.S. now reside in the Midwest (Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. In addition to Springdale, where roughly 12,000 reside (including more than 3.300 children who are enrolled in the Springdale School District), Marshallese also live in communities in Pine Bluff, Huntsville, Berryville, and Pocahontas. Outside of the state, there are growing communities in Enid, OK, Salem, OR, Spokane, WA, Dubuque, IA, and elsewhere.
The Marshallese community is close-knit and continues to engage in cultural practices brought with them from the R.M.I., like celebrating kemeem (first birthdays) on Saturdays. The community is known as a religious one with the majority attending Christian (Protestant) churches. The community celebrates Constitution Day during Memorial Day weekend, when thousands of Marshallese from across the U.S. and the R.M.I. journey to Springdale to visit families and participate in sports tournaments. Members from different atolls celebrate World War II liberation days in their atoll’s history, including Namdrik Day and Jaluit Day, and religious observances, like Gospel Day. The R.M.I. government also recognizes Nuclear Remembrance Day to commemorate the March 1, 1954, Castle Bravo nuclear detonation that rained down fallout on Marshallese communities.
Like in the Islands, Marshallese families are large and extended families frequently share the same living space. Many among the working population are employed in the poultry industry (30% of Tyson’s workforce in Springdale is Marshallese), but the community continues to diversify in employment. The Marshallese pride themselves on helping others in need and are dedicated to retaining their unique culture and traditions.
- April L. Brown, Ph.D.
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