Marshallese Narrative of History

Posted on: 11th May 2023


In the Marshallese narrative of history, it is the experiences of individuals that

determines if they are baam (bombed), and affected by the radiation, not the atoll of residence on a particular day as the Compact prescribes. The life histories and life stories of the people most affected by the weapons testing describe the suffering of the Marshallese people, a fact that is absent from any of the U.S. government accounts of the effects of the testing program. U.S. government documents do not discuss the pain involved in battling cancer and other serious medical conditions.

The Marshallese narratives put faces on the injuries and damages caused by the testing program… The oral histories force us to come to terms with the human costs of U.S. nuclear superiority. (Bravo for the Marshallese) There are several things we can learn from the Bravo for the Marshallese book— especially that when studying language anthropologically, it is not just words that have meanings, but the forms of language use and their contexts are important in making meanings, too. Interestingly, we can think of how material events are also symbolic— that nuclear detonations can have effects on language and meanings. In this essay, I want you to tell me why there were changes in the Marshallese language—in effect, the creation of a “unique Marshallese radiation language”— and what it enables. Do so by writing about the following:

1) How those in Rongelap were alienated from the land and how that affected their self-sufficiency, burials, psychological and stigma problems and the social consequences of the loss of land.

2) Discuss the uniqueness of the Marshallese radiation language (from pages 107-108, especially). Describe this with some detail, and remember this is about the forms of this language and the wider historical context of its use.

3) How we might consider the Marshallese language a “language of resistance” that enables the Marshallese to negotiate their experiences with radiation, including blame, powerlessness, and reproductive abnormalities.

Remember to please be detailed

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Marshallese Narrative of History

Question 1

The Pacific atoll of Rongelap in the Marshal islands continues to pay the price of a United States badly-managed nuclear test explosion that took place about 40 years ago. Many people were displaced as a result of the explosion and this irrevocably transformed the course of their lives. Additionally, the final straw came a few months after the explosion were exiled from Rongelap where they got information from the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that if they chose to return home they may have to undergo significant changes in their lifestyles (Pollock et al. 302). Moreover, instead of eating from the land, they were advised to instead consider eating imported foods and apply special fertilizers in their farms to help reduce the radioactivity levels in food crops that were indigenously grown. 

On March 1, 1954, Rongelap’s trails began when a strange snowball was stopped drifting over the coral atoll. Many people enjoyed watching the new occurrence but little did they know that the peculiar snow they rejoiced about was a radioactive fallout of the detonated nuclear bomb which took place in Bikini about 200 kilometers away. However, two days later these people were evacuated from the area by American troops and since then the people of Rongelap have been in Limbo state. After receiving treatment from sicknesses caused by radiation reactions, most people were moved back to Rongelap with the government assuring them that radioactivity effects were within safe limits. Nonetheless, that was not the case considering that many people suffered from cancer among other serious health problems which forced them to leave atoll once more in 1985. They were rescued by an environmental group known as Greenpeace which ferried them from the area with their ship, Rainbow Warrior to a place known as Kwajalein, an area that was more densely populated in the Marshall islands about 400 kilometers from Rongelap.

There were more than 1000 refugees from Romhelap in Kwajalein and the limited resources and attachment to the place they had come from made it hard for them to stay on. According to Marshall Officials, it was evident that given a chance more than 500 people would consider going back to their homeland if they got a chance to return home. They argue that they would be set to return if the United States government assured them that radioactivity levels have gone below 100 millirems above the background radiation limits which were deemed rather stringent when compiling the NAS report. Also, the islands raised serious questions on why they were sent back to Rongelap so soon which seemed like a deliberate mistake to expose them to the harmful effects of radioactivity. The suspicion was largely triggered by a document that was released by Hazel O’Leary, the energy secretary under the “openness initiative” department (Pollock et al. 303). According to Tonyde Brum, Marshall Senator, those documents were proof that the nuclear explosion that emitted radioactive contaminants into Rongelap was properly organized about twelve months before the blast. Hence, considering the occurrence as an accidental exposure has a high likelihood of depriving Rongelap islanders of deserved compensation.

According to the then-American president Bill Clinton, the advisory committee on experiments involving human radiation exposure there was a need to decide on the right compensation to offer the explosion victims but that may not take care of those that were accidentally exposed during nuclear testing. However, if the affected people can prove that the way they got exposed to these radioactive contaminants from the explosion was premeditated, and therefore constituted a medical experiment, that is the only time that the agony that the Rongelap islanders have lived with for almost fifty years can be somewhat compensated by the government.

Question 2

The Marshall Islands is made up of numerous atolls and isolated islands that are well-known for their aquatic life and diving possibilities. The majority of the atolls are covered in a blanket of jungle, hibiscus, and a variety of plumeria blooms. In addition, the island is surrounded by more than 165 species of coral. It is estimated that the Marshall Island republic consists of 29 atolls that spread over 800,000 square miles and this part of the Pacific which was once considered remote radiation and other serious threats such as cancer are not the only challenges facing the island’s traditional arts (Pollock et al. 302). Notably, the current generation of Marshall Islanders does not appreciate the songs that their ancestors enjoyed, and instead they have embraced more modern sounds.

According to history, Marshallese performed by chanting, stamping, and through body percussion. Other times, playing of shell trumpets accompanied by singing, hourglass drums, and use of concussion sticks. Additionally, telling stories as a form of oral tradition was also important. It is said that composers of songs wrote tunes through the help of their ancestors among other supernatural powers. Nuclear tests can be described as a factor that helped unravel the cultural fabric of the Marshallese people (Barker). Initially, Marshallese culture was frayed by many years of German and Spanish rule, the annexation by the Japanese in the 1900s, and the era of American domination. In addition, the tradition of writing songs in the Marshall Islands is a culture that has not only experienced significant changes but it is also dying since there are very few composers around today.

Question 3

The Marshallese language reflects the history and lived experiences. These radiation survivors built a radiation language that help provide clues regarding how the Marshallese life and culture have changed after the nuclear weapons testing program. In addition, the use of language tends to extend to the experiences of people that were directly linked to the weapon testing to the community at large which is inclusive of the people born after the explosion. Most people who were affected by these radioactivity contaminations do not believe they have any power to have access to information regarding their health and to influence the kind of decisions they make about their medical care (Carucci). The United States government employed control of information and treatment of patients as a way to retain its full authority in accounting for the aftermath of the nuclear testing program.

Women and children in Marshal experience numerous problems and burdens caused by exposure to radiation. Stigmatization of the community makes it hard to express the issue of birth abnormalities and shame that result from constant hiding rather than trying to find ways to solve these anomalies (Barker). According to the linguistic data available, the radiation populations employ Marshallese “resistance language” and not English to easily convey blame, lack of power, and experiences of women with reproductive abnormalities. The Marshallese insist on discussing radiation and its aftermath in the Marshallese context even in situations when they have to borrow some English words. Refusal to give up the Marshallese-speaking context is a confirmation that these radiation populations formed a resistance language to help them thwart the government's attempt to impose a post-testing reality on the people. 


Works Cited

Barker, Holly M. Bravo for the Marshallese: regaining control in a post-nuclear, post-colonial world. Cengage Learning, 2012.

Carucci, Laurence Marshall. "Review of Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, by Holly M Barker." (2004).

Pollock, Nancy J. "Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-nuclear, Post-colonial World [Book Review]." (2008): 301-303.

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