Essays on the Marshallese Past

National self-esteem and pride:
The immeasureable economic factor

In reference to economics, the most intangible aspect of Historic Preservation is its impact on national and individual self-esteem and pride. The onslaught of western consumer goods, western economic systems and western values and ideals which overcame the Marshall Islands like a tidal wave in the past 50 years has left little room for traditional individual self esteem and values.

In a previous instalment we have argued that traditional skills are no longer valued among a modern Pacific Islands society because they are considered to be backward, and that western technology and skills are deemed inherently superior. This can lead to absurd situations. Consider: Often experts are called to conduct a project which could just as well be executed by a local member of the community. The perception is that the expert is the more skilled person. The expert in turn commonly scoffs at the traditional but very appropriate technology, and thereby undermines the esteem of those exercising those skills and utilising that technology. This in turn diminishes the pride and self-respect of those who could execute the project, which in turn leads to a reduced work performance and reduced interest in the job. Further, the modern western technology introduced along with the concept of maintenance of a piece of equipment are often so alien that the equipment, even if its operation is mastered, is not well looked after and eventually collapses. This in turn leads to a reduction in self-esteem and pride. At the same time, the reduced interest in traditional technology leads to fewer and fewer people striving for excellence in their traditional jobs, as they see no rewards for it, and also striving less for the acquisition of tertiary education to master those skills the expert may possess but they themselves lack as they have seen equipment and systems collapsing even when they had used them for some time. This reduced self-esteem, then, leads to even more experts being called in, and over time, the local people face gradually but systematically a substantial loss in self-esteem. This, then, is often corrected by a knee-jerk reaction, whereupon most experts are thrown out and the country re-asserts that it can do without them. At that point, however, the self-esteem and the technical skills of the people, which lead to this rebellion, are often so low that the jobs executed fail more often than not. In the end effect experts are called in once again, and the cycle begins once more, with worse implications for the self-esteem following the admission of failure.

To what extent does this apply to the Marshall Islands?

The population of the Marshall Islands on the whole has a positivistic attitudes, whole-heartedly embracing the perceived benefits of U.S. consumer goods. While the want for cars is restricted to the urban centres Majuro and Ebeye, for lack of roads on the outer islands, the desire for video recorders, boom-boxes and the like is nationwide. Modern technology, western food, and so on are perceived to be good, desirable and hence preferable to that traditional. By inversion, all that is traditional is stuck with a negative image. There are few who would prefer to use an outrigger canoe instead of a motor boat if both were offered. Likewise, imported food items are preferred over traditional local foods, and sometimes the absurd situation can be observed where fresh fish is sold to purchase tinned fish and corned beef. On the other hand, in the Marshall Islands, custom is perceived to be important to know about and to teach to children. This is exemplified by a survey the RMI Historic Preservation Office conducted among the mayors of the 24 Local Government Councils: all respondents answered "yes" to the questions "Do you think it is important that the children learn about the past?" Yet, on another plane, when asked what should be recorded and taught, it became clear that custom almost exclusively referred to social and societal skills including knowledge of oral traditions. Skills relating to technology, medicine and food production ranked low.

While the wholesale acceptance of an U.S. consumer society has left its impact on the Marshallese population, the Marshallese national identity is not (yet) challenged. Throughout modern history, and despite the invaguaries of colonial administration, the Marshallese have proven to be a cohesive group with strong ties to their home atolls, although not without some elitism of the southern atolls and the inevitable inter-atoll jibes. A common and predominant language prevails, and previously existent boundaries of regional dialects, imposed by traditional communication systems, have become blurred if not obliterated altogether. In this respect the Marshall Islands are much better off than several other Pacific countries, such as Hawaii and Tahiti where the traditional culture had become so far assimilated to the western world that it was on the verge of extinction and decisive concentrated efforts had to be made to revitalise it.

Nevertheless, as in other parts of Micronesia, the young adult male population of the Marshall Islands has a very high suicide rate, which seems to be correlated to a breakdown of the traditional family values and the traditional family support system in the past ten to fifteen years. Acculturation or cultural transition problems are seen as key problems afflicting young adult males who come from families who recently moved from the outer islands to the urban centres. In addition, social pressures within a family have increased as the available resources became less for each individual. The increase in the average size of house holds on outer islands is an indicator for the trend of concentration and increasing internal pressures. Modern urban society based on a monetary system of exchange tends to favour a general loss of identity and a loss of male role models to strive for. Of the traditional male role models, most have ceased to be relevant or socially permissible: excellence and endurance in voyaging, excellence and bravery in warfare, endurance of pain in elaborate tattooing, excellence in fishing, excellence in horticultural food production. All that has been offered as a replacement as male values is copra production, which, as far as the urban centres is concerned is also not applicable. In the urban centres, as expected, the incidence of suicides is the highest.

If the disenchantment of the juvenile population continues and if no avenues for expressions of male pride are developed, then we can predict a upsurge of anti-social behaviour in which male pride expresses itself in gangs, vandalism, graffiti and violence.

Apart from economic benefits, the fostering, or where necessary, re-introduction of traditional skills as proposed earlier (fishing using sailing outrigger canoes, taro and breadfruit gardening and the like) has the potential to reinstate pride and self-esteem. This could act as the nucleus for spiritual and cultural rejuvenation, which could carry the Marshallese population into the next century.

Before the arrival of the European visitors and "experts" the Marshall Islandsě local economy was stable and entirely subsistence based; strict population control mechanisms were in place to avoid a population explosion similar to the one witnessed after World War II. The clock cannot and should not be turned back to the days of population control by infanticide, but now may be the time to re-introduce some level of self reliance and subsistence production, using well adapted traditional technology which history has proven to be sustainable. Moreover, this technology will provide added benefits for the psychology and mental health of those involved.

The main problem the Historic Preservation Office faces are those people, who are completely engrossed in a high-technology development philosophy. This philosophy, which embraces all that is modern and western as intrinsically good, and by implication stigmatises all traditional as inherently bad, is the downfall of the Marshallese Culture as we know it. Traditional culture all and sundry is thrown overboard, be it oral traditions, histories, land management practices, marine resource manipulation and management, or be it skills and technologies appropriate to the climate. If they are lost, over 2000 years of expertise have been gained in vain, over 2000 years of fine-tuning to gather appropriate technology and sustainable levels of development have been wasted.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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