Online Exhibits: Marshallese Celebrations: From the Atolls to the Ozarks


Rona Masha, guest curator

The Marshallese community's many celebrations reflect our culture and traditions. We have adapted to life here in the Arkansas Ozarks which we have found to be very different from life in the chain of islands called atolls which form the Republic of the Marshall Islands, west of Hawaii. We have Americanized our traditional dress and we prepare our traditional food using local substitutions. We have adapted to the English language, making both Marshallese and English our official languages. Other adaptions include adjusting our time management for school and work.

Our migration from the atolls to the Ozarks began when John Moody moved to the United States to go to college. He came looking for education and for a new home because of the damage done to the Islands between 1946 and 1958, when the United States conducted sixty-seven nuclear tests on or near Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. Because of this damage, the U.S. made a Compact of Free Association with the Marshallese, letting them come here to begin a new life. Around 1986 Mr. Moody moved to Springdale to work for Tyson Foods. He married a local woman and told family and friends of the opportunities here in Northwest Arkansas. Many came to live and work here. Today Springdale is home to the largest Marshallese community outside of the Islands. Even though we have new challenges to adjust to, we still hold on to tradition, family, religion, and respect.

Kemem—The Kabua family celebrating Tamiko's first birthday, May 2016.

A few of the events we love to celebrate are Palm Sunday, Combine, Kemem, and May Day/Jemenei (Constitution) Day.

  • Palm Sunday is one of the many holy days that we celebrate. We come together for prayer, worship, eating, and singing and dancing.
  • The Combine is a time when Marshallese church groups from all over the United States—and even the Marshall Islands—come together for worship. We honor our dignitaries with marmars (leis or necklaces), sing and dance, and give away clothing and other gifts.
  • Kemem celebrates a baby's first birthday. The nuclear tests affected the health of the Marshallese. Because of the radiation from the bombs it was rare for a baby to survive its first year of life. When a child reached its first birthday, the family had a great celebration to show gratitude for their child's achievement.
  • May Day/Jemenei (Constitution) Day acknowledges the day our constitution was signed on May 1, 1979, our first step towards independence as a nation. We celebrate with parades, speeches, pageants, sports competitions, and, as always, lots of food.

During our celebrations you will see us acknowledge the important people in our community such as pastors and their wives, sponsors, and those who help the Marshallese community politically. We always start our events with prayer. Our food is typically barbequed chicken and rice along with other side dishes. We have special performances where we do praise dances called biit and sing songs from the Buk in Al (Book Hymnal) or just songs in English or Marshallese. People are usually dressed in special clothing we call "uniforms." These matching shirts and dresses are made of fabric from Hawaii with a bright, island-style print.

Jemenei Day—Tabitha Kerong (left) wears a traditional wut (headband) while her sister Anna wears a modern adaptation, May 2016.

The Ozark adaptions that we make for our celebrations are reflected in our uniforms, wuts (headbands), and food. In the Islands our dress was plain and simple, but in the Ozarks our uniforms are modern and updated, designed with more sparkles and sequins. But now the influence of our new culture has changed our dress in the Islands to this modern style. Wuts have gone from being hand woven from pandanus and coconut tree fibers to being made from things like artificial flowers. The leis which we use to honor our special guests have changed like our wuts and can include modern materials. Our food is different from the traditional food because we don't have the same ingredients. In the Islands our food comes from the natural resources all around us like fresh fish, breadfruit, and coconut, but in the Ozarks most food is store-bought. The dishes may not taste exactly the same, but they are still great.

I have presented this information about Marshallese celebrations with great honor and respect for my culture. I hope you will share in knowing how important our culture is to us, as I believe all people's cultures should be honored, celebrated, and remembered. For we, the Marshallese community, have traveled here to settle in the Ozarks, bringing our culture, respect, families, religion, and traditions.

Rona Masha is a ninth-grader who lives in Springdale. She is a member of Girl Scout Troop #5132, the only Marshallese troop within the organization. For her 2016 Silver Award project, the first ever for a Marshallese Scout, Rona created this exhibit to acknowledge the Marshallese community and the unique celebrations that occur throughout her life.

The Silver Award is the second-highest award a Girl Scout can achieve. The award signifies the Scout's involvement with the community and identifies her as a girl who can finish what she starts. Being engaged with the community develops personal growth for one who sets her standards high.

This project has been a pleasure for Rona to direct and an honor to represent the Marshallese community. She believes all cultures and their celebrations are to be valued. She is grateful to the Springdale community and the Shiloh Museum for giving her this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Marshallese Celebrations: Some Items from the Exhibit

Marshallese Celebrations: Video

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