By Lovely Umayam
“I would rest on his arm and he would sing me Marshallese lullabies,” Maddison said.
Springdale, a landlocked town in the Ozark Mountain region of northwest Arkansas, is a far cry from the oceanside and clear skies of Majuro, but this is where Maddison, now 26, moved in 2001 and has come to call home. Maddison is among 12,000 Marshallese in Springdale today, making it the largest enclave of Marshallese in the United States.
Once a sundown town during the Jim Crow era, it is now home to Latino, Marshallese, and Asian people drawn to the agriculture and poultry industries. While Springdale is still predominantly white, it defies the archetype of rugged, old time-y America: It boasts taco spots and specialty Marshallese stores. One prominent building downtown is a gold-tipped Buddhist temple.
“I was culture-shocked by my own culture!” 25-year-old Marcina Langrine laughed as she recalled moving to Springdale with her family when she was 16 years old after growing up in Hawaii and Missouri. She has never visited the Marshall Islands. “It wasn’t until [living] here that I learned more, especially speaking the Marshallese language.”
Trina Marty, also 25, added that meeting Marshallese elders in Arkansas connected her to the islands since she left when she was only 1, and has no memories of the islands of her own. Maddison, Langrine, and Marty are part of an emerging group of young Marshallese in Springdale reclaiming native histories to tackle the present and prepare for the future. Learning about that history reveals the complexity and depth of the relationship between the islands and their adopted home in the U.S., and how it’s connected to their community’s interlinked hardships: nuclear violence, land displacement, climate crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Located 5,000 miles from the California coast, the Marshall Islands are atolls—ringlets of Pacific islands made of coral. Today, an estimated 22,000 Marshallese, equivalent to one-third of the country’s population, live in the United States. Pasifika scholars highlight how this geographic in-betweenness as Indigenous peoples rooted to a singular home but routed to foreign lands by forces beyond their control make this migration experience unique. But the strong bonds within Marshallese resettlements create a microcosm of island life. In Springdale, community events like kemem (first birthday celebrations) and multiday funerals serve as intergenerational mixers where young Marshallese practice the native language and “talk story” with elders.
“When we think about losing culture, we think it’s a loss due to nuclear weapons or climate change. But there’s also loss just from being away from our homeland,” Maddison said. “We [as young people] should carry their knowledge into the future.”
But the pandemic turned these beloved gatherings into superspreader events. By June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded over 600 Marshallese COVID-19 cases in northwest Arkansas, accounting for 19% of cases in the region even though this demographic represents only 2.4% of the population. In the area, 52 Marshallese have died of COVID-19, many of whom suffered from chronic illness.
After taking control of the Marshall Islands from the Japanese at the end of World War II, the United States designated two atolls for nuclear weapons testing, which led to the forced relocation of Marshallese to other neighboring islands. The United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. Nuclear experimentation left an indelible scar on the land; it vaporized three atolls and rendered four uninhabitable. Many Marshallese developed cancers linked to radiation exposure. While the Marshall Islands gained national independence in 1986, they struggled to rebuild while shouldering the impact of nuclear testing.
Along with neighboring countries Palau and Micronesia, the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement, which allowed the United States to maintain military installations in the area in exchange for a special migration agreement and financial assistance, including nuclear-related compensation for the Marshallese. As COFA migrants, many Marshallese move to the United States for better economic opportunities and access to health care. Due to intensifying storms and sea level rise, organizations are also now studying how climate change could impact migration from the islands. But with the onset of the pandemic, the consequences of decades of U.S. nuclear testing are still taking their toll on the generations who no longer live in the Pacific.
“There is no direct way to connect nuclear testing, radiation, and chronic conditions. But if you really think beyond it, nuclear testing destroyed ways of living,” said Dr. Sheldon Riklon, a community clinician who is part of the Arkansas Marshallese COVID-19 Task Force. He believes that decades of destruction leaves the Marshallese at a disadvantage. Many of them have health issues, lead sedentary lifestyles, and work essential jobs. Earlier in the pandemic, the high rates of infection across 35 meatpacking plants in Arkansas compelled Consul General Alik to write a letter on behalf of the state’s Marshallese residents, asking companies to stop work temporarily.