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Culture & Identity
Way of Life
The towns in the Marshall Islands are growing
rather quickly and today nearly three quarters of the population are considered
"urban," although these cities are still small and better reflect a small
town in most other countries. Due to this, most of the people live a life that is
fairly rural and remains tied to the land and seas.
For most of the Marshallese, no matter their occupation, work starts at about 8:30
and runs until about 4:30 pm. For the farmers, fishers, and some others, there seems
to be some time each day spent farming or fishing in order to provide food for your
Evenings and weekends tend to be spent with family and friends in the
Marshall Islands as time tends to be spent in homes as opposed to going
out to a restaurant, bar, or other form of entertainment.
Nearly everyone living in the Marshall Islands
is ethnically Marshallese, which is one of many sub-groups that fall under the definition
of being Micronesian. The Micronesian people are a combination of Melanesian, Polynesian,
and Filipino, but every individual group of Micronesians are more strongly tied
to differing groups as some have more similarities to the Polynesians linguistically,
ethnically, and culturally, while others are more closely tied to the Filipinos,
or Melanesians. Nearly everyone in the Marshall Islands belongs to the same sub-group
of Micronesians and their closest relatives are likely the Pohnpeians of the
Federated States of Micronesia and the people of the Gilbert Islands in
Marshallese is the official language of the Marshall
Islands and nearly everyone speaks this language natively. English is also
officially recognized and is the most commonly spoken second language, especially
in the tourist industry.
Marshallese is a part of the Micronesian language group, which includes Gilbertese,
Chuukese, Kosraean, Pohnpeian, and Nauruan among others. Despite being a small country,
Marshallese has two distinct dialects, each spoken on one of the two main island
chains in the country: the Ralik Chain and the Ratak Chain. Marshallese's closest
relative is probably Pohnpeian, which is spoken in the eastern parts of the
Federated States of Micronesia.
Nearly everyone in the Marshall Islands is Christian
with most of the people adhering to Protestantism in some form. Catholics make up
about 10% of the population, Mormons another 2% and about 2% of the people are atheist.
Relationships, Marriage, & Family Life
Dating in the Marshall Islands is a secretive
and underground event for most couples. Public displays of affection are discouraged
and openly dating is considered inappropriate so many couples meet late at night
in secret. Over time these couples may decide to be in a committed relationship,
at which point they begin living together and often times will start a family, but
don't yet marry.
Although couples living together are committed and many are considered to be married
in the eyes of the government (as a common-law marriage) many couples still have
a formal church wedding at some point, although this often takes place well after
they begin living together and often times after they have started a family. Despite
the fact that couples may already be married and have children, a church wedding
is still a large and important event for the couple and their families.
Family is very important to the people of the Marshall
Islands and this relationship stretches to include extended family and even
whole villages. Children are extremely important to the people and children always
become a member of the community upon birth as their grandparents and other relatives
or community members often take an active role in raising these children. There
also tends to be a large number of children as most couples have three to four children.
The family dynamic in the Marshall Islands is
also based on this sense of family and community as nearly everyone has a role.
Many young people work to support their children as well as their older parents
and other members of the community. Women also tend to have a great deal of power
in the country as land is passed down through the matrilineal line so when a couple
marries the man moves to the woman's village. However, men still seem to represent
the village and family as they take on the greater economic and political role in
Historically the clothing in the Marshall Islands
was limited as men only wore a small piece of cloth called a lageb or a
larger apron-like cloth from the waist down called a kal ortuman. Sometimes
they would also wear a grass skirt, which covered the front and back of a man from
the waist down (especially in the case of village chiefs). Women wore two large
mats, one for the front of their body and the second for the back, both of which
only covered the waist down and which were attached to a belt. However, today most
people cover up and tend to dress conservatively. Women tend to wear loose-fitting
dresses that cover their knees and shoulders while men tend to wear shorts and t-shirts.
As a visitor to the Marshall Islands you should
also dress in a conservative manner as women should cover their shoulders and knees
and men should make an effort to do the same, especially in regards to cover their
knees (with long shorts). Swimwear should only be worn on private beaches and in
The people of the Marshall Islands are very
humble and modest as they rarely express themselves in a way to offend another.
This comes in respecting other people, dressing modestly, avoiding outward signs
of wealth or affection, and having a reverence for God as most people are Christian.
As a visitor to the Marshall Islands, that same
modesty is expected; modesty in dress, actions, words, and every aspect of your
life. Many of the most important behavioral restrictions to be aware of are related
to dress, dating (see above for both), and dining (see our
Marshall Islands Food & Dining Page for more information). Also try
to avoid being loud, rude, showing off wealth, or getting drunk in public.
The people of the Marshall Islands tend to identify
with being Marshallese. This identity is strongly tied to the country itself, but
is more engrained in the culture of the people. More than the ethnicity, language,
and food of the people, the Marshallese identity is heavily invested in the mentality
of the people, with a dependence on the land and seas around them. With rising water
levels this attitude and identity is becoming more tied to environmental issues.
On a secondary level the ethnicity and other aspects of the culture are also important
in defining what it means to be Marshallese.
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