Safari the Globe

Cultural Information for the Traveler

Culture » Australasia » Marshall Islands »

Marshall Islands

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 family.

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.

Ethnicity

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 Kiribati.

Language

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.

Religion

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 most communities.

Dress

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 resorts.

Behavior

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.

Identity

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.

Marshall Islands Geography & WildlifeHistory & ArchitectureFood & Drinks

This page was last updated: November, 2013