Meto – Stick chart navigation

Wapepe - Stick Chart
Wapepe - Stick Chart
Wapepe – Stick Chart

Marshallese have always been noted for their navigational skills and in the past only a certain few people, either men or women, were even taught the secrets of sailing and navigation. The stick charts were constructed as instructional aids for teaching to preserve knowledge. They were not taken on voyages, for all knowledge was memorized. The charts depict natural phenomena and interpret the wave and current patterns that strike the islands. Long before modern day navigational instruments were brought to the Marshallese, they traveled the ocean, maintained courses and determined positions of islands by the use of wave patterns that are depicted in the stick charts. Very few people today understand these charts, although many people know how to make them. In fact some types of stick charts of today, particularly the two common types of the rebbelip charts, are believed by some old men to be recent introductions that were influenced by modern methods of mapping and plotting positions. The only type that was verified by several old men to be authentic was the wappepe type.

There are generally three types seen today: two types of the rebbelip, and the wappepe. The word wapepe literally means a canoe that is floating on the water.

Rebellip — Square or Rectangular Shaped Stick Charts

The rebbelip illustrates sailing directions for most islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Rālik (western) chains of the Marshall Islands. Small likajjir (money cowrie) shells are used to depict the island locations. In both types of charts, each straight stick represents a series or pattern of regular currents or waves with the curved sticks depicting the swells refracted by the surrounding reefs of the individual islands.

Wappepe — Small Square-Shaped Stick Chart

This is a small type of chart which shows the wave patterns that are common around all atolls. The story behind the wappepe is that it was originally brought to the Marshall Islands from Woleai Atoll, located in Yap State which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. A large outrigger canoe from Woleai was lost at sea and drifted to an island in the Marshalls. The people landed, or were taken by the iroojs (chiefs) of the Marshall Islands to Kili Island where normally no people lived. All the people on the boat were killed except for two brothers. The older brother was taken to Ebon, and he lived there until he died, but he never had any children. The younger brother went to Lae and had one son, Tarmelu, by a Marshallese woman. After his father died, Tarmelu sailed to Ebon to see his father’s older brother, and during this visit he learned about the wappepe from his uncle. Tarmelu returned to Lae and taught the people how to use the wappepe. So today it is said that the wappepe came from Lae for this is where the Marshallese people first learned of it. Regardless of the availability of the stick charts to learn and study the ocean, the Marshallese have always been able to sail by watching and feeling the movements of the ocean currents and waves, and by using the stars as guides to plot positions. A few older men still know how to use the wappepe, but it is dying out. Several people, though, know how to make it without understanding its meaning.

From studying the wappepe the basic currents and wave patterns can be learned. Before sailing, the sailors know in what direction lies the new island. If they are sailing from south to north, then they watch for the main currents from the east and west. Within the first few miles of leaving, the currents are watched carefully to see which one is moving faster. For example, if the current from the east is moving faster than the western current, then the boat is sailed in a more north-easterly direction to compensate for the pull of the easterly current.

When leaving an island, the same wave and current patterns are encountered as when approaching an island, but only the wave and current patterns of the approaching island are closely watched. For example, using the illustration, if a canoe sailed from the island in the south, the boat would first encounter the jukae (first zone of currents — nearest an island), then dibukae (second zone of currents), and last jejelatae (third zone of currents — farthest away from an island). All three of these waves together are called no in ālikin bar (waves that come after the reef). As the boat proceeds north it will encounter the place where the aeto (current from the east) and aetak (current from the west) meet. At this point the boat will roll back and forth from front to back with a harder roll to the back of the boat than to the front. The type of ocean at this point is called limaajnono which means choppy seas. Then the boat continues northward and the captain constantly makes sure they do not cross over the aeto (current from the east) or aetak (current from the west) which would mean they were off course. Next the canoe hits the aelokean̄ (current from the north) and then is again in calmer water where the boat mainly rocks from side to side. Then the aelokrak (current from the south) is encountered. At this point very close attention is given to the waves, for the people in the boat know they are now beginning to approach the new island although it is still very far away. The canoe proceeds north and hits the place where again the aetak and aeto meet. At this point the boat rolls back and forth with the front roll of the boat being the strongest, for again the ocean is limaajnono (choppy). This signals that the island is getting close. When the jejelatae (third zone of currents) is encountered the people know they are on course and the island is nearby. Usually the island is visible by the time the dibukae (second zone of currents) is hit. Then the jukae (first zone of currents) appears and the island is very near. There is also a type of wave called dilep which the boat follows when leaving the island until arriving at the new island. All these currents can be seen and felt by experienced sailors. Many Marshallese sailors could lie in the bottom of a canoe and sail by the feel of the waves and currents. Today very few men and even fewer women can sail in this manner, and since few tipn̄ōl canoes (sailing canoe) and walap canoes (large sailing canoe) exist anymore, sailing between atolls has basically stopped.

Kili Kilij bwebwenato

Interior of Lae Island, Lae Atoll

“Mānuial ak kilij eo ilo Kili Island”

Lizard of the Marshall Islands

Ar wōr juōn mānuial (Kilij) Kileplep ar bed im joke ion Kili Island (armij in Bikininromrejmjoke miemkio). Eo im ejab etolok mjān aelōn̄ in Ebon Atollitutin lok Mōneak Island. Ear wōr juōn Iroojlaplap ar bed ilo enin im joke ie iben armij ro an. Ilo tōre kein ar kanuij in lōn̄ ni ilo enin Mōneak, im Irooj in ar ilik “jabwi” kein kōkbāāl ilo kajojo ni koi lo enin. Unin an likit “jabwi” kein en ejelok en ej bwiki ni ko leen ni kein a ken e wōt.
Mānuial ak Kilij kileplep in ilo Kili ar kōnan ebōk ni jen ni kein ilo Mōneak lok n̄an Kili kōn men in ear lōmnak enaaj kejkan an ebōk? “ MōneaK elap an lōn̄ ni ie, ak enaj kōjkan aō ebōk ke emōj an Irooj en ilik jabwi ilo ni kan” ear ba iben make. “ Men eo imaron̄ kōmane de in kooti im biki tok n̄an Kili.”
Kōn menin ear jerak jen Kili n̄an Mōneak bon̄ōn eo ilo an marok jilōn̄lōn̄. Ewōr jikin bo koi lo Mōneak ilo tuiōn̄ turear in enen tulik. Etan jikin kein Mōnkilej iōn̄ im Monkilej jerōk. Ke Mōnuial eo ej tōbar lok Mōneak, ej kebellok al eo an:

Ij itok jen l̗ojet n̄an bārijet in Kilejiōn ak Kilejrōk
Iar lōmnak ewōr en ear kadtok iō ilo marok ak iar jab lel
Iar bōk jibuki im ribuki iep rar bool kōn ni

Elkin ear jeblak n̄an Kili. Jibon̄inin raan eo juōn, armijro rar lo bwe ebool ni rar jako, emōj kooti. Wōn in ear koot? Lale mōk ni kane! Juōn ne ear kooti!
Kiō armij ro mrar jino aer waje e neo ilo bon̄. Irooj eo im armij ro rar kanuij in inebata kōn aer kooti ni ko.

Translated by Langinbo Frank

Read the story in English

Tools to make canoes in the Marshall Islands

Māāl — Carving Tools

The traditional types of carving and shaping tools used by the Marshallese are called māāl. These are only made today as hand-craft items although the old head parts of these tools are often found in the outer islands. The wood part of the māāls is made from lukwej, kōn̗n̗at, or kaar (types of trees). The head part or cutting part is made from kapwor (giant clam shell) and is attached to the handle with kkwal (coconut rope). Today, for hand-craft articles the cutting part of the māāl is usually made from mejānwōd or en̄ (large type of spider shell). These types of shells wouldn’t be used if the tools were actually made for carving, for only the kapwor is hard enough to resist breaking. Also the edges of the kapwor piece would be very smooth and sharp. The kapwor is prepared by hitting it with rocks to obtain the desired size and then shaping it with the use of the limlim (very hard coral rock). The tilaan (pumice) is then used to do the final smoothing and sharpening of the edges. There are four main types of māāls.

  1. Jaltok Likadkad
    This is used to hollow out canoes and for making the jābe (large bowl). The blade is curved from both side to side and from back to front. The edges are very sharp. This type varies from about one and one half feet long to three and one half feet long depending on its use. The piece of kapwor ranges from four inches long, to eight inches long.
  2. Likadkad
    This is a small version of the jaltok likadkad and is used for hollowing out the small places in a canoe. The kapwor piece is curved in the same way as in the jaltok and is also very sharp. The likadkad is about ten inches long and the kapwor piece is about three inches long.
  3. Ūlūl
    This is the largest type of māāl and is used for cutting down trees. It looks very much like an axe and is made with a large, thick piece of kapwor. The kapwor piece is not curved but flat with a sharp straight edge. The ūlūl is about three feet long.
  4. Jidūl
    The jidūl is a smaller version of the ūlūl and is used for finishing and smoothing the surface of wood. It is used like a scraper and has a flat, straight, very fine cutting edge. The jidūl is about ten inches long.

Ddāil — Drills

The traditional types of drills are now extinct although some older people do know how to make them. There were two basic types that were used by the Marshallese. These were used for drilling holes in pieces of wood, that were later tied together with kkwal (coconut rope) in making a canoe. Also the ddāil was used for drilling holes in the rajraj (warring spear) to attach the n̄iinpako (shark teeth) and in making other tools. Today more conventional types of drills are available.

The simpler type drill was made from one piece of wood about eight to ten inches long with the sides rounded and a small hole at one end. A small, very sharp n̄iinpako was attached with armwe (strong fibers). The n̄iinpako (tooth) was tied on so that only the top sharp point protruded from the wood. Sometimes an addin aorak (finger part of a spider shell) was used for the drill part. To drill a hole, a person placed the ddāil between his hands and moved them back and forth in opposite directions.

The second type was the same as the first only with an added circular piece of wood placed around the shaft of the drill to hold it steadier and with an attachment of kkwal and wood which was wrapped around the shaft and made the drill part spin. This type of ddāil was easier to control than the simple type.

Luj — Hammer

This is a hammer-like instrument made from kōn̄e (shrub, Pemphis acidula) which is a very hard wood. It was used for hammering wood pieces into very small spaces or cracks in a wa (canoe). The caulking for the canoes was made from liok (aerial roots of the pandanus tree) and was forced into the cracks by hammering with a luj. This type of instrument is not used as a work tool anymore, for more modern tools are available, but is made as a hand-craft product.

Kkwal — Sennit (Coconut Rope)

This is sennit made from fibers of the coconut husk. Sennit is very strong and can be made any length and almost any thickness. Since originally there were no nails in the islands kkwal was used in almost all construction (houses, boats, clothing) and for all tying purposes. Today kkwal is rarely made so the skills needed to make it are dying out.

Kkwal is made from the fibers of the husks of drinking coconuts. The fibers are called roro. They are placed in a pit, lined with coconut fronds, in the sand where the ocean water will wash over them. Large rocks are placed on top to hold them in place. The roro are left for one or two months. This process makes them pliable and separates the individual fibers. They are removed from the pit and washed and pounded until very soft, and then dried in the sun. When completely dried a man takes several individual fibers and places them on his thigh. The number of fibers used depends on the desired thickness of the rope. He rolls them back and forth with his hand until they are tightly intertwined. This is called idrab and each rolled together set of fibers is called an idrab. Next two idrab are rolled together and this process is called kkwal. Kkwal can be made any length by continually adding new idrabs and rolling them together.

Written by Carol Curtis

Traditional Canoes

All Marshallese outrigger canoes in the islands are made from mā (breadfruit tree) or lukwej (Calophyllum inophyllum – a large tree). The wood pieces are tied together with kkwal (coconut sennit) with no nails being used. The sails were traditionally made from maan̄ but today cloth is used. Traditionally the trees were chopped down with an ūlūl (axe-like instrument) and carved to the proper shape with different sizes of māāls (carving tools). The boats of today are still made in the traditional manner, except that more modern tools are used for carving and shaping of the wood. Boat houses are made for the kōrkōr and tipn̄ōl to protect them from the sun, although they are becoming less common today. The walap was protected by wrapping mats and coconut fronds around it. Three types of outrigger canoes are made by the Marshallese.

  1. Kōrkōr — Outrigger Paddle Canoe
    This is an outrigger paddle canoe that is usually about ten to fifteen feet long. It is used for fishing or sailing to other islands within the same atoll. It is too small for long voyages and distances. Often a sail is added which makes the canoe very fast. It can carry one to three people, sometimes as many as five people if it is a large kōrkōr. It can be identified by the number of apets, which are the curved pieces of wood that connect the outrigger part of the hull to the canoe. A kōrkōr has three of these. Today the kōrkōr is commonly found throughout the Marshall Islands.
  2. Tipn̄ōl — Sailing Canoe
    This is the large sailing canoe used for sailing between atolls, for fishing especially in the ocean, or for sailing across lagoons of big atolls. This type of canoe is very fast and efficient, and can carry from ten to forty people depending on its size. It always has a large sail. The tipn̄ōl is now rare in the islands but there still may be a few in the outer islands. The tipn̄ōl has four apet connecting the hull of the canoe and the outrigger.
  3. Walap — Large Sailing Canoe
    This was a very large outrigger canoe used for traveling long distances. It is believed to be the type of canoe that brought the original Marshallese to these islands. This large outrigger canoe could carry up to a hundred people plus all supplies for voyages lasting several months. Today this type of boat exists only as model canoes although the old people still know how to make them. The boats of ancient times were extremely slow, partly because the caulking was poor, and because they had no covering on the decks to prevent the waves from washing water into the hull, which made them all the heavier and slower. The more recent walaps were much faster for they were better made. All walaps had very large sails. These canoes had five or more apet.

Wōjlā — Sail

This is the traditional type of sail used on the outriggers. The sails were woven by the women from maan̄ (pandanus leaves). Only the leaves from the kinum type of pandanus tree were used for they are the strongest. If this species did not exist on a certain atoll, the people would sail to the atolls where it was available. In the Rālik Chain (western chain) of the Marshalls it exists on Lae, Ujae, and Ronglap, which meant long sailing voyages for the people living in places such as Ebon, just to obtain the material for a new sail.

In weaving the sail a mōnakjān in wōjlā was used. This was a piece of wood about one-foot-wide by one and one half feet long which the woman placed on her lap. She would then place the maan̄ on the mōnakjān and begin to weave the sail. The sail was made by weaving several separate strips that were later sewn together. These separate strips were called baken and usually six to twelve inches wide. It took about thirty to forty baken to make a sail for a large canoe. The baken were sewn together with maan̄ of the same type as used for weaving, and the iie (needle) was made from certain fish bones. They were sewn together again and again to make them strong. Today woven sails can be seen only on model canoes. Although all sails used on the outrigger canoes of today are made from canvas or other cloth, these sails are still made by sewing together several baken.

Lem — Bailer

The lem is used to bail water from inside the canoe. It is carved from one large black shaped piece of wood and a handle is attached by kkwal (coconut rope). The body part is rounded and scoop shaped so it can easily fit into the bottom of the canoe. The shape also enables a person to bail water in one continuous movement from gathering the water to throwing it overboard. These are still commonly made and used in the Marshalls.

Written by Carol Curtis

Village Life on the Outer Islands

Coconut frond weaving for roof coverage
Bring in the day's catch
Bring in the day’s catch

& Traditional and Cultural Aspects of Life in the Marshall Islands Nowadays.

Food is the most important aspect of Marshallese life on the outer islands. People will almost always offer food to anyone who comes to their home, for it is a way of showing respect and offering hospitality. For this reason, it is considered bad manners to refuse the food and one should at least eat a small amount. Within an atoll people are usually related, and since Marshallese have very extended families it is also common to share food and feed each other. Each Marshallese is a member of a particular jowi (clan) which is passed through the mother, and traditionally a person was supposed to offer food and shelter to anyone of the same jowi. Although the offering of food, and other goods, varies from person to person and atoll to atoll, it is still extensively followed. The main areas of exception are Ebeye and Majuro where it would be an impossibility to feed everyone. On the outer islands, where resources and means of a livelihood are much more equally distributed, this sharing of food only enhances the harmony (whether real or not) and peacefulness of the island.

A family gather around the food baskets at Dinner time
Dinner time

On most of the outer islands today, the people still eat all types of traditional Marshallese food, although rice, flour, and sugar are highly valued, and bought from the field trip boats when money is available. Breadfruit is still an important food and can be preserved to be eaten as bwiro during the windy part of the year when breadfruit is out of season. There are numerous ways of cooking breadfruit which provides variety in the diet. The coconut tree provides drinking coconuts; coconut meat; coconut milk used in cooking; coconut sap used for drinking, as a sugar substitute for cooking, and as a leavening product in breads and bwiro; and iu (developed coconut embryo, found when the coconut has sprouted) which is eaten often on some atolls when other foods and money are scarce. Traditionally iu was an important food product, but today with copra (dried coconut meat) being made extensively on most islands, often the coconut is destroyed before it has matured and sprouted which is the stage when the iu appears. Other types of foods, eaten in varying amounts depending on their availability on a particular island or atoll, are things such as pandanus, taro, bananas, and arrowroot starch. Naturally, fish of all types, plus certain reef and coral animals such as clams and octopus are eaten extensively on all atolls.

On all Marshallese islands the land is divided into land plots called wātos, that usually extend from the lagoon to the ocean. In this way one plot of land will usually include all the various types of plants, trees, and land types. Of course, some parts of the islands are extremely narrow and it is a matter of only a few hundred feet from ocean to lagoon, but with the extended family, and land rights of each individual from both parents and extended family, usually an individual’s rights to use various land plots will provide for a fairly equal distribution of various types of resources. But since everything is done through and for the family, the individual’s rights are usually of little concern, except as they apply to the family and household unit.

Most Marshallese households consist of a sleeping house, cook house, and working or storage area. On Ebeye and Majuro this has become greatly modified because of crowded conditions, and the use of electricity and kerosene stoves. But on the outer islands most wātos, where an extended family unit lives, have all three types of structures. Often times there may be more than one sleeping house, but usually only one central cook house where everyone cooks and shares the food. Usually a household consists of ten to twenty people, with almost always a few old people and many small children and babies. Since the primary land of a person comes from the mother, most women live with their parents and when they marry, the husband moves to his wife’s land. In this way the sons would move from the land and the daughters would stay, but there are numerous exceptions to this rule. Often the most preferred by the couple and most convenient situation for everyone is followed. Since all children have rights to several wātos, usually located on several different islands and atolls, there are numerous choices a person can make when deciding to live somewhere else.

Life is very peaceful and extremely beautiful physically on the outer islands. Although it may be slow paced and calm, there is much work to be done and usually everyone is involved. The children have numerous jobs, often times trying to imitate their parents in different work that they are as yet too young to do, or merely helping with whatever they are told to do, either willingly or unwillingly. With such small islands, large households and everything needing to be done manually, it is imperative that all learn to work together and help each other. For this reason, usually there is a great deal of cooperation and responsibility taken by everyone except the youngest children.

Coconut frond weaving for roof coverage
Coconut frond weaving for roof coverage

Although there is a definite division of labor with the men and women, there is much interchange in the work and most women and men know how to cook most types of food and do the other necessary daily tasks. The jobs that are almost exclusively women’s and girls’ work are scrubbing clothes (introduced by foreigners, since traditional clothing was made from mats), weaving mats, most of the cooking, and the major caring of the new born babies by their mothers. The men’s jobs are such things as fishing and gathering of the food such as breadfruit, pandanus, taro, iu (coconut embryo) for the women to cook. Also the men carve the outrigger canoes, and make the houses, although the women gather all the thatch and weave it for the houses. Since so much time today is spent in washing clothes for hours on end, this has resulted in less free time for the women, so usually to an outsider it appears as though the women do more work than the men. Depending on the season, and the availability of outside food, the amount of work a man does can vary greatly. If much rice and flour are available, the men do little gathering of food, but if there is none, then every day they must fish and gather iu (coconut embryo), or other foods, which can mean having to sail to other islands in the atoll. If the men are making copra, and the island has a lot of it, then this can consume a great deal of time and effort. If the atoll is poor and has old and poor coconut trees, there may be little copra available and thus less work on the one hand, but more work in obtaining natural foods, since copra provides the main source of money to the people on the outer islands. Often times the men and women will kowainini (make copra) together, with the men cutting down the undergrowth; the women gathering the coconuts into large piles; the men husking the coconuts and bringing them to the house; the women breaking open the coconut shells; and everyone participating in smoking the copra or drying it in the sun. The last step of cutting the copra out of the shells is almost always done by the men with everyone helping to fill the bags.

Some of the atolls today have co-op stores that buy the waini (copra) from the people, and with this money they in turn can buy from the store. The co-ops are resupplied by orders sent into Majuro on the short wave radios (which very often break down), and then the supplies are sent out to the islands on the field trip boats.
Today some of the villages have a telephone and internet connection that can be used to communicate with Majuro or other atolls. It is provided for the entire population so one person oversees the use of the telephone and internet, and it is used only for emergencies, various types of networks such as the Education net, or Health net and for basic communication needs. There is a satellite dish on the islands/atolls where there is internet and phone connections. A few people in any given village may have their own short wave radio which means they can connect directly to someone else who has a short wave radio on another island or in Majuro or Ebeye. The short wave radios are run by solar power and each household has usually one electric light also run my solar power.
If no co-op exists, or if the co-op order is not resupplied when a boat comes, a person’s waini is sold to the store company represented on the boat, and with this money the individual buys his goods directly from the boat. Since logistics are such a vast problem with such large ocean areas and only two or three government boats that can provide services, it is no wonder that communications and resupplying or supplying directly from a boat, can result in numerous problems, delays, and frustrations. Some islands have private stores where individuals buy large amounts from the boats directly. Often times this can result in a monopoly since the individual has money available and sometimes buys out almost all available supplies from the boat, which forces the people to buy from him, rather than the boat. Such people as the teachers, and health aides on each island where schools and dispensaries exist, receive government salaries. Their salaries supplement the available money on the outer islands since most people will help their relatives and friends obtaining food and other necessary items. These outside pay checks have also resulted in a less equal distribution of goods for some people, whereas with the extended family and the relationships of people, everyone has numerous mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, and grandparents.

The relationship of a person to his/her extended family is quite complex. The following is a simple explanation of the basic relationships that exist for everyone. All parallel cousins (children of mother’s sisters or father’s brothers) are considered sisters and brothers; cross cousins (children of mother’s brothers and father’s sisters) are considered as available spouses. Genealogies are usually fairly well known because of the lineage systems and as a result the relationships of people are carried down for many generations. All brothers and sisters (either direct or indirect) of the real grandparents of a grandchild are also grandparents to that child. Also, all the real mother’s sisters (direct and indirect) and father’s sisters are mothers to the real mother’s child. All brothers (direct and indirect) of the real father, are also fathers to his child. The mother’s brothers (direct or indirect) are rūkoream (Rālik) or wūllepam (Ratak), something like uncle, but in a possibly more respected position, for he may become the alap (head) of his mother’s lineage and thus her land, which is also the child’s lineage and land. As is evident in this brief explanation, it is almost impossible for a Marshallese to be alone, and through his or her extended family and land rights, he or she has much security and love.

Children of Lae
Children of Lae

Although to outsiders it may seem as though babies and small children are smothered in affection and love, they are also disciplined, if loosely, and as soon as a younger child is born or adopted, which usually is within one and one half to three years, the older child is no longer favored and must learn to give and share in all aspects with the new child. Each child learns to give to the youngest not only food and articles but also love and affection. It is not unusual to see small children fondling and playing with and being very absorbed in the life of a new born baby. Almost all boys, as well as girls learn to care for babies, and when playing, the older children, even if very young themselves, automatically watch after the younger children or babies.

Three types of people have rights on a particular plot of land. These are the irooj or lerooj (chief or chieftess), alap (lineage head), and ri jerbal (worker). The irooj is considered the owner of the land with permission from him either granted for use of a particular wāto (land plot) or understood from one’s family’s traditional use of a particular wāto. He or she is the only person of royal blood. The alap is the head of a particular lineage and often is the highest person in control of a particular wāto, who may be available to make decisions regarding his land when there are problems, for on many atolls no irooj is present. The alap makes decisions, often delegates who can work the land, especially in regards to making copra, and is the go-between for the ri jerbal and the irooj. The alaps usually make up the Councils found on the outer islands who meet to make local decisions in one particular village. Also the alaps decide how to divide the food at parties and keemems (first birthdays of babies), and how much food should be prepared when an irooj visits. Anyone may become an alap depending on his or her lineage. Both with iroojs and alaps, if a person is considered to be incapable mentally of carrying out his responsibilities then the position is delegated to the next person in line. Alaps are kajoors or commoners. The ri jerbals are the people who are designated as the workers on a particular wāto. A person may be an alap on one wāto, and only a ri jerbal on another, depending on inheritance and family land rights. From the ri jerbal is determined who has land rights and where, for usually if the woman or man is the ri jerbal on a particular wāto, his or her family can also use and work the same plot of land. In this way land distribution is very diverse and leaves several possibilities as to how and when it may be used as a place to live, a place to gather food, or to make copra.

All land in the Marshall Islands is owned and basically controlled by the iroojs and leroojs (chiefs and chieftesses). Traditionally there were great warring parties which included the iroojs and his subjects of a certain area or atoll who would sail to other atolls in an effort to conquer and control new land and people. These war parties were common and resulted in frequent changes of power and land by different iroojs. The interchanging of the land and some of the power and influence through the wars of the iroojs was halted during the late 1800s by the various missionaries and other foreigners. As a result, the distribution of the land and power to the various iroojs and leroojs of today is based on the irooj families who were in power at the time the warring ended. Some iroojs and leroojs control areas in the Marshall Islands which may include several atolls, while others may control only parts of an island or atoll such as on Milli Atoll where there are numerous iroojs. Today, although the iroojs still exercise extensive control and influence over the people, the traditional power structure has changed greatly, since the National Government is run by the Nitijela or the national legislative body of elected officials from throughout the country. The irooj system is hereditary and passed through the mother (although today it is often passed through the father). Traditionally there were several divisions of iroojs. The highest division was and is an irooj or lerooj born of parents who were or are both iroojs. The other divisions ranged below this to the lowest division of iroojs being a person who has some irooj blood from one parent with the other parent being a commoner. This has also been modified somewhat because of a larger population, more marriages of iroojs and leroojs with commoners, and because of lineages dying out with uncertainty as to the next lineage in line.

One of the main changes that has occurred because of the introduction of foreign cultures is the introduction of money into the irooj system. Traditionally the best foods and goods were given to the irooj and his family, and although this is still practiced on the outer islands, in Majuro and Ebeye money also plays a part in showing one’s respect to his or her irooj. Also a certain percentage of the money from copra goes to the irooj and alap (lineage head) for use of the land. As mentioned before in another context, this has created a much less equal distribution between the irooj class and the commoners.

The Marshallese people have lived closely together physically, socially, and mentally for a very long time and they have learned to overcome disputes, differences, and foreign influence, and have always lived with a fair amount of harmony and cooperation on very small pieces of land surrounded by great expanses of ocean. Today it seems as though some of this is eroding due to the competition introduced by different religions, the desire for money by many people today, vast cultural upheaval, and the increase in foreign contact and influence. Nevertheless, the Marshall Islander moves through all these changes and upheavals with a great sense of calm and mutual concern and support for each other.

Present Days


Today the main urban area and the Capitol of the country is located on Majuro Atoll with a population of about 35,000 people throughout the atoll. With urbanization came all types of businesses, jobs, construction, goods to buy, etc., so orientation to life in the two urban areas (Ebeye on Kwajalein Atoll being the only other urban area) is very different from what is found in the outer island villages. As a result of these changes, the life style has changed greatly and much of the old ways are dying out. For example, very little indigenous produce is available in Majuro and as a result, very little Marshallese food is preserved or eaten. This necessitates a dependence on imported goods, often with little or no understanding of a particular good’s value. The main diet in Majuro consists of rice, bread, canned meats, frozen chicken, sugar, tea and cola although now some produce is now available brought in from the U.S.

Life in Majuro is oriented around money and the realization of the necessity of having jobs in order to survive. As a result of several thousand people living in Majuro, the traditional land rights and divisions, and uses of the land and its resources, have been drastically altered. There is little room for the breadfruit and coconut trees, let alone open spaces with no people or houses, and pollution is extensive near the shores of the lagoon. Even with all these changes, people are still very friendly, kind and generous. Within the household unit, although the life style may not look traditional with so many obviously introduced products, many aspects of life, including relationships, teachings, and family structures, are still basically strong and traditional in their orientation.

Some of the most familiar names in the Marshalls to the Western world are such places as Kwajalein, where extensive fighting occurred during WWII and where today is located a U.S. Missile Range; and Bikini and Enewetak where 67 hydrogen and nuclear bombs were tested from 1946 until the late 1950s.

Kwajalein Atoll is the largest atoll in the world. On the island of Kwajalein within this atoll, is a U.S. Missile Range. As a result of the missile range another urbanized area, Ebeye, located five miles from Kwajalein island, has developed in the Marshalls. On Ebeye live about 12 to 14,000 Marshallese who depend for their livelihood on the salaries generated from employment on the missile range. Although Ebeye is much less cosmopolitan than Majuro, the traditional Marshallese life style has been altered by the dependency on money and jobs, and the lack of natural resources. Ebeye is extremely small (approximately 90 acres), crowded, and drab with its lack of trees, open spaces, and superimposed dependency on the missile range.

SunsetBasically all other atolls and islands in the Marshalls are what is referred to as the “outer islands”. Life on these islands is still orientated to the land and ocean with only occasional outside contact by field trip boats every one to three months.

The island of Jabor, in Jaluit Atoll, is slowly becoming a sub-urban center along with Wotje Island in Wotje Atoll since both have public high schools, a few small stores, usually at least monthly field trip ships, and an increasing population. Jabor was the government center during both the German and Japanese periods in the Marshalls.

Bwebwenato in lowa, Ri-komanman eo

Bwebwenato in ej kon lowa, eo im ekar kommane lal in. lowa ekar wanlaltak jan lan nan lalin bwe en komanman ane, ak ejjelok ejela ia eo ekar kommane mokta. Ekar ba, ” aolep ane ren komman.” Innem ekar kûr nan wojke ko bwe ren eddok im jabdewot men ko jej loe ioon bwidej im lojet üe. Elkin an lowa rool nan lan, ekar jilkintok eman emmaan laltak bwe ren lale lal in nan e. Ekar jilkinlok juon nan reeaar, juon nan rak, juon nan ralik, im juon nan ean.
Irooj Irilik, irooj eo an ralik, lowa ekar lelok bwe en joke ilo ralik ilo ane eo etan Eep. Jerbal eo an ej lale jabdewot men ioon lalin rej tûmoon im orlok ak kalle. Kar maron in lelok juon kajoor eo elap nan an maron in kadedeiklok jerbal eo an. Ej make wot iaan loma rein eman kar maron in üa etan king. Aolep menin eddok,menin mour, im armej, raar maron in orlok im naje jan ralik in Eep, im lelok in irooj irilik. Ro im watok er bwe re-molele bwebwe in aelon kein rej ba bwe Ebon raar bok etan jan Eep, konke keinikkan ko ilo Epoon elap aer kalle kon mona.
loma ro jet im letok in lowa ear jilkintok er nan lale lalin rej: lajibwineameü, eo im mweo imon ekar pad ituion im jerbal eo an ej lale jabdewot men ko rej mij ekoba armej ro rej mij. lakamran, eo im ej jokwe ilo reeaar, jerbal eo an ej lale bwe ilo an bon en ejjelok menin kakkure ej walok, im ej lale bwe tak in al im tulok in al ron jokkier wot juon. lorok, mweo imon ekar pad rak, im jerbal eo an kar maron in lelok bwe en bok eddo in koto ko. Kiio lalin ekar wor aolep men ko aikuiji.

Kiio ke armej rej jokwe ippan men ko rej mour ioon lalin, lowa ekar bar jilkinlaltak ruo emmaan ro jan lan etaeir rej Lewoj im laneej. loma rein raar boktok eo nan lalin. Eo ekar komman bwe en oktak moran menin komanman menin mour ko ainwot ek, bao, im aolep men ekoba armej. Uno ko unokan ek, kein, bao, kein jan doon, kilij, kijdik, im menin mour ko jet reoktak jan doon itok jan jerbal ko an lomarein. Eo ekar barainwot nan armej. Ilo tore ko etto, armej in àajol ejjelok ballier ak rejjab nuknuk, rekon eoik aolepan anbwinnier. Eo ko rej kwalok kadkad in armej ak emmaan ro elane rej king(irooj) ak rijerbal, bwidak, ritel ilo jowi eo. (Irooj ro rellap er wot rej eoik mejair.)
Ke Lewoj im laneej erro ar itok jan lan nan lalin raar etal nan Aelonlaplap Atoll ilo Buwoj, iturok in jikin diwoj delon eo an wa. Raar wotlok jan lan im jok kon jimwin ne erro. Elane kwonaaj etal nan Buwoj rainin kwonaaj loe ron kein jenkwan nerro ke raar wotlok. Etan bukwon in rej ba ” Jimwinne”. Erro ar jino aerro eoik aolep menin eddok ko bwe jen maron in kile ukooktak ko aeer jan doon.

Waan Ejjerakrok
Âlkin an aolep menin komanman ko eo, lowa ekar bar jilkinlaltak ruo emmaan jan lan, ro im raar jok ilo Nam ilo aelon in Bikini. loma rein ruo raar boktok ippaerro waween jonak nan waan ejjerakrok ko ainwot korkor ko, ko im jonak kein aer kar kepooji ilan kadede. Elane eaar jab jonak kein innem eban kar wor im komman korkor ko. Etan lomarein rej lewa im lomtol. Mokta jan lomarein, ekar ejjelok korkor ioon lalin. Ilo Bikini ijo raar joke wa eo jinointata ie, raar loor wot jonak ko raar bûkitok jan lan. Ilo tore in, waan ejjerakrok kein ekar ejjelok wojlaier, im ejjelok jobwe kein aoüooü. Wa ko kar joki rej ito-itak wot kon ek ainwot ba ek ko rej kojeraki wa ko ioon wot lain eo an dan maan im itulokan, ko im komman bwe korkor eo en emman an dibuk dan. Ak kiio emoj an jako. Rainin aolep wa ko waan rimajol, itulokan im itumaan ikkijen lain eo an dan, ej jidik koob rej üaetan “iik”.
Ilo tore eo im ekar dedelok wa eo, lewa im lomtal erro ar door aolep menin komanman ko im rej mour ioon Bikini üa ioon wa eo– armej ro im kijidik armej ro im armej ro im jokjok in kilij im aolep-raar jino aer etal nan Aelonlaplap nan aeer eo ippan lewoj im lanej. Raar ilok im toparlok Wotto, ek ko raar ainwot bikbik in wa ko waer, eaar wor juon men kijonjon eaar walok im kakkuri wa ko im man iik ko. Ke ej mij iik ko, aolep raar jino aeer aoüooü nan aeer maron tobraklok Buwoj nan aer eo. Om im baru ko raar kij kapin wa eo bwe ren maron in aoüooü im komman ettal ilo wa ko.
Raar tobraklok ilo Aelonlaplap ilo to en ilo Aerok konke wa eo eaar ettein kon dan im raar likiti ioon bok iarin Aerok ilo juon wato etan àonkiden. Aolep ino ko ilo wa eo im nanin tûm, im ke rej toparlok ioon bedbed wa eo ekar jino an bool kon dan.

The Lizard of Kili Island

Interior of Lae Island, Lae Atoll

Lizard of the Marshall Islands

There once lived a great lizard on Kili Island (now home of the people from Bikini). Not very far away, on Moneak island in Ebon atoll, lived a high chief and his people. There were very many coconuts on Moneak, but the high chief had put a “jabwi” (taboo) on all the coconut trees. They were not to be touched by anybody but himself.
The big lizard on Kili Island wanted to get some nuts from Moneak Island to take back to Kili. But how could he get the coconuts? “Moneak has many coconuts, but the high chief has put a jabwi on those nuts,” he said to himself. “The only thing I can do is steal the nuts from Moneak and bring them here.”

So he left Kili and sailed to Moneak in the darkness. There are two places to land on Moneak on the northeastern part of the island on the ocean side. Those are called Monkilejeion and Monkilejirok. When the lizard got to Moneak, he sang:

I come from the sea to the shore of
Kilejeion or Kilekejeirok
I thought in the dark that someone threw a stone,
but hit nothing
I took one hundred and two hundred large baskets
full of coconuts

Then he went back to Kili.
The next morning, the people of Moneak saw that many coconuts were stolen. “Who did it? Look at the trees! Someone has stolen many nuts!”

Then the people began to watch the island at night. The chief and the people were very angry about the stolen nuts. They knew the nuts had been taken, but they could not guess who had taken them. The chief made sure that a careful watch was set. Some people hid under the coconut leaves and some in the bushes. They had stones ready to hit the thief, even spears and other weapons.

The next night, the lizard came again, and so the people knew that it had been the lizard from Kili who had stolen their nuts. They leaped out and caught him, struck him with stones, and spears. Then, they cut him into many small pieces, and each piece turned into a small lizard.
Thus, this is the reason why there are so many small lizards on the coconut trees today.

As told by M. James Milne

Read the story in Marshalese