By Krista Langlois
For generations, Marshallese called their home Aelõñ Kein Ad—“these islands of ours.” A few ships passed by, but the islands’ culture evolved in relative isolation until 1857, when the first wave of outsiders arrived: Christian missionaries bearing clothing, disease, and religion.
By the Second World War, Japan had taken over the islands to use as a strategic base. The outer islands were bombed by Allied forces for 75 days. Blood seeped into the sand. And when the war was over and the islands ceded to US control, nuclear testing began. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 atomic bombs on the Marshall Islands—the equivalent power of 1.6 Hiroshimas a day for 12 years straight. Islands were permanently despoiled and entire communities forced into exile on other, less livable, islands. Cancer rates increased, and miscarriages and previously unknown birth defects became common.
Through all of this, Marshallese culture adapted and survived. But today, it’s facing the one battle that might be impossible to win. Climate experts predict that because of rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the Marshall Islands could be uninhabitable by the end of this century.
As the ocean seeps into homes and buckles roads, it’s shifting from a source of inspiration to one of fear. Some Marshallese have already started to plan for relocation. Yet unlike other climate refugees—people from the island nation of Kiribati buying backup land in Fiji, for example, or the family from Tuvalu seeking climate refugee status in New Zealand—the Marshallese know exactly where they’ll go. An agreement that came into force when the Marshall Islands gained independence in 1986 allows any citizen to live and work in the United States indefinitely, without a visa or green card.
By the year 2100, it’s conceivable that climate change will force the entire population of the Marshall Islands to US shores. Already, more than 25,000 Marshallese—over a third of the population—have left the islands, many in the last 15 years. Among them was Sarah Joseph, now 22 and a resident of Enid, Oklahoma.
Like Sarah, a surprising number of Marshallese migrants wind up landlocked in rural America, far from the ocean that’s shaped every aspect of their culture. Which raises the question: can Marshallese traditions and language survive without the sea? Or, in the words of the Marshallese minister of foreign affairs Tony deBrum, will climate change amount to cultural genocide?
Picture: (WT-shared) Hscholz at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons