Benetick Kabua Maddison has not returned to his native home in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands since he was six years old, but one memory stays vivid in his mind. He remembers reclining on a table with his grandfather outside their home, the perfect spot to stargaze when the town lights switch off at night.
“I would rest on his arm and he would sing me Marshallese lullabies,” Maddison said.
Springdale, a land-locked 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 to 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 Latinx, Marshallese, and Asian people drawn to the agriculture and poultry industries. While Springdale is still predominantly white, it defies the archetype of rugged, old-timey 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 Hawai’i 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 one year old, and has no memories 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 multi-day 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 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.
“I had a feeling it would hit our community hard,” Eldon Alik, the Consul General of the Marshall Islands based in Springdale, said. “We are multi-generational households. June, July, [and] August were the worst months … somebody died every day.”
The pandemic’s wrath is impossible to decouple from the community’s history of loss. Indigenous studies scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith encourages examining the Western frame of history as “a story of the powerful and how they became powerful.” And because that power all too often comes at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized, this perspective reveals how exploitation and loss echo through generations. In the case of the Marshall Islands and Marshallese, they are still paying the cost of America’s dreams of empire and military supremacy with their bodies, culture, and land.
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, it 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 healthcare access. 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 part of the Arkansas Marshallese Covid-19 Task Force. He believes that decades of destruction leaves Marshallese at a disadvantage, many of whom have health issues, lead sedentary lifestyles, and work essential jobs. Earlier in the pandemic, the high rates of infections 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.
Seeking medical help during COVID-19 has been especially challenging for Marshallese with language barriers. Part of what makes COVID-19 insidious is the incomprehensible havoc it wreaks on the body. But the inability to understand the literal words on a doctor’s report is its own terrain of suffering that immigrants, like some of these families, navigate alone.
“Once they or their loved ones are admitted to the ICU, they don’t know how to speak [English] when the doctors are talking about prognosis and different options [of care],” Riklon said. “I was the middle person calling back and forth, making sure they understood whatever questions the families had.”
But Marshallese people maintain strong intergenerational systems of care, and today that extends to younger community members. In the past year, Langrine led rental assistance efforts for the Marshallese Educational Institute (MEI), a nonprofit in Springdale. She helped families find federal funds to cover overdue rent by filing applications and deciphering complex eligibility requirements (out of 200 applicants, only 79 qualified). Marty is in charge of utility assistance for MEI, which helped more than 200 families repay outstanding bills. When asked if any of these materials are in Marshallese, Langrine and Marty gave the same modest reply: “We make them.” For Marty, this is a filial and social imperative. “We are our parent’s resources,” she said.
Young people have taken on the role of translators within households, a line of defense against COVID-related disinformation circulating among older Marshallese on social media. Maddison used his online presence during quarantine to connect with youth beyond the borders of Springdale about nuclear weapons legacy and climate change. Michelle Pedro, policy director at the Arkansas Coalition for Marshallese, sees youth engagement as inspiring acts of resistance, a brand of courage that the previous generations could not access.
“We deserve to thrive not just in the Marshalls, but anywhere,” she said. “We deserve to know ourselves, our history, and to be in this country.”
Springtime brought Springdale hopeful news. Inmid-March, northwest Arkansas announced zero COVID-19 cases. In April, Consul General Alik reported that 98% of Marshallese elders had been vaccinated. He and Riklon are working with poultry plants to combat vaccine hesitancy among workers. They also started translating healthcare resources now that the United States finally granted COFA migrants Medicaid access. Maddison, Marty, and Langrine are sketching out their summer plans, including volunteering in vaccination drives and helping a local band, Mark Harmony, preserve traditional Marshallese songs. They are also thinking about visiting the Marshall Islands in the near future—meeting relatives for the first time and eating Marshallese cuisine served on banana leaves. But this homecoming must wait a little longer. For now, they remain sheltered in their other home: Springdale, a Marshallese island tucked inside the American South.