More than 12,000 Marshallese live in northwest Arkansas and nearby cities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. The first Marshallese to arrive in northwest Arkansas was John Moody, who received a scholarship to study at an Oklahoma college and ended up moving to Springdale to work for Tyson Foods in the 1980s. Since then, many Marshallese left their island homelands for a number of reasons: seeking employment, educational opportunities, access to healthcare, the lingering effects of radiation due to nuclear testing, the evident consequences of sea level rise, and simply to join their families in the United States. Given the extant pressures in the Marshall Islands, the population in the region and throughout the state of Arkansas is expected to increase steadily over the next decades.
After undergoing 12 years of U.S. nuclear testing (1946-1958) as part of the U.S. Strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (R.M.I.) became self-governing in 1979. Four years later the U.S. and R.M.I. signed the Compact of Free Association, which allows Marshallese to travel freely between the two countries, prevents the Marshallese from taking further legal action against the U.S. for damages incurred during the testing, and made provisions for the continued operation of the U.S. missile test site in Kwajalein. Marshallese initially relocated to Hawaii and the Los Angeles area. Today, the majority of Marshallese in the U.S. reside in the midwest. In addition to Springdale, where roughly 8,000 reside, Marshallese also live in Pine Bluff, Berryville, and Paragould. Outside of Arkansas, there are communities in Enid, OK, Salem, OR, Sacremento, CA, and elsewhere.
The Marshallese community is close-knit and continues to engage in cultural practices brought with them from the R.M.I., including celebrating kemeem (first birthdays) on Saturdays. The community is known as a religious one with the majority attending (Protestant) Christian churches. The community celebrates Constitution Day during Memorial Day weekend, when thousands more Marshallese from around the U.S. and the R.M.I. visit to participate in softball, volleyball, and basketball tournaments. Members from different atolls celebrate significant dates in their atoll’s history, including Namdrik Day, Jaluit Day, and Bikini Day, among others. Like in the Islands, Marshallese families are large and extended families frequently share the same living space. The majority of the working population is employed in the poultry industry (30% of Tyson’s workforce in Springdale is Marshallese), but is becoming increasingly more diverse in employment. The community prides itself on helping others in need and is dedicated to retaining their unique culture and traditions.
For more information about Marshallese culture and history, contact us, or visit the RMI Embassy website.
MEI staff offers multimedia presentations about Marshallese history and culture and a range of other topics to community and government organizations, universities, and businesses. Visit our Services Page under About Us to find out more.