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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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MARSHALLESE. The Marshall Islands, 29 coral atolls (including Rongelap, Kwajelein, Jaluit, Majuro, Mili, Namerik, Wotje,) and five islands, located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, encompass an area one-ninth the size of Dubuque County. (1) They were named for British Captain William Marshall, who explored the area with Captain Thomas Gilbert in 1788. The atolls were not united until Europeans named and mapped them, Rālik-Ratak, the Marshallese designation for the leeward and windward chains of atolls, was considered an official name at the time of independence. (2)


Whalers from Europe and the United States were originally attracted to the Marshall Islands in the 1830s to 1850s but by the 1860s copra (the production of dried coconut) became Europeans' main interest in the islands. Under Japanese control (between WORLD WAR I and WORLD WAR II copra production continued, in addition to a fishing industry (controlled by Okinawans), and by exports of phosphorus and handicrafts. (3) Coconut leaves were woven into mats with more permanent mats made of pandanus leaves. (4)

Following World War II, the United States had a strategic interest in the Marshall Islands with few attempts at development. Between 1946 and 1958 a task force of military and civilians conducted 67 nuclear tests in the area. (5) On March 1, 1954 the United States detonated a 15-megaton thermonuclear device at Bikini Atoll. The force released was 1,000 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Radioactive fallout descended on people living on nearby atolls like a salt-like film. Soon many of these people began losing hair and their skin began to peel. The State Department, however, assured them there was no medical reason to expect permanent damage. Measurements, however, made in the area indicated the residents received 26 times the current occupational limits for radiation workers. (6)

As copra prices declined on the world market, Marshall Islanders relied more on the meager income from handicrafts to supplement the economy. By the 1960s and 1970s, financial assistance programs were begun to make up for United States neglect of the region and became the major source of income. Since independence, United States aid has been increased by programs from other Pacific Rim countries. (7)


Since World War II the capital of the Marshall Islands has been located on Majuro, in the southern part of the Ratak chain. With a very high rate of population increase, the Marshall Islands has changed rapidly from 43,380 people in 1988 to a projected population of well over 60,000 in 1999. Residents are very mobile, and nearly 80 percent are now urban. Approximately one-half of the population lives on Majuro Atoll. The other urban site is Ebeye (Epjā islet), Kwajalein Atoll, one of the world's most densely-populated locations, where many residents work on the United States military base on nearby Kwajalein islet. Other Marshall Islanders choose to live on one of two dozen inhabited outer atolls or coral pinnacles where a more traditional style of life can be maintained. (8)

All residents speak Marshallese, an Austronesian language that shares many similarities with other Pacific languages. Marshallese dialects began to disappear after missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) arrived on Ebon, in the southern Ralik Chain, in 1857 and developed a writing system. At least three mutually dialects remain: Ratak, Rālik, and an Enewetak/Ujelang variant. Former eras of Spanish, German, Japanese, and American administration and intermarriage between Marshall Islanders and other Pacific Islanders mean that Marshall Islanders often learn multiple languages. Many residents understand and/or speak a pidgin English. (9)

Beginning with the establishment of the Congress of Micronesia in 1965, local elites representing the various island groups that made up the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands established the Micronesian Political Status Commission in 1967. This organization explored political choices for the future of the region. The range of options that were discussed with representatives of the United States included total independence, a status of free association with the United States, continuing status as a Trust Territory, and integration with the United States. (10)

Even though the original negotiations had expected a common future for the Trust Territory, the United States, based on its own interests in the region, soon began to negotiate separately with the Northern Mariana Islands. The United States Department of Defense also wished to maintain special rights of access and use in the Marshall Islands and Belau. On the basis of these strategic advantages, these two districts were granted separate opportunities to negotiate their political futures. The remaining districts of the Trust Territory, lacking in special resources or strategic value to the United States, were not granted equal status. (11)

The United States favored commonwealth status for the region in 1970, and in 1975 the Northern Mariana Islands voted to become a commonwealth of the United States. Prior to the formal establishment of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, however, the United States reconsidered its initial rejection of free association as an option. The Marshall Islands, Belau, and the remaining districts of the Trust Territory, now known as the Federated States of Micronesia, began to negotiate constitutional governments that would be linked to the United States by compacts of free association. Most elements of self-government were granted the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1970, with formal statehood in free association with the United States decreed by the United States president in 1986. This Compact of Free Association granted Marshallese people and citizens of other former Pacific trust territories the right to live and work in the United States indefinitely without a visa or green card. (12) It also provided a $150 million cash settlement to compensate victims of the Bikini nuclear test and granted the U. S. government indemnity from existing and future legal claims. (13) The Republic of the Marshall Islands became a member state of the United Nations in 1991. (14)

Since the 1960s, social welfare programs have been available, supported by the United States, various religious groups and, since independence, other Pacific Rim nations. United States social welfare programs for education, health and nutrition, and the needs of youth, women, and the aged are particularly well-known. Many residents rely on these programs, especially in urban areas. (15)


Without immigration restrictions, Marshallese and United States citizens can travel between the two countries to study work and live. In the late 1970s, John Moody left the islands to attend college in eastern Oklahoma. Moody found a job in Springdale, Arkansas after graduation, married a local woman and started telling his island relatives about life and opportunities in Arkansas. That led to the first wave of Marshallese immigrants in the 1980s, said Carmen Chong Gum, the general consul at the Republic of the Marshall Islands consulate in Springdale. (16) Other large concentrations of immigrants were found in 2017 to live in Spokane, Washington and Enid, Oklahoma. (17)

Although reasons for the immigration vary, the frequent answers are improved medical care, education and employment. It remains unsafe to consume local foods on several of the atolls. Rising sea levels also threaten human existence. Radiation exposure an nutritional deficiencies have been associated with 25-50% incidences of Type 2 diabetes compared to 9% in the U. S. population. (18)

An estimated 6,000 Marshallese live in northwest Arkansas, concentrated in Springdale. There has been a Marshallese community in Dubuque since 1992. The Dubuque Human Rights Department estimated the number of people in 2017 to be between 300 and 600. (19) The majority of the group are employed, but at minimum-wage jobs due to their lack of English. In 1996 welfare reform made Marshallese migrants ineligible for federally funded benefits programs. Coming to the United States has made the immigrants ineligible for such programs as Medicaid. Local health professionals, city officials, religious leaders and educators in 2015 established the Dubuque Marshall Island Health Project. Under this program, a community health worker and nurse make regular home visits to residents to determine health needs and provide wellness education. In 2017 a survey indicated that 75% of the Marshallese living in Dubuque still lacked health insurance. (20)

In 2015 Pastor Stanley Samson hoped to work with medical providers and city leaders to provide them with local resources. Samson also organized a neighborhood picnic and concert in COMISKEY PARK to promote Marshallese customs and improve community ties. (21)

Language has proven a barrier. Between 2012-2013 and 2017 the number of students receiving English Language Learner (ELL) instruction doubled in the DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT which had a total of twelve ELL instructors and a Marshallese interpreter. Marshallese students in 2017 comprised 60% of all ELL students. To encourage attendance and attention in class, instructors regularly visited students' homes. (22)

Language barriers and lack of education led to many Marshallese taking entry-level jobs at large retail stores, nursing homes, manufacturing plants and hotels at low wages. An estimated 1% of the Marshallese living in the United States had a bachelor's degree compared to 18% of the general population and 13% were unemployed. Nation-wide the median income for Marshallese immigrants in 2013 was $31,531 compared to $52,176 for the general population. This led to families doubling up to cover expenses. In a 2015 report the Iowa Department of Human Rights Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs found that the principal barriers to career advancement were limited English-speaking abilities and lack of time and resource to attend school. (23) In 2018 it was reported that 44% of Marshall Islanders living in Dubuque were unemployed. (24)

In September, 2018 a fabricated steel sculpture called "Irene" was placed on display outside the DUBUQUE MUSEUM OF ART. The sculpture depicts Irene Maun Sigrah, a woman who grew up in the Federated States of Micronesia and moved to Dubuque in 2010. She worked as a community health worker with the Dubuque Pacific Islander Health Project at CRESCENT COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER while advocating for improved access to health care for Marshallese living anywhere in the United States. The work was commissioned by the museum and carried out by artist Jamie Burmeister and a team of local artists. (25)

On March 4, 2019 the Marshallese community was a focus on a Getting to Know Your Marshallese Friends event. Hosts included the Dubuque Pacific Islander Health Projet, CRESCENT COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER. CLARKE UNIVERSITY, and a Marshallese women's group known as FANUL. The event observed the International Day of Prayer, an important Marshallese celebration, and the 65th anniversary of a U. S nuclear detonation on Bikini Atoll. (26)

In November 2020, the announcement was made that RIVERVIEW CENTER INC. which provides free services to residents of northeast Iowa and Jo Daviess and Carroll counties in Illinois had partnered with one part-time staff member from Monsoon Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidarity to focus on serving these affected by gender-based violence in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in all 99 Iowa counties since 2007. Riverview brought an expertise in community resources while Monsoon had experience in knowledge of culturally specific issues. Many of these communities remain close-knit which sometimes led to them being unfamiliar with the Center's services including rental assistance, food insecurity funding, or transportation. In addition to victim services, Riverview advocated to area legislators about the needs of Pacific Islanders in Iowa. (27)


See: Helen HUEWE



1. Julie Zahs, Peace Corps Volunteer on Utrik Atoll in 1972-73 and on Woja, Ailinglaplap 1973-74, email, March 11, 2018

2. "Marshallese, Marshall Islander," Countries and Their Cultures. Online: http://www.everyculture.com/Ma-Ni/Marshall-Islands.html

3. Ibid.

4. Zahs

5. Goldstein, Bennet. "American Dream," Telegraph Herald, May 28, 2017, p. 1A

6. Ibid. p.6A

7. Marshallese, Marshall Islander

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Goldstein, p. 1A

13. Goldstein, p. 6A

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Craft, Dan. "Marshallese Migration," Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, September 28, 2015, Online: http://www.nwaonline.com/news/2010/dec/29/marshallese-migration/

17. Goldstein, p. 6A

18. Ibid.

19. Goldstein, p. 1A

20. Goldstein, p. 6A

21. Barton, Thomas J. "Pastor Unites Marshallese Community," Telegraph Herald, September 28, 2015, p. 3A

22. Goldstein, Bennet, "Connections in the Classroom," Telegraph Herald, May 29, 2017, p. 7A

23. Goldstein, Bennet, "Marshallese Families Work for Opportunity," Telegraph Herald, May 30, 2017, p. 2A

24. Tempus, Alexandra, "Paradise Reclaimed," The Progressive, April 1, 2018, Online: https://progressive.org/magazine/paradise-reclaimed-tempus/

25. Goldstein, Bennet, "Sculpture Puts Face to Dubuque's Marshallese Community," Telegraph Herald, September 9, 2018, p. 17A

26. Hinga, Allie, "Marshallese Reach Out," Telegraph Herald, March 5, 2019, p. 1

27. Reese, Kayli, "Riverview Center Eyes Partnership to Serve Pacific Islanders," Telegraph Herald, November 7, 2020, p. 7A