Yokwe Online

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Feb. 14) - Take a long, hard look. Marshallese custom - the "manit" that has sustained and protected a people for centuries - may disappear in this generation.

The one unique aspect of Marshall Islands' traditional values is the respect for the Iroij, or traditional chiefs, and the land system.

Some Marshallese, pushed by outside forces and their own ambitions, are trying to get rid of manit regarding traditional chiefs and land ownership by using the national political arena and court systems.

They politicize the most basic elements of the island culture. It betrays our Marshallese social identity and will eventually leave us with nothing.

Attacks on our customary system and the traditional leaders are increasing. The current administration and some of its officials have shown disrespect to our customary heads while representing a government established by a constitution that respects the legitimacy and role of Iroij and culture.

A few weeks ago, the nation's parliament had to adjourn abruptly after a ruling party senator made disparaging remarks regarding Iroij serving in the Nitijela – national parliament – and attempted to physically confront the traditional leader. Marshallese listening to the government public radio were aghast at the unfolding drama.

In one of the most grievous acts of contempt for traditional leadership and Marshallese land rights, the Administration's Compact II negotiation team signed off on the Kwajalein Military Use and Operating Rights for a period of fifty years from 2016, with a U.S. option to extend it for an additional twenty years beyond 2066, without the involvement and approval of the Iroij and Kwajalein landowners. The land was not the Government's to guarantee since it owns no land in the Marshall Islands and since the landowners must sign-off on the Land Use Agreement in 2016.

Now, in an amendment for the proposed Constitution Convention, there is mention of the government owning land.

There is even talk to limit the rights of Iroij from serving as national and local elected officials.

Back in 2004, MicroSem's Francis X. Hezel, SJ, during land registration consultations, explained that under Marshallese tradition, "one or the other of the paramount chiefs, or Iroij, possesses certain rights over each land parcel that are held IN TANDEM with the rights of the alab, or land manager, and the drijerbal, or people living on the land."

That fabric of Marshallese culture might be tearing.

Iroijlaplap Mike Kabua's resolution in the Nitijela regarding the Marshallese traditional title of "alab" (landowner) has been misrepresented as "man versus woman" issue, rather than pointing out that this is a long-standing cultural distinctive. His knowledge of culture and the customary roles has been undermined by ranting and ravings of those looking to weaken traditional authority.

An interview with Radio Australia mis-stated that it was only a gender issue and this was a new effort to radicalize the culture.

In 1990, Micronesia political analyst Norman Meller referred to the importance of the Iroij - paramount chief - and the land system as the indigenous basis for social identity in the Marshalls.

When it comes right down to it, some people today have problems with the Iroij just being Iroij, and the Alab being Alab, and have no reverence for the ages-long tradition of Marshallese attachment to the land.

Much of this irreverence comes from the backing of outside influences with different agendas for the Marshalls, without regard to the sustaining of the Marshallese culture. Reports from international loan and finance organizations have shown objection to the Marshallese land tenure system, calling it feudal. They said the system is a hindrance and an institutional barrier to outside business investments. The new Land Registration Act has not done much to change the business climate, but has actually caused disruption among families, Alab, and Iroij.

"Other islands chiefs have lost their ancient residual rights to land, but in the Marshalls the Iroij continue to be the voice of the land," said Hezel.

Throughout the centuries, the Iroij were our leaders, before any westernized and organized government. To be in such opposition to our traditional leaders does not make sense, regardless of party lines.

To fight over land rights and ignore the traditional ways is cultural suicide.

If we ignore the Iroij and lose our manit, we will then lose our land and identity.

Take a look at Hawai´i and the native Hawaiians and see the future of the Marshall Islands and Marshallese if we go this route.

February 15, 2006

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