ETHNONYMS: Escholtz Islands
Bikini is the largest of the twenty-six islands in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Bikini is the northernmost atoll in the Ratak chain of atolls and islands and is located at 11° 31′ N and 165° 34′ E. The twenty-six islands have a total land area of 7.6 square kilometers and surround a large lagoon some 641 square kilometers in area. Bikini has drawn considerable attention since the relocation of the 161 resident Bikinians in 1946 so that the atoll could be used as a test site for atomic and nuclear weapons by the U.S. government. Because of radiation contamination from the tests, Bikini is uninhabitated today and will probably remain so for some years. Bikinians today number over 400 and live elsewhere in the Marshall Islands, mainly on Kili. Bikinian identity is based on rights to ownership of land on Bikini that are inherited from ancestors.
Bikini was settled before 1800 possibly by people migrating from Wotje Atoll. Because of the island's relative isolation, Bikinians had little contact with other peoples in the Marshalls. First contact with Europeans was evidently in 1824 with the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, although no European actually settled on Bikini until after 1900. The first American missionary arrived in 1908 and Bikinians were drawn into the copra trade during the German colonial period, which ended with World War I. The Japanese ruled the Marshalls from World War I to World War II, and they established a base on Bikini during World War II. After the war, the Marshalls became a Trust Territory of the U.S. and achieved independence in 1986.
Because of its isolation and the large lagoon, Bikini Atoll was selected by the U.S. government as the site for testing the effects of atomic bombs on naval vessels. This decision led to negotiations with the Bikinians and their agreeing to relocate to Rongerik Island in 1946. When this site proved inadequate, they relocated again to Kwajalein Island in 1948 and then Kili later in 1948, where most remained, although some also settled on Kwajalein and Jaluit. An organized attempt was made by the Department of the Interior to develop the Kili community economically, an effort that met with limited success.
From 1946 to 1957, twenty-three atomic and nuclear tests were conducted at Bikini. In 1968, Bikini was declared habitable by the U.S. government and 100 Bikinians had returned by 1974, though the island was now barren of much of the vegetation that had existed when they left in 1946. When tests in 1978 showed unacceptably high levels of strontium 90 radiation in Bikinians on the island, the island was declared uninhabitable and the people relocated again to Kili. As compensation for the loss of their land, the Bikinians were awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1956 by the United States. Some payments went to individuals while others were used to establish a trust fund for the entire community. These payments have made Bikinians, along with people from Enewetak, Rongelap, Utirik, and Kwajalein who also received compensation, wealthier than other Marshall Islanders. The payments also made the Bikinians economically dependent on income from the trust fund and contributed to an erosion of participation in prerelocation economic pursuits such as taro and copra production. Relocation also changed traditional patterns of social and political organization. On Bikini, rights to land and landownership were the major factor in social and political organization and leadership. Also, the Bikinians, as Marshall Islanders, were under the nominal control of the Paramount Chief of the islands, though actual contact with other islands was minimal. After relocation and settlement on Kili, a dual system of land tenure emerged, with disbursements of interest from the trust fund linked to landownership on Bikini and a separate system reflecting current land tenure on Kili influencing current political alliances and leadership. Regular contact with the U.S. government led the Bikinians to reject the primacy of the Paramount Chief and instead to look to U.S. government officials for support and assistance.
See also Marshall Islands
Kiste, Robert C. (1974). The Bikinians: A Study in Forced Migration. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings Publishing Co.
Mason, Leonard (1954). "Relocation of the Bikini Marshalese: A Study in Group Migration." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.