Marshall Islands - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The social order is characterized by flexible arrangements for group membership and for claiming rights to land. In the Rālik and Ratak chains, several atolls may be governed by a single chief, but throughout the Marshall Islands each atoll member maintains a critical identity as "a person of Mili, of Ujae," or of some other atoll. Atolls are further divided into islets or districts, each associated with possible affiliations of residence or land-tenure claims established by tracing through a matriclan or conical clan. Sailing groups, fishing groups, and religious groups also exist, and claims to an identity in those groups, as with islet, district, or atoll residence, must be reinforced by active participation and cooperation. The solidarity developed through such commitments of time and energy provide one measure of cohesiveness and of conceptual value. Intra-atoll marriages and intraatoll exchanges maintained for many generations promote an overlapping of identities and shared interests that results in increased solidarity. Several clans are typically represented on each atoll, and while some clans are found throughout the Marshall Islands, others are restricted in their membership to one or two atolls. Other than chiefly lineages, the power of a clan and of its constituent lineages or bilateral extended Families depends on the number of living representatives and upon their access to land.

Political Organization.

Leadership identities are claimed through sacred lines of paramount chiefs who ultimately trace descent directly from ancient deities. These identities pass matrilineally except on Enewetak and Ujelang atolls where such identities are transmitted patrilineally. Ratak and Rālik chiefly lines have intermarried with some frequency, whereas the chiefs of Enewetak, Ujelang, and Bikini were so isolated prior to German times that few Intermarriages occurred with Ratak and Rālik chiefs. Chiefs who represent an atoll or district are more localized, as are clan elders who head extended families, speak in their behalf, and, in many areas, serve as intermediaries between chiefs and commoners in matters concerning land. Traditionally, Religious and magical specialists balanced the chiefs' earthly powers with knowledge of curing, sailing, and fishing, predicting the weather, and mediating between humans and deities. Warriors and specialists in the arts of love, song, and dance also held respected positions in the ancient social order. The Republic of the Marshall Islands government, designed on the parliamentary pattern, balances elected Officials in one house with the house of chiefs, in which Membership may be gained only by virtue of hereditary claims through a recognized chiefly line.

Social Control. While a formal legal apparatus exists to deal with criminal activities in the Marshall Islands, fear of God's wrath, of ancestor spirits, and of the negative judgments of others in one's community or group provide the major sources of social control.

Conflict. Conflict is always a threat to the solidarity of the group and, unless one is inebriated (and not really one's self), occurs only with "others"—with members of other clans, other island or national identities, or other competitive song fest groups.


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