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  • “The Young Ladies Are Here”Marshallese Transgender Performance and Processes of Transformation
  • Jessica A. Schwartz (bio)

The following is a folktale from Rongelap Atoll, a ring of coral islands located in the northern part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (rmi) and currently uninhabited due to environmental contamination from the United States’ nuclear testing program (1946–58).

There were two sisters who lived with their parents on Rongelap Atoll. While the younger daughter was favored by the parents, the older daughter was unloved. One day, the family went to the forest, and the parents decided to leave the oldest daughter behind. All alone and abandoned, the oldest daughter began to cry.

As she was crying, she heard a bird atop a tree crying as well. When the girl looked up, the bird dropped excrement into her eye. After a few minutes, the girl began to grow wings in place of her arms. The bird, which before had been a fairy, turned the girl into a beautiful bird who now had the freedom to fly and leave the confines of the forest. She flew back to her parents’ house and turned her younger sister into a bird, and the two flew away.

These two beautiful birds would fly from atoll to atoll together. Given their physical beauty and melodious voices (bird song), they were able to steal other women’s husbands from the different atolls. Today, when you see two beautiful women together, walking in a certain way and looking back over each shoulder to check themselves out, you will know that they are from Rongelap. Both the birds and the Rongelap people—the men, women, and children—have to make sure they look good before they go out. This is the action of the frigate bird that helps navigators locate Rongelap Atoll; they always look behind themselves before they take their two strides and take off. [End Page 95]

The story has become a metaphor for the Rongelapese people in nuclear exile. As the simultaneous cries of the girl and the bird in the legend mark the beginning of a metamorphic process, for many Rongelapese, retelling the story in various forms sonically recalls their transformation from marginalized victims of imperial violence to modern heroines and survivors. Other Marshallese atoll populations, when asked, will often explain the story, but their retelling is prefaced with a respectful acknowledgment that the folktale is Rongelapese. This is important, given that claims to culture are, in effect, claims to land and perhaps redress for loss of land. As outmigration from the rmi to the United States increases, such acknowledgment of cultural specificity in large diasporic communities challenges homogenizing multicultural practices that tend to uphold one Marshallese voice—often one that mirrors the ideology of the dominant resident population—as representative of all Marshallese experiences.

The largest diasporic community is found in Springdale, Arkansas, where over 10 percent of the entire Marshallese population now lives.1 In the 1980s Marshallese began leaving their island homelands to work in the poultry industry (Tyson Foods is a large employer), to avoid the environmental issues associated with nuclear testing and climate change, and to be with their families. The rmi Consulate moved from Costa Mesa, California, to Springdale in 2009, and many diplomats and politicians consider the city Marshallese “headquarters”—a “must visit” during their terms and campaigns. Similarly, Marshallese musicians travel to Springdale for holidays, birthdays, and other festivities.

During the last weekend in May, Marshallese in Springdale celebrate their country’s political autonomy and the signing of their constitution (Constitution Day or May Day) with a number of competitive events such as the Battle of the Bands. On the evening of May 26, 2013, at the Marshallese Battle of the Bands, the acoustic space of Springdale’s Roller City, a roller rink with a 1980s neon graffiti aesthetic, became the performance site of the above folktale’s continuing life as a song. Casmond “Li-Cassy” Jilej, a Rongelapese transgender performer, voiced the onomatopoeic phrase “O ʻmon o,” which couches the Marshallese word eṃṃan (good) between the bird call “o” repeatedly over a Yamaha psr 3000 percussive backing track accompaniment in a song titled “Leddik ro...


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pp. 95-107
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