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Robert C. Kiste


In early 1946, the small community of islanders that inhabited Bikini Atoll in the northern Marshall Islands was relocated when its homeland was selected as a nuclear test site by the United States. The Bikinians did not desire relocation; they had no real alternative but to submit to the wishes of the Americans. Their first resettlement was on Rongerik, another northern atoll. Its re­sources were insufficient, and in less than two years the islanders suffered near starvation. Traditional forms of social organization were not effective in the crisis, and they were abandoned for a communal system in which the islanders exploited and shared their resources as a single unit. The Bikinians were evacuated from Rongerik and provided refuge at a military base on Kwaja­lein Atoll. After eight months, they were resettled on Kili, a small single island in the southern Marshalls. (See map 6.) After a few years, a novel system of landholding was implemented. This in­novation has had numerous repercussions and has precipitated a major restructuring of their traditional social organization.

In addition to changing their community’s internal organiza­tion, the Bikinians’ response to relocation has also altered their relations with people outside the community. The islanders have terminated their subordinate status to the iroij lablab ‘paramount chief’, whose domain included Bikini. Concomitantly, they have 82allied themselves with the United States government and now de­pend on its agencies.

It is the task of this chapter to describe and account for these changes. In so doing, I argue that the structural changes in both the internal and external relationships of the community can only be understood in terms of a crucial continuity in the culture and society of Bikini in particular and the Marshall Islands in general. A fundamental premise by which people perceive, evaluate, and respond to the universe of human relations is that what really mat­ters to people is their position with regard to power and influence over others, privilege, and the control of valued resources. It is, in short, the control of one’s own destiny and the destinies of others that constitutes one of the most valued goals of Marshallese life. Such control is realized in certain social statuses in kinship group­ings that form the corporate units of Marshallese atoll societies. It is the attainment of these statuses by which people measure their position in the social universe. These statuses are few relative to the aspirants to them, and as a consequence, much of Marshallese social life is an unending competition for statuses which entail power, influence, privilege, and the control of valued resources.

The competition has traditionally been focused on the control of land. Land is conceived of as a scarce commodity necessary for sustenance, and Marshallese, and perhaps all atoll dwellers, con­sider it their most prized resource. Because rights to land are held by kinship groups, competition has taken the form of struggles over land rights between such groups and struggles among in­dividuals for leadership status within them (see Alkire 1972; Mason 1954; Spoehr 1949; Tobin 1958). Such competition has not only involved intracommunity struggles but also interatoll warfare before the coming of foreign colonial administrations. The advent of colonial powers has amplified the dimensions of the competition with the introduction of the copra trade, imported goods, and new political statuses, the acquisition of which have become new prizes in familiar struggles.

The relocations of the Bikini community and its relationship with the United States government, whose power and resources Bikinians regard as unbounded, constitute a novel context within which traditional concerns have been played out. As new oppor­tunities for people to acquire power, influence, and privilege have presented themselves, new strategies have been devised to take ad­vantage 83 of them. The structure of the Bikini community has changed in consequence. Furthermore, given the Bikinians’ awareness of the power of the United States government over them, it is hardly surprising that they have sought to alter their relationship with the government in order to influence its policy.

Thus the argument advanced in this chapter reflects certain realities of Marshallese culture and behavior. It is in basic agree­ment with the analytical stance of a number of anthropologists concerned with the dynamics of sociocultural change who have adopted what David Schneider calls the “competitive view” of society (Schneider 1970:1–6; see also Leach 1954, Mair 1965). This view assumes that people vie with one another to attain goals they hold to be of value and that the pursuit of power and influ­ence is common to members of human groups as ends in them­selves or as means to yet other ends. It is not posited here that the intensity of motivation to acquire power and influence is the same for everyone or that all are equally successful among Bikinians or in other societies. Nonetheless, it is those who are the most suc­cessful and energetic in the pursuit of such ends who chart the direction that a society follows.

I begin the argument with a description of the Bikini commu­nity’s historical and environmental setting. This is followed by descriptions of the traditional social organization, the reorganiza­tion of the community during its resettlements, and the relations of the community with external authorities and other Marshall Islanders. A concluding section reviews the basic argument of the chapter, and an epilogue reports recent events that will have far-reaching consequences on the lives and futures of the Bikinians.


Bikini is the northernmost atoll in the Ralik (western) chain of the Marshall Islands. It consists of twenty-six islets which have a total land area of 2.32 square miles. Like other northern atolls, Bikini lies within a comparatively dry zone (Wiens 1962:154) and has a poor soil cover. Only three subsistence crops—coconut, pandanus, and arrowroot—thrive there. Like other northern atoll com­munities, the Bikini population was never large; it numbered only 170 at the time of relocation.1 In contrast, the southern atolls are situated in a wetter climatic zone, have richer soil deposits, and 84support a larger variety of crops. The largest populations, some numbering over a thousand, have always been located in the south.

In addition to its position in northern Ralik, Bikini is also iso­lated from other atolls. In precontact times, sporadic intercourse was carried on with the people of Rongelap Atoll, the Bikinians’ closest neighbors 80 miles to the east, and a few marriages oc­curred between the two communities. Bikinians had no regular contact with the peoples of other atolls, and they had developed minor variations in speech and behavior that distinguished them from other Marshallese.

Bikini’s location had other consequences. Missionaries and traders were first attracted to the more favorable environment of the south, where they commenced their activities in the 1850s. The German (1885–1914) and the Japanese (1914–1943) colonial governments were headquartered at the southern atoll of Jaluit. Majuro Atoll, also in the south, was established as the Marshall Islands District Administrative Center by the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands not long after the end of World War II.

Bikinians and other northern islanders were the last to be af­fected by foreign influence, and they were always outside the mainstream of events in the south. Missionaries and traders did not penetrate the north until around the turn of this century, and because of the remoteness of their atoll, Bikinians had even less contact with outsiders than other northerners. German officials made few appearances at Bikini, and the mission effort did not reach there until 1908. The frequency of the Bikinians’ contact with outsiders increased during the Japanese period. A govern­ment vessel called at the northern atolls twice a year. The copra trade which flourished in the south was poorly developed in the north, however, and the Bikinians’ participation in it was mini­mal.

Few Bikinians had ventured away from home in German times, but experiences abroad increased with the visits of the Japanese vessel. Most Bikinians limited their travel to Rongelap and other northern atolls. Two or three attended a Japanese school, several traveled to Kwajalein Atoll for medical care, and a few others also spent some time there as wage laborers for the Japanese. About half a dozen had gone to Ailinglaplap in southern Ralik to serve in 85one of the households of their paramount chief. Others traveled purely for the adventure of it (Mason 1954:27–33).

A small number of Bikinians acquired spouses from other atolls during their ventures abroad, but most found their travels to be unpleasant experiences. The more acculturated southerners con­sidered them a backward people; they compared them unfavor­ably with their own ancestors of pre-European times and poked fun at the peculiarities of their speech. The Bikinians accepted this unflattering image and held themselves in low esteem. To some ex­tent, they did not identify with other Marshallese but thought of themselves as “Bikinians,” a people distinct and culturally inferi­or. Many were hesitant to journey abroad and found it more com­fortable to remain at home.

Not until the war years did foreigners come to reside at Bikini: half a dozen Japanese soldiers established a weather station there. Immediately after the war, the Marshalls were administered by a naval military government, and the Bikinians received more atten­tion from the outside world than ever before. A U.S. Navy vessel called at Bikini every third month. A modest store, an elementary school, and a medical dispensary were established on the atoll and staffed with Bikinians trained by Americans. At the Americans’ urging, the eleven traditional leaders of the community formed a council which functioned as the governing body of the atoll. One of the eleven was the iroij ‘chief’ of the community; he, a man named Juda, served as the magistrate at the head of the council and community.

The initial relocation of the Bikinians was swiftly accom­plished. In late January 1946, it was announced that Bikini had been selected as the site for Operation Crossroads, the code name of the first tests in the program of nuclear experiments. The mili­tary governor of the Marshalls obtained the consent of the para­mount chief to relocate the people. In early February, the gover­nor and paramount chief flew to Bikini to obtain the people’s cooperation. It appears certain that the Bikinians felt powerless to resist, and they have subsequently claimed that they never wanted to abandon their ancestral homeland and understood their reloca­tion was only a temporary measure if Bikini were not destroyed or rendered unsafe for human habitation.

The eleven traditional leaders who formed the council chose 86Rongerik as the site for resettlement (Meade 1946). Rongerik was uninhabited and is only 18 miles from Rongelab and its people, with whom the Bikinians had long been familiar. Rongerik’s ten islets comprise only one-fourth of Bikini’s land area, and the atoll had never supported a permanent population. It was known from the outset that it would present problems of economic self-suffi­ciency.

In the process of preparing for their departure in late March, Bikinians witnessed the initial phase of the massive preparations for Operation Crossroads and received a great amount of atten­tion from news media. The Bikinians were reportedly impressed at the technological achievements of the Americans, and they were flattered that the representatives of such a powerful nation felt them worthy of their attention (Markwith 1946).

Within two months of their resettlement, the Bikinians reported that Rongerik’s resources were inadequate. By the winter of 1946–1947, they experienced serious food shortages. During 1947, other atolls were considered by the administration as possible sites for another resettlement. As conditions on Rongerik deteriorated, a communal system of work and food rationing was implemented and directed by Juda and the council. All food resources were brought under the council’s control, and the gathering of sub­sistence crops by individuals or traditional kin groups was pro­hibited. Somewhat belatedly, the high commissioner of the Trust Territory ordered a study of the Bikinians to determine “the un­derlying causes of their apparent discontent” (Richards 1957: 525). Leonard Mason, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii, was engaged to conduct the investigation. His arrival at Rongerik in January 1948 coincided with the most severe food shortage experienced by the islanders. Emergency rations were provided and a decision was made to evacuate the Bikinians to Kwajalein (Mason 1954:9).

The Bikinians were given refuge on the largest islet in Kwa­jalein Atoll. From the debris of war, the Americans had created a base complete with streets, electric lights, movie theaters, planes, and other military equipment. The Bikinians were quartered in a tent village adjacent to a camp of Marshallese laborers. They received meals in a common mess with the laborers; the fare was extravagant by Bikinian standards and provided a sharp contrast with their Rongerik ordeal. When they were physically able, many 87adults were employed and integrated into the labor force during working hours. With their earnings, they bought new clothing and sampled widely from the variety of goods available at the post ex­change. Their morale improved, and they reportedly were pro­foundly impressed with the cultural accomplishments of the Unit­ed States (Richards 1957:528).

To help the Bikinians preserve the integrity of their own com­munity, they were provided with facilities to maintain their own church, council, and school separate from those of the other islanders. The Bikinians’ village was off limits to Americans other than a few officials. Inevitably, however, they had more contact with outsiders than ever before, especially with the Marshallese in the labor camp. Compared to the more acculturated laborers, they were unsophisticated with much to learn.

The administration began the search for another resettlement site by consulting the paramount chief. The choice was narrowed to Wotho, a small northern atoll which was inhabited and within the chief’s domain, and Kili Island, a commerical copra planta­tion before the war which was now uninhabited and outside the jurisdiction of any chief. The paramount chief wanted the Biki­nians to settle on his atoll, and he, American officials, Juda, and three other members of the Bikini council visited Wotho. After­ward, Juda and ten other Bikini men were taken to Kili, where they were left alone to survey the island. Kili is a single island with a fringing reef shelf which extends unbroken around its entire peri­meter. It covers 0.36 square mile (230 acres), an area one-sixth that of Bikini. Because of its location in the heavy rainfall belt of the south, Kili has a rich soil cover and great agricultural poten­tial. Well-ordered rows of high-quality palms covered 95 percent of the land. A large swampy depressed area in its center was ex­cellent for taro cultivation. Some breadfruit trees, papayas, bananas, sweet potatoes, and taro remained from the plantation days. The Bikinians were not familiar with the cultivation of these crops, and none grew in sufficient quantity to support the popula­tion.

Kili has great disadvantages. It lacks a lagoon and other shel­tered fishing areas. The long axis of the island runs almost parallel to the prevailing direction of the strong northeast trades which blow steadily from November to late spring of each year, and the winds generate heavy surf which isolates Kili except for infrequent 88calms. Fishing is curtailed, and ships cannot land cargo. Gaining a subsistence on Kili in winter is made even more difficult by seasonal variation in the yield of breadfruit; the period of minimal yield coincides with the trade-wind season.

No one fully appreciated the magnitude of the adjustments the islanders would have to make if they were to resettle on Kili suc­cessfully. Bikinians had always depended on the rich marine re­sources of their lagoon and had never devoted much time or effort to agriculture. Their attitude toward agricultural work was in fact quite casual. The Americans assumed that with a concentrated ex­ploitation, Kili’s palm groves could yield a crop far in excess of the Bikinians’ subsistence needs and that the surplus could be con­verted into copra for the purchase of imported foods. With effi­cient management of resources, it was thought, food could be stored in advance of the lean winter seasons.

The Bikini men who surveyed the island were favorably im­pressed with its palm groves, but they were distressed over its small size and lack of lagoon. They reported their observations to other members of the community, and comparisons between the relative merits of Wotho and Kili were made. In a plebiscite of all adults, Kili was chosen by a 54 to 22 margin (Mason 1954:10).

The Bikinians were moved to Kili in November 1948. Kili’s lo­cation in the southern Marshalls brought them into rather close proximity to the Marshallese who had had the longest experience with foreigners. Within a 65-mile radius of Kili are the three southernmost atolls of the Ralik chain (see map 6): Ebon, Namorik, and Jaluit, the former capital of both the German and Japanese governments which is only 30 miles northeast of Kili. In contrast to Bikini’s geographical isolation, Kili is on the ship route which originates at the government center at Majuro, 170 miles northeast of Kili, and services the southwestern Ralik atolls.


The communal system which had developed at Rongerik was ad­vantageous during the initial months on Kili as a concentrated ef­fort was necessary for the construction of a village. In contrast to Bikini and Rongerik where houses were of thatch and timber, dwellings and other buildings on Kili were built of imported lum­ber and roofing materials supplied by the Americans. During the 89islanders’ initial months on Kili, the first signs that a realignment of power and influence was occurring in the community became manifest. To examine these changes, it is necessary to consider the organization of the community before relocation.

Of the 170 islanders comprising the community in 1946, 164 were divided among three exogamous matriclans, Ijjirik, Makao-liej, and Rinamu.2 The other six belonged to clans from other atolls. Thirty-five other Bikini clansmen lived on other atolls (some since Japanese times). These were islanders and their children liv­ing with non-Bikini spouses.

Each of the three clans was composed of two or more lineages between which genealogical ties were known. An islander belong­ed to the lineage of his or her mother and membership was perma­nent. The lineage was a highly segmental structure. The term for ‘lineage’ is bwij, and it refers to the entire lineage or any segment of it.

Lineage mates were ranked according to two principles: chro­nological age and seniority of generation. Age was expressed in the relations among siblings, who were ranked from eldest to youn­gest. As an extension of the same principle, the lineages of a clan and the segments of a lineage were ranked according to the birth order of the sisters who founded them. The second principle was equally simple: members of ascending generations were superior in rank to those of descending generations.

The senior ranking member of a clan, lineage, or lineage seg­ment was its alab ‘head’. When the senior in rank was female, the senior ranking male usually assumed the title. As implied above, the term alab was elastic in the same manner as the term for lineage. The ranking member of a clan with its two or more con­stituent lineages was head of the entire clan. The senior ranking member of each lineage of a clan and the senior ranking member of each lineage segment were heads of their respective divisions of the clan. In the event that the head of a senior ranking lineage belonged to a lower generation than the head of a junior ranking lineage, there was a structural ambiguity in the system. The prin­ciples of relative age and seniority of generation were in direct op­position, and there were no cultural norms that specified one as being superior in rank over the other.

The head of the Ijjirik clan was the traditional chief of the com­munity. Juda, the incumbent, was head of the senior ranking Ij­jirik 90 lineage and had succeeded to the chieftainship only a short time before the islanders’ relocation. He traced his line of chiefly descent and succession to a legendary chief named Larkelon who had purportedly conquered Bikini Atoll with a group of followers in the distant past.

In large measure, the identity of Bikinians was derived from the fact that they possessed rights to Bikini land, and they held those rights because their ancestors had conquered the atoll. The entire social order of their community was largely defined and struc­tured by land rights inherited from previous generations.

The lineage was one type of landholding corporation. The typical unit of a lineage’s estate consisted of a strip of land which traversed the width of an islet from lagoon beach to ocean reef. In most instances, a lineage held as its estate a number of such parcels on several islets in the atoll. The head of a corporate lin­eage was an alab in brij ‘head of land’ as well as an alab in bwij ‘head of lineage’. A male who headed a segment of a lineage that was only part of a larger landholding lineage was simply ‘head of lineage (segment)’.

The rights and privileges of the lineage head distinguished him from his lineage mates. He had authority over the use of the land and oversaw the distribution of its resources. He alone was privi­leged to a disproportionate share of money earned from copra and usually retained one-fourth of the receipts. He used some of the money for personal wants and theoretically allocated some among his lineage mates when they were in need. The headman repre­sented the interests of his lineage in community affairs. Lineage members under his authority were rijerbal ro ‘workers’. They had inalienable rights to their lineage’s land; those rights may be re­ferred to as ‘worker rights’, and they entitled the lineage member to a share of resources derived from the land and the prerogative of residing on it. The spouses of lineage members and the children of lineage males also had usufruct rights to the lineage’s land. They shared in its products and could reside on it. Children often grew up on a portion of their father’s lineage land. Later, as mar­ried adults, they could and often did continue to exercise their usu­fruct.

The estate of a lineage was clearly distinguished from two other categories of property: (1) land to which a set of siblings had re­ceived 91 both headman and worker rights from their father and (2) land to which an individual had received all rights in exchange for a service rendered. Ideally, only a headman could make such a transfer of land rights. In the event that a headman was the sole surviving member of his lineage, he held the land with his own children, and his children inherited both categories of rights to it. If the headman was the head of a viable lineage, he supposedly ob­tained the consent of his lineage mates before he could set aside land for himself and his offspring. In either instance, a headman and his children who held land together constituted a patricen­tered landholding corporation.

The eldest male of a set of siblings who formed a corporation with their father became the headman with authority over the land upon the latter’s death. (Such a male was always alab in brij ‘head of land’, but he was not necessarily alab in bwij ‘head of lin­eage’ or a segment thereof.) His rights as headman were equal to those of heads of the corporate lineages, and he represented the in­terests of his siblings in community affairs. The siblings had three alternatives as to how they could manage the land. They could hold the land as a matrilineage composed only of themselves and their matrilineal offspring (that is, the children of the female members of the sibling set). Secondly, all rights to the land could be given to the children of the males who had first acquired it from their father; that is, once land had been alienated from a lineage, headman and worker rights could be inherited through males. Lastly, siblings could employ a combination of the first two op­tions. In any case, land that siblings received from their father was theirs and theirs alone. Neither the head of their own lineage nor other lineage mates had claim to it.

The alternative forms of inheritance provided both a certain flexibility in the land tenure system and a set of mechanisms that were manipulated as islanders attempted to maximize the amount of land to which they could claim some right. Children who estab­lished themselves on land belonging to their father’s lineage and remained after his death sometimes claimed that they had in­herited all rights to it. Such claims were challenged by members of the father’s lineage, but such disputes were seldom resolved.

Gifts of land in exchange for a service rendered were not com­mon. In pre-European times, chiefs rewarded allies who had sup­ported 92 them in intracommunity conflicts with gifts of land. In the decades immediately prior to relocation, only one land parcel was given in such payment—for constructing a canoe for a headman.

Of the eleven men, including chief Juda, who were headmen at the time of relocation, four were the last surviving members of their lineages and headed patricentered corporations composed of themselves and their own children. Five others were heads of cor­porate lineages. The tenth headman was the eldest of a sibling set which had recently received land from their father, and it was not yet discernible how they would manage the future disposition of rights to it. The eleventh headman was the recipient of the only parcel of gift land in recent years. The eleven headmen were not of equal rank within the structure of the several lineages, but none­theless, having control over the atoll’s land, they had power and influence and were the traditional leaders of the community who had formed the council at the suggestion of the Americans.

In addition to disputes and grievances over land, the history of the succession of Bikini chiefs before Juda’s incumbency further reveals the intensity of the competition over land and the tradi­tional relationship between control of land and power, influence, and privilege. In pre-European times, the senior Ijjirik lineage held a disproportionate share of Bikini’s land, and the holdings provid­ed a warrant for the chiefly status of its head. Before the suppres­sion of warfare by missionaries and the German colonial govern­ment, Ijjirik males engaged in a continuous struggle for land and power. Younger brothers plotted against elder brothers; nephews conspired against their maternal uncles. Genealogical evidence reveals that no fewer than ten males were murdered in the three ascending Ijjirik generations above Juda. The last of the assassina­tions occurred around the turn of this century when the eldest of Juda’s three maternal uncles came to power by the murder of his own mother’s brother.

During the lifetimes of Juda’s maternal uncles, the senior Ijjirik lineage began to decline in size, and it was evident that it would become extinct. Juda’s maternal uncles had numerous children in Makaoliej and Rinamu lineages, however, and they transferred the bulk of their lineage’s land to them. As a consequence, father to child inheritance of land rights was frequent in the decades before relocation. By the time of Juda’s succession to office, the power and influence traditionally associated with the chieftain­ship 93 were greatly diminished because much of what once was chiefly land had been alienated.

Nonetheless, the chieftainship remained a political prize, and Juda’s right to succeed was challenged by males of a junior Ijjirik lineage. The Ijjirik clan was composed of three lineages. Juda, his aged mother, and his elder brother were the last surviving members of the senior lineage. (Juda’s brother was quite old when the last of their maternal uncles died, and he had voluntarily declined the office in favor of Juda.) The head of the second rank­ing lineage was of the same Ijjirik generation as Juda.

The third and junior lineage, however, was headed by a male of the first ascending generation above that of Juda’s. Given the structural ambiguity in the system of rank and succession, the head of the junior lineage was able to claim that he was entitled to succeed Juda’s mother’s brother because they were of the same generation and that seniority of generation took precedence over seniority of lineage. He was supported by his younger brother, who was the most vociferous and aggressive in attempting to legit­imize their claim. He argued that his elder brother was not only the legitimate successor to the chieftainship, but that the land once controlled by the chiefs should never have been alienated and should revert to Ijjirik and hence to his brother’s control.

The head of the second ranking Ijjirik lineage supported Juda’s succession. With Juda in office, he was to become Juda’s heir pre­sumptive and serve as his immediate subordinate, executive of­ficer, and confidant. Other details pertaining to the dispute are not known. It is certain that the majority of headmen recognized Juda as the rightful successor to his mother’s brother. Juda’s status as head of the community was greatly enhanced when he was named magistrate by the other headmen and was recognized as such by the Americans. Nontraditional means of securing power and in­fluence had been introduced, and subsequent events indicate that Juda took full advantage of American support and recognition to secure his own position.

The domestic organization of the community also reflected the traditional relationship between power, influence, privilege, and control of land. The islanders were divided into eleven extended family units which constituted “households” (Spoehr 1949:103). A household was a group which shared adjacent dwellings clus­tered about a cookhouse. Each household was headed by one of 94the headmen, and in all but two instances it was situated on land controlled by him. Affairs of the household were directed by its headman, and its members contributed to a common larder and accomplished tasks associated with everyday life.

Members of the eleven households occupied a total of twenty-six dwellings, which were dispersed over adjacent land parcels on the largest islet in the atoll. The households varied considerably in size and composition. They ranged from seven to twenty-five members with an average size of about fifteen. Variability in household composition reflected the system of land rights. As an individual had rights to the land of both his or her father and mother, a mar­ried couple had the option of residing with either set of parents; there were no prescribed rules of postmarital residence. Smaller households were little more than nuclear families with one or more attached relatives. Larger units were either bilateral extend­ed families (which included some of the headman’s children of both sexes with their spouses and children) or joint-sibling units formed by siblings with their spouses and offspring. Also reflecting the latitude provided by the system of land rights, the households were flexible units which gained and lost members in a casual way as young marrieds occasionally moved between parental house­holds.

The land parcels on which the households were situated were divided into three districts. Each was composed of adjacent par­cels and was headed by one of its senior ranking headmen who had authority over district affairs.


The move to Rongerik precipitated little immediate change in the organization of the community. The same number of dwellings that had existed at Bikini were built at Rongerik, and the composi­tion of most households remained relatively unchanged. Land was never divided at Rongerik, and thus the households were no longer associated with landholdings.

Juda began to emerge as a figure of prominence and influence during the initial years of relocation. At Kwajalein he played a key role in the community’s line of communication with the adminis­tration. Other headmen, however, suffered some eclipse of their power and influence as they no longer controlled essential re­sources. 95 Others were no longer dependent on them, and employ­ment meant an unprecedented degree of freedom and economic independence for most adults.

The first clear indications that a redistribution of power, in­fluence, and privilege was occurring in the community were mani­fest when the islanders were resettled on Kili. Houses were con­structed in a compact area along a roadway which parallels one of the island’s shores. A path intersects the roadway at midpoint, and it became a boundary between two village districts. Dwellings to the east of it became Jitaken (‘upwind’) and those to the west be­came Jitoen (‘downwind’). A total of thirty-five dwellings, nine more than at Bikini and Rongerik, were built. As dwellings were completed, the council allotted them to family units, and seven­teen households were formed when several of the former ones be­came divided.

In part, the increased number of households was a consequence of the fact that a greater number of dwellings were available and that the population had increased (through births and individuals rejoining the community) to over 180. Other factors, however, ap­pear to have been more important in accounting for the increase in households. The fission of some of the former units reflected al­terations in the spheres of influence of some of the headmen. The newly created households were headed by younger brothers or maternal nephews of lineage heads, and that several of them estab­lished their own domestic units on Kili was an early indication that they were acquiring some degree of independence from the traditional figures of authority.

Changes in residential alignments were also a factor in the emergence of Juda’s subordinate, the head of the second ranking Ijjirik lineage, to a position of greater prominence. At Bikini, he had been subordinate to Juda for reasons of residence as well as lineage rank. His and Juda’s households were in the same Bikini village district, and he was second to Juda in district affairs. At Rongerik, he had emerged as an imporant figure overseeing part of the communal system. With the Kili resettlement, he acquired more influence. During the construction of the village, Juda took the first dwelling completed in Jitaken. Later, Juda’s subordinate was established in Jitoen. As the highest-ranking Ijjirik male in Ji­toen and Juda’s executive officer, and on the strength of his own forceful personality, he was soon recognized as its headman. Juda 96headed his own Jitaken district and remained chief and magistrate of the entire community.

The tasks of clearing the overgrowth that had engulfed the co­conut groves during the years that Kili was uninhabited and the planting of more subsistence crops were left to the Bikinians. The communal system of labor and food allocation that had emerged on Rongerik was initially maintained, but by 1950 it was clear that this stop-gap organization had become ineffective. People were not motivated to improve land that was communally held. Food shortages also posed critical problems. The available food resources on Kili were consumed during the first months of the set­tlement, and the inexperience of Bikinians at agricultural tasks resulted in failure to establish an adequate subsistence base. More­over, rough seas frequently prevented the sale of copra and the landing of cargo. By 1950, food shortages were severe. The Biki­nians became quite negative about Kili and demoralized and dis­affected with their leaders. This situation continued through 1953, despite the administration’s attempts to get Bikinians to abandon the communal system and divide their land. Unknown to the administration, the Bikinians had in fact been discussing such a possibility from the outset. They had kept their deliberations to themselves, however, because they did not want to make an overt commitment to Kili—they wanted to be returned to Bikini or to be resettled elsewhere (preferably on an atoll), and they wanted to force the Americans to provide more support for them if they had to remain on Kili.

An even more serious stumbling block to a land division was the problem of deciding how to divide the island. The headmen had already suffered a decline in their authority as Juda’s stature rose. They had a vested interest in reestablishing their control over land, but all the old grievances over inequities in landholdings came to the fore. Those who had controlled a disproportionate share of land were intent on perpetuating the disparity. Others demanded a larger share than they had previously enjoyed, and Kili’s small size exacerbated everyone’s concern over land. Thus discussions of land division only resulted in deadlock.

In their debates over land, the headmen gave little considera­tion to what groups could be allotted land. Bikini landholding cor­porations could not have been reconstituted for the division of Kili. Some individuals had belonged to both a corporate lineage 97and a patricentered corporation whereas others had only belonged to a corporate lineage. Individuals of the latter category would not have agreed to a division of land among the Bikini landholding corporations because such a course of action would have allowed others to have membership in two groups. For a land division to occur, discrete groups of individuals had to be delineated, and reorganization of the community was inevitable. That new groups had to be formed probably became apparent to the Bikinians when eight of the headmen’s younger brothers and maternal nephews made known their ambitions to become headmen in their own right. The majority of these were men who had established new households on Kili. They refused to have their subordinate status perpetuated, and a few threatened to leave the community if their ambitions were not realized.

Several events coincided in late 1953 and early 1954 to precipi­tate an allocation of land. The communal effort had failed com­pletely; people wanted land of their own. The administration ex­plored the possibility of relocating the community again, but the proposed site was rejected as unsuitable. To salvage the Kili settle­ment, a community development program was initiated to pro­vide instruction in agricultural techniques, increase copra produc­tion, and develop a cooperative to manage trading operations. The inauguration of the project made a return to Bikini appear highly unlikely.

At this critical juncture, chief Juda devised a land division scheme. He proposed that each household be allotted land in pro­portion to the number of its members. Land was to be assigned to each household as a unit; neither lineage membership nor Bikini landholding corporations were considered relevant. Juda ap­proached the headmen informally and individually to argue that a division was necessary because of the people’s discontent with the communal system and the likelihood that they would remain on Kili. Several were reluctant, but after some persuasion Juda’s plan was accepted.

Juda and the headmen directed the land allotment, but it was accomplished with considerable difficulty. Everyone wanted land near the village; not all sections of the island were of equal quality, and there were disagreements over who would receive what land. Juda negotiated a series of compromises, and with the exception of the taro swamp and village area, Kili was divided among nineteen 98groups. The term bamli ‘family’ was adopted to refer to the new landholding units.

Not only did Juda’s scheme and the compromises negotiated during its implementation accommodate the ambitions of the eight males of junior status who demanded to become headmen in their own right. It also solved the problem of delineating discrete groupings of individuals for the purpose of dividing land. The head of each family unit was recognized as ‘head of land’ as well as head of his own family corporation. As in the past, each head­man had authority over his land and the people who had rights to it. A clear distinction, however, was made between two categories of headmen. The eleven headmen who had controlled Bikini land were still thought of as Bikini headmen in contrast to the eight who had become headmen by reason of the Kili land division. The latter were referred to as Kili headmen.

Like Juda’s subordinate, the Jitoen headman, the eight Kili headmen had seized the opportunity of relocation to achieve posi­tions of greater power and influence. The eight were members of four of the five corporate matrilineages at Bikini, and six of them were of high rank within the structure of the lineages. The six ranked immediately below the heads of Bikini corporate lineages; that is, they were either next or second to next in rank and in the line of succession to lineage heads.3 Thus these six males had the advantage of occupying positions of high rank and stature, and they had advanced their demands to become headmen from posi­tions of strength and influence that were second only to the Bikini headmen in the traditional structure of the community.

The remaining two males who became Kili headmen were of more junior rank in the structure of the lineages, and they achieved their new status by other means. They had been absent from Bikini since Japanese times and were among the few ex­patriates who had returned to the community on Kili; both had viable alternatives to remaining on Kili if their ambitions were not realized, and as a consequence it appears that they were more ag­gressive in their demands than other males of comparable rank could have been. One of the two adamantly rejected any affilia­tion with the head of his lineage and threatened to return to the home atoll of his non-Bikini spouse if his wishes were denied. He had few close kinsmen to call on for support, and his success ap­pears to have been a consequence of his own intransigence. The 99second male was of quite junior status, but he had considerable ex­perience as a wage laborer at Kwajalein and felt no insecurity about returning there if his ambitions were not realized. He was strongly supported by one of the older men who became a head­man on Kili. The two were allied by a number of kin ties; further, and more important, the elder male had been custodian of the Bikini land to which the younger man held rights during the lat­ter’s absence from the atoll, and he had every reason to presume that the arrangement would be perpetuated on Kili if the younger man eventually returned to Kwajalein.4

As a consequence of the land division, a major redistribution of power, influence, and privilege had occurred in the community. The heads of the former corporate lineages were alienated from their younger brothers or sisters’ sons who had been their im­mediate heirs and successors within the former system of in­heritance and succession, and the latter had become headmen in their own right with control over land on Kili.

The land division was to have other far-reaching consequences, but its immediate results were exactly what the administration had hoped for; each family corporation began to clear its land and produce copra, and the development project was launched on a positive course. By mid-1954, encouraging progress had been made (Riesenberg 1954). The manager of the Kili development project initiated an imaginative program wherein Bikinians manufactured handicrafts and other items for export. Profits from the export trade and copra were substantial. As capital was accu­mulated, the community’s small store was reorganized as a coop­erative. Part of the taro swamp was cleared, and the plantings of taro and other crops were increased. Some Bikinians were op­timistic for the first time and indicated a willingness to remain on Kili if all continued to go well.

In 1956, a second phase of the project was begun. Land was provided on nearby Jaluit to supplement Kill’s resources. The pro­ject had some success before typhoons precipitated a number of reversals in late 1957 and early 1958. Thereafter, the Bikinians were little better off than they had been during the early days of the settlement. The quantity of subsistence crops was somewhat greater than before, but this gain was offset by a continued in­crease in the population. Bikinians on Kili increased in number from approximately 180 islanders in 1948 to over 240 in 1958. A 100high birth rate remained unchecked during the next decade: by 1963–1964, the community had increased to over 280 people; by 1969, the Bikinians on Kili numbered 300.

During the 1960s, the pressure of the expanding population heightened the Bikinians’ concern over the small size of their Kili landholdings. Images of Bikini’s twenty-six islets were often evoked, and the islanders recalled the time when they had a number of land parcels and not just a single plot. The Bikini headmen were the most outspoken in their discontent with the small land parcels. Some claimed that they had not received an equitable share; others regretted ever having agreed to Juda’s scheme. The eight men who became headmen as a consequence of the Kili land division shared in the general discontent over the small land parcels, but they were pleased with their recently ac­quired status as headmen. As one of them expressed it: “Here I have kajur [‘power’]. At Bikini, only the old headmen had power, but now I have some land here and have power.”

After the land division, the Bikini headmen refused to accept the eight new headmen as their equals, and they did not recognize them as legitimate members of the council. The Kili headmen ar­gued, however, that authority over land and people had always been associated with the right of political representation. Despite the wishes of the Bikini headmen, a few of the more aggressive Kili headmen began to attend council meetings. By the mid-1960s, all of them were regularly participating in its deliberations.

In addition to the creation of a new alignment of power and in­fluence, the land division resulted in major alterations in the rela­tions among kinsmen with reference to rights to land. Rights had always been inherited and defined within the structural frame­work of the matrilineages or patricentered corporations. As the membership of the family corporations was determined largely by household composition at a particular point in time, and as house­holds included various combinations of consanguineal and affinal relatives, the former system of defining land rights no longer ap­plied. With the exception of the headman’s rights and privileges, the rights of individuals to the land of their family corporation were undifferentiated at the time of the land division. No thought had been given as to how rights would be inherited or how mem­bership in the family units would be determined in the future.

Membership in the family corporations could have continued to 101be defined by household membership if the units were altered every time changes in residence occurred because of marriage, divorce, or reasons of personal preference. Since the households were always in a state of flux, however, they would not have been efficient criteria for determining land rights over time (for further discussion of this point see Goodenough 1955:71).

The Bikinians have yet to devise a set of criteria for determining family membership or access to land rights over time. They are uncertain as to whether an individual who has married since the land division should become a member of his spouse’s unit or have rights to its land. There is no general agreement as to how children resulting from these recent marriages are to be incorporated in the landholding units. Most Bikinians, however, persist in notions derived from the former system of land tenure and believe that spouses should continue to have access to one another’s land and that children should have some right to the land of both parents.

In the absence of norms defining membership of family corpo­rations, each headman has assumed the prerogative of determin­ing members himself. This prerogative has provided the headmen with a new source of power, and they have used it to manipulate others and extend their spheres of influence. One headman extend­ed membership in his corporation to his daughter’s estranged hus­band on the condition that he return to his wife, reside with the headman’s household, and contribute to its labor force. In some instances, similar pressures have been exerted on recently ac­quired spouses of members of some family corporations as the headmen have attempted to bring new affinal relatives under their influence. The headmen differ, however, in their decisions about extending membership in their respective units, and there is no overall consistency among them. With each marriage since the land division, the husband and wife have retained membership in their original groups. In some instances these married couples and their children are being counted as members of both the husband’s and the wife’s units. In other instances, individuals married since 1954 are not considered members of each other’s family corpora­tion, but in some cases their children are being included as mem­bers of both.

Thus the family corporations are expanding in size and their membership has begun to overlap. Another factor has contributed to this growth and, to a lesser extent, to the overlap of units. Biki­nians 102 who had long been absent from the community were not in­cluded in the family units for the purpose of the land division. Subsequently, headmen have begun to list as members of their units absent kinsmen and the latter’s relatives on other atolls. While this practice has few immediate practical consequences, it does expand the number of people over whom headmen claim to have some influence.

It is not yet possible to ascertain what effect the overlap in membership of family corporations will have. Young islanders who belong to more than one are beginning to utilize their poten­tial land rights, and the Bikinians are much concerned that the overlapping of family membership may create considerable prob­lems. If some criteria for defining membership in the units are not developed, a large number of people could very well claim mem­bership in almost every unit within a few generations.

Initially, the Bikinians were uncertain as to how the rights of headmen were to be inherited within the framework of the family corporations. To them, the major issue was whether members of a headman’s family corporation were his only potential heirs or whether a headman’s matrilineal kin belonging to other units were to have any claim on his rights. Decisions have been made in es­tablishing a rule for the inheritance of headman rights and succes­sion to the headship of most units.

Six headmen have died since the land division. In four cases, the deceased headmen’s corporations included sons but no matrilineal kin; in each case, the headman’s eldest son has inherited his fa­ther’s rights and succeeded him as head of the family corporation. In the fifth case, the deceased headman’s corporation included his sons and his sisters’ sons. The latter were among those Bikinians who had been living elsewhere since Japanese times, and the head­man’s eldest son on Kili has succeeded. (The matter may well be disputed by the deceased headman’s maternal nephews in the fu­ture.) The particulars of the sixth case are exceedingly complex and cannot be described in limited space.5

Of the remaining thirteen family corporations, eight include none of the headmen’s matrilineal relatives and all include sons of the headmen. The members of these eight units have decided that “sons will follow their fathers on Kili”; that is, sons will inherit the rights of headmen from their fathers and succeed them as heads of the family corporations. 103

Several factors seem to account for the adoption of a patrilineal rule of succession and inheritance of headman rights by these eight corporations. The precedent for father/son succession and in­heritance had been well established at Bikini. Further, the com­position of these family units is incompatible with the matrilineal transfer of land rights: headmen’s lineage mates are not included as members of their family corporations. Lastly, the precedent es­tablished by the family corporations of deceased headmen un­doubtedly influenced the decisions made by these eight.

If sons succeed and inherit their fathers’ rights as headmen over a number of generations in the family units described above, each will probably evolve into a corporation which will have at its core an agnatically related set of kinsmen who will succeed to the head­ship of the unit and inherit headman rights. It is not yet possible to discern what constellation of kinsmen will eventually comprise the rest of the membership of each unit. If the Bikinians persist in their notion that children should have access to the land of both parents, it may be that children will inherit membership in the family units of both their parents, and those units thereby evolve into some variety of cognatic descent units with succession to fam­ily headships and the inheritance of headman rights being trans­mitted patrilineally. In any event, precedents, and eventually rules, for delineating membership in the family corporations will probably evolve over time as the members of each unit make deci­sions about who they will and will not include.

The remaining five family units have not made decisions about the future disposition of headman’s rights. Each includes the head­man’s siblings and a variety of other matrilineal relatives, and all but one also includes one or more of the headman’s sons. The de­signation of an heir presumptive in any of these five corporations would result in disputes or ill feelings between the headman’s sons and his lineage mates. For the sake of maintaining harmony, all are avoiding the issue.

Despite these profound changes in the structure of the com­munity’s landholding corporations, the traditional clan structure and land tenure system remain important, as became clear when Juda died in 1968. Juda’s demise has rekindled the earlier dispute over succession to the chieftainship. The former head of the third and junior ranking Ijjirik lineage died before Juda; his aggressive younger brother has succeeded as head of the lineage and has vig­orously 104 renewed his earlier claims that Juda was never the legitimate chief, that past injustices should now be corrected, and that he should succeed because he is of superior generational standing within the framework of the Ijjirik clan. He has also renewed his earlier contention that Bikini land once controlled by the Ijjirik chiefs should never have been alienated from chiefly hands and should be considered under his control. Predictably, the head of the second ranking lineage, who emerged as the head of the Jitoen village district on Kili and is of the same Ijjirik generation as Juda, rejects such claims. As Juda before him, he contends that the head of a senior ranking lineage is always superior in rank to males of junior lineages and that he is thereby Juda’s rightful successor.

The Bikinians have elected neither of the claimants as magis­trate, and the offices of magistrate and chief became separated when they elected another man to the former position. The new magistrate is the son of Juda’s elder brother and is a Bikini head­man in his own right. Neither contestant for the chieftainship has supported him; both have their own coterie of followers, and there is evidence that one of them is actively attempting to undermine the magistrate’s authority as head of the community.

The administration is either unaware or unconcerned about the dispute over succession to the chieftainship. The new magistrate, however, has the support of the Americans, and officials are deal­ing with the community through him as they formerly did through Juda. The magistrate is attempting to solidify his own authority by drawing on his status as a Bikini headman, the prestige of being the son of a male of chiefly status, and the support he can garner from administration officials. The community is divided into op­posing political camps, and the outcome of the contest over posi­tions of power and influence at the head of the community re­mains to be determined by the maneuverings of the factions.


Relocation ended the Bikinians’ isolation, and relationships with three categories of outsiders since 1946 have emerged as distinct: relations with the paramount chief, with the United States govern­ment, and with other Marshallese. The history of these relation­ships 105 is characterized by the Bikinians maneuvering to sever their relation with the paramount chief while attempting to make the Americans assume full responsibility for their welfare. Their ap­parent success in this venture has affected the Bikinians’ relations with other Marshallese.

In precontact times, most of the atolls in the Marshalls were partitioned among the realms of several paramount chiefs. Each was the head of a chiefly lineage; he, his lineage mates, and other kinsmen constituted the top stratum of a privileged social class (see Mason 1947). A paramount chief’s power depended on the amount of land and the number of kajur ‘commoners’ under his authority.

As a consequence of its isolation and small population, Bikini was of little interest to the paramount chiefs and remained outside their domains until post-European times. About 1870, a certain Kabua came into power and began to extend his domain in the Ralik chain by conquest. Shortly thereafter, he sent a subordinate to Bikini with a force of men, and the Bikinians were persuaded to acknowledge his sovereignty over them. Thereafter, they were ex­pected to render tribute; Kabua was expected to reciprocate, and it was his obligation to protect them and provide aid in times of disaster.

The German administration recognized the paramount chiefs as the legal owners of the atolls within their respective domains. Subsequently, and with the one exception noted below, the Japa­nese and the American governments have respected the arrange­ment. The rights and obligations of the paramount chiefs were defined by the Germans and Japanese. They were guaranteed a percentage of the copra from their lands and were required to pay taxes levied on their subjects. Under the Japanese, the chiefs were also responsible for medical expenses incurred by their subjects. Toward the end of the Japanese era, the contingent of soldiers who established a weather station at Bikini informed the islanders that the rights of the paramount chief had been preempted by the Japa­nese emperor and the atoll was now his possession; this claim was later to gain some significance. The United States, while recogniz­ing the paramount chiefs as the legitimate owners of their do­mains, has pursued a laissez-faire policy pertaining to their rela­tions with their subjects. The chiefs have not been held responsible 106for taxes, and the rights and obligations between chiefs and com­moners have been considered a matter of custom and left to the islanders.

Historically, Bikini was never very important to Kabua and his successors. They had their residences at Ailinglablab and other atolls to the south; Bikini’s distance from the south, the paucity of its resources, and its small population made it of negligible value, and the chiefs seldom visited the atoll. With its selection for Oper­ation Crossroads, however, it became of increased importance and concern.

The initial relocation of the Bikinians undermined the para­mount chief’s authority over them, and soon after relocation it be­came apparent that they were to seize the opportunity to alter completely their relations with him and the Americans. After the paramount chief consented to their relocation, he urged that they be settled on either one of two other atolls within his realm. Both were inhabited and both were rejected by the Bikinians in favor of Rongerik. It fell within the domain of another paramount chief; his permission to resettle the Bikinians there was secured by the Americans, and no further consideration was given to the future relationship between the Bikinians and the two chiefs.

The Bikinians’ harrowing experience at Rongerik provided them with the grounds for questioning their relations with their paramount chief. They recalled that it was his responsibility to aid them in time of need, yet they had received no assistance from him. Some Bikinians believed that the Americans, particularly the navy, should become their paramount chief because it had as­sumed the chief’s traditional obligation of providing aid in times of disaster.

Despite the fears of some Bikinians that the paramount chief might respond to such a measure with sorcery, others were con­vinced by the Americans’ display of power and wealth of the ad­vantages of permanent alliance with them. The position of those who wanted the United States to become a surrogate for the chief was strengthened by their experience at Kwajalein. The social milieu in which they found themselves at Kwajalein provided even more impressive evidence of the American’s power and additional ideological grounds for challenging their tie with the chief. Some of the Marshallese laborers, for example, questioned the entire traditional social system which divided people into privileged and 107subservient classes. Such questioning of the paramount chief’s status was strengthened by naval officers who encouraged the Bikinians to develop their council as a democratic institution. The islanders heard much about the concepts of democracy and the rights of individuals, and some Americans reportedly ridiculed the idea of hereditary chiefs. Within this context, the paramount chief damaged his own interests by behaving in a high-handed manner and demanding that Bikinians serve as domestics in his household (Mason 1954:494). They resented his demands and learned from the laborers that few paramount chiefs dared to behave in the autocratic manner of former times. They were advised to cast their lot with the Americans and resolved to do so.

The Bikinians implemented their resolution both ideologically and strategically. They developed their rationale for severing ties with the chief by claiming that he had not conquered their atoll by combat, he had not fulfilled his chiefly responsibility for them before or after relocation, and his chieftainship had been ter­minated when Bikini was claimed for the Japanese emperor dur­ing World War IL The Bikinians’ selection of Kili for resettlement, which was public land and outside any chief’s domain, left the United States as the only agency with clear authority over and responsibility for them.

The negative attitude toward Kili and lack of progress in clear­ing the land in 1950 was in large part a consequence of the Biki­nians’ desire to become dependent on the United States and return to Bikini. They reiterated that their understanding had always been that if Bikini was not destroyed by the bomb tests, then their relocation was to be only temporary. After their experience with the Americans, they knew that the United States could easily pro­vide for them. They claimed: “The Navy told us we could live anywhere … even on a sand island. The Navy would take care of us, we were told, until we went back to Bikini” (Drucker 1950:11).

The Bikinians also had come to believe that they had suffered a great injustice and that the United States was morally obligated to them. They concluded that it would not only be advantageous but also morally proper that the Americans provide for them. Their desire to be provided for contributed to their unwillingness to ad­just to Kili; their lack of effort contributed to their discomfort; and their discomfort reinforced their negative attitude toward Kili and their desire to receive aid from the United States. In their dealings 108with Americans, the Bikinians elaborated on the undesirable fea­tures of Kill and extolled the virtues of Bikini; the atoll came to be remembered as “an oceanic land of milk and honey” where want and discomfort were unknown (Drucker 1950). Because of the confinement imposed by the heavy surf during winter months, Kili came to be referred to as a ‘calaboose’, and children were taught to repeat Kili enana ‘Kili, it is bad’ for the benefit of all visitors.

Bikinians’ fears and their dissatisfaction with Kili were exacer­bated in 1951 as civilian personnel replaced naval administrators in the transference of the Trust Territory from the Navy Depart­ment to the Department of the Interior. They were opposed to the new administrators’ attempts to persuade them to develop Kili. Their refusal to divide the land was one strategy for managing their relations with the Americans, especially while their relation­ship to the paramount chief remained unresolved. The chief was trying to persuade the administration to give him title to Kili as compensation for his loss of Bikini. When an agreement to this effect was drawn up, the Bikinians unanimously rejected it, coun­tering with repeated requests for formal severance of their rela­tionship with the chief (Mason 1954:494). Moreover, when the community did divide the land, the fact was concealed for as long as possible lest the administration conclude that the people were committed to permanent residence on Kili (Tobin 1954).

The eclipse of the paramount chief’s authority in the communi­ty corresponded to an increase in Juda’s authority and influence. Although he was unprepared for his leadership role in the relocat­ed community at the outset, his experience as community spokes­man on Rongerik, Kwajalein, and Kili and his representation of the community in the Marshall Islands Congress beginning in 1950 resulted in his personal maturation and esteem from the community. As his initial indecision gave way to skill and self-confidence, his influence in the community and his influence with American administrators grew and reinforced one another. Evi­dence of his influence is seen in his successful negotiation of the land division and the overwhelming majority of votes he received in every election held on Kili. He also played a crucial role in the administration’s development project when it was implemented in 1954. He lent his support to the program, coordinated the efforts of the project manager with the council, and encouraged people to make a go of it on Kili. The project’s initial success and the op­timism 109 it generated among some Bikinians were in large part a consequence of Juda’s influence. Juda continued his support for the project when it entered its second phase in 1956 and Japanese prewar landholdings on nearby Jaluit Atoll were made available to the Bikinians. The administration planned that colonists from Kili could develop the Jaluit lands and enlarge the community’s resource base. A sheltered anchorage was available at Jaluit, and a 50-foot vessel was provided so the Bikinians could make the short run to Kili during calms in the winter seas. The Bikinians were en­thusiastic about the vessel, but they did not view the prospect of living next to the people of Jaluit with favor and did not want to divide their community to form a colony. Further, they feared that the Jaluit people would view it as an encroachment upon their territory.

The people’s attitude changed when an agreement over Bikini, Kili, and the Jaluit lands was concluded. After much negotiation, the Bikinians granted the United States indefinite use rights of Bikini in exchange for monetary compensation and full and legal use rights to Kili and the Jaluit lands. Compensation amounted to an initial $25,000 payment and a $300,000 trust fund yielding semiannual interest payments of about $5,000. The paramount chief was not included in the settlement, and the Bikinians inter­preted this as American confirmation of their goal to terminate the chief’s claim on their allegiance and land. In their view, a major objective had been achieved; their strategy of dealing with the chief and the United States had been successful. The administra­tion attempted to conclude a separate agreement with the chief, but he refused and has never wavered in his claim that he has been unjustly deprived of his land and subjects.

The Bikinians viewed the financial settlement as payment for their Bikini land, and it was determined that every individual who held land rights at Bikini was entitled to share in its distribution by the council. Every Bikinian on Kili received an equal sum, and those who were resident elsewhere were allotted smaller shares. Bikinians who had left Bikini before the community’s relocation were counted among the absentees along with their non-Bikini spouses and children. A similar pattern of distribution was devised for the interest payments (Kiste 1968:335–343; Mason 1958).

Since the financial settlement was viewed as compensation for their loss of Bikini land, it was further determined that Bikini 110headmen were entitled to a larger share of the money than others because they had always received a disproportionately large share of copra receipts gained from the land. Accordingly, every Biki­nian gave a small portion of his share of both the lump-sum pay­ment and each interest payment to the head of the corporate lineage to which he had belonged at Bikini. Children born after relocation were counted as members of their mother’s lineage, just as they would have been at Bikini, and paid a share of their money to the lineage head. In addition, siblings who had also held land with their own father separate from the lineage land paid their father because he had been the authority over their patricentered corporation. In short, every Bikinian paid a portion of the money he received in the settlement to the heads of the landholding cor­porations to which he had belonged at Bikini.

The distribution of the financial settlement and the payment of special shares to Bikini headmen were based on the system of in­heritance and succession which had prevailed at Bikini, not on the new land tenure scheme and the patterns of inheritance and suc­cession that were emerging on Kili. The Bikinians were clearly working with two systems of land rights—the family system de­vised on Kili and the traditional one at Bikini. The financial settle­ment had come to represent Bikini land; its distribution, including the payments to Bikini headmen, symbolized those networks of so­cial relations and groups which had been delineated by the tradi­tional system (see chapter 6).

The agreement with the United States also had a positive effect on the Bikinians’ morale and attitude. The council selected col­onists for the Jaluit lands who were rotated between Kili and Jaluit. Colonists varied in number from twenty to twenty-five at any one time. Development of the Jaluit lands began under the supervision of the project manager. Bikini men manned their vessel under the direction of an experienced Marshallese captain hired by the administration. The vessel sailed between the Jaluit colony and Kili, and occasional voyages were made to Majuro and other atolls. The overall progress of the entire project caused op­timism among all observers, and it appeared that the Bikinians might adjust to their new environment.

The optimism ended with the typhoons of late 1957 and early 1958. Both the colony and the vessel were destroyed. Trees were 111severely damaged on Kili, the cooperative suffered heavy losses, seawater washed into the taro swamp, and most other agricultural development was undone. What gains had been made in increas­ing the quantity of subsistence crops were offset by the ever-ex­panding population.

The project was abandoned by the administration as its efforts were diverted to atolls which had suffered even greater devasta­tion from the storms. Relief foods were given the Bikinians im­mediately after the disaster, but supplies still ran short or could not be gotten ashore because of rough seas. In mid-1958, the Biki­nians were placed on a relief food program, and when cargo could be landed, they were provided with substantial quantities of rice and flour at three-month intervals over the next year and a half. The resources of their once flourishing cooperative were largely depleted, however, and it began to fail.

By 1961, most of Kill’s trees had recovered, but no substantial effort had been made to reestablish other crops. The Bikinians had clearly come to prefer food subsidies over expending their energies on agricultural endeavors; from their experiences, they were quite certain that the Americans could provide for their every want if they could only be persuaded to do so.

Efforts at creating a dependency relationship upon the United States were renewed. Dwellings on Kili were in very bad repair by the early 1960s. Islanders had repaired their homes with thatch, but they made repeated requests to be supplied with more durable imported building materials. The administration encouraged them to make their own purchases with their interest payments. The Bikinians countered that the money was compensation for their loss of Bikini and it was unfair to ask them to spend it on the necessities of life on Kili. They argued that it was the responsibili­ty of the United States to provide housing on Kili because it was responsible for their relocation.

The administration once again considered moving the Bikinians from Kili, and the possibility was discussed with them more than once. On one occasion, Juda quite eloquently stated the political stance the Bikinians had evolved over the years. He made it clear that they wished to remain free of the paramount chief and in their opinion the United States was morally obligated to assume responsibility for their welfare:6 112

I would like to give you some history of Kili Island. We were moved here by the government 10 years ago. It was not the place we wanted to go to but the government decided that we should live here. In all these years we have tried to live here but there are many things that have come up which make it very difficult for us to make a living here. Today is a good example of what has happened in the past 10 years; it is too rough to work copra, so we are unable to sell our copra and buy food. It doesn’t matter how long a ship waits off of Kili, if it is rough it is rough and we cannot get our copra to the ship or bring in food. Our group of people here is getting larger every year and is in­creasing every year. It is difficult to take care of these people and the island is too small for them to live on. In a little while there will not be enough copra on the island to feed all the people.

The relocation of the Kili people is up to the Government. We would like to return to Bikini which is our home but realize that we cannot do this as the Atomic Energy Commission is using it for ex­ploding of bombs. We also know that Bikini plays a big part in world affairs and we realize this importance. The government moved us and not our paramount chief. If the paramount chief had moved us then it would be up to him to find another place for us. We want to move to government land and will not move to lands owned by the paramount chief.

Bikini is larger than Kili and we had plenty of land and a big lagoon. The government moved us; therefore, it is up to the govern­ment to find us a new place which is larger than Kili and better for the people.

Now the government knows our condition, it is therefore up to the government to find us a place.

No adequate site was found, and within the year the Bikinians were told that they would remain on Kili.

The 1960s brought no relief from the discomforts the islanders have always known on Kili. The unchecked birth rate only exacer­bated matters. Even before relocation, few individuals would journey to Kwajalein to spend short periods as wage laborers, but as the Bikinians grew more discouraged with their lot on Kili, peo­ple were motivated to leave the island in increasing numbers to find employment at Kwajalein. Some remained but a few months; others spent much more time at the military base. Some traveled to Majuro to complain, and their frequent appearances at the district offices became known as the “usual Kili recreation.”

Those working on Kwajalein, which had become an elaborate 113missile research installation, observed not only American technol­ogy but also an affluent American life-style. Bikinians saw the Americans’ stores, buildings, gadgetry, swimming pools, golf courses, and, for those working as domestics, their home life. These experiences profoundly reinforced Bikinians’ thinking and political strategy. The range of imported goods and the Bikinians’ taste for them was broadened. Their belief that the Americans could easily provide for them was strengthened. This served to deepen discontent over their situation on Kili and to enhance their belief that they had been done a great injustice. These beliefs were intensified by developments related to their interest payments, which they used mainly to buy trade goods. First, as their popula­tion increased, individual shares of the interest payments de­creased. Second, the people of Kwajalein received $750,000 for a lease on land occupied by the military. A sum of $950,000 was paid to the people of Rongelab as compensation for damages to health and discomfort caused by radioactive fallout from one of the Bikini tests. The Bikinians compared these cash settlements with their own and became further convinced of the injustice of their own treatment by the government. Their position—that the United States was responsible for their situation and its remedies—was made concrete in continued demands for additional finan­cial compensation and their removal from Kili.

By 1968, the Bikinians’ strategies appeared to have borne fruit. In response to continued pressure, the administration had Bikini evaluated for possible human habitation by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In August 1968, the president of the United States announced that with the exception of a few small islets, most of Bikini Atoll was judged safe for human occupation and Bikinians would be returned (U.S. Department of State 1968:304).

The Bikinians once again received the attention of the world news media, and reporters traveled to Kili and Bikini to gather materials that appeared in magazines and newspapers around the globe.7 In 1969, a rehabilitation program for Bikini was begun at an eventual cost of over $3 million. Scrub vegetation which had overgrown Bikini’s islets, and massive amounts of debris from nu­clear tests, were cleared by the AEC and military agencies. A par­ty of about thirty Bikini men was employed to begin replanting the atoll under the supervision of American agriculturists. After its initial cleanup phase, the project was turned over to the Trust Ter­ritory. 114 The main body of the community remained on Kili, how­ever, because the newly planted palms would require eight or more years to mature. As an interim measure to alleviate the is­landers’ discomfort, funds amounting to about $100,000 were provided for new housing materials on Kili.

The Bikinians responded to their apparent successes by pressing claims for further concessions. They rejected the administration’s assumption that they would provide the labor for the housing pro­ject on Kili. The Bikinians demanded to be paid for their labor, and the administration agreed. In December 1969, the community petitioned the high commissioner of the Trust Territory, albeit un­successfully, for compensation for damages to Bikini and for dis­comforts suffered in the amount of $ 100 million. During the sum­mer of 1970, Bikinians contacted a law firm on Guam to explore the advantages of legal counsel. At the same time, Bikinians work­ing on Bikini went on strike, claiming inadequate working condi­tions and an inadequate job of clearing debris by the AEC. The strike was settled, but the details are not available. Meanwhile, having failed to establish a working relationship with the Guam law firm, Bikinians obtained the assistance of the Micronesian Legal Services Corporation, an agency funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity, in order to press their claims for compen­sation and to expedite work on Bikini.

Predictably, once it appeared that the Bikinians would be re­turning home, the paramount chief tried to reassert his authority over them. He gathered supporters among Bikinians living on other atolls. These were almost entirely people (and their descen­dants) who had been absent from the community since before its initial relocation, and many were the offspring of Bikinians who had gone to serve in the paramount chief’s residence at Ailing­lablab decades ago. As Bikinians on Kili remained adamant vis-à-vis the chief, further confrontations appeared inevitable.

The Bikinians also began to reevaluate Kili. Some talked of re­maining on Kili to exploit the coconut groves; others, especially young people, were questioning the desirability of life on a remote atoll. The entire community, however, believed that they should retain Kili and the Jaluit lands as well as having Bikini returned to them.

The Bikinians’ experiences since relocation have resulted in substantial changes in their relations with other Marshallese. 115Their negative self-image as backward, unsophisticated people before relocation was reinforced by their early contacts on Kwa­jalein and Jaluit and by their desire to maintain the integrity and isolation of their community. This influenced their selection of both Rongerik and Kili as relocation sites; as both were uninhab­ited, they eliminated the necessity of extensive interaction with other Marshallese, among whom the Bikinians were stigmatized and made to feel uncomfortable. An example of the stigmatization of Bikinians was an incident on Kwajalein when two Marshallese laborers involved with Bikini women were advised by their fellows not to marry such backward people. By the late 1960s, however, Bikinians’ own self-image had changed, as had the regard in which they came to be held by other Marshallese.

The change in the Bikinians’ relations with other Marshallese is due in large part to the opportunities for acquiring experience on other islands during their relocations and resettlement on Kili. As early as the 1950s, and in addition to the few Bikinians who trav­eled to Kwajalein to work as laborers, some went to Majuro for medical treatment and meetings of the Marshall Islands Congress and the Association of Marshallese Churches. Bikinians who worked as colonists on Jaluit in the late 1950s had frequent con­tact with the islanders of that atoll. By the 1960s, the increased flow of Bikinians to Kwajalein gave them even more experience with others, and many Bikinians became less hesitant to leave Kili to find work, attend meetings, and seek medical care and school­ing. Since a few Bikini families had established residences on Ma­juro and Kwajalein, migrants had the security of kin and friends with whom to stay or gather.

The Bikinians’ success in dealing with the paramount chief and the Americans has also been important in the change in their rela­tions with other Marshallese. Establishing their independence from the paramount chief has won them the admiration of other islanders. The success of the Bikinians’ dealings with the Ameri­can administration has vastly increased their own self-confidence and sophistication and has also earned them the respect of other Marshallese. Thus the present ease with which Bikinians interact with other Marshallese is in part an outcome of their relations with the paramount chief and the administration.

Indicative of the changing quality of Bikinians’ relations with other Marshallese is the increasing frequency of intermarriage be­tween 116 them. Before relocation, nine of the Bikinians living on other atolls had non-Bikini spouses. By the mid-1960s, this num­ber had risen to twenty-four. The number of in-married spouses on Kili had increased over pre-relocation times, but only slightly, since Kili was no more attractive to other Marshallese than it was to Bikinians. Furthermore, non-Bikini spouses came from a larger number of atolls than in former times.

Another indication of the Bikinians’ changing relations with others is the nature of recent immigration to Kili. Given the pros­pect of a return to Bikini, the possibility of retaining Kili and the Jaluit lands, and the Bikinians’ present reputation, Bikini clans­men from other atolls have begun to join the community on Kili. The island’s population increased from three hundred to four hun­dred between 1969 and 1972 as long-lost kinsmen, their non-Bikini spouses, and their children and grandchildren “returned” to the community. Because of the potential advantages involved, islanders who had formerly defined themselves as members of other atoll communities are now calling themselves Bikinians.


As the foregoing analysis reveals, the modifications of the social organization of the Bikini community and its altered relations with the Americans and the paramount chief may be attributed to competition over the distribution of power, influence, privilege, and control of valued resources. The motivations to gain ad­vantage in the pursuit of these goals were traditionally focused on land and were not new with relocation. Rather, they are an in­tegral facet of Marshallese culture and society and account for certain events of the past: intracommunity conflicts at Bikini and interatoll warfare in the Marshalls.

For the Bikinians, relocation was just another set of circum­stances, albeit unique and extraordinary, that could be employed in the pursuit of traditional ends. In reference to the internal orga­nization of the community, the necessity of reestablishing resi­dences and allocating land on a new island provided certain males with a new opportunity. Those who occupied positions of advan­tage within the traditional structure of the community or were able to advance their ambitions by other means were now able to challenge the traditional authority structure and precipitate an 117allocation of land which restructured the entire community. The adoption of a patrilineal rule for determining the inheritance of the land rights of headmen and succession to the status of head of the majority of the family corporations on Kili represents the transformation of what was formerly an alternative to matriliny into a prevailing norm. This transformation may largely be at­tributed to the incompatibility of matrilineal principles with the bilateral structure of the family corporations. Moreover, adoption of the patrilineal rule was undoubtedly facilitated by the pre­cedent set by the high incidence of father to son inheritance and succession before relocation. In any event, patrilineal inheritance and succession for headmen and the headmen’s assumption of the prerogative to determine the membership of their family corpora­tions represent a conscious rejection of the matrilineal principles upon which the traditional organization of the community was largely based.

The status of magistrate as head of the community and the re­cognition and support that Americans have given the occupants of that office have created a new form of political authority that is employed in the competition over power and influence. Both Juda and his successor have used the office to strengthen their own posi­tion in the community. The office has become established as a po­litical prize. It and the status of traditional chief have become separated, and it seems certain that the office of magistrate will emerge as the more powerful and thus more sought after position in the community.

While the organization of the community on Kili differs from that of Bikini, the traditional lineage organization and its authori­ty structure remain a viable part of the Bikinians’ culture and is given tangible expression twice annually with the distribution of the income realized from the trust fund. As a consequence, the Bikinians have two conflicting models for determining relations among kinsmen and the organization of their community. While there is some conflict of interest between the Bikini and Kili headmen, islanders compartmentalize and relegate each of the models to separate spheres of reality; the new social order deter­mines affairs on Kili, and the traditional one pertains to Bikini.

With regard to relations with figures of power outside their community, the Bikinians realized from the outset of their reloca­tions that their subordinate status to the paramount chief offered 118few. if any, advantages. They recognized that they could only achieve their objectives—returning to Bikini and gratifying the wants they had acquired since relocation—by having the Ameri­cans assume responsibility for their welfare. This required sever­ing relations with the paramount chief and manipulating the Americans into becoming his surrogate. In essence, relations be­tween the Bikinians and the Americans have consisted of a long series of negotiations, and the Bikinians have used continual com­plaints of irreparable discomfort, neglect, and injustice and a reinterpretation of their own history as tactics to justify their ac­tions and desires. These complaints have established the remedies they insist Americans must provide. Their history has been re­worked to justify their rejection of the paramount chief. Portions of their revised history as well as certain undeniable facts regard­ing their relocations have served to place the moral responsibility for their plight firmly upon the shoulders of the Americans. By de­termining the locus of responsibility for their situation, the Biki­nians’ total history has become a political ideology that defines both themselves as victims and their current relations with their former chief and the colonial power in a single interpretive frame­work. The very formulation of this framework, and the fact that it has been at least partially accepted by the administration, reflects the increased sophistication of the Bikinians in their dealings with Americans. Their recent actions—the firm stances taken vis-à-vis the administration, the workers’ strike at Bikini, the acquisition of legal counsel—attest that they have shed their reputation as a backward people. And the changes in their relations with other Marshallese over the past quarter century are further evidence of their growing self-confidence and sophistication in dealing with the world outside their own community.


As this volume goes to press, another tragic episode in the history of the Bikinians is beginning to unfold. It now appears that the radiological survey conducted at Bikini in the late 1960s, which resulted in the American decision to rehabilitate the atoll for its former inhabitants, was far from adequate. In August 1975, a bul­letin issued by the Energy Research and Development Administra­tion (an agency succeeding the AEC) reported that a recent survey 119of Bikini has determined that radiation levels on some islets, in­cluding the largest one scheduled for resettlement, are much higher than previously indicated. A population residing on those islets for any length of time would be exposed to radiation levels higher than U.S. federal standards permit (Micronesian Indepen­dent 1975a). The advisability of resettling the atoll is now very much in doubt, and its actual condition is far from certain. In Oc­tober 1975, the Bikinians, through their legal counsels, filed a complaint in the Federal District Court in Honolulu requesting a thorough radiological investigation of Bikini and medical exami­nations for all those who have worked on the atoll over the last several years (Micronesian Independent 1975b).


The field research on which this chapter is based was conducted on Kili Island in 1963 and 1964 and again in 1969. The initial research was supported by the Pro­ject for the Comparative Study of Change and Stability in Displaced Com­munities in the Pacific, directed by Homer G. Barnett. I also gratefully ac­knowledge the support of the Office for International Projects, University of Minnesota, for field research conducted in 1969.

1. Only 161 islanders were actually resident at Bikini and were moved to Rongerik in 1946; 9 others were temporarily absent from the community for reasons of employment, hospitalization, or education.

2. For the sake of brevity, the Ijjirik, Makaoliej, and Rinamu descent units are referred to as clans in this chapter. Elsewhere, and more appropriately, I have called them subclans because each was only part of a larger clan in the Marshalls (Kiste 1974:37–38).

3. Four of the Kili headmen were the only younger brothers of the heads of three of the five Bikini corporate lineages, and two were the only maternal nephews of a fourth lineage head who was without younger brothers. The only brother of the head of the fifth Bikini corporate lineage had long been absent from the community and was not present to represent his own in­terests.

4. The elder of the two males was proved correct. Not long after the Kili land division, the younger man returned to Kwajalein and left the Kili land his family unit had been allotted in the care of his elder kinsman. The latter had in effect gained control of two land parcels on Kili.

5. The details of the new landholding system and the separate family corpora­tions are presented at some length in Kiste (1974:155–173).

6. Juda’s statement was reported in a memorandum to the district administra­tor, Marshalls, from the assistant district administrator, Marshalls, dated 16 April 1961 (MacKenzie 1961). As he spoke in 1961, Juda was incorrect in assuming that nuclear tests were still being conducted at Bikini. The last tests 120occurred there in 1958. Further, at the time of Juda’s speech the Bikinians had resided on Kili for almost thirteen years and not ten.

7. See N. Wollaston’s “Return to Bikini,” Saturday Evening Post, 16 November 1968; Carl Mydans’ “Return to Bikini,” Life, 18 October 1968; “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” Newsweek, 26 August 1968; and “Home to Bikini,” Time, 23 August 1968.

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