The following is adapted from the book Surviving Paradise and gives a little background of Marshallese social structure.
Past generations on Marshallese atolls lived in an environment where storms, famine or war could devastate life on small islands. Islanders could not escape these threats and their society evolved to survive in a confined space. Survival could be summed up as “get along, fill your role, do your part and don’t rock the boat”. Conflict had to be avoided at all costs, because conflict disrupted the activities necessary for survival. Individualism had to be checked because this could interfere with daily duty. Harmony had to be maintained because there was nowhere else to go. (pg. 207)
As a result of the above living situation, the Marshallese have developed a unique social structure that makes it easy for everyone to know whom they are responsible and coexist. This social structure is broken into 3 separate groups or classes: the Irooj, the Alap and the Rijerbal (or Kajoor). We will start with the Alap.
ALAP (spelled Alab in old orthography)
The social structure in the Marshall Islands is based on membership in a bwij, a system of extended families or small clans. All members of the bwij work together for the common good, sharing food, housing, property and resources. The leader of a bwij is the alap, who acts as a manager. The alap duties include overseeing maintenance of the lands, supervision of daily activities and looking after the well-being of members of the bwij. The alap also communicates problems to the irooj and collects gifts from the families for the irooj as tribute and thanksgiving.
The alap is usually the eldest male of the senior line of a family. In theory, alap succession goes to the next oldest sibling, but in practice often a younger brother assumes duties and responsibilities from an older sister who by virtue of seniority is the alap. The male assumes the trusteeship position unless the woman is very strong or there are no male relatives to take over for them. He becomes alap ‘de facto’ but she remains alap ‘de jure’. The sister will get the alaps share of produce from land. The alap position will be passed down to the oldest sister’s child (matrilineal inheritance) and not the brother’s children.
IROOJ (spelled Iroij in old orthography)
Several bwij and alap will form part of a larger group, led by an Irooj (pronounced yirẹwẹj), or chief. Traditionally, it was the chief’s responsibility to resolve disputes among his / her people, have ultimate control of such things as land tenure, use and distribution of resources. Customarily, after keeping about 1/3 of the best produce and gifts collected as a tribute, the irooj would distribute 1/3 to the alaps and 1/3 to the remaining Marshallese who lived on and worked the land. An irooj also functioned to redistribute resources to families in need. For example, if one family had more problems obtaining resources such as coconuts or fish, the resources from other families who were doing better were allocated to this family. When more effort was put into copra than cultivating food, the money from copra sales was used to purchase goods and the tribute was seen as more of a gift than an obligation.
An Irooj can be male or female. Title is passed to oldest child regardless of gender. A female irooj is called a lerooj and will often designate her oldest son to carry out duties but she will still retain the rights.
There is one level above Irooj called Iroojlaplap (Irojilaplap in old orthography), aka paramount chief, and this person is senior head of the irooj bwij. In some cases there was more than one iroojlaplap. An iroojlaplap holds the greatest and final power and has overall responsibility to maintain peace and harmony among the people. The iroojlaplap often has control over entire atoll and even several atolls on occasion.
At present, there are 12 Iroojlaplap for the Marshall Islands that sit on Council of Irooj. This body acts as advisor to the Nitijela regarding bills that affect customary law, traditional practice, land tenure or something similar.
The remainder of Marshallese are in the class rijerbal (aka dri jerbal) or common people. This class was originally called Kajoor when the Marshallese society was primarily one of subsistence. Kajoor (pronounced kajęwęr) literally means “the strength of the irooj”. However, after the establishment of the copra industry in late 1800s when trade and a money economy was introduced into the Marshallese society the term kajoor was replaced by rijerbal. Rijerbal means “those that work”. The rijerbal are responsible for the daily work involved in subsistence and other duties as directed by the alap and makes up the vast majority of the Marshallese population.
Although not one of the above specified social classes, as in many other cultures, elders are shown great respect. If you are old that means you have survived a long time and in a relatively unchanging environment that means you know better than anyone else how to survive. Elders are the first to be fed at gatherings and enjoy other privileges and shows of respect.
Today, the irooj system that developed gradually over time, continues to adapt to the 21st century. The system is changing as the Marshallese society becomes increasingly westernized and moves from a subsistence to a money based economy. With the advent of US aid and lease payments, a few irooj have obtained great wealth and this has resulted in occasional disputes. However, the Marshallese social structure provides a system where each person knows to whom they are responsible and helps redistribute resources to those in need and allows Marshallese to coexist in a relatively confined environment.
- Etto n̄an Raan Kein: A Marshall Islands History. by Julianne M. Walsh, Ph.D.; in collaboration with Hilda C. Heine, Ed.D.; with the assistance of Carmen Milne Bigler, Mark Stege. 2012. 526 pp.
- Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island. by Peter Rudiak-Gould. 2009.