Northern Mariana Islands — History and Culture
The Northern Mariana Islands remain relatively small in both size and population, but these are nonetheless Micronesia’s fastest growing islands. Fully half of the people on these islands are resident aliens from Asian nations like South Korea, China, and the Philippines. These multicultural islands also contain several Spanish and American influences in addition to their original Chamorro and Carolinian cultures.
The first known Northern Mariana Islands residents arrived from the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Malay Peninsula around 2,000 BC. These Chamorro people, as they came to be known, built their homes and other significant structures on giant pillars of latte stones. Tinian’s House of Taga (San Jose, Tinian) and Rota’s As Nieves Latte Stone Quarry (Sinapalo, Rota) are the two most impressive surviving structures from this era.
In 1521, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan became the first European to land on the Northern Mariana Islands. After the islands became Spanish territory, the Chamorro farmers, hunters, and fishers pillaged items from Magellan’s ships. This caused Magellan to first name these territories ‘the islands of the thieves.’ The islands were renamed the Marianas after Spanish king Philip IV’s widow, Maria Anna, in 1668.
New migrants from Micronesian islands migrated to the Northern Mariana Islands after most of the original Chamorro population perished during Spanish rule. These residents were called Carolinians because a large number of them came from the Caroline Islands during the 1800s. In 1899, the islands became German territories, then fell under Japanese control during WWI.
Throughout WWI and well into WWII, the islands served mainly as Japanese military garrisons until United States Marines landed on Saipan in 1944 and launched the Battle of Saipan. This bitterly fought three-week battle ended with the Americans defeating the Japanese. The American Memorial Park (P. O. Box 5198-CHRB, Garapan) is the most obvious reminder of this tumultuous time in Northern Mariana Islands history.
The islands have been United States territories since the end of the Battle of Saipan, but chose not to seek complete independence during the 1970s. Instead, the Northern Mariana Islands, like Puerto Rico, are now a Commonwealth of the United States. Although native islanders are United States citizens by birth, they cannot vote in presidential elections and don’t pay federal taxes.
Today, the Northern Marianas Islands tourism industry forms a quarter of the gross domestic product and employs roughly half of the workforce. The growing numbers of Asian tourists and migrants who come to the islands have contributed greatly to both the islands’ culture and rapidly increasing population.
From the Chamorros who have lived here since 2,000BC to the far more recent migrant workers from across Asia, each of the ethnic groups who have conquered and lived on the Northern Marianas Islands has made its own contribution to this unique culture. The biggest influences from the islands’ centuries of Spanish occupation are the Roman Catholic religion 90 percent of residents practice, the Spanish-style churches scattered throughout the islands, and Spanish-influenced cha-cha dancing.
American evidence is most evident in Saipan’s strong United States military presence and myriad restaurant and retail chains. Traditional dancing accompanies the wide variety of music played and performed here, which ranges from Asian pop hits to a Hawaiian take on reggae called Jawaiian.