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“It’s in Our DNA”

Springdale, AR is known as home to Tyson Foods. It's also home to over 15,000 Marshallese still grappling with US nuclear testing.

Words: Calvin Ryerse
Pictures: Top: Akshay Paatil

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  • The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a speck of a country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Population 60,000. But it has an outsized legacy as the place where the US military exploded dozens of nuclear weapons in the 40s and 50s, and brushed over the danger to local populations. For decades the[...]

When I was a senior in high school, I made a, beginner, documentary about the changing demographics of my hometown, Springdale, Arkansas. Despite the film’s technical flaws, I learned the story of the Marshallese community that had come to call Springdale — a previous sundown town now home to the most diverse population in Northwest Arkansas — home. What’s more, I conducted an interview with a newly formed band, MARK Harmony, that proved to be the best part of that film. MARK Harmony is “not just a boy band, [but] a Marshallese boy band,” Matthew John told me two years later, in another interview I conducted. He’s the M in the acronym M.A.R.K. and one of the band’s four singer-songwriters. When I talked to them in mid-2019, they were performing at high school pep rallies and attracting attention from the local news. Now, the group has nearly 5,000 followers on Instagram and 45,000 likes on TikTok. John continued, “All of us are Marshallese. And we all have that same goal in mind as a team, to raise awareness about what happened to our homeland in 1946.”

Chief Juda understood very little English, but recognized the word “mankind” because it is in the Bible. He replied, “If it is in the name of God, I am willing to let my people go.”

Matthew John is referring to the 67 American nuclear tests that occurred from 1946 to 1958 in the waters near Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll, the northernmost of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands is a band of remote Pacific atolls which, despite a robust Indigenous community, has been a flashpoint for colonialism and primitive capitalist accumulation beginning with Spanish colonization in the 1500s.

The islands were originally settled by Southeast Asian migratory people somewhere between two and four thousand years ago. These people were expert navigators, voyagers, and fisherfolk. The islands gained their name, The Marshall Islands, in 1788 when, under William Marshall, the British arrived with Christian missionaries. While the Spanish largely were uninterested in trade, they still claimed the islands as their own for nearly two centuries before selling the islands to Germany in 1885. During World War I, the Imperial Japanese government captured the islands, and in 1920 were given permission to administer them by the League of Nations. When the United States eventually assumed control of much of Micronesia after World War II, the islands were chosen by the US military for nuclear weapons testing because of their “extreme remoteness.”

Members of the Marshallese boy band MARK Harmony speak with Calvin Ryerse about the US legacy of nuclear testing. A legacy many Marshallese find hard to escape — even in Arkansas.

The military no longer wanted to test their nuclear weapons on the US mainland following the fallout of the Trinity Test in New Mexico in 1945. The Marshall Islands presented the perfect alternative: Sparsely populated, distant, and under US jurisdiction. Darlene Keju-Johnson, a Marshallese nonproliferation activist, recounts the moment:  “[I]n 1946 a US Navy officer came to Bikini Island and told Chief Juda, ‘We are testing these bombs for the good of mankind, and to end all wars.’” Chief Juda understood very little English, but recognized the word ‘mankind’ because it is in the Bible. He replied, “If it is in the name of God, I am willing to let my people go.” Bikini Atoll saw its people go in 1946. According to some estimates, they won’t be able to return for another 29,925-some years.

With Chief Juda’s “permission,” the US military proceeded to test 67 nuclear bombs over the course of 12 years. These tests’ explosive yield was equivalent to dropping 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day during that time. By March 1, 1954, in the early morning hours, the US government tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date. Castle Bravo, as the bomb was called, was expected to carry a yield of 1 to 2 megatons. However, due to a design error, the bomb exploded with a yield of 15 megatons. This was 1000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“We kids were playing in the powder, having fun, but later everyone was sick and we couldn’t do anything.”

Lijon Eknilang

Dexter Johnny, a medical student (and a high school friend) who lived in the islands from 2019 to 2021, told me in an interview, “To this day you can still find accounts of our elders and how they were on nearby atolls and it was almost like there was a second sun […] present that day.” On the nearby atoll of Rongelap, Lijon Eknilang recounted that a white powder began to fall on the islands. She and the others thought it was snow, as described by westerners. “We kids were playing in the powder, having fun, but later everyone was sick and we couldn’t do anything.” The ‘snow’ was actually radioactive fallout that fell for hours. Every aspect of the ecosystem was contaminated: The water, the food, and the people themselves. Despite this devastation, it took the United States two days to provide medical resources, non-contaminated food supplies, and transportation away from Rongelap for the island people, including many children, suffering severe radiation poisoning.

The atomic cloud during the "Baker" nuclear test at the Bikini atoll.

The medical issues did not end there. In the immediate aftermath and in subsequent years, cancers, hair loss, blisters, birth defects, and so-called jellyfish babies, children born without bones, became commonplace for the islanders living on the nearby atolls Ailinginae, Rongelap, Rongerik, and Bikini. Moreover, the US federal government examined those exposed to radiation in a non-consensual classified scientific study called Project 4.1, delivered in October 1954. Dexter Johnny told me that the testing is “not just our nuclear legacy, our own dark history, but it’s in our DNA. This nuclear testing will forever be a part of our legacy and has affected us in every single way possible. Both directly and indirectly.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) became sovereign from the United States in 1979, and in 1983 signed the Compact of Free Association. This agreement allowed Marshallese citizens to move freely between the two countries, without visas, and to work and live in the United States. This agreement also prevented the Marshallese people from taking legal action against the United States for their testing of nuclear weapons, and allowed the United States to continue operations of a missile testing site on Kwajalein Atoll. The agreement began a mass migration of Marshallese people to the mainland United States and Hawaii. Many settled on the west coast in urban centers, but by the early 2000s, many also began to settle in the midwest (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas). Springdale, Arkansas, the home of Tyson Food Headquarters, is also home to over 12,000 Marshallese residents. Now, 30% of Tyson’s workforce in Springdale is Marshallese. Even more, Springdale now has the second-highest concentration of Marshallese residents in the world, second only to the Marshall Islands themselves.

Screen Shot 2022-01-16 at 9.12.30 PM

The band members from MARK Harmony speak highly of Springdale, feeling grateful that it has given them a place to grow and develop community, but they long to return to their homeland.  “So, for me, [returning to the island is] going to be honestly emotional. Cause, I know I’ve never been there, but I still feel the love for the island,” member A’rsi told me. It’s in these tensions between the Islands and Arkansas, identity and displacement, community-building, and community destruction that the band resides. However, the horrors of the past don’t define MARK Harmony’s work now.

Despite labor protests and community outcry, Tyson Foods’ employees accounted for nearly one-third of all Arkansas’ COVID-19 cases from May 2020 to April 2021.

After centuries of colonization and displacement, MARK Harmony is on the front lines of the battle to sustain the Marshallese culture, even if they are 6,000 miles away from the sunny atolls.  While they are invested in teaching this history, their primary goal is to empower more Marshallese and Micronesian youth to chase their dreams, overcome their fears, and spread love from the displaced Marshallese people throughout the world. “[We want] to show who we are as people. Our story, what we’re doing, and how we’re going to doing it. And to just spread love. To show that we can be very determined at times. We’re very passive as people, but we can really put our foot down because we’re not all passive. We’re very different. That’s just the message we’re trying to send out,” Matt emphasized.

Beyond the trillions of dollars that poured into their development and testing, and beyond the initial shock of that great orange mushroom cloud, nuclear bombs have fundamentally severed the Marshallese people from their land, culture, and way of life. It’s a legacy many Marshallese find hard to escape. Even in Arkansas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Marshallese community in Springdale particularly hard. Despite labor protests and community outcry, Tyson Foods’ employees accounted for nearly one-third of all Arkansas’ COVID-19 cases from May 2020 to April 2021. In the summer of 2020, a special CDC action group was sent to Springdale to explain the disproportionate amount of cases and deaths attributed to Latin-X and Marshallese poultry workers. The CDC study concluded that the Marshallese community was at particularly high risk of dying from COVID-19, due to an overrepresentation of chronic illnesses and a lack of access to health care.

Marshallese people in 1915.
Bikini Islanders depart from Bikini Atoll in March 1948.
Bikini beach.
Beach showing wreckage from Operation Crossroads, on Bikini or Enyu Island, 1947.
An American woman teaching a Marshallese English class.
runit dome marshall islands
In 1977-1980 the crater created by the Cactus shot of Operation Hardtack I was used as a burial pit to inter 84,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil scraped from the various contaminated Enewetak Atoll islands. The Runit Dome was built to cover the material.

For the guys in MARK Harmony and other Marshallese nuclear activists, learning the history and supporting their community is only the first step toward righting the historical wrongs that still plague their community today. There is a desperate need for policies that create a robust social safety net for the Marshallese who live in the United States. In 1996, a welfare reform bill repealed access to public benefits including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Services Block Grants (SSBG), education assistance, and other programs for those living in the United States under the Compact of Free Association. Despite bipartisan support in the House to repeal the reform, this legislation has stalled. However, despite these efforts, justice for the Marshallese requires more than money thrown into programs and Congressional policy hearings. Our culture believes that these weapons make us safe, that global peace arrives the more enormous explosives we have pointed at our “enemies.” This belief justifies exorbitant military spending and violent imperialism.

The Marshallese, under US control, have seen their entire way of life altered: Severed from their homeland, perhaps indefinitely, and their very biology viewed as something to be tinkered with and tested. For the United States to truly reckon with the devastation we have caused the Marshallese, (among the Japanese and those in Trinity, New Mexico) we need to question that deep assumption about nuclear weapons that resides in our own country’s DNA. Maybe, the only way to make the world a more peaceful place, is to lay down these weapons of mass destruction, for good.

Calvin Ryerse

Calvin Ryerse (he/they) is a filmmaker, political community organizer, and student based out of New York City. When they're not reading, writing, researching, or going on national bus tours to oppose the previous occupant of the White House, you can find them in the woods, romping around in a creek, and listening to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.

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