Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Culture Name

The original inhabitants and dominant ethnic group of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (all the Marianas except Guam) in western Micronesia refer to themselves as Chamorros (tsa-'mor-os ). The term chamorri was used to designate the upper caste at the time of Magellan's arrival in 1521. The Spaniards heard this as chamurres and understood it to mean "friend." By 1668, the term had shifted to chamorro ("bold"), because Chamorro men often wore a topknot of hair on an otherwise shaved scalp.

Alternative Names

A more general designation of the people of the Northern Marianas is Mariana Islanders, but residents frequently use the acronym CNMI.


Identification. Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands for Spain in 1521 and first named them Las Islas de las Velas Latinas ("The Islands of the Lateen Sails") after the triangular sails on the native canoes. Later, angered by the islanders' penchant for stealing from his ships, he renamed the archipelago Las Islas de los Ladrones ("The Islands of the Thieves"). In 1668, the name was changed to Las Marianas in honor of Mariana of Austria, widow of Philip IV of Spain.

Location and Geography. The CNMI is in western Micronesia, about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines. The fourteen islands stretch like beads on a five hundred-mile string, from Farallon de Pajaros in the north to Rota in the south. The climate is tropical. Temperature varies only slightly between a DecemberJune dry season and a JulyNovember rainy season. Typhoons are a threat from August through November.

The Marianas are high islands, largely limestone terraced in the south and volcanic in the north. The 176 square-mile (458 square kilometers) land area (21 percent of it arable) is concentrated in the three southern islands of Rota, Tinian, and Saipan. Only three other islands (Agrigan, Pagan, and Anatahan) are larger than ten square miles (26 square kilometers) in area. Culturally integrated but politically separate, the United States Territory of Guam lies thirty miles farther south at the bottom of the chain. Garapan is the capital of the CNMI, located on Saipan, the site of the commonwealth's only urbanized population.

Demography. The population grew from 16,780 in 1980 to an estimated 66,000 in 1998. Most of this nearly 400 percent growth was in the form of labor pools from Asia migrating in response to unprecedented economic growth. The 1995 breakdown of the population by ethnicity was Filipino, 19,868 (33.75 percent); Chamorro, 17,120 (29.1 percent); Chinese, 6,837 (11.6 percent); Micronesian, 4,818 (8.2 percent); Carolinian, 3,041 (5.2 percent); Korean, 2,325 (3.95 percent); white, 2,013 (3.4 percent); Japanese, 1,047 (1.8 percent); and all others, 1,777 (3.0 percent).

Linguistic Affiliation. The official languages are English, Chamorro, and Carolinian, an Eastern Malayo-Polynesian language that is a combination of dialects from atolls in the area of Truk. Chamorro is closely related to Tagalog (Pilipino). After more than four hundred years of Western (Spanish, German, and English) and Asian (Japanese) colonial domination, Chamorro is untouched in its grammar, although major portions of the vocabulary have been transformed into variants of Spanish and English. The Chamorros and Carolinians are largely multilingual, speaking their native tongues, English, and Japanese. Carolinian is spoken mostly in the home and the immediate neighborhood, while Chamorro is used widely in communities throughout the islands. Guamanians consider the Chamorro of the CNMI, especially on Rota, a picturesque, almost sing-song dialect of their self-proclaimed standard language. Chamorros of the Northern Marianas generally are proud of their distinctive way of speaking.

Symbolism. The Catholic Church and its calendar dominate Chamorro symbolic rituals. Every community has a saint's day, and the major seasonal holidays are occasions for family and community feasting. The most important identifying symbol, displayed on the flag, is the Latte stone. These carved limestone columns in their most modest form are four- to five-foot-tall supports designed to provide a raised foundation for living and ceremonial structures. Parallel double rows of eight to twelve much taller Latte pillars topped by separate capstones are all that is left of what must have been huge structures throughout the archipelago. Much about the Latte stones remains unknown. Whatever their actual significance to those who hewed them from the islands' limestone deposits, these stones have emerged as one of the most visible links to the Chamorros' past.

History and Ethnic Relations

The cultural history of the CNMI can be divided into a precontact period and successive periods of Spanish, German, Japanese, and American political hegemony.

Emergence of the Nation. The early history of the Marianas is little known, but they appear to have been first settled 3,500 years ago by people who sailed northward and eastward from southeastern Asia via the Philippines. The archaeological record and the little that can be gleaned from early Spanish accounts suggest that Chamorro society had developed a two-tiered system of stratification roughly based on differences of wealth stemming from richer coastal holdings as opposed to a more subsistence-level economy of inland horticulture. This was especially apparent on the larger southern islands (especially Guam), as attested by the size and distribution of Latte structures and patterns of human burial there.

Villages were small and scattered, and there is little evidence of major ceremonial centers. Kinship and descent may have been organized around matrilineal clans, a common pattern in Micronesia. However, both patrilineal and cognatic (bilateral) systems are widespread in southeastern Asia, and the Chamorros did not move further into the Pacific. The rapid replacement of Chamorro with Spanish naming practices after contact is of little note since the cultural history of the islands after 1521 was one of initial population decimation followed by massive Hispanic acculturation.

Magellan sighted the islands and claimed them for Spain in March 1521, when he made his landfall at Guam. The estimated Chamorro population at that time was nearly seventy-five thousand. By the time of the first official census in 1710, that number had plummeted to about 3,500. The disease, forced labor, and harsh treatment introduced by the Spaniards took a toll. The resulting collapse of Chamorro society and culture left a vacuum that was filled by the Catholic Church and other Hispanic institutions. Chamorro culture today, with the exception of the language structure, is largely the product of 350 years of forced inclusion in and adaptation to the Spanish Empire.

Spain sold the islands to Germany in 1899, and at that time Guam became a possession of the United States. The Germans had little impact on Chamorro culture, though they did introduce new forms of education, bureaucracy, and governance. In 1919, after Germany's defeat in World War I, Japan administered the Mariana Islands (except for Guam) and most of the rest of Micronesia under a mandate from League of Nations.

Throughout the Japanese period, the Chamorros remained isolated from their masters. Intensive agricultural development in copra and then sugarcane was carried out largely by thousands of Japanese nationals. Education and other trappings of modernization enhanced some aspects of Chamorro life, and some Chamorros look back on that period as a golden age of economic prosperity and stability. However, other than an acquired taste for imported rice, little that was Japanese remained after the battles on Saipan and Guam in 1944.

In July 1947, the area was recognized as a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States, beginning a period of American acculturation and modernization. The traditional Hispanic nature of Chamorro culture was infused with Yankee economic and political energy. Tourism and the reopened markets on Guam encouraged the people of the Northern Marianas to look beyond their island borders. The stage was set for confrontation with the wider world.

National Identity. In 1978, after years of debates and plebiscites, the Northern Marianas entered into a commonwealth association with the United States. Though still under foreign control, the new Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands reintroduced in modern form a measure of autonomy missing from Chamorro culture for over four hundred years.

Ethnic Relations. Except for colonizers, for most of their history the Chamorro lived in ethnic isolation. The arrival of refugees from the Caroline Islands in the late nineteenth century did little to change that situation. Only since the creation of the CNMI and its attendant economic opportunities have Chamorros had to deal with large immigrant populations from Asian countries. The exposure of recent cases of labor exploitation may result in an improvement of social and economic relations in the growing multiethnic populations, especially in the urbanizing areas of Saipan.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The urban pattern in the CNMI (essentially only on Saipan) is one of small towns growing rapidly in response to new economic opportunity in the form of tourism and light manufacturing. Areas with a denser population are characterized by a low, rectangular architecture, the product of simple plans and construction blocks. While some resort areas and golf courses take advantage of the tropical landscape and sweeping shorelines, street life tends to be defined by the glow of neon lights.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Rice dominates the diet, which is now built on a base of vegetables and marine resources. Most food purchased at local markets is imported from Japan, Australia, and the United States. Three meals a day, eaten at home, are the norm. Even those working in towns are usually close enough to go home for lunch, as do farmers.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Food at religious and secular ceremonies is characterized primarily by being eaten communally. Families bring prepared food and additional food and drink for preparation on site. While the dishes and settings are generally more elaborate, the meals do not differ markedly from those for everyday consumption.

Basic Economy. While a viable subsistence economy of farming and fishing remains fundamental, the people of the CNMI look increasingly to employment in tourism and government.

Land Tenure and Property. Many families, especially among the Chamorros, own or homestead small farm parcels. In general, only native residents of the CNMI can own property. Leasing land to outside commercial interests is a major source of income for many citizens.

Commercial Activities and Major Industries. Tourism is by far the largest sector of the economy, followed by government activities and light industry, especially garment manufacturing.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Economic differentiation is emerging along with the commercial economy in general. However, there are no large class differentials with the exception of the migrant labor populations, which live in poor economic conditions relative to the native residents. The subsistence economy is stable and substantial. Increases in wealth and population size are beginning to take a toll, but the CNMI, though not egalitarian, is relatively homogeneous both socially and economically.

Political Life

Government. The CNMI is a commonwealth that has a political union with the United States. It is self-governing with a locally elected governor, lieutenant governor, and bicameral legislature.

Leadership and Political Officials. The CNMI has a two-party system modeled after that of the United States. With a relatively small population concentrated on a few of the larger islands, politics are very personal and family-centered. Nearly everyone are related to the political leaders, and family loyalty is fierce. Fistfights and shouting matches occur at some political rallies.

Social Problems and Control. Until recently, crime was not a major problem, and it is still not common outside the urbanizing towns. Informal sanctions of disapproval and ostracism remain effective controls in most areas of social life. Rising population densities on the three largest islands have been accompanied by increased rates of juvenile delinquency, drug trafficking, and immigrant labor abuses. Nevertheless, there are few displays of public violence, and violent crime remains rare.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Chamorro culture is deeply Hispanicized with over-tones of American individualism. Men play dominant roles outside the household, where women tend to hold sway.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Chamorro culture is heavily influenced by its commitment to Catholicism. Marriage is largely a matter of personal romantic love and is monogamous. Few adults remain unmarried, and large families are favored.

Domestic Unit. Newly married couples may remain with the bride's family until children are born, at which time an independent nuclear household is established neolocally. Larger extended family households develop occasionally, but the goal is for the married couple and children to live independently.

Inheritance. As islanders, Chamorros must deal with restricted land allocation to heirs. This problem has been ameliorated by the lessening need for land as a result of the growing cash economy in the towns. A form of primogeniture is practiced in which an oldest brother acts as a kind of corporate head of a sibling group that works its farming parcels collectively until other opportunities draw siblings away to other ventures. Distinctions among subsistence parcels, pastureland, government-issued homesteads, and residential lots provide additional options for distribution decisions, which typically are made public and implemented at a formal family meeting.

Kin Groups. Kinship is cognatic and bilateral. There are no corporate kin groups beyond the household and family, but extended kindreds permeate the society and shape social relationships to a large degree. Rarely does one travel to another island and not stay with relatives. The Catholic system of godparenthood further ramifies kinship networks by creating ritually defined fictive kinship relationships between children and the friends and colleagues of their parents.


Infant Care. Infant care is diffused throughout the household and the community, with siblings and neighbors forming an open network of caregivers. Young children are rarely left alone; they are nearly always in the companyand usually in the armsof someone from the family or neighborhood.

Child Rearing and Education. Chamorros place a high value on formal education. Obedience to authority and a capacity for independent living go hand in hand. School age in the Marianas is from six to sixteen (first through twelfth grades). Schools operate on the American model. There are Head Start programs and preschool opportunities for the child under six years old.

Higher Education. The Northern Marianas College on Saipan is a two-year school that offers degrees in education, liberal arts, and business. Students who wish continue their education attend the University of Guam or the University of Hawaii. Young people who leave the CNMI to complete their higher education often do not return.


Chamorros are on intimate terms with one another. They are used to being close together and often do not have to speak to communicate. When one encounters an older Chamorro, one need not say much, but one is expected to at least nod with a bow or to kiss the elder's hand briefly as a sign of respect. Casual "hellos" in the neighborhoods often consist of no more than a raising of the eyebrows in recognition. Especially at public social events, an arm around a male or female friend is a sign of casual good feeling.


Since the coming of the Spanish, Chamorro culture has been Catholic and Hispanic, and the Chamorro world continues to revolve around the Church calendar. The most distinctive buildings, events, customs, and ideas are Catholic, from the many community churches and chapels, to the saints' days' feasts, to the week-long wakes in the homes of the dead.

Medicine and Health Care

Generally the CNMI is a healthy place to live. There are no poisonous snakes or insects and no malaria. The leading cause of death is heart disease. Automobile accidents are the fifth leading cause of death. The infectious diseases usually associated with a tropical climate are not present. Influenza has been the leading cause of illness, followed by gastroenteritis. There are health centers with dental facilities on Rota and Tinian. Medicaid and other federal health programs are available.

Secular Celebrations

Commonwealth Day is celebrated on 8 January, and holidays celebrated by other groups, such as the Fourth of July, are gala occasions for everyone.


Cordy, Ross. "Social Stratification in the Mariana Islands." Oceania 53: 3, 272276, 1983.

Gale, Roger William. The Americanization of Micronesia: A Study of the Consolidation of U.S. Rule in the Pacific, 1979.

Rogers, Robert F. Destiny's Landfall: A History of Guam, 1995.

Spoehr, Alexander. Saipan: The Ethnology of a Wardevastated Island, 1954.

Thompson, Laura. Guam and Its People, 1947.

Web Sites

Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Northern Mariana Islands. []

Economic Service Council. The CNMI Guide. []

J. Jerome Smith

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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

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