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Northern Mariana Islands

Introduction:

The Northern Mariana Islands, officially the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, is an insular area and commonwealth of the United States consisting of 14 islands in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.  The CNMI includes the 14 northernmost islands in the Mariana Archipelago except the southernmost island of the chain, Guam, which is a separate U.S. territory.  The CNMI and Guam are the westernmost point (in terms of jurisdiction) and territory of the United States.

Northern Mariana Islands on the Globe
Northern Mariana Islands on the Globe

The United States Department of the Interior cites a landmass of 183.5 square miles.  According to the 2010 United States Census, 53,883 people were living in the CNMI at that time.  The vast majority of the population resides on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.  The other islands of the Northern Marianas are sparsely inhabited; the most notable among these is Pågan, which for various reasons over the centuries has experienced major population flux, but formerly had residents numbering in the thousands.

The administrative center is Capitol Hill, a village in northwestern Saipan.  However, most publications consider Saipan to be the capital because the island is governed as a single municipality.

History:

Pre-History:

The first people of the Mariana Islands emigrated at some point between 4000 BC and 2000 BC from Southeast Asia.  After first contact with Spaniards, they eventually became known as the Chamorros, a Spanish word similar to Chamori, the name of the indigenous caste system’s higher division.

Chamorro People
Chamorro People

The ancient people of the Marianas raised colonnades of megalithic capped pillars called latte stones upon which they built their homes.  The Spanish reported that by the time of their arrival, the largest of these were already in ruins, and that the Chamorros believed the ancestors who had erected the pillars lived in an era when people possessed supernatural abilities.

Archeologists in 2013 posited that the first people to settle in the Marianas may have made what was at that point the longest uninterrupted ocean-crossing voyage in human history, and that archeological evidence indicates that Tinian might have been the first Pacific island outside of Asia to be settled.

Spanish Possession:

The first European explorer of the area, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, arrived in 1521.  He landed on Guam, the southernmost island of the Marianas, and claimed the archipelago for Spain.  The Spanish ships were met offshore by the native Chamorros, who delivered refreshments and then helped themselves to a small boat belonging to Magellan’s fleet.  This led to a cultural clash: in Chamorro tradition, little property was private and taking something one needed, such as a boat for fishing, did not count as stealing.  The Spanish did not understand this custom, and fought the Chamorros until the boat was recovered.  Three days after he had been welcomed on his arrival, Magellan fled the archipelago.  Spain regarded the islands as annexed and later made them part of the Spanish East Indies (1565).

Colonial Tower from Spanish Times
Colonial Tower from Spanish Times

In 1734, the Spanish built a royal palace in Guam for the governor of the islands.  Its remains are visible even in the 21st century as Plaza de España located in Hagåtña, Guam.

Plaza de España
Plaza de España

In 1668, Father Diego Luis de San Vitores renamed the islands Las Marianas in honor of his patroness the Spanish regent Mariana of Austria (1634–1696), widow of Felipe IV (reigned 1621–1655).

Most of the islands’ native population (90–95%) died from Spanish diseases or married non-Chamorro settlers under Spanish rule.  New settlers, primarily from the Philippines and the Caroline Islands, were brought to repopulate the islands.  The Chamorro population gradually recovered, and Chamorro, Filipino, and Refaluwasch languages and other ethnic differences remain in the Marianas.

During the 17th century, Spanish colonists forcibly moved the Chamorros to Guam, to encourage assimilation and conversion to Roman Catholicism.  By the time they were allowed to return to the Northern Marianas, many Carolinians from present-day eastern Yap State and western Chuuk State had settled in the Marianas.  Both languages, as well as English, are now official in the commonwealth.

Carolinian Immigration:

The Northern Marianas experienced an influx of immigration from the Carolines during the 19th century.  Both this Carolinian subethnicity and Carolinians in the Carolines archipelago refer to themselves as the Refaluwasch.  The indigenous Chamoro word for the same group of people is gu’palao.  They are usually referred to simply as “Carolinians”, though unlike the other two monikers, this can also mean those who actually live in the Carolines and who may have no affiliation with the Marianas.

Caroline Islands Map
Caroline Islands Map

The conquering Spanish did not focus attempts at cultural suppression against Carolinian immigrants, whose immigration they allowed during a period when the indigenous Chamoro majority was being subjugated with land alienation, forced relocations and internment.  Carolinians in the Marianas continue to be fluent in the Carolinian language, and have maintained many of the cultural distinctions and traditions of their ethnicity’s land of ancestral origin.

German Possession and Japanese LON Mandate:

Following its loss during the Spanish–American War of 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and sold the remainder of the Marianas (i.e., the Northern Marianas), along with the Caroline Islands, to Germany under the German–Spanish Treaty of 1899.  Germany administered the islands as part of its colony of German New Guinea and did little in terms of development.

Saipan Under Japan
Saipan Under Japan

Early in World War I, Japan declared war on Germany and invaded the Northern Marianas.  In 1919, the League of Nations awarded all of Germany’s islands in the Pacific Ocean located north of the Equator, including the Northern Marianas, under mandate to Japan.  Under this arrangement, the Japanese thus administered the Northern Marianas as part of the South Pacific Mandate.  During the Japanese period, sugar cane became the main industry of the islands.  Garapan on Saipan was developed as a regional capital, and numerous Japanese (including ethnic Koreans, Okinawan, and Taiwanese) migrated to the islands.  In the December 1939 census, the total population of the South Pacific Mandate was 129,104, of whom 77,257 were Japanese (including ethnic Taiwanese and Koreans).  On Saipan the pre-war population comprised 29,348 Japanese settlers and 3,926 Chamorro and Caroline Islanders; Tinian had 15,700 Japanese settlers (including 2,700 ethnic Koreans and 22 ethnic Chamorro).

World War II:

On December 8, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces from the Marianas launched an invasion of Guam.  Chamorros from the Northern Marianas, which had been under Japanese rule for more than 20 years, were brought to Guam to assist the Japanese administration.  This, combined with the harsh treatment of Guamanian Chamorros during the 31-month occupation, created a rift that would become the main reason Guamanians rejected the reunification referendum approved by the Northern Marianas in the 1960s.

World War II on Saipan
World War II on Saipan

On June 15, 1944, near the end of World War II, the United States military invaded the Mariana Islands, starting the Battle of Saipan, which ended on July 9.  Of the 30,000 Japanese troops defending Saipan, fewer than 1,000 remained alive at the battle’s end.  Many Japanese civilians were also killed, by disease, starvation, enemy fire, and suicide.  Approximately 1,000 civilians committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs at Mt. Marpi or Marpi Point.  U.S. forces then recaptured Guam on July 21, and invaded Tinian on July 24; a year later Tinian was the takeoff point for the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  Rota was left untouched (and isolated) until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, owing to its military insignificance.

The war did not end for everyone with the signing of the armistice.  The last group of Japanese holdouts surrendered on Saipan on December 1, 1945.

Japanese nationals were eventually repatriated to the Japanese home islands.

United States Possession (UN Trusteeship):

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Northern Marianas were administered by the United States pursuant to Security Council Resolution 21 as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which gave responsibility for defense and foreign affairs to the United States.  Four referenda offering integration with Guam or changes to the islands’ status were held in 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1969.  On each occasion, a majority voted in favor of integration with Guam, but this did not happen: Guam rejected integration in a 1969 referendum.  The people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence, but instead to forge closer links with the United States.  Negotiations for commonwealth status began in 1972 and a covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the United States was approved in a 1975 referendum.  A new government and constitution came into effect in 1978 after being approved in a 1977 referendum.  The United Nations approved this arrangement pursuant to Security Council Resolution 683.  The commonwealth does not have voting representation in the United States Congress, but, since 2009, has been represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate who may participate in debate but may not vote on the floor.  The commonwealth has no representation in the U.S. Senate.

Geography:

The Northern Mariana Islands, together with Guam to the south, compose the Mariana Islands archipelago.  The southern islands are limestone, with level terraces and fringing coral reefs.  The northern islands are volcanic, with active volcanoes on several islands, including Anatahan, Pagan, and Agrihan.  The volcano on Agrihan has the highest elevation at 3,166 feet.

Map of the Northern Mariana Islands
Map of the Northern Mariana Islands

Anatahan Volcano is a small volcanic island 80 miles north of Saipan.  It is about 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.  Anatahan began erupting from its east crater on May 10, 2003.  It has since alternated between eruptive and calm periods.  On April 6, 2005, an estimated 50,000,000 cubic feet of ash and rock were ejected, causing a large, black cloud to drift south over Saipan and Tinian.

Saipan
Saipan

Saipan, Tinian, and Rota have the only ports and harbors, and are the only permanently populated islands.

Economy:

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands benefits from its trading relationship with the federal government of the United States and cheap trained labor from Asia.  Historically, the CNMI’s economy has relied on tourism, mostly from Japan, and on the garment manufacturing sector.  The economy has declined since quotas were lifted in 2005, eventually leading all the garment factories on Saipan to close by February 2009.  Tourism also declined after 2005 when Japan Airlines stopped serving the Marianas.

The Northern Mariana Islands had successfully used its position as a free trade area with the U.S., while at the same time not being subject to the same labor laws.  For example, the $3.05 per hour minimum wage in the commonwealth, which lasted from 1997 to 2007, was lower than in the U.S. and some other worker protections are weaker, leading to lower production costs.  That allowed garments to be labeled “Made in USA” without having to comply with all U.S. labor laws.  However, the U.S. minimum wage law signed by President Bush on May 25, 2007, resulted in stepped increases in the Northern Marianas’ minimum wage, which will allow it to reach the U.S. level by 2015.  The first step (to $3.55) became effective July 25, 2007, and a yearly increase of $0.50 will take effect every May thereafter until the CNMI minimum wage equals the nationwide minimum wage.  However, a law signed by President Obama in December 2009 delayed the yearly increase from May to September.  As of September 30, 2014, the minimum wage is $6.05 per hour.

Saipan Garment Factory
Saipan Garment Factory

The island’s exemption from U.S. labor laws had led to many alleged exploitation including recent claims of sweatshops, child labor, child prostitution, and even forced abortions.

An immigration system mostly outside of federal U.S. control (which ended on November 28, 2009) resulted in a large number of Chinese migrant workers (about 15,000 during the peak years) employed in the islands’ garment trade.  However, the lifting of World Trade Organization restrictions on Chinese imports to the U.S. in 2005 had put the commonwealth-based trade under severe pressure, leading to a number of recent factory closures.  Adding to the U.S.-imposed scheduled wage increases, the garment industry became extinct by 2009.

Agricultural production, primarily of tapioca, cattle, coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons exists but is relatively unimportant in the economy.

Non-native islanders are not allowed to own land, but can lease it.

Transportation:

The islands have over 220 miles of highways and three airports with paved runways.  These airports are:

Saipan Island      Saipan International Airport

Rota Island          Rota International Airport

Tinian Island       Tinian International Airport

The main commercial airport is Saipan International Airport.

Saipan International Airport
Saipan International Airport

Flag of the Northern Mariana Islands:

The flag of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was adopted in July 1985, by the Second Northern Marianas Constitution.  The NMI flag was originally designed by Taga during the year 1985.  Later during that year, they finalized the draft of the flag in the last CNMI constitutional convention.  This was the most symbolic moment of the annexation of the CNMI.

Current Flag of the Northern Mariana Islands
Current Flag of the Northern Mariana Islands

The flag consists of three symbols: a star representing the United States, a latte stone representing the Chamorros, and a mwarmwar (decorative wreath) representing the Carolinians; the blue background represents the ocean and the Mariana Trench.

Several other flags have flown over the islands during different administrations:

During Spanish East Indies
During Spanish East Indies
German New Guinea
German New Guinea
United Nations 1947-1965
United Nations 1947-1965
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands 1965-1972
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands 1965-1972
Unofficial Flag 1976-1981
Unofficial Flag 1976-1981
1981-1989 Flag
1981-1989 Flag

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