The Alap (owner/elder) and Rijerbal (commoner) acquire land ownership initially through faithful service to the iroij, primarily in times of war. Both are often referred to as the iroij’s power (kajoor). After conquering a group of islands, the iroij would call all his warriors together and and designate certain land parcels (wato) to various family clans (bwij) among the group of faithful warriors. These different clans would then choose a leader (alap) who would approach the iroij on their behalf.
Little has changed today as alaps continue to have exclusive authority over the land to which he holds the alap title. A rijerbal today continues to hold the right to work and live off certain pieces of land – a right he/she inherited maternally.
At a distance, the Marshallese social structure might seem autocratic. There actually is a system of checks and balances. For instance, while the iroij holds supreme power over the land, major decisions effecting the use of land require the consent of the alap and senior rijerbal as well. A land lease for example, is not legally binding anywhere in the Marshall Islands without the signatures of all three title holders - iroij, alap and senior rijerbal.
When talking of land, Marshallese distinguish titles from rights – although both are passed through the mother. For example, suppose a leroij (female chief) has two children (a boy and a girl) when she dies. Assuming that the leroij has no brothers or sisters, her title and all of her land rights pass to her two children. However, as the eldest, the brother inherits the title of iroij for the land, but both the brother and the sister inherit the rights of the iroij/leroij to the land. As the titled iroij, the brother has the right to make decisions on behalf of everyone else who may also hold iroij/leroij rights on that land – in this case, his sister. When the sister dies, her leroij rights pass to her children, but the iroij title for the land remains with her brother as he is the eldest surviving member of the family. When the brother dies, considering
that he was the sole survivor of that generation, the title of iroij goes to his sister’s eldest child.
Historically, the iroij had supreme power over the land or group of islands. They gained this power initially by waging war and conquering the original iroij of neighboring islands. Today, being the titled iroij means that you are treated with utmost respect. There are customary taboos regarding what you cannot do in the presence of an iroij. For example, after a iroij has been seated in a public gathering, most Marshallese would avoid walking close to where the iroij is seated. If they must, they would stoop (like Japanese do) as they pass by the seated iroij. Marshallese will also avoid walking close to the house of the iroij. Additionally, people living in the islands where one holds the iroij title will provide the best food and shelter every time the iroij visits them. In return, the iroij looks after the well-being of his people. In
most instances, he will be the mediator whenever land squabbles arise (which can be quite common).
(This is a very, very important thing among the Marshallese, and it is rather involved, so I will split this tip into 2 or maybe 3 sections.)
Few things are more precious to Marshallese than land. That’s not a hard concept to understand since the land mass of the 29 atolls and five islands that are the Republic of the Marshall Islands total only about 70 square miles – roughly the size of Washington D.C.
Land in the Marshalls is divided into land parcels called watos. Watos may extend across an island from lagoon side to ocean side, or they may be located entirely in the interior of the island. These land parcels are demarked by natural boundaries, which are passed from generation to generation. However, in urban areas such as Ebeye, or islands that sustained heavy bombing damage in World War II, conflict over a wato’s boundaries frequently arise.
Through the centuries, Marshallese devised a complex set of rules for the ownership and use of land.
There are three primary classes of land ownership as determined by the three social classes in the Marshalls: iroij (chief); alap (owner or elder); and (c) rijerbal (worker or commoner). Every Marshallese family belongs to one of these classes and therefore has land ownership and/or use rights somewhere in the Marshalls. Additionally, families may be an iroij or alap for one or more islands and a rijerbal on other islands. It is therefore safe to say that every child born with a Marshallese mother or a Marshallese father has land rights somewhere in the Marshall Islands.
There are primarily three different classifications that will reveal a Marshallese individual’s identity to other Marshallese. These are the person’s home island, his family name and his clan. An informal identification process usually happens in this sequence: at first, an inquiry through a third party is made about the individual’s home island. Then, the inquirer might ask for name of the individual’s parents.
Once this information has been provided, the inquirer should be able to tell which clan the individual belongs to. Every Marshallese born of a Marshallese mother belongs to one of the fifty or so family clans. Each individual clan can be traced back to one single woman who is referred to as the mother of that clan. The exact number of total clans throughout the Marshall Islands isn't known, but some sources indicate that there are over 50 different clans throughout the Marshalls. Because all clans originated from one mother, inter-marriage within clans is a cultural taboo.
For many Marshallese, immediate family and distant relative is a foreign concept. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that these two terms (immediate/distant), when used in this concept, does not have any direct translation in Marshallese. Either someone is a member of your family or he is not. Family members could include cousins who are ones’ brothers and sisters; nieces and nephews who are considered sons and daughters; or uncles and aunts who are considered mothers and fathers. Throughout the Marshall Islands (including Ebeye) it is not uncommon for three Marshallese families to live in the same household; this makes it even more difficult for many Marshallese to make the distinction between immediate family
and distant relatives.