Northern Mariana Islands

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Sankattan Siha Na Islas Mariånas
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Flag of Northern Mariana Islands Seal of Northern Mariana Islands
AnthemGi Talo Gi Halom Tasi  (Chamorro)
Satil Matawal Pacifiko  (Carolinian)
Location of Northern Mariana Islands
CapitalCapital Hill
15°14′N 145°45′E / 15.233, 145.75
Official languages English, Chamorro, Carolinian
Government Presidential representative democracy
 -  President Barack Obama[1]
 -  Governor Benigno R. Fitial
 -  Lt. Governor Eloy S. Inos
 -  Delegate to U.S. Congress Gregorio Sablan
Commonwealth in union with United States 
 -  Covenant 1975 
 -  Commonwealth status 1978 
 -  end of trusteeship 1986 
 -  Total 463.63 km² (195th)
179.01 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) negligible
 -  2007 estimate 77,000 (198th)
 -  2010 census 53,883 
 -  Density 168/km² (n/a)
63.8/sq mi
Currency United States dollar (USD)
Time zone (UTC+10)
Internet TLD .mp
Calling code [[++1-670]]

The Northern Mariana Islands, officially the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, is a commonwealth in political union with the United States of America at a strategic location in the western Pacific Ocean. It consists of 15 islands about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines. Its indigenous people are the Chamorros, who first populated the island approximately 4,000 years ago. The capital, Saipan, provided one take-off point for the bombing of Hiroshima, which brought about the defeat of Japan in the Second World War.


The Northern Mariana Islands—together with Guam to the south—comprise the Mariana Islands. They are the southern part of a submerged mountain range that extends 1,565 miles (2,519 kilometers) from Guam to near Japan. The Marianas are the northernmost islands of a larger island group called Micronesia. The land area of the Northern Mariana Islands is about 184 square miles (477 square kilometers), roughly 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.

The southern islands are limestone with level terraces and surrounding coral reefs. The northern islands are volcanic, with active volcanoes on Anatahan, Pagan Island, and Agrihan. The volcano on Agrihan is the highest elevation in the islands at 3,166 feet (965 meters).

Did you know?
The Northern Mariana Islands and Guam are the northernmost islands of Micronesia

Anatahan Volcano is a small volcanic island located 80 miles (120 kilometers) north of Saipan Island and 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Guam. The island is about 5.6 miles (nine kilometers) long and two miles (three kilometers) wide. Anatahan began erupting suddenly from its east crater in May 2003. Since then it has continued to alternate between eruptive and calm periods. On April 6, 2005, approximately 65,000 cubic yards (50,000 cubic meters) of ash and rock were ejected, causing a large, black cloud to drift southward over Saipan and Tinian. Recent eruptions have caused some commercial flights to re-route around the islands.

The Northern Marianas have a tropical marine climate moderated by seasonal northeast trade winds. There is little seasonal temperature variation. The Guinness Book of World Records has cited Saipan as having the most equable temperature in the world. The dry season runs from December to June, and the rainy season, from July to October, can include typhoons. The mean annual rainfall for the islands is about 83 inches (2,130 millimeters).

The primary natural resource is fish, which causes conflict with the protection of endangered species. About one-fifth of the land is arable, another tenth is permanent pasture. Past development has created landfills that must be cleaned up and has caused contamination of groundwater on Saipan, which may contribute to disease. Saipan, Tinian, and Rota have the only ports and harbors, and are the only permanently populated islands.


The first European to discover the Marianas island group was Ferdinand Magellan on March 6, 1521, who observed the two southernmost islands, and sailed between them. Magellan's crew called the islands Islas de los Ladrones (“The Island of Thieves”). The common account for this naming resulted from the theft of a boat from Magellan's ship, which may, in fact, have stemmed from cultural differences around private property.

Engraving showing the death of Padre San Vitores, the first missionary to Guam

The Mariana islands, along with Guam and the Caroline Islands, were governed as part of the Spanish East Indies from the Philippines. Between 1668 and 1815, Guam was an important resting stop on the Spanish trade route between Mexico and the Philippines. The original population dwindled significantly as a result of disease and rebellion against the Spaniards. Much of the adult male population was killed. In 1668, the Chamorros, who were typical Micronesians with a considerable civilization, were estimated at 40,000 to 60,000, but less than a century later only 1,800 remained.

The Marianas came under German control for a brief period in the late nineteenth century when Spain sold them to Germany, exclusive of Guam. In 1919 the Japanese invaded and occupied the islands; the League of Nations then awarded them to Japan by mandate. The Japanese used the islands as a military outpost.

During World War II, Japanese armed forces invaded Guam on December 8, 1941. Chamorros from the Northern Mariana Islands were brought to Guam to serve as interpreters and in other capacities for the occupying Japanese force. The Guamanian Chamorros were treated as a conquered enemy and subjected to forced labor, family separation, incarceration, execution, concentration camps and prostitution. Their treatment caused lasting grudges between the Chamorros of Guam and Saipan.

World War II Tracked Landing Vehicles (LVTs) heading for shore

The United States returned to the area and fought the Battle of Guam in July 21, 1944, to recapture the island. The U.S. also won the bitterly fought three-week Battle of Saipan to capture and occupy the Northern Marianas. Guam and Saipan provided the take-off point for the bombing of Hiroshima.

In 1947 the Northern Mariana Islands became part of the post-World War II United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands; defense and foreign affairs became the responsibility of the U.S. In 1976 Congress approved a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in political union with the United States. The commonwealth government adopted its own constitution in 1977, and the constitutional government took office in January 1978. The covenant was fully implemented on November 3, 1986, when United States citizenship was conferred on legally qualified commonwealth residents.

On December 22, 1990, the Security Council of the United Nations terminated the trust territory agreement as it applied to the Northern Mariana Islands and five other of the trust’s original seven districts.

U.S. Federal law applies to the Northern Mariana Islands. However, the islands are outside the customs territory of the United States and, although the Internal Revenue Code does apply in the form of a local income tax, the income tax system is largely locally determined. Federal minimum wage and federal immigration laws do not apply to the territory.


The Northern Mariana Islands are a commonwealth in political union with the United States. Politics of the Northern Mariana Islands take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic system, whereby the governor is head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system.

The governor exercises executive power. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament. The House of Representatives has 18 members, elected for a two-year term in single-seat constituencies. The Senate has nine members, elected for a two-year term in single-seat constituencies. The commonwealth has an elected official or "resident representative" located in Washington, D.C. who speaks for the commonwealth on national issues. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. It comprises the Commonwealth Supreme Court, the Superior Court, and the Federal District Court.

When United States citizenship was granted in 1986 to people who qualified as descendants of the Northern Marianas, few among the island's native population had been adequately prepared for democracy. As a result, politics in the Northern Mariana Islands is often more a function of family relationships and personal loyalties; the size of one's extended family is generally more important than a candidate's personal qualifications. Critics say that this is nepotism carried out within the trappings of democracy.

Administratively, the Northern Mariana Islands are divided into four municipalities. Islands one through 11 are collective known as the Northern Islands, together forming the Northern Islands Municipality. The three remaining municipalities, Saipan, Tinian, and Rota are located in the Southern Islands (as islands 12 through 15 are collectively known). Uninhabited Aguijan is part of Tinian municipality. Because of volcanic threat, the northern islands have been largely evacuated, with just six people remaining on Alamagan Island in 2000. The mayor of the Northern Islands Municipality resides on Saipan.


The Northern Mariana Islands benefit from substantial subsidies and development assistance from the federal government of the United States. The economy relies heavily on a temporarily declining tourism sector due largely to economic setbacks in Japan, the greatest source of tourists to the Islands. Since late 2006, tourist arrivals fell 15.23 percent (73,000 potential visitors) from the 11 months prior. The garment manufacturing sector has declined somewhat as well.

The Northern Mariana Islands has capitalized on its position as a free trade area with the U.S., while not being subject to U.S. labor laws. This allows garments to be labeled "Made in U.S.A." without having to comply with all U.S. labor laws. There have been allegations of sweatshops, child labor, child prostitution, and even forced abortions among the workforce.

An immigration system outside of federal control has resulted in a large number of Chinese migrant workers employed in the islands' garment trade. However, when World Trade Organization restrictions on Chinese imports to the U.S. were lifted, a number of garment factories closed in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Current Northern Mariana Islands license plate

Agricultural production, primarily of tapioca, cattle, coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons exists, but is of relatively minor economic importance.

Gross domestic product per capita was U.S. $9,300 in 1996. The World Fact Book supplied no total for exports, saying it was not applicable. Garments were the sole export commodity, and the United States was the sole export partner. Likewise, there was no total for imports. Import commodities included food, construction equipment and materials, and petroleum products. Import partners were Japan and the U.S.

The islands have over 220 miles (350 kilometers) of highways, three airports with paved runways (one some 9,840 feet (3,000 meters) long; two around 6,560 feet (2,000 meters)), three airports with unpaved runways (one about 9,800 feet (3,000 m) long; two under 3,280 feet (1,000 m)), and one heliport.


The population of the Northern Mariana Islands grew from 16,780 in 1980 to an estimated 82,459 in 2006. Most of this nearly 500 percent jump in population was due to migration from Asia in response to unprecedented economic growth. People living there have a life expectancy of 76.09 years.

Filipinos are the largest overall ethnic group in the Northern Mariana Islands, making up over 29 percent of the population. Both the Filipino and Chinese (22.1 percent) populations have surpassed the indigenous Chamorros (21.3 percent) in population. The original inhabitants of the Northern Mariana Islands refer to themselves as Chamorros (tsa-'mor-os). At the time of Magellan's arrival in 1521, the term chamorri designated the upper caste. By 1668 the term had changed to chamorro (meaning “bold”), because Chamorro men wore a topknot of hair on a shaved scalp, according to J. Jerome Smith. [1]

While 85 percent of the population are baptized into the Roman Catholic faith or belong to another Christian denomination, animistic beliefs persist, including a respect for ancestral spirits, or taotaomo'na, who are believed to occupy certain trees and other special areas in the forests. Chamorros believe that their ancestors have lived in the Mariana Islands since the dawn of time, that the Mariana Islands are center of the universe, and all human life began in Guam. While Spanish Catholic missionaries abolished the practices of the makahna, who mediated between the spiritual and physical world, many of them persist. There is an enduring belief in the existence of persons' spirits beyond their physical life. Every year on All Soul's Day, Chamorros remember their ancestors by holding memorial services and decorating their graves with flowers, candles, photographs, and other mementos.

Catholicism has heavily influenced family life in the Northern Mariana Islands. Marriage is a matter of personal romantic love and is monogamous. Few adults remain unmarried, and large families are favored. Newly married couples may remain with the bride's family until children are born, when an independent nuclear household is established. Larger extended family households may develop, although the married couple and children tend to live independently.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Chalan Kanoa is an ecclesiastical territory or diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. It formerly was part of the archdiocese of San Francisco. Today it comprises the Northern Mariana Islands and is under the Metropolitan Province of Agaña. The diocese is led by a prelate bishop that pastors the mother church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Saipan.

The diocese was canonically erected on November 8, 1984, following a visit to Guam by Pope John Paul II. Its territories were taken from the archdiocese based in Guam.

Languages spoken in the Northern Mariana Islands breakdown as: Philippine languages (24.4 percent), Chinese (23.4 percent), Chamorro (22.4 percent), English (10.8 percent), other Pacific island languages (9.5 percent), other (9.6 percent), including Carolinian, an Eastern Malayo-Polynesian language that combines dialects from the area of Truk. Chamorro is closely related to Tagalong (Filipino). 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.

Chamorros are used to being close together and often do not have to speak to communicate. When one encounters an older Chamorro, one is expected to at least nod with a bow or to kiss the elder's hand briefly as a sign of respect.

There are no large class differentials apart from the migrant laborer groups, who live in poorer economic conditions. The Northern Mariana Islands tend to be relatively homogeneous socially and economically.


The latte stone is the emblematic representation of Chamorro strength, pride, resistance, and survival, and is the central symbol of the Northern Mariana flag. A megalithic structure used to elevate houses in the pre-colonial period, latte stones are large coral blocks composed of a trapezoidal stone pillar called a haligi and a hemispherical cap called a tasa The earliest of these latte stones date from 800 C.E. Construction of these stones ceased after the onset of wars against Spanish colonizers. Jungle areas and sites in which latte stones are located are considered sacred. In pre-colonial years people buried family members beneath latte stones and thus ancestral spirits are assumed to reside there.

Rice dominates the diet, which is based of vegetables and marine resources. Most food is imported from Japan, Australia, and the United States. Normally, three meals a day are eaten at home – even for those working in towns. Families bring prepared food and additional food and drink for preparation on site for religious and secular ceremonies.

Siblings and neighbors form a network of caregivers for infants, who are rarely left alone. Chamorros value formal education. School age in the Marianas is from six to sixteen. Schools operate on the American model. There are preschool opportunities for children under six years old. The Northern Marianas College on Saipan is a two-year school that offers degrees in education, liberal arts, and business. Students who wish to continue their education attend the University of Guam or the University of Hawaii. Young people who leave the territory to complete their higher education often do not return. The literacy rate for the total population is 97 percent.

Chamorro folk music remains an important part of the islands' culture, though elements of music left by American, German, Spanish, and Japanese colonizers can be heard. There are both Carolinian and Chamorro traditional chant styles. A variant of the Spanish cha-cha-chá is popular, as is a Caroline Islands "stick dance" which combines improvised percussion and foot stomping.

The national anthem is Gi Talo Gi Halom Tasi in Chamorro language (or Satil Matawal Pacifico in Carolinian), which was adopted on October 1996. The song's melody comes from a German tune. Music festivals include the Fiestan Luta, an annual celebration.


  1. As President of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, Northern Mariana Islands The World Factbook.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Bess Pr. Inc., 1992. ISBN 1880188066
  • Denfeld, D. Colt. Hold the Marianas: The Japanese Defense of the Mariana Islands. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1572490144
  • Farrell, Don A. History of the Northern Mariana Islands. CNMI Public School System, 1991.
  • McPhetres, Samuel F. “Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific 16. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. ISSN 1043-898X
  • Thomas, James O. Trapped With The Enemy: Four years as a civilian POW in Japan. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2002. ISBN 1401044131

External links

All links retrieved November 16, 2022.

Countries and territories of Oceania
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