Oregon’s Marshallese community gathers in Salem to celebrate culture and sovereignty

Russell Langrine still remembers the day his home country gained sovereignty.

It was October 21, 1986, and he was a high school freshman in the Marshall Islands. All year, he and his friends were involved in celebrations for the historic day for the island nation.

Decades later, as attendees began filling the gymnasium of the Capital Field House in Salem Friday, Langrine looked at a group of teenagers chatting at the event, who would later perform traditional dances.

“It’s a big deal for us. For guys like me, that are my age, it happened when I was a teenager,” he said. “Kids that grew up here, they’re going to forget a little about that and we want to be sure that they remember where they’re from.”

Langrine, a coordinator for the Oregon Marshallese Community Association, planned the 44th Constitution Day celebration over Memorial Day weekend in Salem.

Constitution Day celebrates the adoption of the constitution on May 1, 1979, when the country was established as self-governing. Seven years later, the Marshall Islands became independent when its Compact of Free Association with the United States became law.

The weekend included an opening ceremony with speeches, performances and prayer, and a busy schedule of basketball, volleyball and softball games leading to championship matches on Monday before closing ceremonies.

The closing ceremony had guests who flew in from the Marshall Islands, Speaker of the Parliament Honorable Kenneth Kedi, Minister of Finance Branson Wase, Minister of Health and Human Services Joe Bejang and Senator Kalani Kaneko.

In the centuries before the constitution was signed, the Marshall Islands – which is located in the South Pacific, near Guam – endured European colonialism starting in the 16th century, followed by Japanese occupation during World War I and U.S. occupation in World War II, the latter using the islands for nuclear testing.

To Langrine, the constitution marked the start of progress toward the establishment of the Republic of the Marshall Islands as a sovereign nation, recognized by the United Nations. In 1986, the compact between the islands and the U.S. government allowed Marshallese citizens to travel to the U.S. to live, study or work without a visa.

The agreements also allowed himself and many others to enlist in the U.S. military, he said. The Marshall Islands have more volunteers per capita than many U.S. states, according to the Department of State. Langrine said he was among a generation of Marshallese who were proud to serve.

This weekend’s celebration brought over a thousand Marshallese people of all ages from around the state, along with people from other island communities.

“We’re a very unique culture. We’re quiet, respectful,” Langrine said. They also love a uniform, he said, laughing. He and other organizers wore a deep blue shirt with white flowers and a printed orange and white sash, the colors of the Marshallese flag. 

From left, Minister Hanil Alik, Oregon Marshallese Community Association Jesse Gasper, Cayle Tern of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Sen. Deb Patterson, Kianna Angelo of Living Islands and Jackie Leung of the Oregon Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (Abbey McDonald)

Jesse Gasper, director of the Oregon Marshallese Association, was the first to speak. He, like many of the speakers to follow, alternated between English and Marshallese. 

This year’s event theme of “idik tūr eo” means a call to battle, he said.

“It is a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggles for justice. Justice for the Marshallese people who sacrificed their home islands for the good of mankind, sacrificed our way of life for peace and military strategy. Our blue waters for missiles and toxic pollution,” he said. 

He said the constitution embodies the hope and aspirations of the Marshallese people. He asked the audience to dedicate themselves toward building a better future. 

Jackie Leung, co-chair of the Oregon Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and former Salem City Councilor, and Cayle Tern of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon were among the speakers. They said that healthcare, housing and education are among top issues the Marshallese community faces in Oregon.

At the start of the program, a group of Marshallese youth danced to the country’s national anthem. They wore blue wrapped dresses displaying the Marshallese flag, with orange flowers in their hair. Family members recorded the performance from the front row, and Senator Deb Patterson, the event’s keynote speaker, cried. 

“I was born and raised in Canada, and national anthems always make me cry because I know they symbolize the love we have for our nation. And to see young people dancing to the national anthem of the Republic of Marshall Islands, showing the love that they have for your country is truly a beautiful thing,” she said.

After several more speeches, the young dancers performed once more, a lively dance which dialed up the energy further with shouts of ‘cheehoo’ – an exuberant call met by the audience. By the end of the dance, friends, parents and organizers had left their seats to join in.

Destiny Gasper, the director’s daughter, managed the dance practices for the past month to prepare for the celebration. She’s a graduating senior at South Salem High School, and is going to Portland State University in the fall.

“Getting together, for our community and celebrating the Marshall Islands, it’s just a good vibe all around,” she said.

Dancers perform during the National Anthem of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, doing a choreography that Jesse Gasper said was developed in the 1990s to go with the song (Abbey McDonald)
Marshallese youth perform an energetic dance at the Oregon Marshallese Community Association’s opening ceremony to celebrate the 44th anniversary of the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ constitution (Abbey McDonald)
Philma Gasper, left, and Sen. Deb Patterson cut a cake to celebrate the 44th Constitution Day for the Republic of the Marshall Islands (Abbey McDonald)

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Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.