Bikini Atoll, located along the northern edge of the Ralik Chain of atolls in Micronesia, was first inhabited nearly 4,000 years ago by ancient seafarers. Known for their superb canoe-building and navigation skills, the people of Bikini (or in Marshallese, Pikinni, which means “surface of coconuts”) introduced and cultivated crops such as pandanas, arrowroot, and coconut to supplement their marine diet. The islanders followed a matrilineal system and were governed by a local chief. Land was (and still is) a central component of Marshallese culture. The Bikinians traded with other island peoples but were left relatively untouched by foreign influence until the 19th century when the Bikinians were introduced to Western and Asian cultures, and during World War II, occupation.
The Bikinians, like other Marshallese, were liberated in the closing years of the war by the United States, which selected Bikini Atoll as the site of their nuclear testing program in the Pacific Proving Grounds. The U.S. military insisted that the the tests were for the “good of mankind” and to ensure world peace; the Bikinian leader Juda's response: “everything is in god’s hands.” The 167 Bikinians were relocated and over the next twelve years, Bikini was the site of 23 nuclear weapons tests, including the 15 megaton Castle Bravo, which vaporized three islands.
The people of Bikini sued the U.S. government for nuclear damages, but litigation was halted when the U.S. and newly established Republic of the Marshall Islands were negotiating a Compact of Free Association (1983 and amended 1986), which the Bikinians voted against. Once in effect, the Compact terminated all litigation by the Bikinian people and other atolls that filed lawsuits against the United States. Despite an intensive restorative process, Bikini Atoll still remains unsafe for permanent habitation.
The Bikinian people, numbering approximately 5,400, reside on Kili and Ejit Islands, across the Marshall Islands, and in communities across the United States, particularly in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government, which is led by the mayor and council members who are elected every four years, represents all the Bikini people.
The local government supports tourism of Bikini Atoll, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 due to its significance in the atomic age. In 1996 the Bikini government opened the atoll to tourism, which included historical tours along with diving and fishing excursions. Today, the KBE council has an agreement with Indies Trader to provide unique dive tours of the sunken fleet from May through October that includes the world’s only diveable aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga.
Despite the loss of lands, upheaval and hardships through numerous relocations, impact of the biological and ecological consequences of nuclear testing, and now threats from climate change due to rising sea levels that have contributed to more frequent and devastating flooding, the Bikinian people remain resilient. They are also committed to their safe return home to Bikini.
MEN OTEMJEJ REJ ILO BEIN ANIJ
Bikinians evacuate Bikini Atoll in March, 1946 (U.S. Navy photo). Today, thousands of Bikinian descendents live on Majuro, Kili, Ejit, and in communities in the United States, including Enid, Oklahoma, and Springdale, Arkansas. Below, Bikinians are pictured during a celebration in Springdale (MEI Photo/April L. Brown).
With the U.S. defeat of the Empire of Japan in World War II, the United States was in sole possession of the technology to build an atomic weapon. Eager to conduct tests to create larger, more powerful weapons, the U.S. selected Bikini Atoll as the test site of Operation Crossroads, a series of three tests in 1946 that were specifically intended to study the effects of nuclear weapons on naval vessels and animals that were strapped to their decks.
The atoll had been chosen months before U.S. Naval Commodore Ben Wyatt met with the Bikinian people to “ask” if the U.S. military could use their homelands for the “good of all mankind” and to help ensure world peace.
The United States selected Bikini, in part, because it was far from U.S. borders and close to U.S. military bases in the Pacific. U.S. officials were noticeably ignorant of Bikinian customs, history, and the importance of land to Islanders. From U.S. officials' perspective: Bikini was an isolated speck of an island in the middle of nowhere and sparsely population by amicable, carefree natives who ultimately would be better off having access to U.S. goods and technology, regardless on which island they resided.
On January 10, 1946, U.S. President Harry S. Truman approved the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendation to hold the first post-war atomic tests on Bikini Atoll. Vice Admiral William Blandy was named commander of Joint Task Force One, made up of U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, and civilian scientists.
U.S. Navy officials met with Bikini leaders in February, and returned in March to stage an official turnover of Bikini lands. Arriving on a Sunday afternoon following church services, U.S. Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt likened the Bikinians to the children of Israel who had been saved by their enemies (the Japanese) and led to the Promised Land (under U.S. care). With cameras filming the staged exchange between Wyatt, Bikinian leader Juda, and a Marshallese interpreter, Juda responded with “everything is in God’s hands,” or “men otemjej rej ilo bein anij.”
On March 7, the 167 Bikinians were relocated to Rongerik, an uninhabited atoll 125 miles to the east, where they lacked sustainable food and potable water supplies; the fish were poisonous. They were starving within a matter of weeks.
Film crews taping the exchange between Wyatt and Juda.
Click on the photo above to watch a video of the multiple takes.
The year 2016 marked the 70th anniversary of the removal of the Bikinian people from their ancestral lands on Bikini Atoll. Told the use of their lands was necessary for the "good of all mankind" and "for world peace," the Bikinians were removed from their atoll on March 7, 1946. Today, the Bikinian people remain nuclear refugees. Spread out over the islands of Kili and Ejit, Majuro and other atolls in the Marshall Islands, and across communities in the United States, particularly in Springdale, Arkansas, the Bikinian people - most of whom have never seen their idyllic atoll - want to return home. Grossly contaminated after having served as ground zero for 23 nuclear weapons tests between 1946-1958, Bikini Atoll has undergone massive restoration projects. Even though parts of the atoll are safe for tourism and temporary habitation, Bikini Atoll is still too contaminated to sustain a permanent population.
Harvard Law Students Advocates for Human Rights, 2006, via Civil Beat, 2015.
Weapons Yields from the Marshall Islands, Nevada, and World War II.
Bikini Town Hall
P.O. Box 1096
Majuro, Marshall Islands
Lani Kramer, Trust-Fund Liaison
Homepage background photo of Bikini Island courtesy of Stephen Steddy.
KBE Office Annex
322 W. Emma Ave., Suite D
Springdale, Arkansas 72764
72 YEARS OF EXILE
Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government Council Officers
Mayor: Anderson Jibas
Treasurer: Andy Bill
Assistant Treasurer: Marsh Note
Kili/Bikini/Ejit Local Government Council Voting Members
Alap (non-elected, traditional seat)
Jabkwon Aitap, represented by MIshimori Jamore
Toreka Lewis (Iroij for the people of Bikini), represented by Glann Lewis
Alap Tomaie Lektak, represented by Ichiro Mark
Ejit Island Ward [3 seats]
Kili Island Ward [12 seats]
Mayor Anderson Jibas speaks during Bikini Day in Springdale, Arkansas, in 2016. (April L. Brown photo/MEI). The KBE Local Government mayor and council members are sworn in by High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram on January 5, 2016. (Jack Niedenthal photo/Marshall Islands Journal) Also pictured, Lani Kramer, Trust Fund Liaison, bottom, left, and Councilman Nixon Jibas (not pictured above), right.
The Official Website of the
The Republic of the Marshall Islands
In 1996 the KBE Council opened Bikini Atoll to tourism, which included historical tours along with diving and fishing excursions. Today, the Council has an agreement with Indies Trader to provide unique dive tours of the sunken fleet from May through October that includes the world’s only diveable aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga.
Bikini Atoll was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. UNESCO selected Bikini based on its importance at the dawn of the nuclear era and its paradisical island setting juxtaposed with the violence caused by nuclear detonations as shown by the lagoon's sunken vessels and the one-mile wide crater caused by the Bravo detonation in 1954.
Bikini is also known for its skilled artisans and their handicrafts, particularly the "Kili bag," and its resurgence as canoe-builders and navigators. Alson Kelen directs Canoes of the Marshall Islands, a nonprofit that teaches traditional canoe building and sailing.
Diving at Bikini Lagoon (Courtesy of Stephen Steddy)
The 23 white stars represent the islands of Bikini Atoll.
The 3 black stars in the upper right corner represent the three islands vaporized by the Castle Bravo detonation on March 1, 1954.
The two black stars in the lower right hand corner represent the islands of Ejit and Kili, where the majority of Bikinians in the Marshall Islands reside today.
The words MEN OTEMJEJ REJ ILO BEIN ANIJ (MORIBA), which translate as "Everything is in God's hands," is the response of Bikinian leader, Juda, to U.S. Commodore Ben Wyatt in 1946 when the Americans asked the Bikinians to give up their islands for the 'good of mankind.'
Bikinian Anthem (1946)
Written by Lore Kessibuki (1914-1994)
No longer can I stay, it's true.
No longer can I live in peace and harmony.
No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow
Because of my island and the life I once knew there.
The thought is overwhelming
Rendering me helpless and in great despair.
My spirit leaves, drifting around and far away
Where it becomes caught in a current of immense power
And only then do I find tranquility.
Credits: Translation of the Bikinian anthem and the description of the flag from Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind; the Bikinian Anthem recorded at Nuclear Victims and Survivors Day, Ejit, courtesy of Jessica A. Schwartz.