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A New Island: The Marshallese in Arkansas

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"A New Island" Between 1946 and 1958 the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. Claims between the United States and the Marshall Islands are ongoing, and the health effects have created a legacy that still lingers from these tests. A New Island is a documentary about the displaced people of this region who have immigrated to Springdale, Arkansas. They come for better jobs, education, and health care. And they come legally. A New Island introduces us to some of the people who have made this journey, as they try to preserve their island culture while adapting to life in the middle of America.

Produced by Dale Carpenter of the University of Arkansas, the film examines the Marshallese population that settled primarily in Springdale during the 1970s and mid-90s. The Marshallese came looking for jobs, better health care, a safer environment and better schools. They brought with them their family traditions, culture and values. "Anyone who has had to face and overcome hardship in their lives will find this story both heartwarming and inspiring," AETN Executive Producer Carole Adornetto said. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a cluster of 29 atolls and five small islands on the eastern side of the south Pacific Ocean with a population of about 60,000. The United States acted as administrator for the islands after World War II, when they were made part of the United Nations Trust Territory.

The U.S. military also used some of the islands to test nuclear weapons from 1947 to 1962. The islands gained their independence in 1986, and under a Compact of Free Association between the two countries any Marshallese with a valid passport can come to the United States legally, find a job and stay as long as he or she likes. Carpenter spent a year producing the film, conducting dozens of interviews in the process. He took the film's title from something a Marshallese woman told him. "She was saying that the Marshallese are great navigators, that they had to travel from island to island in the Pacific," Carpenter said. "Now she said they had found their way to Springdale, and that this was a new island for them. I thought that really summed things up."

Springdale is believed to have the largest Marshallese community in the continental United States. The city's 2005 special census shows the Marshallese population at about 2,000 people, but other estimates put the number as high as 6,500. Carpenter, a journalism professor in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, decided to make a documentary about the Marshallese in Springdale after getting involved in a community journalism project financed by a grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. A series of radio stories by KUAF reporter Jacqueline Froelich sparked his interest, and he credits her with doing much of the preliminary work for the film, as well.

Carpenter and Froelich realized that most people in northwest Arkansas know very little about the Marshallese community, and they both wanted to change that. A veteran photojournalist, Carpenter has produced a dozen award-winning documentaries in the past 20 years. On this project he said he wanted to show the importance of family and tradition in the Marshallese culture, how much the people get from their lives in Springdale and how much they bring to the city and the people around them. Carmen Chong Gum, a Marshallese community leader, narrates the hour-long film, which includes scenes as public as a community gathering and as intimate as the celebration of a child's first birthday, a major event for every Marshallese family. A New Island is underwritten by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.