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Northern Mariana Islands

Northern Mariana Islands (märēäˈnä) [key], officially Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a self-governing entity in association with the United States (2010 pop. 53,883), c.185 sq mi (479 sq km), comprising 16 islands (6 inhabited) of the Marianas chain (all except Guam), in the W Pacific Ocean. The islands lie E of the Philippines and S of Japan and extend 350 mi (563 km) from north to south. The most important are Saipan (capital), Rota, and Tinian. The northern islands are composed of volcanic rock, the southern islands of madrepore limestone covering a volcanic base. All the Marianas are mountainous, with the highest peak (3,166 ft/965 m) on Agrihan. There are active volcanoes, and the islands are subject to typhoons. More than two fifths are Pacific Islanders (mainly Chamorros), and Asians form nearly as large a portion of the inhabitants; there are minorities of Caucasians and persons of mixed descent. Most of the people are Roman Catholics. Chamorro, Philippine languages, Chinese, English, and other languages are spoken.

Livestock, coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons are the chief agricultural products. Tourism, especially from Japan, is a major industry, employing roughly 50% of the workforce. Construction also is critical to the economy. Clothing was formerly the major export, but the liberaliztion of U.S. garment import restrictions in 2005 led to demise of the once significant garment manufacturing industry by 2009. The islands experienced a significant population loss (more than one fifth between 2000 and 2010) when many Asian garment workers returned to their native countries as a result. The Northern Marianas receive substantial financial assistance from the United States.

The Marianas Islands are governed under the constitution of 1978. The president of the United States is the head of state. The government is headed by a governor, who is popularly elected for a four-year term and is eligible for a second term. There is a bicameral legislature. Members of the nine-seat Senate serve four-year terms, while members of the 18-seat House of Representatives serve two-year terms; all legislators are elected by popular vote. Administratively, the Northern Marianas are divided into four municipalities. Residents are U.S. citizens but do not vote in U.S. presidential elections; they do elect a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Settlement of the islands, by people of Indo-Malayan stock, dates back to c.1500 B.C. The Latte Culture, beginning c.A.D. 800, is noted for the surviving large stone pillars and foundations of what are believed to have been ruling class houses, but the nature of the sites had been forgotten by the indigenous Chamorros at the time of European contact. The islands were visited in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan, who named them the Ladrones Islands (Thieves Islands). They were renamed the Marianas by Spanish Jesuits who arrived in 1668.

Nominally a possession of Spain until 1898, the islands were sold to Germany in 1899, except for Guam, which was ceded to the United States. The islands belonging to Germany were seized by Japan in 1914 and were mandated to Japan by the League of Nations in 1920. U.S. forces occupied the Marianas (1944) during World War II, and in 1947 the group (exclusive of Guam) was included in the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Residents approved separate status for the Northern Marianas as a U.S. commonwealth in 1975. They became internally self-governing under U.S. military protection in 1978, and trust territory status was officially ended in 1986. Benigno Fitial, from since Jan., 2006, resigned in Feb., 2013, after he was impeached; he was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Eloy Inos.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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