Northern Mariana Islands Facts

Introduction

The Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. commonwealth located in the Pacific Ocean. Sand-covered beaches and mountainous landscapes characterize Saipan, the largest island. The tiny, coral-fringed Mañagaha islet lies off the island’s west coast. Saipan’s Grotto, an underwater cavern dive site, is home to turtles. The Battle of Saipan sites Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff are nearby.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS

  • Capital City: Saipan
  • Largest City: Saipan
  • Territory As of November 4, 1986: U.S. Commonwealth Unincorporated U.S. territory
  • Population (as of 2022): 55,650
  • Abbreviation: MP
  • Official bird: The Mariana fruit dove
  • Official flower: Plumeria
  • Total Size Of The State: 464 km2 (179 sq mi)
  • Official languages: English, Chamorro & Carolinian

Historical Background

Approximately 4,000 years ago, the first settlers of what is now called the Northern Mariana Islands arrived by boat from Southeast Asia. The Northern Mariana Islands are made up of 14 islands close to Guam, so these two territories share a lot of history. Chamorros (SHUH-mah-ROH) are the Indigenous people of both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, arrived in the region in 1521. As a result, he named the island chain “Islas de Los Ladrones” -meaning “Islands of Thieves” in Spanish – because islanders took a small boat from the arriving fleet. During his three-day stay, Magellan killed many Chamorros.

On their way to Asia, European explorers traded with the locals for the next hundred years. However, many illnesses were brought to the islands by the traders. As a result, Spanish colonists established a settlement on these islands (including Guam) in 1667 and named them Las Marianas after Queen Mariana of Spain.

During the Spanish-American War, Spain lost Guam and sold the remaining islands (now called the Northern Mariana Islands) to Germany. 

Japan took control of the islands during World War I in 1914. A bloody battle called the Battle of Saipan occurred in June 1944 when the U.S. military invaded the Mariana island of Saipan during World War II. Since then, the Northern Mariana Islands have been part of the United States.

Nature & Name Origin

There are 14 islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. In the deepest part of the ocean, called the Mariana Trench, the Mariana Islands are the peaks of an enormous underwater mountain range. Over millions of years, volcanoes created the mountain range (which became the islands), some of which are still active today. After an eruption in 1981, the island of Pagan was evacuated by the government; no one has lived there since. Anatahan’s eruption in 2007 lasted almost a year.

Five endangered whale species live in the waters around the Northern Mariana Islands: blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, and sperm whales. The islands are also home to dugongs and sea mammals related to manatees. The Mariana fruit dove is the official bird of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Mariana Islands, a green fruit-eating bird found nowhere else on Earth. It’s warm all year round on these tropical islands, and they are lush. The forest covers almost 80 percent of Saipan, the most populous island. The islands are covered in tropical plants such as bananas, palms, ferns, pine, and plumeria (which have the official flower).

The Culture and Locals

Most of the Northern Mariana Islands population lives on Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. Approximately half of the population is Asian, and most others are native to the Pacific Islands (which include the Chamorro people) or are a mixture of races.

Some popular Chamorro dishes include motsiyas (ground chicken, hot pepper leaves, mint, lemon juice, salt, and pepper); and kelaguen (meat or seafood, coconut, lime). In addition, families throughout the islands enjoy fried spring rolls called lumpias during celebrations. Rice is one of the most popular ingredients in Spanish dishes thanks to the culture’s Spanish influence.

Festivals on the islands include sweet potato festivals, hot pepper festivals (which include hot pepper eating contests), and fishing derbies. 

Traditional stick dancing, an ancient warrior dance, is featured in the Flame Tree Arts Festival, one of the longest-running festivals. In addition, Saipan’s Liberation Day Festival commemorates the island’s liberation from Japanese occupation in 1944.

Governance

As a result of World War II, the United Nations gave the islands to the United States, but it was in 1975 that the islands became a U.S. territory. The Northern Marianas Islands adopted their constitution and local government two years later, making it a commonwealth with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. 

A non-voting representative from the Northern Mariana Islands is also in the U.S. Congress. While they cannot vote, the representative can sit on congressional committees.

Some Fun Facts About The Northern Mariana Islands

  • More than 60 underwater volcanoes can be found in the ocean surrounding the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • The Northern Mariana Islands are home to four endangered sea turtle species (green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead).
  • Mariana fruit bats are flying foxes that eat breadfruit, papaya, figs, and other plants to spread seeds in their poop.

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