About the CNMI

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands comprises a chain of fourteen islands possessing a combined land area of 184 square miles spread out over 264,000 square miles of ocean.  They are the northernmost group in a region of the Pacific commonly referred to as Micronesia.  Although the island Guam is a part of the Mariana Archipelago, it is politically separate from the Commonwealth and is administered as an unincorporated territory of the United States.  The Northern Mariana Islands have been in political union with the United States since 1976 when the Covenant to Establish the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was signed by President Gerald R. Ford. 

Carolinian Canoe

The Commonwealth's population is concentrated on the main southern islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.  Saipan is by far the most populous and developed with an economy supported by tourism and the apparel industry.  The island also serves as the seat of the Commonwealth government.  Tinian, only three miles to the south of Saipan, has a much smaller population (3,540) that resides in the southern one-third of the island.  The northern two-thirds are leased by the U.S. government and used for military training exercises.  Rota, at the southern end of the Commonwealth, also possesses a small population (3,283).  The other southern islands of the Commonwealth include Aguiguan, two miles south of Tinian, and tiny Farallon de Medinilla located 30 miles north of Saipan.  Aguiguan is uninhabited.  Medinilla, also uninhabited, is leased to the U.S. military and used as a target for aerial bombardment training.

To the north of Medinilla are nine islands commonly referred to as the "Northern Islands."  These islands are geologically more recent and several possess active volcanoes.  Currently, only one island in this group is inhabited by a handful of residents.

Human settlement in the Northern Mariana Islands began over 4,000 years ago with the arrival of seafaring explorers from Island Southeast Asia.  These immigrants are the ancient ancestors of the modern day Chamorros, the indigenous residents of the Mariana Islands.  Ancient Chamorros were skillful horticulturalists, mariners and fisherfolk who adapted to an environment made challenging by periodic droughts and powerful tropical storms.

Europeans first arrived in the Marianas in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan touched at Guam during his historic voyage to establish a western route to the valuable Spice Islands.  Forty-four years later the islands were officially claimed by Spain, but with the exception of annual provisioning stops by galleons plying the Manila-Acapulco trade route, the Spanish had little contact with the Chamorro people.  This was to change in 1668 following the establishment of a Jesuit mission on Guam.  The priests, supported by a small but determined garrison of troops, commenced an aggressive campaign to convert the islanders to Catholicism.  There initial efforts met with some success, but by the early 1670s Chamorro communities on Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan were actively resisting mission activities.

Ancient ChamorrosFor the first fifteen years missionary work was largely limited to Guam, but in 1684 the Spanish launched a major campaign to subjugate and convert Chamorro communities on the islands to the north.  By the late 1690s, worn down by a quarter century of conflict and decimated by exotic diseases against which they had no natural resistance, surviving Chamorros in what is now the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands capitulated.  Many islanders were resettled into mission villages on Guam where they quietly converted to the Catholic faith under the watchful eyes of the Spanish priests.  Along with the Catholic religion, Chamorros also adopted a number of other foreign customs including a patrilineal family organization, western dress, private land ownership, and food preferences influenced by Spanish and Mexican cuisines.  In spite of these major changes, Chamorros continued to speak their indigenous languages and maintained many aspects of traditional culture that they successfully blended with European and New World elements to form a new culture now referred to by modern Chamorros as "Kustumbren Chamorro" (Chamorro culture).

For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Chamorros lived quite lives, interrupted only occasionally by visiting ships.  Life centered on the family, farm, and the ecclesiastical calendar of the Catholic Church.  In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Carolinian immigrants escaping storm-ravaged islands and atolls of the Central Carolines to the south were allowed to settle on Saipan thus establishing the archipelago's second indigenous population.  Carolinians were skillful mariners who had long-standing trading relations with the Mariana Islands that predated the arrival of the first Europeans.  The Spanish administration was eager to utilize their maritime skills to maintain regular contact between colonial headquarters on Guam and the isolated islands to the north.  The peaceful monotony of island life was interrupted in 1898 when American troops landed on Guam at the outset of the Spanish-American War.  Following the Treaty of Paris, Guam was retained as an American territory and the remainder of the archipelago was purchased by Germany.

German TimesGermany took formal possession of the Northern Mariana Islands in November 1899.  The tiny German administration focused its efforts on economic development, particularly expanding copra production, and constructing much-needed infrastructure.  Attention was also directed to improving public health and education, and effecting cultural change in local society to encourage the acceptance of European values that stressed punctuality, discipline and the accumulation of wealth.  In an effort to expand the small population, that numbered only 1,800 at the time the islands were acquired, the German administration attracted Chamorro settlers from Guam by providing homestead lands to those who agreed to establish a permanent residence on Saipan.  They also forcefully resettled Carolinian islanders to Saipan after their home islands and atolls of the Central Carolines were struck by typhoons.  The standard of living rose during the German period, a cash economy was established, and a handful of Chamorros and Carolinians were given the opportunity to pursue trades training in Germany, China, and Yap.

German rule was brought to an abrupt end by a Japanese naval squadron that seized the Northern Marianas and the rest of German Micronesia in October 1914.  Japan, an ally of England, had long desired to expand into Micronesia, and the outbreak of World War I provided a convenient opportunity.  Following its bloodless conquest, Japanese naval authorities repatriated the small contingent of German colonial administrators, planters and priests.

With the end of the war, Japan laid formal claim to its newly acquired territories in Micronesia.  These efforts were prompted by both economic and military considerations, particularly the latter.  In 1921, the League of Nations formally recognized Japan's control of Micronesian, including the Northern Mariana Islands, under the provisions of a League Mandate.

Japanese TimesThe Japanese focused their energies on commercial development and by the early 1930s, large sugar cane plantations and refining mills were operating on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.  At the height of operations, the Northern Mariana Islands produced thousands of tons of processed sugar, alcohol, and other products that were shipped to markets in Japan.

This prosperous period came to an end in December 1941 with the outbreak of the Pacific War.  Airfields on Saipan were used during the Japanese attack on American-held Guam but it wasn't until late 1943 that the Japanese military began to fortify the islands in anticipation of amphibious landings by American forces.  By early 1944, the Marianas had become a front line position as a part of Japan's Absolute National Defensive Sphere.  The Japanese realized that the defense of the Marianas was critical to the overall war effort.

American war plans called for the capture of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam to serve as airbases for the newly developed B-29 Superfortress, the world's first strategic bomber.  Possessing a range of nearly 3,000 miles, a bomb capacity of four tons, and heavily armed, the Superfortress was a formidable weapon and one that the U.S. wished to unleash against the Japanese home islands at the earliest possible date.

The American invasion of the Marianas began with the amphibious assault against Saipan on 15 June 1944.  Following three weeks of bloody fighting, U.S. marines and soldiers succeeded in wresting the island from its determined Japanese defenders.  With the island in ruins, surviving civilians were placed in internment camps where they were provided with emergency food, medical treatment and shelter.  With Saipan secure, the U.S. turned its attention to Tinian and Guam.  Both were captured after short but fierce battles.  Rota and the islands north of Saipan were isolated but not invaded.

warAirfield construction began immediately.  By early 1945, five B-29 wings were operating out of fields on Guam, Tinian and Saipan.  From November 1944 until early August 1945, Japan was subjected to an unrelenting campaign of aerial bombardment. The full potential of the Marianas airbases was realized in August 1945 when Tinian-based B-29s dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Shortly thereafter, Japan sued for peace, thus ending the Second World War.

Following the war, the islands were administered by the Department of the Navy under a trusteeship agreement created by the United Nations.  The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), as this governmental organizational was named, was unique in that it was the only "strategic" trusteeship created by the United Nations.  As a strategic trust territory, the TPI did not fall within the purview of the General Assembly ad did the other trust territories, but rather the Security Council in which the United States exercised veto power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Saipan was used as a secret training base for Nationalist Chinese guerrillas, an operation reportedly directed by the Central Intelligence Agency.  The islands were generally off-limits to all but the local population and military personnel, and travel by non-residents required prior approval by Navy officials in Washington, D.C.  In these years, there was little private economic activity and local residents were forced to return to their farms to augment what wage labor they were able to secure from the military government.  In 1962, military control ended and administrative responsibilities passed to the Department of the Interior.  Saipan became the capital of the TTPI.  Security requirements were lifted and increasingly larger budgets were made available to the TTPI helping to increase the standard of living.

Saipan TodayLater in the 1960s, Chamorros and Carolinians made their desires known regarding their future political status.  Many people sought reunification with Guam believing that this was the best option to acquire U.S. citizenship and regain a standard of living that they had enjoyed during the Japanese administration.  A referendum on reunification was held in 1969.  Although reunification was supported by a majority voters in the Northern Marianas, Guam voters rejected it.  Not wishing to remain a part of Micronesia, and desiring close political association with the United States, a Marianas political delegation began direct negotiations with the U.S. government.  These negotiations were undertaken to separate the Northern Marianas from the Trust Territory and to establish a permanent political union with the United States.  The resulting agreement, referred to as the Covenant, was drafted during five rounds of bilateral negotiations between the Marianas Political Status Commission and the United States government held from December 1972 to February 1975.  This marked the first time that a U.S. insular possession was granted the right to negotiate its future political status directly with the U.S. government.

Under the terms of the Covenant, indigenous residents of the Northern Mariana Islands enjoy U.S. citizenship (made effective in 1986) and are afforded full protection under the U.S. Constitution.  The Covenant also grants the people of the Commonwealth internal self-government with a popularly elected governor, a bicameral legislature and a judiciary which includes an autonomous Supreme Court.  The Covenant also restricts land ownership to persons of Northern Marianas descent, provides multi-year funding for essential capital improvement projects, and allocates land for use by the U.S. military.  The political stability created by the Covenant and the business-friendly labor and wage laws subsequently enacted by the Commonwealth government have been essential ingredients in the rapid economic growth in the twin industries of tourism and apparel manufacture experienced in the Commonwealth in the 1980s and 1990s.