From the Atoll to the Ozarks

A student-led podcast shares the story of the state’s Marshallese community.

Dr. Sheldon Riklon and granddaughter
Dr. Sheldon Riklon is one of the members of the Marshallese community that participated in the Arkansas Atoll podcast. Photo courtesy Arkansas Story Vault.

Northwest Arkansas is home to one of the largest populations of Marshallese outside of the Marshall Islands. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Marshallese live in the region and their rich history is being shared through the Arkansas Atoll podcast.

Benetick Maddison is a member of the Marshallese community who works as the project specialist for youth, climate and nuclear issues at the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale. He participated in an episode of the podcast in which he discusses the importance of educating people about the United States’ relationship with the Marshall Islands. 

From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. conducted nuclear weapons testing on the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese were “basically forced to sacrifice our health and our islands for the good of mankind,” Maddison says. What  happened over the course of those 12 years is part of American history and it should be part of the national curriculum in the U.S., he says. 

“It’s really frustrating and sad that when I open a history book or when my fellow Marshallese open history books, the only image of a bomb we see is the one in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but it’s like, where’s the other 67 nuclear weapons that were tested?” he says. 

In addition to the history of nuclear weapons testing, Arkansas Atoll explores climate change, working in the poultry industry and health disparities within the Marshallese community over the course of six episodes. The podcast is a product of the Arkansas Story Vault at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History. It is co-produced by the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. 

The project began as a video production in January 2020, but students adapted it into a podcast once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Octavia Rolle is one of five graduate and undergraduate students at the U of A who worked on the podcast. Rolle is a senior journalism student studying advertising and public relations. Producing this podcast was a new experience for Rolle who says she enjoyed working with members of the Marshallese community who were “welcoming and open.”

“Seeing everything come together, I would definitely be interested in doing something like this again and uncovering more stories,” she says.

Rolle grew up in Northwest Arkansas and recalls attending summer camp with Marshallese children, but she did not know the details of their culture until she worked on this project. 

“I think the overall experience was really eye-opening just because like I said, I lived here my entire life,” she says. “I knew of the Marshallese people, but I knew absolutely nothing of their history.”  

The students felt a responsibility to tell the story of the Marshallese community accurately, so they hosted a Zoom session where Marshall Islanders could listen to the podcast and provide feedback, which informed the editing process.

Colleen Thurston, assistant professor of journalism and strategic media, helped supervise the project and says when asking for assistance, they tried to be mindful of how Marshall Islanders are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and are dealing with a lot in their community. 

“These are their stories and it’s their community and they’ve let us share them and we’re trying to take the best possible approach that we can to share their perspectives,” Thurston says.  

None of the students or supervisors are part of the Marshallese community and say they are grateful they were allowed into the community so they could get to know the Marshall Islanders better.

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge the collaboration that we had and the trust from the Marshallese community and thank them for sharing their stories and for allowing us to share them,” Thurston says. 

Maddison says he is grateful to the students for their interest in highlighting his community in the new podcast, which will serve as a great way to educate people about the history of the Marshallese people and share their narrative with the broader community.

“They even allowed the interviewees to listen to the podcast to make sure we were okay with it before releasing it, so I appreciate them for that,” Maddison says. “Despite the pandemic and the amount of stress that comes with it, the students put together an excellent podcast.”

All episodes of Arkansas Atoll are available now on the Arkansas Story Vault website.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in the Legacy Issue of Idle Class Magazine as part of a partnership with the publication. The newest edition if available online and in print. For details about where to pick up a physical copy near you, please send an email to [email protected]

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.

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