Film Documents Springdale 'Island'

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A small number of people from the Marshall Islands first moved to northwest Arkansas in the 1970s, but in the mid-90s their migration increased significantly, with most of them settling in Springdale. 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.

“A New Island,” a new documentary by Dale Carpenter of the University of Arkansas, offers a rare in-depth look at Springdale’s Marshallese community.

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,” he recalled. “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.”  

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 people. 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.

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 a 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. He said his own learning process started early in the project.

“One thing that first attracted me to this story was the chance to travel to the Marshall Islands. As I began the research, I soon realized I didn’t need to do that. The story was right here in my backyard.”

Carpenter, a veteran photojournalist, has produced a dozen award-winning documentaries in the past 20 years. On this project he wanted to show the importance of family and tradition in the Marshallese culture, to convey 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, and the scenes are 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.

The Marshallese celebrate their nation’s independence on “Constitution Day,” which is officially May 1, but in Springdale the holiday is traditionally observed over the Memorial Day weekend. Dale Carpenter will premier his film for the Marshallese community and the public as part of this year’s “Constitution Day” celebration. “A New Island” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 27, in the chapel of the Jones Center for Families in Springdale.



Steve Voorhies, manager of media relations
University Relations
(479) 575-3583,


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