Experts think the first settlers of what are now called the Northern Mariana Islands arrived by boat from Southeast Asia about 4,000 years ago. The 14 islands that make up the Northern Mariana Islands are very close to Guam, so these territories share a lot of history. The Indigenous people of both the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam are the Chamorro (SHUH-mah-roh) people.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the region in 1521. He named the chain of islands Islas de los Ladrones—which means “Islands of Thieves” in Spanish—because islanders took a small boat from the arriving fleet. Magellan was only there for three days, but he killed several Chamorro people during that time.
Over the next hundred years, European explorers traded with the locals on their stopovers to Asia. But the traders also brought diseases to the islands, killing many Indigenous people. In 1667, the Spanish established a colony on these islands (including Guam) and named them Las Marianas, after the Spanish Queen Mariana.
When Spain lost the Spanish-American War, the United States gained control of Guam; Spain sold the rest of the islands (now known as the Northern Mariana Islands) to Germany. During World War I in 1914, the Japanese navy took control of the islands. Then in June 1944, during World War II, the U.S. military invaded the Mariana island of Saipan in a bloody encounter called the Battle of Saipan. Since then, the Northern Mariana Islands have been part of the United States.
The Northern Mariana Islands are a chain, or archipelago, of 14 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are the peaks of a massive underwater mountain range that begins in the deepest part of the ocean called the Mariana Trench. The mountain range (which became the islands) was created by volcanoes over millions of years, and some are still active today. For instance, the government evacuated the island of Pagan in 1981 after an eruption; no one has lived there since. And a 2007 eruption on the island of Anatahan lasted nearly a year.
The waters around the Northern Mariana Islands are home to five endangered whale species: blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, and sperm whales. Dugongs—sea mammals related to manatees—also swim around the islands. The official bird of the Northern Mariana Islands is the Mariana fruit dove, a green fruit-eating bird that lives nowhere else on Earth.
These tropical islands have warm weather all year, and they’re very lush. Even the most populated island, Saipan, is almost 80 percent forest. Plants such as banana trees, palm trees, ferns, pine trees, and plumeria trees (which have the official flower) cover the islands.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Most people living in the Northern Marianas Islands are on the islands of Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. About half the population is of Asian descent, and most others are native to the Pacific Islands (which includes Chamorro people) or a mix of different races.
The Chamorro people have influenced many popular dishes, including motsiyas, a mixture of ground chicken, hot pepper leaves, mint, lemon juice, salt, and pepper; and kelaguen with meat or seafood, coconut, and lime. Lumpias, fried spring rolls, are eaten at family celebrations throughout the islands. And because of the culture’s Spanish influence, rice is a popular ingredient in many dishes.
The islands host many festivals, including a sweet potato festival, a hot pepper festival (which includes a hot pepper eating contest!), and a fishing derby. One of the longest-running festivals, the Flame Tree Arts Festival, highlights traditional stick dancing, an ancient warrior dance. The Liberation Day Festival in Saipan is a week-long celebration of the island's 1944 liberation from Japanese occupation.
• The ocean surrounding the Northern Mariana Islands has more than 60 underwater volcanoes.
• Four endangered species of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead) live near the Northern Mariana Islands.
• The Mariana fruit bat is a species of flying fox that eats breadfruit, papaya, figs, and other plants, helping to spread seeds in their poop.