World Cultures | Nauru

Culture Name

Nauruan is the indigenous name used on official documents. Politically, the country is called the Republic of Nauru (RON).

Alternative Names

Pleasant Islander. Other spellings have appeared, such as Naoero on the national crest.


Identification. The name Pleasant Island was used by the first Europeans in reference to the lush vegetation and friendly inhabitants. Nauruans are attempting to recreate that image after the devastation left by phosphate mining.

Location and Geography. Nauru is a single, almost circular island, 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the equator. It is over 185 miles (300 hundred kilometers) from its nearest neighbor, Ocean Island, and nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) from Kiribati to the east and the Marshall Islands to the northeast. The Solomon Islands are 744 miles (1,200 kilometers) to the southwest. Topographically, Nauru is shaped like a hat, with a coastal fringe forming the brim and the raised interior forming the crown. The interior, known as Topside, makes up four-fifths of the island; it has been mined for phosphate, and now is an almost impassable area of calcite pinnacles. Buada lagoon is in the raised interior. The island covers a total area of 13 square miles (21 square kilometers). The island is a raised reef consisting of calcite and phosphate on a volcanic base. Nauru has very steep sides that drop down to the ocean floor. This has made anchorage for shipping difficult and necessitated the use of a special mooring device.

Demography. The population has been estimated to be over nine thousand, of which indigenous Nauruans account for about six thousand. In the 1992 census, the population was projected to reach 8,100 by 1996, with a growth rate of 4.3 percent. The remainder of the population includes Pacific islanders from Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Fiji, along with Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Australians, and New Zealanders. The population is relatively young, with 66 percent of the people under age 24. Population growth has been a major concern throughout the twentieth century. Attempts to reach a total of 1,500 were set back by the influenza epidemic of 1919, but that figure was reached in 1932, a date that now is celebrated as a national holiday. However, the population was severely reduced by starvation, disease, and bombing during World War II. In 1943, of the 1,201 Nauruans deported to Truk by the Japanese, 464 died, leaving 737 to return on 31 January 1946. The population reached 1,500 again in 1950 and has continued to grow. The nation continues to espouse a positive population policy. A very small proportion of Nauruans live overseas, but many visit Australia, New Zealand, and other countries for purposes of work or education or to visit family, and return home.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nauruan is classified as a Micronesian language but does not fit easily within subgroupings of Austronesian languages. It shares some words with Kiribati but is recognized as standing alone. Nauruans are writing their own dictionary. All Nauruans speak English as well as their own language.

Symbolism. The frigate bird is a major symbol; it is found on the fin of Air Nauru planes and appears as the official logo. The crest consists of two palm trees encircling an orb that includes a Christian cross above a resting frigate bird and a flower. Above the orb is a twelve-pointed star representing the twelve tribes of Nauru. Beneath the orb are the words "God's Will First," indicating the Christian basis of the community's way of life. Phosphate has become another symbol, forming the basis of the nation's wealth.





History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. In 1968, Nauru took over the management of its people and affairs when independence was granted by the trusteeship committee of the United Nations. It took over the running of the phosphate mines in 1970 after paying $13.5 million (U.S.) to the British Phosphate Commission. Those two assertions of social and economic self-reliance released Nauruans from the dominance of outsiders who had exploited the phosphate and the people for seventy years. Mining for phosphate, which dominated Nauruan history in the twentieth century, began when the Pacific Phosphate Company based in Sydney found high-grade phosphate in 1906. This mineral was used to fertilize pasture in Australia and New Zealand. Control passed from Pacific Phosphate to the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) in 1919. BPC was owned by Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand. In addition to running the mine, Australia became the administering authority under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. Thus, the lives of Nauruans became inextricably tied to Australia and BPC until they achieved independence in 1968. The mine was run using laborers from China and the Pacific islands, particularly Kiribati and Tuvalu. Nauruans chose not to work in the mine other than to hold administrative positions in the 1950s and 1960s. Today most of the administrators are Nauruan, and labor is brought in on contract from the Philippines and India as well as from Kiribati and Tuvalu. World War II left a major mark on the history of Nauru. In 1942, the Japanese invaded, bringing some seven thousand men and military installations and building three runways. Two-thirds of the population was deported to Truk, an atoll to the north, where one-third died of starvation and disease. Those left on Nauru suffered severe privation, including starvation and bombing by the Americans for two years. When Australian forces reclaimed Nauru at the end of the war, the island was a mass of military litter, almost totally lacking in food supplies.

In the 1800s, the island had been a playground for whalers and beachcombers who left behind many English-sounding surnames, as well as guns and gin that added to the damage caused by mining. Nauruans want to rehabilitate the island so that they can use the interior four-fifths that has been mined out. Rehabilitation will be funded by 1993 payments of $120 million by Australia and $12 million each by Great Britain and New Zealand as compensation for mining damage before 1968.

National Identity. National identity as Nauruan remains very strong. It can be claimed only by those born of a Nauruan mother. All Nauruans are registered at birth, or shortly thereafter in the Births Deaths and Marriages register of the Nauru government, under their mother's clan. Failure to register a child as Nauruan eliminates that person from the entitlements of being Nauruan, particularly access to land rights, and to shares in phosphate revenue. A child of a Nauruan father, but whose mother is of another nationality must seek special permission to be registered as Naruan.

Ethnic Relations. Ethnic relations between Naruans and other groups brought into the small island, such as Chinese, Filipinos, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Fijians are marked by clear distinctions—the latter are grouped as Pacific Islanders. Each group is known for its particular place in the phosphate industry, and for the lifestyle adopted in Nauru. For example, the Kiribati men have brought their small canoes, from which they fish to sell to nauruans. All other groups work for Nauruans in one way or the other.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Nauru lacks an urban space. Eighty-five percent of the population lives on the narrow coastal strip, with the rest living around the Buada lagoon. All nine thousand inhabitants are crowded alongside the phosphate-processing facilities and the port, mainly in the southwest corner of the island. The airport runway takes up much valuable flat land. Virtually no land is used for agriculture. Until Top-side is rehabilitated, the expanding population will become increasingly crowded on the coastal strip. Before mining commenced, the people of Nauru used the interior of the island as a means of crossing from one coast to the other and as a source of food and recreation. The government intends to return Nauru to its status as Pleasant Island with vegetation and places for recreation.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Almost all food is imported, with the exception of fish caught by Kiribati fishermen. Nauru provided pandanus and fish in premining times, and these were eaten with coconut meat. In times of drought, food shortages could last for two or more years. As a result of mining revenues, the people have a variety of supermarket foods, from turkey to milk. Rice is the basic staple, and fish with rice is the ideal meal. This diet is said to contribute to a high rate of obesity, which often is a precursor to diabetes.

Basic Economy. Phosphate revenues are the mainstay of the economy, together with investments made with revenues earned from earlier mining activities. An average per capita income of $14,400 (U.S.) per year covers up the two extremes: those who have a large number of investments offshore and those who have barely enough to live on. Nauru is an expensive place to live, as almost all necessities have to be imported, although water is now obtained from a desalinization plant. Until the mid-1980s, Nauruans had a strong welfare economy in which housing, education, and health were provided and government scholarships were available for tertiary education overseas. Major cutbacks in social welfare provisions have forced people to buy the materials for their houses and rely more on their personal incomes. Nauru Trust Funds are another potential source of income for all citizens who are recognized landowners and members of Nauruan matrilineage. Five funds were set up between 1920 and 1968, but payments have not been forthcoming as the trustees and the government struggle to assess the amount of revenue in the funds. The Nauruan people will have to live off the proceeds of mining, which is almost finished. The government is looking for economic alternatives.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Nauruans pride themselves on being a democratic society and denounce the two classes that formerly marked their society. The temonibe and amenengame classes consisted of the senior matrilineage as opposed to those in the junior matrilineages. These two classes were distinguished from the itsio, or slave class, which included those who arrived on Nauru from outside and had no land holdings. Heads of lineages were drawn from the temonibe class. A chiefly system instituted in 1927 was replaced in 1951 by the Nauru Local Government Council which consists of elected members.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Symbols of stratification are more latent than overt. Elites with large off-shore bank accounts are known by reputation, as it is not acceptable to flaunt wealth on the island. Trucks or motorbikes and large houses are the extent of manifestations of wealth.

Political Life

Government. Nauru is an active member of the South Pacific Forum and participates in the South Pacific Bureau of Economic Cooperation (SPBEC) and the Forum Fisheries Agency. As the chair of the forum in 1993, Nauru presented a strong case for sustainable development in the small Pacific island states. Its strength is derived from the struggles of its leaders to maintain recognition of Nauruans' rights in their own land. As early as 1921, concerns about Nauruans' returns from phosphate were raised by leaders such as Timothy Detudamo and Hammer de Roburt. Those leaders pressured the BPC and the Australian administration to grant greater shares of the phosphate returns to the Nauruan people and provide better living conditions. Administrative costs were taken out of phosphate profits rather than paid for by Australia as the administering authority under the League of Nations mandate. In 1927, the Australian administration instituted a system of chiefs for the twelve districts. In 1951, Nauruans chose to replace that structure by a more democratic elected body, the Nauru Local Government Council (NLGC), with elected councillors representing the districts. The NLGC was disbanded in 1992. The government now consists of a president

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visit Nauru. Great Britain helps fund rehabilitation for mining-damaged land.

and five cabinet ministers as well as a judiciary and a public service. Nauru maintains diplomatic relations with several countries. There is no military force.


Social Problems and Control. Drunk driving, particularly by young Nauruan men is a serious problem and the leading cause of death on the island. Families exercise social controls, though there is a police force for major social violations. Concerns about pay-outs from the Trust Funds led to a sit-in across the airport runway in 1993 at the time the Pacific Forum leaders were arriving. That reaction resulted in those women (it was a women's action) being fined, some lost their jobs, and the leaders were arrested. There is no jail as such on the island. Serious criminal offenders may be incarcerated in an Australian jail by arrangement.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Nauruans grew up under a broad welfare system in which all their welfare needs were met. Those funds came from the Australian administering authority out of a special Nauru Trust Fund whose money came from phosphate profits. Housing, education, health care, and the public service were all paid for under this administrative account. That system was terminated in 1986, and older Nauruans are finding it hard to live under the new regime, especially those whose lands were mined early. Nauruans have been asking the government for money from the trust funds, and this has caused political antagonism.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Nongovernmental organizations are active mainly within church and youth activities. Both the Congregational and Catholic church have church committees amongst others that work with the Social Welfare department.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. A division of labor by gender is not easily defined. The matrilineal social system gives women a lot of power, so they lead behind the scenes, while men take the political roles in government. Civil Service consists of mostly male heads with women seeking these jobs in the past 20 years. Two of the diplomats in overseas postings have been women. Most of the primary school teachers are women, while men are active in phosphate management. The term "division of labor" is no longer appropriate.


Workers at a phosphate mine in Nauru. Phosphate revenues are the mainstay of the economy, however, the interior four-fifths of the island has been mined out.


The Relative Status of Women and Men.

Nauruans maintain social ties through the mother (matrilineal ties). Mothers are the anchor persons of kin groups and residential groups, and ties between sisters and brothers are strong. Women are the main care givers within and between households, but they have entered the workforce in considerable numbers in the last fifteen years. Men predominate in political affairs and all senior government positions. Only two women have shared political office at any one time. Male leadership has dominated Nauru's external affairs. Women are active in the National Council of Women and in church committees.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

All Nauruans belong to a matrilineal group or clan. Each birth and death is publically identified by clan affiliation in a public document. That affiliation lasts the lifetime of the individual and is not altered by marriage. A marriage partner must be selected

Islanders with a tame frigate bird for catching fish. Almost all food is imported, with the exception of fish.

from another clan. Marriage today is largely a Christian affair, though there are concerns that some young people are opting not to marry; their children belong to the mother's lineage. Households center on the mother, who takes care of and then is cared for by her children. The nominal head of the household is the male, but the decision-making head is the mother, who is largely responsible for economic management as well as social care. Land and other properties are inherited by both sons and daughters, but only daughters can pass on their rights to their children without seeking extended family consent. Modern properties such as motor-bikes are passed on within extended families. All Nauruans belong to a district. That affiliation is inherited through the mother or father but may be changed during a person's lifetime for political reasons. District affiliation includes responsibility for participating in district activities.



Children belong to the mother's lineage but are cared for equally by their paternal kin. Adoptions, whether formal or informal, are fairly common. Children are indulged by Western standards; they can and do exercise a traditional right of demand for goods from the mother's brother. They are seldom left alone and form part of a large network of kin that extends around the island. A primary school is located in each village; from there students progress to government high school or the Catholic high school. A few are sent to Australia or New Zealand to study, especially if their parents received their secondary education overseas. Government scholarships for Nauruans are offered for tertiary study in Australia and New Zealand. The University of the South Pacific Extension Centre is offering opportunities for tertiary study.


Nauru is a Christian country so a prayer opens most gatherings. Children are expected to honor and respect their elders. Mothers are particularly honored. Dress is usually European. Many elements of Australian etiquette are followed as public practice.


Religious Beliefs. Christianity arrived in the 1880s, introduced by both a Catholic missionary and a Congregational minister. Those two religions dominate today. The Catholic Church provides a secondary school, while the Congregational Church, which is the national church, has a major church in the center of the downtown area and smaller churches in the districts. Timothy Detudamo translated the Bible into Nauruan in the 1930s. Before Christian beliefs arrived and mining destroyed Topside, Nauruans believed in the primordial establishment of the island by two spirits that came from Kiribati and were manifest in two rocks, one on either side of Topside. Those rocks have disappeared, along with many of the other useful aspects of Topside. Buada lagoon is another site of spiritual strength for some Nauruans.

Medicine and Health Care

Government concerns about health have led to programs of intervention, including encouraging more sports and physical activity by young people. Attempts are being made to reduce the high rate of road accidents, particularly among male motor-cyclists. High alcohol use also is being addressed by educational programs. Two hospital exist on the island. One is run by the government for Naurans and a separate facility is run by the Nauru Phosphate Corporation for its contract workers.

The Arts and Humanities

Nauruans have revived their interest in their history. The Department of Education is producing a history from a Nauruan perspective as well as a Nauruan dictionary. Writers are being encouraged, mainly through the USP Extension Centre on Nauru, to produce stories, poems, and songs. Throughout the twentieth century, poems were written to commemorate special events. Those poems recorded not just historical events but also the culture of Nauru.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The project to rehabilitate the interior (Topside) has generated considerable interest in the plants and animals of the island. The Committee for Rehabilitation of Nauru consisted of Australians supported by AIDAB and Nauru, working alongside Nauruans. It encouraged a number of young people to share their interest in and knowledge about plants as well as understanding of the social dynamics of the island.


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Kretzschmar, K. E. Nauru, 1913.

Pollock, Nancy J. Nauru Report, 1987.

——. "Social Fattening Patterns in the Pacific: A Nauru Case Study." In N. J. Pollock and I. de Garine, eds., Social Aspects of Obesity, 1995.

——. Social Impact of Mining on Nauruans, in press.

Viviani, Nancy. Nauru, Phosphate and Political Progress , 1970.

Weeramantry, C. Nauru: Environmental Damage under International Trusteeship, 1992.


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