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The Northern Mariana Islands, officially the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, is a commonwealth in political union with the United States in the western Pacific Ocean. It consists of 14 tropical islands that stretch across 400 miles, just adjacent to the famed Marianas Trench, with the world's greatest known ocean depth of 35,810 feet. The Marianas lie approximately 1,300 miles south of Tokyo, 1,400 miles east of Manila, 3,200 miles west of Honolulu, and 2,900 miles north of Sydney. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the total land area of all islands as 179 square miles.
The Northern Mariana Islands has a population of 53,883 (2010 Census). More than 90% of the Commonwealth's population lives on the island of Saipan. Of the fourteen other islands, only two, Tinian and Rota have a significant population.
The Commonwealth's center of government is located in the village of Capitol Hill on the island of Saipan. As the island is governed as a single municipality, most publications term "Saipan" as the Commonwealth's capital.
The Northern Mariana Islands, together with Guam to the south, compose the Mariana Islands. The southern islands are limestone with level terraces and fringing coral reefs; the northern islands are volcanic, with active volcanoes on Anatahan, Pagan and Agrihan. The volcano on Agrihan has the highest elevation in the islands at 3,166 feet (965 m). About one-fifth of the land is arable, another tenth is pasture.
The islands have a tropical marine climate moderated by seasonal northeast trade winds. There is little seasonal temperature variation. The dry season runs from December to June, and the rainy season from July to November and can include typhoons. The Guinness Book of World Records has cited Saipan as having the most equable or constant temperature in the world.
The economy benefits substantially from subsidies and development assistance from the United States government. The economy also relies on tourism, predominately from Japan and Korea. The tourism industry employs about 50% of the work force and accounts for roughly one-fourth of GDP. Annual tourist entries which previously exceeded 700,000 have significantly dwindled over the past decade. The agricultural sector is made up of cattle ranches and small farms producing coconuts, breadfruit, melons, beans, and tomatoes.
The Mariana Islands were settled by seagoing canoe voyagers more than 3,000 years ago. Because of linguistic similarities, these people are believed to have originated from the Indo-Malaysian group.
A well developed culture is exemplified by the Latte Culture (Latte Stones are believed to be house foundations for upper class members of the communities). The complexity of the latte quarrying and installation (some stones weighed several tons and were carried several miles from the quarry to the house site) indicated complex and prosperous social systems.
The first European exploration of the area was that led by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who landed on nearby Guam and claimed the islands for Spain. In 1668, the islands were named by the first Spanish missionary, Fr. San Vitores as Las Marianas after Mariana of Austria, widow of Spain's Philip IV.
The Spanish operation of the islands led to conflict over several decades. Many of the islands' native population died from violent encounters with the Spanish; many more died from diseases brought by the Spanish. It is believed that there were 50,000 islanders at the beginning of European contact and only 1,500 - 2,000 by the year 1720.
The remaining islanders, now called Chamorros, intermarried with the Spanish garrisons made up of Mexicans, Filipinos and Spanish troops. Nearly all of them had been moved to Guam and converted to Catholicism. To facilitate cultural and religious assimilation, Spanish colonists forced the Chamorros to be concentrated on Guam for a period of time. During this time, a group of Carolinians (from present-day eastern Yap State and western Chuuk State) were allowed to settle on Saipan and formed the base of the second indigenous ethnic group in the Northern Marianas. Consequently Carolinians and Chamorros are both considered as indigenous to the Northern Marianas and both languages are official in the commonwealth.
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain sold all of the islands except Guam (captured and claimed by the U.S.) to Germany. The Germans, never more than 20 officials in all of the islands, introduced scientific agriculture and the western concept of land ownership.
Japan captured the islands from Germany in 1914 as World War I opened in Europe. Japan settled thousands of civilians in the islands (20,000 in the Northern Marianas alone) who were primarily engaged in commercial fishing and sugar cane production.
The islands became crucial to the Pacific Theater in World War II and some of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in the Marianas between American and Japanese troops. The only atomic weapons ever to be used in warfare were launched by B29s taking off from the island of Tinian in August of 1945. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the American Navy administered the islands until they were turned over to the United Nations as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Under the principles of the Trusteeship Agreement and American administration, the islands gradually regained their rights to self-government and the Northern Marianas chose to become a part of the American political family by popular vote in 1975. The rest of the Trust Territory, administered as a single unit since 1947 divided into the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.
After Japan's defeat, the islands were administered by the United States as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands; thus, defense and foreign affairs became the responsibility of the U.S. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence, but instead to forge closer links with the United States. Negotiations for territorial status began in 1972. A covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the U.S. was approved in 1975. A new government and constitution went into effect in 1978. Similar to other U.S. territories, the islands do not have representation in the U.S. Senate, but are represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a delegate (beginning January 2009 for the NMI) who may vote in committee but not on the House floor.
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