In October of 2022, the US Supreme Court discussed hearing a case that could have overturned the Insular Cases. The Insular Cases are a series of opinions made by the Supreme Court in the early 1900s which decided to keep the political status of the US territories ambiguous while not granting its residents the same rights as those in the mainland US. The most recent case, Fitisemanu v. United States, asked the Supreme Court to consider whether people living in territories like American Samoa should be granted birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.
Similarly, the Supreme Court decided not to hear Tuaua v. United States in 2012, which would have also set the precedent for American Samoans having birthright citizenship. The court’s decision to not hear cases regarding American Samoan citizenship concerns not only people’s rights but the independence of the territories as a whole. If a US National is granted birthright citizenship, the decision granting this would override the Insular Cases, and the precedent would inch toward a new status for the US territories.
This ‘new status’ is what has been the center of debate for scholars and lawmakers for decades. Some progressives believe that statehood is the answer: the implications for such an effort are clear, however, in that statehood for the territories would likely give Democrats more power and influence in elections. The question here is whether the effort would truly be toward decolonization or a strategic politic move. Many scholars, on the other hand, argue that independence is the best solution.
Under the US Constitution, territorialization is meant to be a temporary status as it is inherently unequal. In the scenario of statehood, adding 4 million citizens to the US would drastically change the voting landscape and enfranchise people who are considered to be second-class citizens under the Insular Acts. In the case of independence, the US would be forgoing its unfettered access to the territories as strategic military sites. In both cases, the US would be giving up enormous amounts of power that colonialism has granted it.
The temporary yet lasting ‘transitionary’ status of the territories allows the US to maintain colonies around the globe while not labeling itself as an empire in the 21st century.
Discussions about colonialism and ‘empires’ may seem outdated to many. It may be easy for many to forget that the territories’ existence as a part of the US is entirely contingent on the lasting legacies and the continued defense of colonialism and racist policies.
As territories such as American Samoa have been colonized, the resilience of their culture and retainment of traditions still serve residents in tandem with Western styles of ruling. All of this is evident that colonialism is not an issue of the past but a dynamic process still ever-present in domestic and international conversations.
The debate looms over whether citizenship and incorporation with the mainland US is the right direction for American Samoa. Should American Samoan residents fight for citizenship? Would the incorporation of American Samoa into the US be beneficial for its residents despite continued colonization? Should the US pull out of the territory altogether?
Many people have different ideas as to how the US should approach these questions, and the rest of the world has also joined in on the conversation. From the outside, it’s difficult to see a clear answer—but those in the US can probably realize the magnitude of the US government making a concerted effort toward either direction for a territory like American Samoa.
The colonization of American Samoa
Long before colonization, each of the United States territories already had laws that governed how people interacted with one another and how decisions were made. Since the US colonized American Samoa, their people and their systems have grappled with Western ways of ruling and have stayed emergent, molding into the system that rules the territory today.
Colonization of American Samoa began with the Dutch discovery of the island in 1722 and was followed by European traders and, eventually, London missionaries colonized the islands. Then, the US military became central to the large-scale transformative influence of the island from outside actors. Local chiefs eventually ceded much of the territory to the US in 1904, and in 1951, the territory was transferred to the US Department of the Interior.
As American Samoa was westernized, Samoans began to fight for control over their country’s affairs within the American political system. The territory elected its first governor in 1977, and since then, all members of the territory’s Fono (its legislative body) have been elected by its citizens. Since 1981, American Samoa has elected a nonvoting congressional delegate to represent the territory in US Congress.
Now, as Western civics, politics, and laws have largely replaced the ways that Samoan society was organized, Samoan society now still retains aspects of its cultural organization from pre-colonization. With this came the interaction of Western civic organization and the retainment of the Samoans’ way of governing, ruling, and organizing the land and their people.
In post-colonial and anti-colonial literature, there is now a debate on “decolonization” in American Samoa and what that should look like. The United Nations has also consistently convened on decolonization. Marking the beginning of every decade since 1990, the UN has called on member states to intensify efforts to eradicate colonialism. Nations are obligated to follow the C-24 mandate, which requires annual meetings regarding the decolonization of “Non-self governing territories.”
UN officials also meet with representatives from the territories annually. Many scholars, writers, and diplomats have explored the question of what American Samoa ought to fight for. The case remains that American Samoa is the only territory where residents are born without US citizenship status or rights. Residents can carry a US passport and can enlist in the US military but cannot vote and do not get access to welfare programs.
In Fitisemanu v. United States, three American Samoans living in Utah fought for birthright citizenship. Interestingly, the American Samoan Government appealed the case, stating that Samoan citizens should be able to choose whether or not they are granted citizenship and that the status actually enables the US to encroach more on Samoan traditions. As the Supreme Court ruling upholds the Insular Cases, some may also argue that it upholds American Samoan autonomy.
The issue is complex, and it is clear that the debate over the status of American Samoa and its residents’ citizenship rights is nuanced. The Insular Cases continue to be upheld, however, and the path toward eradicating colonialism is not immediately clear—but perhaps the decision should not be up to any one person or organization, especially one outside of American Samoa.
American Samoa’s traditional ruling system
In American Samoa, local tribal leaders have feared that a US-inspired, westernized constitution would overwrite and eventually undermine some traditional customs. Amid the struggles, however, traditional customs remain, reaching into the top tiers of their government while serving as the primary local system of ruling.
Traditionally, in American Samoa, foundational relations start at the immediate family and then extend outward by blood relation into the extended family. Beyond that, tiers of hierarchies in the village structure are an important feature of Samoan life. Still, as of 2001, 90% of the land in American Samoa was communally owned, and any privately held land was included in efforts to return to communal land. Today, the Samoan government is modeled after the United States but has modifications to preserve Samoan culture.
Aside from a legislature and Western-style judicial branch, American Samoa has district, county, and village governmental bodies, and traditional customs mostly govern these areas. Matai, ministers, and village councils perform most of the dispute resolution. “Matai” means “chief” in Samoan and is one of the most significant ways traditional customs merge with constitutionalism in American Samoa.
The Matai role is an honorable status that can include qualifications of political experience, family service, initiative, and age. They also serve as trustees of the land. In the 51-seat parliament or Fono (meaning ‘meeting’ in Samoan), 49 Samoan members are Matai, who perform dual roles as chiefs and politicians. There are about 360 village chief councils that govern locally.
As for merging traditional and Western ruling customs, some societies are deemed ‘transitional’ and tiptoe the line between traditional and ‘modern’ using different ways to keep some customary law intact within the legal system. It’s worth noting the use of the word transitional with the supposed end goal being ‘modern.’
From the Western perspective, it’s often easy to consider Indigenous traditions as something ‘in the past’ to ‘progress’ from. This is an example of how the language people use to describe societies such as those in the US territories is indicative of how Western culture has made its mark around the world, expecting others to adapt.
What is “progress?”
The language here (transitional, modern) is referencing a research paper titled “Curfews, Culture, and Custom in American Samoa: An Analytical Map for Applying the US Constitution to US Territories.” Although the paper explains many aspects of Samoan culture in detail, the language typically used to describe such societies shouldn’t be overlooked.
The reality is that what ‘progress’ means is relative. The use of the word modern is also notable in that Westerners often think of ‘modern’ as ‘better’ or more ‘progressive.’ This, too, is entirely relative all around the world.
With that being the case, the discussion is nuanced. If Western ‘progress’ is not progress to those in American Samoa, for example, shouldn’t Westerners be allowed to say that they should want to stay traditional? If Western ‘progress’ is forced hegemony for those in the territories, why would they want to ‘progress?’
This is a question that may seem benevolent or maybe even helpful at the face of it. A closer look reveals that a Westerner concluding that territories such as Guam or American Samoa should want independence, for example, can be just as hegemonic and colonial as saying that they should progress to be more modern.
Independence or Statehood?
This raises the question of whether territories should merge more into the United States or go in the other direction of independence. Discussions about this can get pedantic or even paternalistic quickly. If merging with the US is seen by those outside of American Samoa as ‘less-than-honorable’ in that it surrenders efforts toward independence, this denies the agency of what American Samoans themselves believe is best for them.
In such a narrative, the people of the territories and their societies are left out of the story—and their agency is ignored. Well-meaning, progressive Westerners may think that the agency of American Samoans is a good thing—except for when it means anything other than independence.
If American Samoans (or other territorial residents) themselves decide it’s in their best interest to become part of a larger society, then that too is agency. There are real, social; economic; military; or political reasons that territories of the US might deem it in their best interest to become a part of the States.
Meanwhile, an Ivy League student in the US argues that since American Samoan residents lack many of the rights that mainland US citizens have, the solution “feels quite simple” for America to pull out of the territory altogether.
The overarching point is that the territories should be allowed agency and that the United States benefits from keeping the territories in a liminal ‘in between’ political status of neither fully independent nor a US state: the precedent for this extends over 100 years backward with the Insular Cases. All in all, if no path is pursued toward statehood or independence, the Insular Cases are upheld and the US continues to have colonies around the globe.
It’s important to discuss how Western influence on societies such as American Samoa and other US territories has been hegemonic because it has forced others to adapt to its own traditions. However, the issues are complicated, and it’s also important to keep in mind that, in today’s world, discussions around colonialism are not a matter of what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or what ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ happen—these binaries of morality, as mentioned, can have the opposite of the intended effect.
While there is no significant grassroots movement in America Samoa calling for independence, the negative effects of colonialism’s role in cultural erasure shouldn’t be ignored. At the same time, colonialism has made its mark: and amid that, some people have real reasons both for wanting independence and for wanting to become states across the US territories.
It will be a waiting game to see the benefits of changing American Samoa’s territorial status if the US takes this direction. It will also be a waiting game to see just how much the US will engage with decolonization in either case. Fully withdrawing from American Samoa would require the US to swallow its pride and disengage from their strongest military tradition in history, with the American Samoa recruiting station remaining number one out of 800. American Samoans do not have the rights of US citizens but continue to enlist the most soldiers per capita out of any US state or territory.
The US still has a large military influence in American Samoa, upholding one of the most centric reasons that it has strategically kept the territory in a liminal status. With the Coast Guard’s recent installation of a ship in American Samoa in 2022, the US has a heightened sense of influence in the Indo-Pacific. The closest Coast Guard installation is 2,260 nautical miles away in Hawaii, making American Samoa a crucial site for the US military as the maritime security environment becomes more turbulent amid tensions with China.
American decolonization of American Samoa would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the country is not only engaging with its colonial history and addressing it but also prioritizing something other than sheer military influence in the present. Until then, it is difficult to see the US taking this path unless the rest of the world and those in government take measures to pressure the US into doing something unprecedented. If this happens, if either independence or statehood is pursued, the most important point is that it’s not up to the US to decide what’s best. To truly engage in anticolonialism, the US must allow American Samoans to decide what is best for them—no matter what the final decision is.