The islands of American Samoa -- located in the South Pacific between Hawaii and New Zealand -- are about as far as you can travel from the American capital city and still be in U.S. territory. Al Hulsen reports on how Washington and Pago Pago share the duties of governance, and how the territory's 58,000 U.S. nationals are shaping their own political future.
One hundred years ago, as the British, French, and Germans worked to expand their colonial empires in the Pacific, the traditional Samoan leaders - the matai - asked Washington for protection… and the islands became U.S. territory. But Samoan journalist Monica Miller explains the people of American Samoa are not U.S. citizens. "Because American Samoa is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States, the people who are born here are called U.S. nationals."
Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, says his string of islands is the only territory that has this status. "Under U.S. immigration laws, a U.S. national is someone who owes permanent allegiance to the United States but is neither a citizen nor an alien. It means that you can travel on a U.S. passport, you can come to the United States, you can join the military, you do everything else U.S. citizens do."
Almost everything. American Samoans do not cast votes in Presidential elections, nor may they serve as officers in the U.S. military. On Capitol Hill, where Congressman Faleomavaega participates in debates, serves on committees and introduces legislation, he does not have a vote on the House Floor.
But he says American Samoans receive the same government services provided to other U.S. citizens. "We do receive federal grants and programs that benefit the people, just like other states and territories. A good example, we just went past a hurricane, Olaf. Luckily we were not hit directly, but the point here is that FEMA (the government disaster agency) comes in, the President declares us a national disaster (area). We're treated like a state."
And according to Congressman Faleomavaega, most American Samoans like it that way. "Some have advocated recently that American Samoa be part of some enclave of other territories becoming a state," he explains. "But there is no [expressed] desire really that American Samoa should become independent. I suppose the fear is that we don't have the means necessary to become independent like other countries, but at the same time I guess you might say that we've taken a lot of the American culture."
What lies behind that congenial relationship is a unique history, according to Sameli Tuiteleleapaga, who worked closely with the American Samoa government here and in Washington. He points out that, unlike the Philippines, New Guinea, Vietnam and Burma, American Samoa was never colonized. "The United States was never a colonial power," he points out. "They were a military power, but they were never out to acquire territories or colonies. I think the most wonderful thing about the Samoans in their relationship to the United States, it was never forced on them."
Although Mr. Tuiteleleapaga describes the relationship as "a mutually agreed deed of cession," he also says cession is somewhat of a misnomer. "It was an exchange rather than ceding anything. We never ceded our land to the United States. We asked the United States to be our protector," he says. "They guarantee our protection and we gave them the use of this harbor here. And it was a free choice. It was never a forced choice."
Still, some offer the observation that more than a century of political and economic dependence on the United States has narrowed the territory's future choices. American Samoa Community College student Aaron Va'ai Hall doesn't think becoming independent is a viable option now. "We're really dependent on the U.S. I don't think they'll take the risk of our going independent and becoming probably a third world country." He adds, "I hope not."
But some residents - including Community College professor Aleni Ripine - would like to see some changes. "I've been a proponent of the idea that we could become American citizens, without losing our Matai system, our land. We still have our land. We want to be part of you [the United States] and we want to become American citizens, but we've got to hang on to our culture, because that's life to us. That's our life."
American Samoa has been a part of the United States for 104 years. The vast majority here seems happy to let it stay that way.