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When Colonial Kindness Trumps Self Determination

  • Rumpled American Samoa and USA flags interposed.
    Rumpled American Samoa and USA flags interposed.
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I’ve spoken out against this in the past. 

American Samoa is a refuge, a heritage location, an example of where America (and the West) DID NOT fully colonise and destroy the native people. Encapsulated in the treaty that transferred local sovereignty to the USA was a pact and promise that the United States would preserve the Samoan way of life and by extension protect our lands and culture, which are tied to the communal ownership of land and the traditional leadership system of the families. 

We have a long tradition of self-governing at the clan, village, and archipelago levels for 3000+ years. Our chiefs recognised the changes coming with the arrival of the Europeans and the Americans, and the value that our islands had to these world powers. They struck a deal with the USA to exchange a small part of our sovereignty in order to retain and protect the greater part of that which makes our people who and what we are - the land that is our common ground, and our system of traditional leaders who we elect to govern the land, settle disputes, and provide aid and assistance when in need. 

While it is true that American Samoa has, in general, been a net recipient of financial aid from the Federal Government, it is also true that we have contributed many of our young men and women to US military service. We had a mutually benefiting relationship with the United States, as it stood before this ruling. Our lands were sacrosanct, our people had the right to choose their allegiance, and we were protected from other foreign influences. This ruling changes that. Now we see the creep of the other US constitutional protections and clauses into the territory. The end result would be the destruction of the land laws and traditional leadership system that has allowed our people and culture to retain ownership over our ancestral lands and to stay connected to our extended families and clans in a way that Westerners cannot understand. 

I grew up in American Samoa, on land that has been in our family for at least 400 years. My mother’s side of the family has even longer ties to their lands in Savaii that they call home. I know most, if not all of my first cousins, a large number of my second cousins, and I grew up surrounded by third, fourth, and cousins many times removed. It is ridiculous to the point where we often just refer to one another as “cuz” because we know we are family and have familial connections under our clans. How many Westerners can claim kinship to cousins more than one step distanced? Or who know intimately the land where their fathers’ were birthed by midwife next to a beach? We remember. 

I hear people talking about what happened to native Hawaiians. There is some relevancy there - because without the protections on the land that are part of American Samoa and Independent Samoa’s lands system, most of the Hawaiians’ ancestors were dispossessed of their lands by their own chiefs who sold the lands to Westerners or gifted them to children as individually owned land, alienating that land in perpetuity. The great crime of colonisation and dispossession of the Hawaiian people was as much self inflicted as it was imposed from without. It is a lesson Samoans were keen to not repeat. 

Interestingly, the Hawaiian royal family had many communications with Samoan chiefs in the lead up of the colonisation of the Samoan islands by Germany and the USA. I believe those communications led to the basis of the Mau movement in Samoa and was the foundation of the reasons why the Tutuila and Manu’a chiefs sought treaty protections for the land and our way of life from colonial creep, as well as to restrict the future chiefs from enriching themselves and dispossessing Samoans of our heritage.

That said - There is no justice in taking lands away from the descendants of colonisers and returning them to indigenous peoples. In the same vein - in today’s modern context, enabling the alienation of indigenous lands from an indigenous people who possess and cherish it is as great an injustice. Once alienable, the value of the land would far exceed the ability of indigenous people to hold onto it. The same forces that led to the sale and alienation of Native Hawaiian lands will happen in American Samoa, and our people would become tenants where once we were landlords. 

Is birthright American Citizenship that great prize for someone who is already a US National? A US National is exempt from the draft and has all the same rights and benefits of a US Citizen, with a few very limited exceptions. A US National cannot vote for President or run for President. A US National is exempt from certain types of jobs that require full US Citizenship - typically National Security type work or military work requiring higher level clearances. With those as the major exceptions - 99.9999% of US Nationals aren’t really affected by their status as non-citizen nationals. Citizenship is also not difficult to achieve for a US National. It is a simple enough application process, a test that a fifth grader should be able to pass, and an oath of allegiance. While this can be shortened, and the cost lowered - the likelihood that any National who requires citizenship to get a job will likely already be a middle class wage or higher wage earner, and would not be in the lowest wage brackets. In light of the above, the exemption of American Samoa from birthright citizenship has not done any real and lasting harm, but has had the net benefit of protecting the lands and way of life of an indigenous people who are both as passionate and loyal to their traditions as they are patriotic and loyal to the United States, which has sheltered them. 

Admittedly, American Samoa is an oddity, but there is no injustice in our lack of birthright citizenship. It is a mark of pride that we have integrated into the US but that we have also retained ownership over our lands and way of life. Being a US National is not to be looked down on, nor is it a mark or disrespect of our personhood under US Law. It is a recognition of our status as an unincorporated, unorganised territory - which is by choice of the people of the territory. It is why the US Constitution does not fully apply in American Samoa, and why resident’s only pay the local taxes and Federal Social Security and Medicare taxes, but NOT Federal Income taxes. 

American Samoa is the way it is by choice of the people of American Samoa. Such a major change in status and application of the 14 amendment to American Samoa is a violation of the treaties that binds our islands to the United States. It endangers the singular purpose of the treaties - to protect and secure the Samoan way of life from the creep of colonial and Western values that would eventually alienate our lands from our people, and worse it would start the process of alienating our people from one another. 

Let the anti-colonisation idealism stay true to its single most fundamental rule of self determination. Let American Samoans decide for themselves, and don’t let an unelected judge decide what is right or good for us. We are not children, and our forefathers who negotiated those treaties were not children either. They were wise in their negotiations and on the terms they settled on. We believe those terms remain relevant and that the future wealth and strength of our people is solely reliant on our maintaining control and ownership of our lands. Today, even the poorest Samoan, in the humblest of situations in the USA knows they have a home in the islands, should they ever need it. Take that away from us, and we would become no different than the Native Americans, African Americans, and native Hawaiians - a people dispossessed. The only difference would be that instead of being driven by greed and conquest, we will have been dispossessed by those thinking to do us a kindness we neither asked for or wanted.