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American Samoa: Can the Home of the Brave help more lands be free?

Flags flying in front of Election Office
Source: The Brown Political Review

Providence, RHODE ISLAND — As President Joe Biden seeks to build a Cabinet that “looks like America,” one nomination stands out as especially significant: Deb Haaland’s appointment to lead the Department of the Interior (DOI), making her the first Indigenous American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. In her new role, Haaland oversees the all-important Department of Indian Affairs, the federal center of policy that supports indigenous communities. While Haaland’s voice has been essential over the last year as America and its allies continue to grapple with grotesque colonial pasts, she has only been able to do so much for her fellow Indigenous Americans who are fighting for civil and political rights. Indeed, despite gradual progress, Indigenous Americans remain one of the most disadvantaged groups in the United States, earning far less income than the national average and witnessing even less representation in government. These centuries-old problems reflect the fundamental challenge to indigenous people in America — the quest to win back tribal sovereignty. No matter the size of the court case or ferocity of the protest, Indigenous Americans are still unable to exercise anything approaching the cultural and territorial sovereignty they experienced before colonization. 

Perhaps American Samoa has the answer. American Samoa is an island chain with just over 50,000 Americans, known for having the highest per-capita military participation rate of any US state or territory. But, unlike the residents of other unincorporated American territories like Puerto Rico, American Samoans are US nationals, not US citizens — something that civil rights groups have taken great issue with for years. While outsiders often denounce this policy as unfair, many American Samoans view their status as an opportunity to preserve the islands’ culture and traditions. But as a result of their noncitizen status, American Samoa is the only inhabited US territory without clear federal judicial oversight. The islands’ government has taken advantage of US indifference by creating a “hybrid system of law… unique in the world today.” The system blends a Western legal framework with the indigenous matai system of chief leadership and, critically, communal land ownership. As a result, American Samoa has managed to preserve its precolonial culture better than any other U.S. territory or tribe. Beyond the confines of the American Constitution, American Samoa is an overlooked center of policy experimentation for mainland Indigenous Americans seeking to bolster their tribal sovereignty.

American Samoa’s unique history with the US is central to its ability to protect fa’a Samoa — the Samoan way. After gaining control of the territory in 1900, the US Navy exercised authority over American Samoa on behalf of the federal government until 1951, after which the DOI took responsibility in 1956. In part because of US naval control and in part because of its 5,000 mile distance from the US mainland, foreigners never settled American Samoa unlike other US territories. Critically, American Samoa is the most homogenous territory of indigenous people in the United States: Roughly 90 percent of residents are native Samoan. This ethnic homogeneity helped enable American Samoan leaders to establish traditional political institutions in 1962 and 1967 by passing a constitution without overwhelming pushback by the United States. Two important features stand out from this constitution: the matai leadership system and communal land ownership. Matai, which translates roughly to “title,” is a hierarchical system of social ranks that is woven into American Samoan law. Matai leaders oversee control of “communal land” – land that can only be owned, sold and developed within small communities, making up a whopping 96 percent of all property in American Samoa. In other words, non-Samoans are unable to buy property according to a Western free market structure on the vast majority of the islands. Put together, American Samoans have managed to retain a remarkable level of sovereignty over their land and their political institutions despite their relationship with the United States. 

Read more at Brown Political Review