OP ED: Flag Day- A Time to Consider Our History
Flag Day is a particularly appropriate time to consider the history of our relationship with the United States and what it means for the question of citizenship and the continued preservation of our land and culture.
When the United States flag was raised over Pago Pago harbor 113 years ago today, our traditional leaders believed that they had entered the American family as U.S. citizens. It wasn’t until 20 years later that they were informed by the Navy that in the eyes of the U.S. government, even though American Samoans had taken on the obligations of U.S. nationals, they lacked the rights of U.S. citizens. And thus the status of “non-citizen national” was invented, a status no one in the United States even imagined existed until the early 1900s.
Almost immediately, our people organized together in support of being recognized as full U.S. citizens rather than merely as U.S. nationals. These efforts culminated in 1930 with passionate testimony presented by our leaders to the American Samoan Commission sent by Congress to visit our islands. I quote from just a few of the statements:
Samuel Tulele Galeai: “[T]hat as Tutuila and Manua has been accepted as part of America, I therefore pray that the people of Tutuila and Manua may also become citizens of America.”
Chief Fanene: “[M]any years we have been under the American flag. . . . But we have not received the word ‘true American.’ . . . We are only a few people that is true, but we wish to become loyal and peaceful citizens of the United States.”
Chief Nua: “I desire . . . that the people of American Samoa should be true American citizens; receive American citizenship, to be equal with the true American.”
Our leaders were persuasive — the 1930 Commission unanimously recommended to Congress and the President that American Samoans be recognized as “full American citizens.” But while this recommendation twice received the unanimous support of the Senate, legislation failed to pass the House due to Navy opposition. In the 1940s, the Navy even withheld from Congress several resolutions passed by the Fono seeking recognition as citizens.
Our leaders had it right — so long as American Samoa is a part of the United States, citizenship by birth in American Samoa is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, not a privilege extended by Congress. The very purpose of the Constitution’s Citizenship Clause was to make sure that the right of citizenship by birth on American soil was not left to be decided by Congress or any state or territory.
Our leaders also understood then that the question of citizenship was a separate question from the preservation of our land and culture. Congress made this point clear at the time. One Representative expressed that even as American Samoans “are entitled to citizenship,” Congress was committed to “protect[ing] the Samoans in the ownership of their land.”
Constitutional challenges to our cultural preservation laws have been made in the past. Federal judges have dismissed these claims not because the Constitution does not apply in American Samoa (to the contrary they said it does), but because of the important interest in preserving American Samoa’s land and culture. Future challenges would similarly turn on the importance of the interest of cultural preservation — citizenship, or lack of citizenship, has never been a part of this analysis.
As we observe this celebration of Flag Day let us remember that these islands of American Samoa have been a part of the United States since our ancestors gave it by Deeds of Cession over a century ago. In fact, American Samoa has been part of the United States for almost half the entire existence of the United States. Whether American Samoa will continue to remain a part of the United States is a question that can be voted on by the people of American Samoa. Our popular votes in the past have always been to keep American Samoa a part of the United States. So long as it is the will of our people and the U.S. Congress to honor our ancestors' Deeds of Cession of Tutuila, Aunu'u and the Manua Islands to the United States, the question of an individual's citizenship by birth in American Samoa is answered by the United States Constitution.
Attorney Charles V. Ala’ilima represents Leneuoti Tuaua and seven other American Samoans who are challenging the constitutionality of federal laws that deny citizenship to people born in American Samoa. Learn more about Tuaua v. United States at www.equalrightsnow.org/Tuaua.