The United States of America is still a colonial empire. What began as colonies and island possessions around the world have now simply turned into “territories” across the Atlantic. The last six American colonies remain “territories” with varied legal standings. In the case of American Samoa, the territory consisting of the seven easternmost islands in the Samoan archipelago, its residents are not even granted birthright citizenship. The Supreme Court just denied to hear Fitisemanu v. United States, a case about birthright citizenship for three American Samoans living in Utah—but could this have actually undone the harms of colonialism? Why are we asking ourselves whether or not American Samoans deserve citizenship when there is a much more important question: Why are American Samoans governed by the United States to begin with?
Colonization of the Samoan islands began in the late 1800s as American and European powers began violently encroaching into the Pacific as a way to get closer to larger markets and centers of power in East Asia, especially China and Japan. In Samoa specifically, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom fought one another for authority over the islands. Centuries of Samoans before this invasion knew no difference between the eastern and western islands, they simply existed as one. However, the conflict between colonial powers ended in the forced cession of the eastern islands to the United States and the western islands to Germany. While the German territories, after being passed between different administrative powers, eventually gained independence in 1962, the American territory has remained largely stagnant in its autonomy. To the United States, this has simply meant adding another group of islands to its broad collection. To the Samoan people, however, this has meant not only losing their autonomy, but also dividing a single nation of people.
American Samoa is unique for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it is classified as “unorganized,” meaning that people born there are not American citizens. Instead, they are granted status as US Nationals and can carry a US passport, but they do not get the benefits of citizenship such as access to welfare programs, voting rights, or the ability to run for office. For many American Samoans, they are not citizens of any country. This second-class status is rooted in racist tropes held against Pacific Islanders and upheld by the Insular Cases, a number of Supreme Court cases from the early twentieth century that decided American territories “belonged to but are not a part of the United States” because they were occupied by “alien races” and “savage tribes” who were undeserving of citizenship. Challenges to this US National status under the Fourteenth Amendment have been knocked down for decades, such as in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2016, with the Insular Cases often being cited as precedent. In December of 2019, however, Judge Clark Waddoups in the US District Court for the District of Utah ruled in favor of three American Samoans suing for birthright citizenship. The decision was then appealed to the Tenth Circuit which eventually reversed the lower court’s ruling, citing the Insular Cases. Critically, it was actually the American Samoan government that appealed the case to the Tenth Circuit, arguing that American Samoans should choose whether or not to become American citizens, and automatic citizenship opens the door for American encroachment on the American Samoan government and traditions. The case of Fitisemanu vs. United States was denied certiorari on October 17, 2022, meaning the Supreme Court will not hear the case. While this controversially continues to uphold the Insular Cases, many also see it as upholding American Samoan autonomy. This step by the Supreme Court will likely only amplify the existing discussions that brought Fitisemanu vs. United States into the spotlight.
The American Samoan government petitioned against certiorari because its nonintegrated status affords it a great deal of autonomy to practice many forms of tribal governance that could otherwise be deemed unconstitutional. The islands still practice centuries old forms of tribal organization like communal living, prayer curfews, and special rules specifying that only people with 50 percent or more Samoan heritage are allowed to own property, which is often passed down within families. To this day, the United States still owns no land on the islands because it has remained in familial hands. Recognizing American Samoans as citizens would grant them the right to vote and access to social programs, but many residents worry that it would also open the door for further encroachment by the United States government to standardize their way of life to fit into the “American” system. Only a few thousand miles away in Hawaii, the impacts of this could not be clearer. Indigenous Hawaiians have lost their constitutional monarchy and land sovereignty while their culture has been diminished by white settlers. Any future improvement in status for American Samoa within the American government will just further solidify the US colonial claim to the islands. The recent actions of the Supreme Court do not provide any solvency for this, but rather only prolong the current dilemma.
Therefore, the question becomes this: If the current territorial status prevents American Samoans from voting, running for office, or accessing welfare, but any improvement in status would potentially become the nail in the coffin of a unique history and culture, then what should be done to help American Samoa? While even American Samoans are divided on this issue, and no large-scale movement on the islands exists in favor of any solution, one potential answer feels quite simple. Take the United States out of American Samoa. A similar process has already occurred in their western counterpart, independent Samoa. Samoans spent decades organizing, and even experiencing bloodshed, to finally rid themselves of their Kiwi occupiers in 1962. While this process was violent and incredibly tense, Samoa is now the only nation that their former colonizer, New Zealand, has a friendship treaty with. This relationship grants Samoa the autonomy they deserve, but still protects the economic interests of both by allowing for easy movement of goods and people. People in independent Samoa enjoy the benefits of citizenship to a modern nation-state alongside their traditional ways of organizing. This is because they no longer rely on administration from a colonial power seated thousands of miles away. These islands existed as a single entity for thousands of years, and to understand them as separate entities is inherently rooted in a history of colonialism that partitioned them between Western empires.
American Samoans’ fears of encroachment are the result of colonialism by a foreign power. Any response that still uses the United States as a mechanism by which to alleviate these issues will inevitably raise more problems. While there is no large-scale movement in support of independence or reunification, the ongoing issues that were raised by Fitisemanu v. United States are emblematic of the fact that the United States simply does not belong there. As future cases and the complex issues behind them continue to develop, we may begin to see more outcry from native populations that are already beginning to express concerns about further integration into the United States. The American government cannot simply slap citizenship or statehood on a group of islands as a remedy for stripping their rights and autonomy for over a hundred years. American Samoa should not become further integrated into the American colonial machine—it should be allowed to reunite with the other Samoan islands it has shared a people and a culture with for thousands of years. It is time to decolonize the United States.