Where Angels No Longer Fear to Tread


Every territory of the US today is different in some ways, but similar in others. All are islands, even if they are in different oceans. All have non-voting delegates. All are US citizenship, except for one and that is American Samoa, where the people there are US nationals. Interacting with people from American Samoa or with ties to American Samoa is always interesting. Those who are elsewhere in the US but have ties to the islands are often very different than those who are still at home. In recent years, alot of this difference has come down to US citizenship. With those who have moved to the US, lamenting that their status as US nationals has limited their opportunities. While those who are still in American Samoa not necessarily wanting US citizenship because they worry it might mean a loss of their cultural and political rights at home. 

It is easy to see the territories of the remains of empire of the US and think that the only recourse is to find ways to further include them in the US. But this can and usually is just an extension of colonialism. The lands were often taken without the consent of the people and even if there were movements for greater inclusion, they likely emerged in a particular form, because people felt like their couldn't be any other options. 

I am reminded of this through the words of the late Francisco Baza Leon Guerrero or Kiko Zoilo, who was known as the Father of the Organic Act or Mr. Organic Act. While he was known for being someone who pushed hard and passionately for things like citizenship within the US, we have to be careful in how we paint him patriotically. Like many of his generation, he wanted something better for the Chamoru people, but there were not many options. America held all the cards and so the most obvious way to improve things was to be loyal, obedient, sometimes cautiously critical, but just hope that they open the doors a little more. 

In the 1940s and 1950s for instance there wouldn't be many who would think about political independence that's for sure. But there were plenty who imagined more home-rule, local autonomy and were independent in their lives in other more everyday ways. You couldn't advocate against the US, because Guam and the Chamoru were so small and it was so large and powerful. Even if it might seem wrong in some ways, just hitching your såkman to the US and hoping for the best, seemed much safer than wallowing in ambiguity as a distant military controlled territory. 

With the US not having its own conversation about decolonization or justice for people that it had long oppressed in terms of territory and self-determination and sovereignty, you could only seek more inclusion. Seek more of America to improve your position, it didn't seem possible to argue for less. The US was imagined much more like a King than a rationale government. Better to appear to be loyal and subservient, so as not to anger the sovereign. Chamorus had plenty of experience with this type of government. They saw it under the Spanish and also under the US Navy prior to WWII. 

But at the end of his life, Kiko Zoilo changed his tune somewhat. After seeing how difficult things remained in terms of being US citizens who lived in what was still a possession of the US, he acknowledged that they did what they could in their day, but that it still remained for others to be bolder and go further. 

"Our contribution was as much as we could do…we couldn’t go any further. But you have everything before you and there is nothing to fear like the old days when even angels feared to tread…I have no regrets."

I sometimes imagine if the conversation in Guam and in the world had been different in the 1930s and 1940s, if those generations of leaders would have still pushed for citizenship and inclusion or would have acted more like those in the Philippines or around us in Micronesia. If rather than developing a position of losing oneself in the US and being reborn as an American, they would instead seek friendship or to become allied with the US, but still retain a measure of distance, so as not to become subsumed.

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Why Some American Samoans Don't Want U.S. Citizenship

by Michelle Broder Van Dyke

December 19, 2019

NBC News

Neil Pilcher lives on Tutuila, American Samoa’s largest island, on land his family owns. His neighbors are all relatives. The most important thing for Samoans, he said, is to be in accord with their living environment.

And it’s this Samoan way of life — the land, ownership and inhabitants — that is central to a debate over citizenship. While American Samoa has been an unincorporated U.S. territory since 1900, people born there have never been granted birthright citizenship, unlike the four other U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

A federal judge in Utah ruled last Thursday, however, that those born in American Samoa should be recognized as U.S. citizens.

Not everyone, including Pilcher, agrees.

Pilcher, 36, who works as an administration manager at the American Samoa Government, rejects the idea that birthright citizenship will be beneficial for American Samoans, saying that losing their unique status may eventually lead to the loss of their indigenous political system and land rights.

“I live in a house given to me by my father on land that we own as a chiefly clan, what you would call in the mainland ‘family,’” Pilcher said. “All of my neighbors are my relatives/cousins and they live on their chiefly lands. We all live in harmony and look out for one another.”

The case was brought by American Samoans living in Utah, who want rights afforded to U.S. citizens, like access to certain federal jobs and high-ranking military positions, and the ability to run for political office.

American Samoa, in the South Pacific almost 5,000 miles from the U.S. mainland, is made up of seven islands and atolls and has a population of about 55,000. The U.S. territory is politically separate from the islands to the north that make up of the Independent State of Samoa.

Instead of being U.S. citizens, American Samoans are deemed “noncitizen U.S. nationals” and their passports read: “The bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

To become U.S. citizens, American Samoans living in the states go through an expedited version of the naturalization process that is usually for foreign-born nationals. There are about 180,000 people with Samoan descent living in the states.

"If you are born on U.S. sovereign soil, you are entitled to citizenship,” said Charles Ala’ilima, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Utah. “Not any kind of lesser right.”

Ala’ilima and other lawyers involved in the case argued that American Samoans should be granted birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. The U.S. District Court judge in Utah, Clark Waddoups, agreed with this argument in his ruling, but before new passports were issued he put the case on hold so that it can work its way through the court system on appeal.

"The judge recognized that the 14th Amendment citizenship clause required that anybody born on sovereign U.S. soil is entitled to full citizenship,” Ala’ilima said. “The 14th amendment was passed after the Civil War to correct the previous Constitution, which recognized different levels of nationality in the U.S. — they allowed slaves."

Line-Noue Memea Kruse, author of "The Pacific Insular Case of American Samoa," said ending American Samoans’ distinct status as “noncitizen U.S. nationals” may eventually lead federal judges to rule that their customary political system and land rights are unconstitutional, comparing it to what has happened to Native Hawaiians in Hawaii.

In American Samoa, there are two distinct components to governance: the traditional chiefly system, the Fa’amatai, and communal lands, where land ownership is held by families. Acquiring land in American Samoa also requires people to be at least 50 percent Samoan.

“There’s no nobility in America,” said Kruse, when talking about the Fa’amatai political system. “There would be continuous lawsuits, because our customs are contrary, and it is anomalous to the United States.”

"There's no surveys on customary lands, so it's up to your family chief to determine who gets what and how everything is distributed," added Kruse.

Pilcher, who has lived on his family land in Leone on Tutuila since he was 5, is focused on protecting American Samoa’s “cultural identity and valuable land assets.”

“When you live here in American Samoa your family gives you land and it is up to you to make a home from it or grow things to serve the family/chief,” Pilcher said. “There are very sacred bonds between us and our land and our water. Land and water are extensions of our identity. So if you take away our land and water, you are not just severing us from economic mobility, you are killing part of our identity.”

Ala’ilima pushed back at the idea that it was better for American Samoa’s citizenship status to stay the same in order to protect their way of life.

“Everybody agrees American Samoa is sovereign U.S. territory," Ala’ilima said. “People born there do not have citizenship in any other place.”

The ruling was surprising to some as it contradicts a similar case, in which a federal court in Washington in 2015 ruled against granting birthright citizenship for American Samoans. In 2016, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The current case is expected to be appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. After that, it might head to the Supreme Court, which would be more likely to consider the case this time to resolve the constitutional conflict.

“In the end it’s really the Supreme Court that will have to try to reconcile this kind of anomaly,” Ala’ilima said. “Why is American Samoa different from any other territory?”

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