American Samoa is a unique and extra-ordinary place. Many reputable web sites provide extensive information about various aspects of the territory (see our “Useful Links” section); the few paragraphs that follow provide a broad overview.
About 60,000 people, the vast majority of them native Samoans, live in the “unincorporated, unorganized” United States territory of American Samoa. The territory is located in the South Pacific Ocean, close to the independent nation of Samoa and other island countries (e.g., Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands).
The terms “unorganized” and “unincorporated” have specific meaning under federal law and case history. American Samoa is “unorganized” because Congress has not passed an Organic Act to create American Samoa or the American Samoa Government. American Samoa is “unincorporated” because the full range of federal law and constitutional protections are not incorporated into the territory’s legal system. Scholars and lawsuits continue to debate and adjudicate the the applicability of various U.S. Constitutional provisions in American Samoa, as well as more prosaic questions such as which U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over which crimes committed in the territory.
Persons born in American Samoa are considered U.S. Nationals, not U.S. Citizens. Questions of federal jurisdiction are still actively being settled through court cases and interpretation. American Samoa has its own judicial system, including a High Court (and High Court appeals court), District Court, Family Court, and Land and Titles Court. The closest U.S. District Court is in Hawaii, but the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. also has jurisdiction over some activities in American Samoa.
There are two or three non-stop flights to American Samoa each week, and hourly flights to the independent nation of Samoa. Regular ocean freight service provides direction connections to/from the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and other Pacific Island.
Many aspects of life in American Samoa are strongly influenced by the traditional culture, known as the Fa’a Samoa (The Samoan Way). The land tenure system, which vests “ownership” of most lands in extended families headed by chiefs, is inextricably tied to the Fa’a Samoa. The Fa’a Samoa is a strong and active influence in not only weddings and funerals and allocation of land, but also in other areas, such as government and religion.
The economy of American Samoa is based on the distant-water tuna processing industry, support for the tuna boat fleets, and government transfers. Pago Pago Harbor is an excellent deep-water port and after more than 50 years of industrial activity, the territory has developed high-level infrastructure (telecommunications, electricity, water, port, airport, roads, etc.) to support economic activity.
Most U.S. environmental and labor laws apply in the territory, but the minimum wage is considerably lower than the U.S. minimum wage. Income and wages are much lower in American Samoa than in the U.S., but are higher than income and wages in most South Pacific nations.
The tourism industry is small but growing. There are about 200 hotel rooms in the territory. The U.S. military does not have any bases in American Samoa, but there is an active Army Reserve presence and many American Samoans have served and continue to enlist in the U.S. military.
American Samoa is a bi-lingual society, and almost everyone is fluent in both Samoan and English. Both languages are used by the radio, television and newspapers, and both languages are used in commerce, government and daily use.
The American Samoa Government is the dominant force in the territory’s life. The government is similar to a U.S. state government, with a governor and a legislature comprised of a popularly-elected House and a Senate comprised of traditional chiefs. Until 1977, the governor was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, but local elections have been held since that time.
Churches and religion are another dominant force in the territory, and American Samoa shares that characteristic with other South Pacific nations. Missionaries brought Christianity to the Samoan Islands in the 19th century, and the islands of American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900 through a voluntary deed of cession.
The territory was governed and administered by the U.S. Navy from 1900 to 1951. After 1951, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Insular Affairs Office has held oversight responsibility for American Samoa.