American Samoa – A Territory of the United States.

In this article we will attempt to provide the interested observer a better understanding of Pago Pago. But first, please understand that Pago Pago is the Capital of American Samoa and very commonly used in place of saying American Samoa when referring to the territory. It is common for people to say Pago Pago or Pago when referring to American Samoa. Pago Pago is also a village in American Samoa, but when using Pago Pago or Pago as a reference to American Samoa, the reference is to all of American Samoa.

Location and Size

American Samoa is a very small territory of the United States, situated in the center of the South Pacific about 2,500 miles south of Hawaii.  Distances to the nearest neighboring islands are Fiji, 770 miles; Tahiti, 1423 miles; New Zealand, 1795 miles and Tonga, a mere 558 miles.  American Samoa is about 7026 miles from Washington, DC. 

Geographically, American Samoa is the eastern part of the Samoa archipelago, with the western part of the archipelago being the independent state of Samoa (formerly Western Samoa).  The main island of American Samoa is Tutuila.

A group of three islands; Ta’u, Ofu, and Olosega, collectively known as Manu’a, are located about 65 miles east of Tutuila.  The tiny island of Aunu’u sits about a quarter-mile off the southeast tip of Tutuila.  All these islands are volcanic in nature with high mountains. 

Two coral atolls are part of the political group, albeit not exactly part of the geological archipelago.  They are Swains Island, presently essentially uninhabited and Rose Atoll, uninhabited. 

Swains Island is geographically part of the Tokelau group but was settled by an American, Eli Jennings, in 1856.  Jennings flew the American Flag and Swains was claimed for the United States by Jennings and by the United States Guano Company under the Guano Islands Act. Members of the Jennings family still live in Pago Pago.

Rose Atoll is a wildlife refuge managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the government of American Samoa.  In 2009, the US established Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, thereby prohibiting commercial fishing within the 13,451 square miles of the monument.

Tutuila has a landmass of about 52.6 square miles.  The total landmass for the six islands other than Tutuila is about 22 square miles.  To help put things in perspective, the total land mass of American Samoa is only about 5 square miles greater than that of Washington, DC.


The Treaty of Berlin, in 1899, partitioned the Samoa Islands into two separate entities.  Germany desired, and was granted, control over the islands on the western end of the archipelago. They had established coffee and coconut plantations and were shipping those products throughout Europe.  The U.S. achieved the rights to Tutuila and Pago Pago Harbor, along with the eastern islands and atolls. 

In 1900 the U.S. Navy began to formally occupy Tutuila and Aunu’u on behalf of the United States. A full naval station was established.  In April of that year a Deed of Cession was signed, and the American flag was officially raised over Tutuila on April 17, 1900.  A Deed of Cession for Manu’a was signed in 1904.  On July 17, 1911, the U.S. Naval Station, Tutuila, was officially renamed American Samoa.

During World War II, roads, medical facilities, administrative buildings and housing for the troops were built to accommodate the influx of military personnel and to move equipment around the island.  Those roads and many of the structures are still in use today.

On July 1, 1951, administration of American Samoa was formally transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and in 1956 DOI appointed American Samoa-born Peter Tali Coleman as the territory’s first Samoa governor of Samoan descent.  Coleman served in that capacity until 1961.  He was followed by a series of governors appointed by DOI.  In 1977, 17 years after leaving office as an appointed governor, Coleman became the first locally-elected governor in the territory.  He was re-elected twice more, serving a total of 11 years as the popularly-elected chief executive.

The People

American Samoans are Polynesian by ethnicity.  However, each part of Polynesia enjoys a slightly different culture.  American Samoa’s culture is complex, difficult to understand and very much intact.  The Polynesian people are generally known to be very friendly and American Samoa is no exception.

Currently and historically, American Samoa has produced many great athletes in many types of sports.  There are many American Samoans on professional and American college football teams. 

American Samoa has the highest rate of military enlistment of any state or territory.  They also have the sad distinction of having the highest per capita mortality rate of any state or territory. 

The Economy

American Samoa’s economy is driven by US aid and one of the largest tuna canneries in the world.  At least two-thirds of the workforce is directly employed at the canneries and government, while most of the remaining workforce is employed in ancillary services for the two major employers. 

It is generally known that American Samoa needs to reduce its dependency on canneries and government by diversifying into new export businesses.  The remote location of the islands makes export of traditional manufactured or agricultural items difficult and cost prohibitive.  There has been increased interest in developing high-tech industries and tourism, both of which are export businesses without the need for traditional shipping. 

Cultural Politics

In addition to the democracy created by the Constitution of American Samoa, there is a rather complex and effective cultural political system.  The two factions in this system are the fa’amatai (chiefly system and protocol) and fa’aSamoa (the Samoan way of life, language and customs).  The fa’amatai includes all levels of the Samoan body of politics; from family, to village, to fono (meetings), to district and lastly to national matters.  The fa’aSamoa is commonly recognized as the definition of the way of life in Samoa.

In addition, the Matai (chiefs) are elected by a consensus in a fono (gathering, meeting) of the aiga, the key unit of social organization in Samoan culture.  Aiga means extended family or clan.  The aiga consists of a group of people related by blood, marriage, adoption or simply by long-term association.  The head of the aiga, or a portion thereof, is the matai.  Depending upon the traditional nature of a chiefly title, a matai can be either an Ali’i (chief), or a Tulafale (Orator – more commonly known as talking Chief).  The matai and fono decide the distribution of family exchanges and tenancy of communal lands.  Almost all land is communal. 

Political Status

The head of state of American Samoa is the President of the United States.  The President does not play an active role in government.  Responsibility for coordinating federal policy is delegated to the Secretary of Interior and, more specifically, to the Department of Insular Affairs.

American Samoa is an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States.  Both of these terms are complex in nature and require considerable study to fully understand.  Unincorporated means there are some, albeit rather minor, differences between the rights of the citizens of a territory and a full US citizen.  Unorganized refers to a variety of organic acts, most of which give the US Government control of some or all the land in a territory.  American Samoa’s communal land system is in conflict with a broad organic act.

American Samoans born in the territory are considered U.S. “nationals”, the only such designation among all U.S. possessions and territories.   However, if one parent is a U.S. citizen, a child born in American Samoa is also a U.S. citizen.  Under the “national” designation, American Samoans are issued U.S. passports, with only their birth certificates.  American Samoans have most of the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens except the right to vote in state or national elections or to hold some state and federal jobs.


The American Samoa Government (ASG) is made up of three branches:  Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.  The territorial government is defined under the Constitution of American Samoa, which was drafted by Governor Peter Tali Coleman in 1961.  The final draft of this Constitution took effect July 1, 1967.

Because the matai (chiefly) system of government is so deeply ingrained in Samoan culture, it was important that setup of the Fono (Legislative branch) would be sensitive to this system.  It is bi-cameral; made up of an upper and a lower house.

The Fono’s upper house, the House of Ali’i, (Senate), consists of 18 members, elected to four-year terms by matai (chiefs) of each district as designated by traditional Samoan custom, not by popular election.  The House of Representatives elects 20 members, one from each district, to two-year terms. One additional non-voting member is elected from Swains Island in a public meeting.  Candidates for House seats are elected by registered voters in their districts, thereby following the democratic principles of a representative democracy.

The judiciary branch is independent.  The High Court of American Samoa is the highest court below the U.S. Supreme Court, with District Courts below it. The High Court consists of a Chief Justice and an Associate Justice, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.

One of the uniquely Samoan aspects of politics in American Samoa is that not all elected officials, including the Governor and Lt. Governor, are required to hold a matai title.  However, because the importance and relevance of matai titles remains paramount in the territory on all political levels, chances of an individual being elected to any office without holding a matai title are slim. 

For traditional governance, American Samoa is divided into three major districts (counties) – Eastern, Western and Manu’a.  Each is administered by a district governor who is appointed by the territorial governor.  To be qualified as a district governor, an individual must hold a matai title within the district to which he/she is to be appointed.

The American Samoa Constitution designates 12 districts from which one senator per district is elected.  It also designates 17 districts from which members of the House of Representatives shall be elected.

U. S. House of Representatives

Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (daughter of the first appointed Governor of American Samoa and the first elected Governor, Peter Tali Coleman) is the first woman to represent American Samoa in the House of Representatives.  She was sworn into office on January 6, 2015.  The Congresswoman currently serves on three committees, where she chairs one and is vice chair of another.

Representatives serve two-year terms and can participate in all house functions with the exception of voting on the House floor.  The representative may serve on committees, has full voting rights at the committee level and may serve as committee chair.   They may also make amendments to proposed legislation during discussion on the House floor.   

The right to elect a representative was granted on October 31, 1978. The first representative took office in 1981. 

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