GovernorTogiola T.A. Tulafono (D)
RepresentativeDel. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D)
American Samoa, the only American territory south of the Equator, has been little influenced by Western settlers and remains almost as Polynesian today as it was when the United States took possession of it in 1900 at the request of tribal chiefs. These seven hot, rainy islands are 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii, 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand, and have a land area slightly larger than the District of Columbia. American Samoa has 65,000 people, 90% of them on the island of Tutuila, 92% of them pacific islanders, mostly Christian (50% Congregationalist, 20% Catholic). They are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens; they can serve in the American military, but not as officers. An estimated 50,000 Samoans live on the U.S. mainland and 20,000 on Hawaii, including Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. The islands’ population has doubled in the last 20 years, and fear that outsiders will change the culture has prompted some demands for stricter immigration standards. American Samoa is an unincorporated territory that has been administered by the Interior Department since 1951. Minimum wages have been set for industries by the Department of Labor. American Samoa elects a governor and a two-house Legislature known as the Fono. It is a bilingual society and government. Government is mostly conducted in English, Fono proceedings are in Samoan, and court sessions are conducted in English with each sentence then translated into Samoan.
The market economy has not made much progress here. American Samoa lives primarily off the federal government, which contributes about 60% of its government revenues plus varying amounts for construction. The islands received $759 per capita from the 2009 economic stimulus bill. Most private industry revolves around two big StarKist and Chicken of the Sea tuna canneries, which employ 5,150 workers and provide one-third of all U.S. canned tuna. Another 4,000 people work for the American Samoan government, most at $7.99 an hour. Residents are eligible for food stamps and welfare. Local agriculture is minimal and sheltered (the territorial government in 2000 wanted to quadruple tariffs on bananas and taro). The bedrock of the local economy is the territorial government. Congressional Democrats initially excluded American Samoa from their 2007 minimum wage increase, although Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands were included. This was done at the request of American Samoa Del. Democrat Eni Faleomavaega, who cited lower-wage competition from Thailand and Vietnam. After House Republicans attacked the Democrats for being hypocritical, however, Democrats provided that the minimum wage in American Samoa would rise to $7.25 an hour by 2014. Partially because of the increased minimum wage levels, Chicken of the Sea announced in May 2009 that it would close its Samoa packing plant, exacerbating the problems facing the local economy. StarKist has threatened to leave as well.
The cold words of an official report summarize American Samoa’s difficulty in finding alternatives to the tuna canneries. “Attempts by the government to develop a larger and broader economy are restrained by Samoa’s remote location, its limited transportation and its devastating hurricanes. Tourism is a promising developing sector.” But not terribly promising, at least yet. Togiola (surnames come first in Samoan) would like to have controls over immigration, and says he hopes to develop “controlled tourism in a way that won’t affect our fragile environment.”
If American Samoans are proud Samoans, they are also proud Americans. On April 17, 2000, they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the American takeover, with a 60-foot American flag raised on Sogelau Hill where the flag was first raised on the island. There was traditional singing and dancing and a long boat race in Pago Pago Harbor. And Samoans have become devoted to one staple of American life: football. The island has six high school football teams and a 5,000-seat stadium where just about everyone comes to cheer. The style of play is aggressive, with lots of body contact. A dozen mainland college coaches take the 15-hour twice-weekly flights to American Samoa to scout players and schools offer them SAT preparatory classes; more than 10% receive football scholarships and 41 players of Samoan descent were listed on NFL rosters in 2007.
American Samoa does not cast electoral votes for president, but it does send delegates to the parties’ national conventions. In 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry got 2.5 votes at the Democratic National Convention divided between five delegates and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich got the remaining half-vote from the sixth delegate. The week before, President George W. Bush won all six Republican delegates. In 2008, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., edged out Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., receiving two convention votes split among four delegates, while Obama got one vote and two delegates. Sen. John McCain of Arizona swept the Republican caucus, receiving all nine delegates.
American Samoa also plays some role in national party politics. Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, fulfilling his promise to visit every state and territory during his tenure as head of the DNC, visited American Samoa in January 2009 and remained publicly cheerful when the Obama transition team snubbed him by announcing that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine would be his successor and then holding introduction ceremonies without inviting Dean. In February 2009, the Republican territorial chairman and national committeeman and committeewoman were part of a 15-member bloc from the five territories who provided the critical votes in the election of Michael Steele as Republican National Chairman.