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American Samoa

  • Main indigenous and minority communities: Samoan 49,333 (88.9 per cent), Tongan 1,614 (2.9 per cent), other Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander 456 (0.8 per cent), Filipino 1,217 (2.2 per cent), and other Asian: 777 (1.4 per cent) (2010 census).

    Main languages: Samoan, English

    Main religions: Christian (98.3 per cent), other (1 per cent), unaffiliated (0.7 per cent).

    According to the 2010 census the total population was recorded as 55,519. There has been substantial immigration mainly of workers in the tuna canneries and fishing industry. Immigration is especially from the neighbouring independent nation of Samoa (but also Tonga), to the extent that locally born American Samoans now only make up around 58 per cent of the population. There are also some Asian migrants.

    However, levels of immigration have been balanced in recent years by significant levels of emigration to the US mainland, despite minimum wage increases in the tuna canneries.  This has been attributed to relatively low wages on the islands compared to neighbouring states the Pacific, slow economic growth and lack of infrastructure due to the recent environmental devastation. American Samoa is something of transit station between various countries and the United States.

  • American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States, meaning its citizens retain many rights as US nationals whilst at the same time retaining some measure of autonomy in their domestic affairs. However, in recent years some tensions have emerged concerning the self-determination and citizenship of American Samoans: while those born in American Samoa are recognized as nationals of the United States, they do not have the right to US citizenship.  Some American Samoans who have emigrated to the mainland US have taken legal action over the issue of citizenship, citing incidents of discrimination and unfair exclusion from many benefits of US citizenship.  In 2016 the US Supreme Court decided not to hear their case, effectively upholding a previous ruling that citizenship is not granted at birth to American Samoans.

    The American Samoan government has opposed the granting of US citizenship as they consider this may threaten their indigenous cultural practices, ‘fa’a Samoa’ (the Samoan Way), concerning land and other rights.  They are concerned that any further integration under the US Constitution should not undermine their indigenous way of life, whereby communal land ownership is limited to those with Samoan ancestry. About 90 per cent of the land is owned communally through extended families or clans.

    In recent years there have been some societal issues such as high levels of sexual assault of female teenagers and also of drug use amongst young people.  A government taskforce has been set up to to develop prevention strategies to tackle drug addiction.

  • Environment

    American Samoa is composed of two main high islands of volcanic origin Tutuila and Tau and four much smaller islands, in western Polynesia.


    The Samoan islands were first settled by Polynesians, most likely from Tonga, in 1000 BCE. The first European contact occurred in 1722 when the archipelago was sighted by the Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen. Further visits by traders and then missionaries intensified by the early 1800’s. In 1878, the United States established a naval station in Pago Pago Harbour. An 1899 agreement between colonial powers established US control over the eastern islands of Samoa, while Germany took control over the western part of the archipelago. The United Kingdom established a protectorate over Tonga.

    The islands of American Samoa were subsequently ceded to the US in 1900. They were administered by the US Navy until 1951 when they were transferred to the Department of the Interior.  The economy is heavily dependent on American finance.  There is a traditional indigenous fishing community in American Samoa. Fish is traditionally distributed through an exchange system encompassing extended families, matai (chiefs) and ministers.

    In the early 1900’s a series of US Supreme Court decisions, known as the ‘Insular Cases’, established a crucial difference between so-called ‘incorporated’ and ‘unincorporated’ territories – the former destined to become states and the latter assumed to remain territories. The US Constitution would not be totally applicable to unincorporated US possessions; people living in the unincorporated territories would be US nationals but not be granted citizenship. Although this rule has been amended for the other remaining territories (Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands), it still applies to American Samoa.

    Other than in the tuna canneries there is little private-sector employment other than in services.  Although there had been some increase in development of tuna canneries in recent years, one of two main canneries closed down at the end of 2016 due to economic difficulties.

    In 2009, American Samoa and the surrounding area was affected by an undersea earthquake that triggered a tsunami, causing widespread devastation.  Since then, American Samoa has been rebuilding its infrastructure, installing a new energy-efficient power plant and rebuilding housing and schools.


    American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the USA and is represented in the US House of Representatives by a non-voting delegate. American Samoans are ‘US nationals’ with unrestricted entry into the mainland USA – where most live – but they are not US citizens.  By being US nationals rather than citizens, American Samoans can live and work in the US as well as serve in the military but are excluded from some rights, such as voting.  However, as an unincorporated territory American Samoa retains control over its traditional laws including their traditional land tenure system.

    American Samoa has a bicameral legislative system. The legislative assembly, fono, consists of a senate, comprising 18 traditional chiefs, matai, chosen by their county councils, and a house of representatives, comprising 20 elected members. The American Samoan legislature has sought greater control over administration and finance, while retaining US protection and subsidies.

    In recent years, there has been a tightening in immigration laws whereby there have been limits placed on companies sponsoring foreign nationals to work in American Samoa.  These limits have included restrictions on corporations sponsoring foreigners who have business interests in American Samoa due to government concerns over a lack of local ownership of small companies.

Updated March 2018

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