Citizenship, Self-Determination, and Cultural Preservation in American Samoa


Recent litigation about the Citizenship Clause’s applicability in American Samoa exposes tensions between competing goals of inclusion, self-determination, and cultural preservation. The noncitizen national category and the Insular Cases are both legacies of a long tradition of racial exclusion in the United States, but their current significance is more complicated, as shown by American Samoa’s opposition to extending U.S. citizenship. None of the positions taken by parties, intervenors, or amici in the litigation strike a satisfactory balance between respecting American Samoa’s self-determination, respecting other territories’ self-determination, and repudiating the Insular Cases’ racist legacy. Nor could any outcome in this litigation guarantee what American Samoa was really seeking: protection for its cultural practices, including race-based land ownership laws, from constitutional challenges. U.S. equal protection jurisprudence is not well equipped to deal with tensions between nondiscrimination, indigenous self-determination, and cultural preservation, and the most certain way for American Samoa to develop its own answers to these issues is to renegotiate its political relationship with the United States.