The Paradox of Liminality: American Samoa’s Attenuated Sovereignty in the Twenty-First-Century American Empire

Abstract: American Samoa, an unincorporated, unorganized US insular territory in the Pacific, is faced with a ‘paradox of liminality.’ On the one hand, the US unincorporation doctrine denies American Samoans basic rights, such as the right to vote in federal elections, fair representation in government, and American citizenship, in effect subjecting them to what Lea Ypi regards as the primary wrong of colonialism: the refusal of “equality and reciprocity in decision making.” On the other hand, American Samoa’s liminal status as unincorporated, unorganized territory protects indigenous Samoan culture (Fa‘a Sāmoa) and the traditional system of governance (Fa‘amatai) in ways that full legal integration would not. This paradox of liminality creates clear tensions between conditions of subjugation and protection. How do the argument of moral wrongs and the protection of indigenous culture relate to one another? This paper addresses this complexity by tracing the discursive practices and historical roots that comprise the foundation for US rule over American Samoa. By analyzing American Samoa’s idiosyncrasies, this paper shows how its peculiar status problematizes decolonization processes informed by either/or thinking. Ultimately, I call for a rethinking of the process and progress of the dissolution of American empire by encouraging both/and approaches.

The mid-twentieth century saw the decline of a global system dominated by direct colonialism, in which European nations had created a world order of hegemony over peripheral, subaltern peoples (Pinderhughes 235). In conjunction with the dissolution of direct colonialism, a formal US empire began to dissolve as the territories that the US possessed had either been granted independent status (e.g., the Philippines), had been admitted as states to the Union (most recently Hawaii and Alaska), or had been absorbed as official US territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, among others). The demise of direct colonialism and formal empires propelled the study of new fields of academic interest in the form of post- and decolonial approaches, which were shaped by influential scholars such as Frantz Fanon, who investigated the necessity of violence for decolonization processes (cf. The Wretched of the Earth), Edward Said, who shed light on the political functions of Western imaginations of Eastern people (cf. Orientalism), and Gayatri Spivak, who focused on the remnants of colonialism found in everyday customs, such as the dominance of the English language in India (cf. Landry and MacLean, The Spivak Reader). While these studies offer valuable insights into a changing world, this essay looks not at what has changed but at that which has stayed the same.

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