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American Samoa Travel Guide

The People

Between 1980 and 2007, the population of American Samoa more than doubled, from 32,297 to 68,200. This is the fastest growth rate in the South Pacific, and at 340 persons per square km, American Samoa is the second most densely populated South Pacific entity (after Tuvalu).

All of this growth was on Tutuila; the population of the Manu'a Group declined slightly. The population of the harbor area is growing almost 10 percent a year. This growth and needs of the canneries have put heavy pressure on the local water supply, and large investments have had to be made in catchments and fresh water pipelines.

American Samoans are U.S. "nationals," not citizens, the main difference being that nationals can't vote in U.S. presidential elections nor be drafted. American Samoans have free entry to the United States, and some 65,000 of them now live in California and Washington State, and another 20,000 are in Hawaii, most in the lower income bracket.

Nearly 70 percent of high school graduates leave within a year of graduation, many of them to voluntarily join the Armed Forces. About 2,275 students attend the American Samoa Community College at Mapusaga, a two-year institution established in 1970.

The people of the two Samoan island groups are homogeneous in blood, speech, and traditions, and as fast as American Samoans leave for the States, people from the other Samoa migrate from west to east. Much intermarriage has occurred, and about 18,000 western Samoans now live in American Samoa.

Some "American" Samoans look down on their western cousins, calling them sulu'ie for the traditional kilts they often wear instead of trousers, and immigration officials in Pago Pago often confiscate the passports of "real" Samoans upon arrival to ensure that they'll return home. Of course, without "western" Samoans to do the dirty work, much of American Samoa's economy would soon grind to a halt. Some 2,000 Tongans and 3,500 U.S.-born persons are also present, and only 56 percent of residents were actually born in the territory.

Although the young have largely forgotten their own culture in their haste to embrace that of the United States, the fa'a Samoa is tenaciously defended by those who choose to remain in their home villages. Under treaties signed with the Samoan chiefs in 1900 and 1904, the U.S. government undertook to retain the matai system and protect Samoan land rights. To its credit, it has done just that. In addition, the innate strength and flexibility of "the Samoan way" has permitted its survival in the face of German, New Zealand, and American colonialism. It's remarkable how these people have adopted those American ways they considered useful, while remaining first and foremost Samoans.

On Tutuila, the people live in 60 villages along the coast. After a hurricane in 1966, the U.S. government provided funds to rebuild the thatched Samoan fales in plywood and tin, resulting in the hot, stuffy dwellings one sees today. The most farsighted act of the former naval administration was to forbid the sale of Samoan land to outsiders. Except for a small area owned by the government and the two percent freehold land alienated before 1900, 90 percent of all land in the territory is communally owned by Samoan extended families (aiga), who even bury relatives in front of their homes to reinforce their titles. The family matai assigns use of communal land to different members of the aiga. Non-Samoans can lease Samoan land for up to 55 years, however.

American Samoa's largest churches are the Congregational Christian Church (21,000 adherents), the Catholic Church (8,500 adherents), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (5,000 adherents), the Methodist Church (4,000 adherents), the Assemblies of God (3,000 adherents), and the Seventh-Day Adventists (2,000 adherents).

Away from Pago Pago Harbor, if there's a village behind a beach, you're expected to ask permission before swimming. Never swim anywhere near a church on Sunday, and be aware that most Samoans don't wear bathing suits—they swim in shorts and T-shirts. Foreigners in swimsuits on a village beach could give offense, hence the necessity of asking permission first.

During sa every afternoon around 1830 villagers pause in whatever they're doing for a brief prayer. If you hear a village bell around this time, stop walking, running, or riding to avoid raising the Samoans' ire. Some remote villages also have a 2200 curfew.