top of page

The long and storied history of American Samoa....

Settling Samoa (900BC)

The Samoan Archipelago is thought to have been initially settled by our ancestors some 3,000 years ago who had occupied islands at least as far west as the Admiralties off the north shore of New Guinea.  These early settlers were skilled seafarers and after settling in Samoa for approximately 1,500 years, they began to migrate east to colonize the central Society Islands between AD 1025 and 1120 and dispersed to New Zealand, Hawaiʻi and Rapa Nui and other locations between AD 1190 and 1290.

The settling of the eastern Pacific and Polynesia is one of the most remarkable achievements of humanity.  While Europeans were sailing up and down the coastlines of continents, voyagers from Samoa began to settle islands in an ocean area of over 10 million square miles. The settlement took a thousand years to complete and involved finding and fixing in mind the position of islands, sometimes less than a mile in diameter on which the highest landmark was a coconut tree. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific Ocean in the 16th century almost all the habitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years.

The voyaging was all the more remarkable in that it was done in canoes built with tools of stone, bone, and coral. The canoes were navigated without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. The canoe hulls were dug out from tree trunks with adzes or made from planks sewn together with a cordage of coconut fiber twisted into strands and braided for strength. Cracks and seams were sealed with coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit or other trees. An outrigger was attached to a single hull for greater stability on the ocean; two hulls were lashed together with crossbeams and a deck added between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The canoes were paddled when there was no wind and sailed when there was; the sails were woven from coconut or pandanus leaves. These vessels were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, such as the one between Hawai‘i and Tahiti. And though these double-hulled canoes had less carrying capacity than the broad-beamed ships of the European explorers, the Polynesian canoes were faster: one of Captain Cook’s crew estimated a Tongan canoe could sail “three miles to our two.”

Rediscovery of Samoa (June 13, 1722)

The first recorded European rediscovery of the Samoan islands occurred in 1722 when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen of the Dutch West India Co. sighted several of the Samoan islands. He was followed by French explorers Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768, who named the islands the Navigator islands as he admired the way the Samoans handled their canoes.  Up to this point, all contact with the Europeans had been on the ships of the explorers as the locals would paddle outrigger canoes out to meet them.  In 1787, and expedition lead by Jean-FranÁois de La Perouse made landfall in the villages of Fagasa and A'asu on the northern shore of Tutuila island.  La Perouse's two frigates anchored first in sight of Fagasa Bay and many exchanges took place with the islanders. Then his  boats landed under escort at the far end of the bay to fill the ships’ casks with fresh water.  According to Lapérouse, everything went well at Fagasa “although he found these islanders were too unruly to send ashore cutters and boats which could only be backed up by gunfire from the ships”.  It is now understood that La Perouse let himself be convinced by one of his crew to send his men ashore.  On December 11th, a new watering point was planned in A’asu bay, five miles to the west.  It was in A'asu that La Perouse's crew met a much larger group of Samoans and ultimately fighting broke out and La Perouse lost 12 men.  The cause of the skirmish is said to have been a result of an earlier event that occurred during the landing in Fagasa.  At the time, there was a visiting delegation or group from Upolu which consisted of many young men and warriors.  One of these men paddled out to La Perouse's ship and after attempting to steal something off of La Perouse's ship he was ejected from the ship.  Apparently this did not sit well with the local and when La Perouse's second ship arrived in A'asu to replenish their water, this local had riled up the crowd.  These tensions ultimately lead to the battle.  The village of A'asu is known as "Massacre Bay" and this event kept explorers at bay for an extended period of time.


The first European Christian missionary, Englishman John Williams of the London Missionary Society, arrived in 1830. He and his followers had a profound impact on the Samoans and their culture. The National Register sites Atauloma Girl's School and Fagalele Boy's School at the western end of Tutuila were built by the LMS for the education of Samoan children in Christian life. Other Pacific Islanders came to Samoa as missionaries during this period (e.g., Society and Cook Islanders working with the London Missionary Society, Tongans working with the Methodists). European traders and military personnel also affected Samoans.

Civil War and the Tripartite Convention (1899)

The First Samoan Civil War refers to the conflict between rival Samoan factions in the Samoan Islands of the South Pacific. The war was fought roughly between 1886 and 1894, primarily between Samoans fighting over whether Malietoa Laupepa or Mata'afa Iosefo would be King of Samoa.


Germany fought in Samoa in defense of Tamasese, their choice for Tafa'ifa, the King of Samoa, after the reigning king Malietoa Laupepa was usurped and exiled. Tamasese and his German allies faced a rival faction, headed by popular Samoan chief Mata'afa Iosefo. Germany was looking to expand its new empire and its commercial interests. America, also looking to protect its commercial interests in Samoa, sent three warships--USS Vandalia, Trenton, and Nipsic--to monitor the island. Britain also sent a ship to protect its interests, HMS Calliope.


Tensions heightened with the United States after a German shelling of Mata'afa's rebel villages also resulted in destruction of American owned property in 1887. One battle at Vailele in September 1888, following German bombardment of his rebel villages, resulted in Mata'afa's warriors destroying an invading German contingent and plundering their plantations.Throughout the war, the German, American, and British ships were in a naval standoff known as the Samoan crisis.


The three western powers finally agreed that Malietoa Laupepa would be restored as King of Samoa in 1889.  Nine years later, with the death of Malietoa Laupepa, hostilities broke out again in 1898 in the Second Samoan Civil War. However, this conflict was quickly ended by the partitioning of the island chain at the Tripartite Convention of 1899.

The German government had never made a secret of their belief that international control of Samoa was visionary and impractical and they began a series of diplomatic moves intended to eliminate it altogether.  German diplomats in Washington had ascertained during the summer of 1899 that the United States administration was satisfied with obtaining the island of Tutuila with its key asset, the existing coaling station at Pago Pago. With "partitioning of Samoa" by then the prevailing understanding, the United States expressed no objections to Britain and Germany "coming to a preliminary agreement."  A settlement was reached at London by 9 November and signed on 14 November..  It was therefore this Anglo-German agreement on Samoa in tandem with the informal understanding with the United States that partitioned Samoa. It only remained for the three powers to negotiate a tripartite convention in order to secure the approval of the United States to the whole agreement.The Tripartite Convention of 1899 was duly constituted and documents were signed December 2 1899 in Washington by the U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, Baron Theodor von Holleben, German ambassador to the United States, and Sir Julian Pauncefote, British ambassador to the United States, with ratifications exchanged on 16 February 1900.

US Navy Era (April 17, 1900 - February 22, 1951)

Initially called U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, the eastern islands of the Samoan archipelago were ceded to the United States in 1900 (Tutuila) and 1904 (Manu'a).  On July 11, 1911, the islands were officially renamed American Samoa.  American Samoa served as a coaling station and was administered by the U.S. Navy from 1900 - 1951.  American Samoa was largely left to itself to the next few decades.


As World War II began, American Samoa became an essential link in the chain of communications between the United States and its allies in South East Asia and the Pacific.  Holding the line drawn from Midway to Samoa, Fiji, and Brisbane against the Japanese was considered essential. The loss of these islands would have effectively cut off communications between the west coast of the United States and Australia.

After the suprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the governor and commandant of American Samoa assumed direct control of all construction work in progress on Tutuila and re-channeled the efforts into defense of Pago Pago Harbor and the immediate vicinity, particularly focusing on bombproof shelters.  On January 11, 1942, the Naval Station was shelled by a Japanese submarine which surfaced on the northern side of Tutuila near the village of Fagasa.  Very little damage was done but in an odd stroke of irony, one of the shells struck the home and store of the Shimasaki family, one of the few Japanese families on island at the time.  No casualties were reported.


On January 20, 1942, the Marine's arrived with 5,600 officers and enlisted men equipped with heavy artillery and plans to fortify and protect the U.S. position in the South Pacific.  Local Samoans were also recruited to form a Samoan Marine Brigade that consisted of 350 men. Tutuila island became the largest jungle training center in the South Pacific.


After the war, orders were given to begin the dismantling of the war effort in the Samoa Group and the Naval Station had reverted to its peacetime status as a permanent base and refueling station.  In the post ware era, American Samoa's military importance began to decline and eventually the control of the territory was transferred to the Department of Interior where it remains today.

Not very much information is available about the relationship of the locals and the U.S. Navy Administrators.  However, on February 23, 1951, the Fono (Territorial Legislature) of American Samoa, in a program printed for the transfer of jurisdiction from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior, paid this tribute to the Naval Administration: "The Fono, on behalf of the people of American Samoa, wishes to place in the record of history the significance of the termination of 51 years of naval administration. Mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation has been the keynote of our long relationship. Our appreciation for the guidance and leadership of the Navy in helping American Samoa to move forward is deep-seated and everlasting. Turning its head to the past, Samoa is sorrowful to bid farewell to a good and loyal friend, the Navy."


Department of Interior Era (1951 - Present)

Despite the gratefulness of the Samoan people, the Navy apparently did very little to help fulfill the United States' pledge to care for the people of American Samoa in return for their islands.  As such, the Department of Interior's era began with a rather harsh wake-up call which is best illustrated by an article written by Clarence W. Hall and published in the Reader's Digest in 1961.   This article discussed the poor state of affairs in American Samoa at the time and gives us insight as to who or what was responsible for the embarrassing neglect of the United States' only possession in the South Pacific.  Mr. Hall then followed up this first story with another, published in 1965, detailing the rapid pace at which conditions were changing and improving in American Samoa.  The two articles are included below.


Samoa:  America’s Shame in the South Seas

By Clarence W. Hall

Reader's Digest, July 1961


Last March in Pago Pago, in the lushly beautiful South Pacific islands of American Samoa, I ran into an angry man from Minneapolis.  We met in an island trader’s store, formerly the inn where Somerset Maugham is said to have made notes for his famous drawn-from-life story “Rain”. 


While we have been doling out billions to underdeveloped nations, we have let our only South Pacific possession sink to the level of a slum.


The Minnesotan had arrived that morning aboard a cruise ship stopping briefly at Pago Pago.  While other tourists plodded about shopping for curios, he had made a tour of the island, and he was hopping mad.


“What the Sam Hill have we been doing in these islands for 60 years?” he boomed.  “While squadrons of our foreign-aiders charge about the world loaded with largess for every underprivileged people who’ll take it, but look what we’ve let happen to these – our own nationals!”


In American Samoa, such righteous indignation rises readily in anyone concerned with U.S. prestige in the Pacific.  For here, amid enchanting scenery and smiling Polynesians – praised by Robert Louis Stevenson as “God’s best, at least God’s sweetest, works” – the visitor is shocked to encounter government buildings peeling and rotting on their foundations, beautiful Pago Pago Bay marred and befouled by hideous over-water outhouses, rutty and teeth-jarring roads unrepaired for years, crumbling reservoirs and ancient leaky water mains that cause frequent water shortages – despite an average annual rainfall of 200 inches.


Agriculture is fast going to seed; coconut trees and banana plants, the territory’s most abundant crops, are destroyed by insects and disease; the islands, once self-sufficient, now have to make heavy importations of canned goods.  The medical service, manned by able but too small staffs, wrestles with high case loads, inadequate laboratory equipment, an overcrowded hospital partly housed in a former Navy barracks.


Public schools are unequipped shacks or tiny one-room Samoan fales, thatched-roofed structures with no sides.  A largely untrained and poorly paid teaching force struggles to teach some 5,500 eager pupils on the lowest budget (less than $50 per pupil) of any U.S. state or territory in the world.


A few months ago a British government official, a firm friend of the United States, took a long look at American Samoa and shook his head.  “I can’t believe,” he said, “that this is the way the American Government treats its dependencies.  The America I know is responsible and humanitarian to the core.  But how does one explain Samoa?”


One can’t, except with two words; neglect, and apathy.  Both have persisted ever since the United States made itself custodian of these islands 5,000 miles from its shores.


It began in the early 1870’s, when the U.S. Navy, plying the Pacific to protect American shipping, needed a coaling station.  Steaming into Pago Pago, the finest natural harbor in the Pacific, a naval commandant made a deal with the local chief promised in return “the friendship and protection of the great government of the United States.”


Such protection came in handy for the Samoans, at a time when German naval forces were assuming “protectorates” over any unclaimed island groups.  By 1899, harassed Samoan chiefs had ceded the islands outright to the United States.  President McKinley accepted the “gift” in February 1900, put the Navy in charge.


Thus the Navy found itself saddled with governing a people whose unique social system, old when Columbus discovered America, it but dimly understood.  Fa’aSamoa (the Samoan way of life) was spun around a network of communal family groups, each giving allegiance to a chief, or matai, whose word was law.  The matai determined the occupation of each member, apportioned his earnings among the group, held in trust all family lands.  Ascending echelons of the matai included numerous high chiefs and “talking chiefs.”  No question could be decided save by prolix oratory and long dalliance around bowls of kava, Samoa’s ceremonial drink.


Impatient Navy four-stripers, whose tours of duty as island governors were brief, had neither time nor desire to reform such a society.  Deciding that a “Samoa for the Samoans” policy was best, the Navy left the Samoans largely to their own devices.  For 51 years it did little more than supply minimal education and health services.


In World War II the islands became a staging area for Guadalcanal.  Soon everybody was working for the military.  Schools closed down, copra cutting ceased, hundreds of young Samoans deserted their fishing canoes.  Free-spending sailors brought a gush of prosperity, and kept the matai busy dividing up the wages paid Samoan civilians.


The war left Samoans with tastes beyond their ability to support, aspirations beyond the Navy’s ability to satisfy.  Demands for civil government arose, and in the States a lively Donnybrook ensued between the Navy and the Department of the Interior.  Interior won and, in 1951, took over.


The departure of the Navy, which had been spending many millions of dollars a year on its installation, payroll and services, left the islands economy stripped.  Interior’s governors, handicapped by peanut-size budgets, came and went with alarming rapidity.  (In one two-year period the islands had four governors and four acting governors.)  Despite heroic efforts by a few of the more durable, notably the present incumbent, Peter Tali Coleman, conditions today are scarcely better than in 1951.


Who is to blame?  Rooting about in Pago Pago and Washington for an answer, you find the finger pointing inevitably to the Department of the Interior.  Its penny-pinching policies have kept the islands on a bare subsistence level for ten years.


For example, from 1956 to 1960 federal grants and appropriations for the regular operations of American Samoa averages less than $1,325,000 a year, or about $67 per capita.  (For the more self-supporting Virgin Islands, the most nearly comparable U.S. territory, they were $7,250,000 or $225 per capita.)


Such penury begets official Pago Pago policies as indefensible as they are trouble-breeding.  One is high customs duties, ranging from 15 to 100 percent, placed on everything brought into American Samoa lifting the local cost of living to ridiculous heights.  Another is the wage differential between Samoans working for the local government and those employed by the Van Camp fish cannery, the island’s only private enterprise hiring more than a handful of workers.  Shortly after the cannery was established in 1953, wages-and-hours experts from Washington moved in to demand for its 400 workers a minimum wage of 75 cents an hour.  The local government itself has a minimum of 15 cents an hour for its 1500 employees half of whom make no more than six dollars a week.


With Nikolao Tuitele, assistant director of education, I toured the public schools.  Typical was one on a small bush clearing near Tafuna.  In a 9-by-15-foot fale, a young Samoa teacher was trying to cope with 21 primary pupils in three grades – without desks, blackboards, books, pencils or paper.  The youngsters sat on the crushed-coral floor taking turns reciting the rote.  Lunch preparation was over an open fire, toilet facilities were the bush.


Further evidence of the tight fisted disregard in which American Samoa has been held is that it is the only U.S. territory which has been persistently excluded from any bills.  Samoa was not even mentioned in the 394-million-dollar Depressed Areas bill or in the early proposals for the 5½-billion-dollar Federal Aid to Education bill, until Sen. Oren E. Long of Hawaii spotted the omission and corrected it.  A comment you hear often in the islands these days:  “We lack two things: votes to keep anybody in office, and a communist or two to create a threat.”


But American Samoa’s troubles are not all due to miserly budgets.  Fuzzy goals, too, have held the people back.  Interior’s own statement of objectives, made in 1956, announced contradictory aims.  While promising “progressive development toward self-government,” and the attainment of “maximum possible self-support,” it pledges continuance of the archaic and now facing matai system.  One aim obviously nullifies the other.


Nobody at Interior seems to have noticed that Samoans are fast outgrowing the more repressive aspects of their ancient tradition.  One full-blooded Samoan, educated at Stanford University and now back in Samoa as a teacher, asked me, “How can any people live and work with Americans for 60 years, study the ideals of George Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, see underdeveloped peoples rising all around them in the world, then be content with the Indian-reservation life enforced here?  Fa’aSamoa and Fa’aAmerika have met, and most of us have made our choice.  Why are we held back?”


Of the dangers in denying such aspirations, the late Dr. Felix M. Keesing, eminent expert on Pacific matters, said, “Small as these possessions may be, they are watched carefully by other nations, some of them searching for weaknesses and mistakes in the U.S. record here as elsewhere.”  Keesing sees American Samoa as the “test of U.S. intentions” for economically underdeveloped countries and non-self-governing territories.


How miserably we’ve flunked the test may soon be revealed for all to see.  American Samoa, long hidden from outside notice, will shortly be brought into the world spotlight by two significant events, both scheduled for mid-1962.


One is the opening of a jet airport at Tafuna, near Pago Pago.  Now under construction, the 9000-foot runway will make American Samoa the aerial gateway to all Polynesia, with several airlines bringing in thousands of passengers.


The other event is the scheduled assembly in Pago Pago of the South Pacific Conference.  Meeting on U.S. soil for the first time, the conference will draw some 300 critical delegates from island territories all over the Pacific, with full press, radio and TV coverage.


“At this meeting,” says Dr. Knowles A. Ryerson, of the University of California, U.S. representative on the South Pacific Commission, “the United States should present a picture of which we can be proud, not ashamed.”


The president, realizing the prestige factor at stake, last March rushed to Congress a special-appropriation request for $565,000 to provide accommodations for the conference and give American Samoa something better than a threadbare dress in which to appear before her neighbors.  Even so, there is serious doubt that the territory can be refurbished and made ready in time.


Samoans, both those in the islands and those who have migrated to the States—some 2,000 in Hawaii, another 1,500 on the U.S. mainland—have many ideas for the economic rescue of their homeland.  Brightest hope is tourism, whose possibilities will burgeon with the completion of the Tafuna jet airport.  And Samoans point to other possible developments that range from copra-refining and cocoa-processing plants to cottage industries producing handicrafts and other island specialties.  Until now, however, the government has thrown cold water on schemes for any “operation boot-strap” with the old excuse, “interior won’t approve.”


Despite all this, Samoan admiration for the United States is strong and deep.  Still proud of being Americans, Samoans turn their backs coldly on any suggestion of union with Western Samoa, a U.N. trust territory administered by New Zealand and soon to get its independence.


“All we ask,” I was told by Talking Chief A.P. Lauvao, one of the islands’ most articulate spokesmen, “is to be treated as brothers, not sons or stepsons.  We ask nothing but enough technical aid to help us start doing for ourselves, to prove to the world that Samoans can stand on their own feet—like real Americans.”


That seems not too much to ask.  With so few “showcases” for the free world’s intentions left to us, can we afford to slight strategic Samoa?


From a Pacific slum to a Polynesian paradise in four years.  The dramatic story of a man who helped an island people to help themselves.

By Clarence W. Hall
Reader's Digest
November 1965


Somewhere on earth there may be a more spectacular example of revolutionary change in an area and its people, but in years of roving the world’s far corners I have not seen it.

Five years ago the small cluster of exotic islands composing American Samoa was a national disgrace. Nestling deep in the fabulous South Seas, 8,000 miles from Washington, this tiniest, most forgotten U.S. territory slumbered in tattered neglect. Few tourists ever saw it; one who did stamped it “a Tobacco Road with palms.” The handsome people of purest Polynesian blood, had long since grown spiritless, were scorned and pitied as poor country cousins by their kinfolk on other island groups. Each year, hundreds of American Samoa’s more ambitious youths quit the islands to seek education and employment in Hawaii and U.S. West Coast cities.

Today, however, this former South Seas slum is the show place of the Pacific. Young expatriates are flooding back to participate in the islands’ bursting new life and prosperity. Other islanders come to stare enviously at American Samoa’s new schools and roads. Educators come to observe Samoa’s exciting experiment-the first anywhere-in almost total teaching by television. And with its storied capital, Pago Pago, now the main stop on the direct route from Hawaii to Australia, tourists by the hundreds will soon be tumbling off the jets at Oceania’s finest airport, to relax in the new 100-room luxury hotel or just to savor life in an idyllic South Seas settings.

What brought about this magical metamorphosis? Two factors, mainly: the threat of a diplomatic disaster, and a remarkable man.

A Grand Design. The threat arose early in 1961 with realization that, in July of the coming year, American Samoa was slated as host for the triennial meeting of the South Pacific Conference. More than 200 delegates would be coming from other Pacific territories. Worldwide radio and press coverage would contrast America’s vaunted concern for the world’s underprivileged with the shabby neglect of her own.

Appalled at the prospect, President Kennedy rushed to Congress a request for an emergency appropriation of $465,000. He admonished the Department of the Interior to get a new governor out there to do a fast job of refurbishing. Secretary Stewart Udall picked a seasoned troubleshooter H. Rex Lee, 52, then deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Idaho-born Rex Lee is a man of steely determination masked by a soft-spoken manner. He arrives in Pago Pago four days before his inauguration, spent the time poking about the islands- “a melancholy vista if I ever saw one.” Government buildings flying tattered American flags were rotted, termite-infested and peeling. Roads were rutty paths leading nowhere. Raw sewage was piped into Pago Pago’s spectacular harbor, which was ringed by overwater latrines, Samoans suffered from unchecked disease and malnutrition. Agriculture had gone downhill, and heavy imports of even the barest necessities lifted the cost of living to ridiculous heights. The only private industry of any consequence was a small tuna cannery.

Most shocking were what passes for village schools- mostly sagging little grass-roofed shacks, crammed with children, taught by Samoan teachers who themselves had the equivalent of no more than five or six years of schooling. The singles high school could accommodate fewer than a third of those students desiring to enter.

A man of lesser fiber might have thrown up his hands and quit. Ever since 1899, when Samoan chiefs asked the United States to take over their islands, governors had come and gone with dismaying rapidity, unable to shake Samoa out of its doldrums or Washington out of its apathy. But Lee mapped out a grand design for Samoa’s redemption. “Simply to fix this place up for the SPC meeting and then abandon it,” he had concluded, “would be worse than nothing.”

Calling the island chiefs together for a confab around the ceremonial kava bowl, he told them, “I’m not going to ask Congress for anything you can supply yourselves-land for roads and schools, for instance, and the labor to build them.” Beguiled by the picture he painted of their future, but disbelieving, the Samoan leaders smiled indulgently and pledged full cooperation.

In three weeks Rex Lee was back in Washington, full of ideas and zest. The importance of American Samoa, he told members of the House subcommittee on deficiency appropriations, was moral: “When the islands were necessary for our defense, up to and including World War II, we used them and used their people.” But the territory’s importance was also political: “For years the South Pacific has been a vacuum. Now our enemies are moving into that vacuum. Here’s our chance to show the world how we can help underdeveloped peoples toward a self-sufficient life.”

The result: a Congressional down payment on the $9,500,000 requested for the first year’s budget.

“First-Rank Model.” Stopping off in Hawaii, Lee corralled help from quarters long concerned with the territory’s neglect. From Rear Adm. Henry G. Clark of the 14th Naval District came a pledge of aid in getting construction contracts, plus the temporary loan of a battalion of reserve Seabees and equipment. Albert B. Pratt, a former Seabee, promised to take a leave of absence as head of Pearl Harbor’s public-works department to supervise road building and give Samoans on-the-job training. Architect George J. Wimberly, creator of some Hawaii’s most attractive Polynesian-type structures, was enlisted to design an auditorium for the SPC meeting, which later could Governor H. Rex Lee be used for school and public functions.

Back in Samoa, Rex Lee called the island chiefs together, pointed to the boatloads of men and equipment arriving from Hawaii. “Now you’re going to get some of the things you’ve been yearned for- first of all, a road,” he said. The chiefs quickly recruited 900 workers, and some joined in themselves as road-gang foremen.

With Lee everywhere at once, checking, prodding, approving, Pago Pago’s appearance changed markedly. The waterfront was swept clear of the over-the-water latrines. Villages were made pin-neat and planted with flowers. Some 5500 gallons of good paint were flown in, sold at cost, and Samoans painted everything in sight. Ready by the time the SPC delegates arrived were: the jet airport with its 9,000 foot runway; 15miles of 20-ffot-wide macadam roads leading to the beauty spots of the island of Tutuila; 29 new teachers’ housing units with modern plumbing; three new buildings for Samoa’s high school, capable of caring for 300 visitors; the handsome new civic auditorium; a new power plant-and 20,000 immensely proud Samoans.

Representatives from 23 Pacific states and territories, plus observers from the U.N., could scarcely believe their eyes. Critics who came to carp praised American Samoa as “a first-rank model of how to govern Pacific islands.”

In a Hurry. Now Lee plunged into his plan to make Samoa independent of outside support. Education, as he saw it, must be his main thrust. Reforming the primitive education system by gradual steps would take decades. An absolute necessity was “an explosive upgrading.” But what kind?

The notion came to Lee in a flash that the answer lay in television not as a supplemental aid but as the core of teaching. It was a revolutionary idea for Samoa, which had no television. But once the high cost of setting it up was met, TV education would be comparatively inexpensive, for a small group of instructors, of top quality, could reach a maximum number of students.

Impressed but skeptical, the Congressional appropriations committee granted Lee $40,000 to explore the idea. A study team from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, headed by Vernon Bronson, reported after on-the-spot examination that ETV was indeed “the best potential tool for the task.” Congress then approved and appropriation of $1,583,000 for a three-channel system.

The NAEM began rounding up and training engineers, technicians and ETV teachers from all over the United States. In early 1963, contracts were let for equipment and for the erection of a 226-foot transmitter atop 1,700-foot Mt. Alava across the bay from Pago Pago.

When getting to the transmitter site proved a problem, engineers swung a 5,100-foot cable across the harbor cannily estimating that the aerial tramway would pay for itself as a tourist ride. It provides a spectacular view as far as Western Samoa, 77 miles away.

The Samoans erected 26 consolidated schools to replace the 45 tumbledown village schools. And with the opening of the 1964 school year, KVZK-TV beamed its first signals to the new schools. The specially prepared elementary lessons are on three main levels; each lesson, whatever its subject matter, lays heavy emphasis on oral English.

Finding experienced top teachers eager to have a go at it proceeded rapidly. Typical are Roy and Mildred Cobb of Louisville, Ky. While Mildred settled in at Utulei supervise the production of ETV curricula, Roy went to Nua, 15miles distant, to get the first consolidated school, serving four nearby villages, is the standard by which others are judged. It comprises six concrete-and-red-wood buildings of two classrooms each, playground, and beautiful flowered grounds planted and maintained by the villagers. There are 275 pupils, nine Samoan teachers and six trainees.

Standing Room Only.  After a year of trial. Has Samoa’s experiment in TV teaching been successful? “Outstandingly so,” say authorities. Dr. John W. Harold, Samoa’s director of education and formerly executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, reports: “tests show that young Samoans not only are learning twice as fast as formerly, but are retaining their knowledge much longer.” Attendance averages 98 percent in all schools.

Last September, Samoa’s high schools also turned to TV teaching, served by three added TV channels. To the single high school at Utulei are being added three spanking new ones: one at Leone (now completed), another on the island of Tau, and a third at the eastern end of Tutuila. The basic plan calls for a complex of circular, Polynesian-style buildings, all hurricane-proof, providing 5,540 square feet of space.

At night, the new schools become community centers, packed to the standing-room-only stage with older Samoans eagerly imbibing lessons in farming, home beautification, sanitation, the principles of government and democracy. Newscast in both Samoan and English are featured nightly, as are travelogues showing how other people live and solve their problems.

American Samoa’s ETV system has been studied by international agencies and by technicians from many countries. Its implications for underdeveloped areas everywhere are significant, since the broadcasts could just as well go to 2,500 schools simultaneously as to Samoa’s 25, for only a modest additional cost. With the encouragement of Governor Lee, methods of adapting the TV teaching to their own needs are now being studied by Western Samoa, where KVZK-TV’s telecasts come in lound and clear, and by the Tonga Islands.

Making Money. Other accomplishments in American Samoa have been scarcely less imposing. Attracted by generous tac incentives, a number of new companies have settled on government-owned land, proviging welcome work and wages for hundreds. Local commerce had long been a monopoly of a few island traders. With funds from the government-owned Bank of Samoa, a number of vigorous young Samoans have started flourishing little businesses of their own. A pair of brothers, for example, now runs a combined commission business and tours agency. Two others now operate their own construction business. Other private enterprises include an island newspaper, Samoa’s first laundry, a barber and beauty shop, a retail clothing store.

With the islands’ exotic beauty, attractive people and the handsome new jet airport-finest in the South Seas-tourism was made to order for Samoa. Three years ago, Lee Helped island leaders to form the Samoa Development Corp. “If anyone is to profit from Samoa’s tourist attractions,” he said, “it will be Samoans.” Today, the fine new Polynesian-style hotel is 100-percent Samoan-owned, with 1,200 shareholders, who purchased $10 shares through time payments and payroll deductions. All shops and services-Polynesian handicrafts, fishing boats, car rentals-will eventually be run by Samoans trained by an international hotel-management concern.

Among SDC projects soon to be realized is a modern shopping center in Pago Pago, complete with Laundromats and an air-conditioned supermarket. The broad base of stock ownership is already channeling dividends to the remotest villages and scores of Samoans, partly supported by government scholarships and partly by the SDC, are now in mainland and Hawaiian colleges learning the skills they need to run their own affairs.

Food and Facilities. Most Samoan farms had produced only scant crops of such diet basics as taro, breadfruit and bananas. One of Lee’s first acts was to rejuvenate the government’s weed-grown experimental farms. Extension agents showed the islanders how to step up the quantity and variety of their products. Intercropping was started, free transplant of seedling were provided, farm machinery was rented out, insecticides and fertilizers were sold at cost. Suitable strains of poultry and pigs were brought in.

The result: Samoa’s average production per acre has almost doubled since 1961. Overall, food prices are at an all-time low. Many farmers now own machinery, bought on time. And today in Samoa’s traditional open-air, grass-roofed shacks stand more than 500 large white refrigerators.

Another of Lee’s early acts was to launch engineering studies for a comprehensive sewage-disposal system for the Pago Pago bay area, then to begin a long-term program aimed at providing, largely with the people’s own efforts, sanitary facilities in each village, including laundry and showers. The possession of a private water toilet has now become a Samoan status symbol.

Health and Welfare. With the help of imported specialists, a control program ha sharply reduced the incidence of pulmonary troubles, filariasis, intestinal parasites, anemia and other diseases. Malnutrition in the young, due to a faulty diet and alarmingly fatal to infants, was attacked through a school-lunch project and home-demonstration programs. To cut down the islands’ birth rate, long one of the world’s highest, a drive to teach birth control was recently launched.

Lee wangled from Congress a three-million-dollar appropriation to build a badly needed new hospital. The ancient hospital’s services had been largely in the hands of a dozen “Samoan medical practitioners” (SMP’s), bright young Samoans trained at the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji, but without enough education to qualify for medical degrees. A number of scholarships have now been established for Samoans in stateside schools of medicine, to supply top medical talent for the future.

Price Tags. Since his goal was to make Samoans self-sufficient politically as well as economically, Lee boldly surrendered many of his powers, laying in the lap of the legislature, formerly a rubber-stamp body, the responsibility for enacting and enforcing its own laws. How well the Samoans have responded is indicated by the legislature’s action in early 1963 when it overwhelmingly voted “to join our fellow Americans in paying federal income taxes” the only American territory voluntarily to take on this burden. When one legislator, egged on by a well-to-do island merchant, spoke against and the income tax as “colonialist” and “undemocratic,” whole phalanxes of his fellow chiefs arose to cry him down. “We have never been less colonialist or more democratic,” declaimed High Chief Rapi Sotoa, president of the senate. “This makes us real Americans at last!”

In 1963, the income tax produced $212,600; in 1964, $947,000; in 1965, some $1,186,000-an amount almost equal to the entire annual Congressional appropriations for Samoa in pre-Lee days. The steady climb of Samoa toward economic independence is equally marked. For fiscal 1966, local revenues are estimated at $3,011,000almost a fourfold growth over 1961.

Congressional appropriations over the past four years have totaled more than 30 million dollars. With most of his construction program financed, Lee’s budget request for fiscal 1966 is down to $3,795,000. “With the rate of economic growth anticipated,” he says, “American Samoa should become self-sufficient by 1975.” Says Congressman Michael J. Kirwan of the House Committee on Appropriations: “Seldom in our history has an investment in people shown such prompt and satisfactory returns.”

Keep It Samoan. Word has spread. So many people from other South Sea island groups have tried to crowd in that Samoa had to restrict immigration. Two delegations came recently from New Zealand’s Tokelau Islands, nosed about for days, then sought out Governor Lee to say, “we are sent by our council of chiefs, who decided that we would like to cede our islands and become a part of the United States.”

But will all this development mean the loss of Samoa’s charm, the abandonment of its appealing culture? Not at all, says Lee. “All we do is aimed at keeping Samoa Samoan.” The island chiefs unanimously agree. As High Chief T. Le’iato told me: “If we lose any of our old ways, it will be because we choose to, not because changes are being forced upon us.”

When, last year, word reached Samoa that a representative of an Iron Curtain country had risen in the U.N. to call American Samoa “a familiar example of colonialist conquest,” the legislature flew into an uproar. “Let us make it plain,” said one spokesman, “that American Samoa is no colony, but a part of the United States-by choice. And let no one come calling here to force us apart from our brothers, the mainland Americans!”

In 1977, the people of American Samoa took a major step towards self-determination and self-sufficiency, a key goal of Governor Rex Lee. Peter Tali Coleman, a local Samoan, was elected as the first governor of the Territory.  In 1981, American Samoa sent its first non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress.  Since that time, American Samoa has continued to grow and develop, learning to better govern itself in today's modern era.  Like many small island developing states in the Pacific, American Samoa continues to face challenges due to its remote location, limited natural resources, and struggling economy.  Leadership in both the public and private sector continue to improve as many Samoans travel abroad for education and experience, returning eventually to participate in moving the territory forward.  The U.S. Territory also continues to find its interests ignored by the US Federal Government, or at least not well understood.  Federal policies are enacted with little to no input from the territory, often times directly impacting the territory's ability to build towards great self sufficiency.  Because of this and other factors, the territory is slowly beginning to evaluate its political status.  At present, American Samoa remains an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States.  Where American Samoa goes from here will depend largely on the next generation of leaders and the U.S.'s strategic goals for the region.

bottom of page