What makes American Samoa “American?” The nation—a collection of five volcanic islands and two coral atolls in the middle of the South Pacific—is a territory of the United States. Although unincorporated and functionally self-governing, it is still technically “American.”
What makes American Samoa “Samoan?” The answers span many centuries of rich human culture on the islands. Inhabited as early as 1000 B.C., the islands of what is now known as American Samoa were once ruled by female chiefs, the most famous of whom are Nafanua and Queen Salamasina, the ancestor of the present monarch. Society on the islands still operates on principles instituted by these legendary women, through the faamatai chief system and through strong family connections.
European contact with American Samoa began in the 18th century; its repercussions have been wide-ranging. The Samoan islands were at one point divided between Germany and the United States; the western islands are now the independent state of Samoa, and the eastern islands are American Samoa. During World War II, U.S. Marines in American Samoa outnumbered the local population. As they had in World War I, American Samoans served once again in the American army as combatants, medical personnel, code personnel and in many other capacities.
The people of American Samoa have resisted incorporation into the U.S., and indigenous heritage and language are celebrated. Ninety percent of American Samoans speak Samoan, though most are bilingual in English.
American Samoa is home to the oldest indigenous Christian church in the South Pacific, the Samoan Congregational Church, founded in the early 1800s. About 96% of the people are Christian. Congregationalist missionaries worked on the first Samoan Bible translation; revised in 1969, the translation is still in use today.