Legal Pluralism, Fa'amatai, and the Administrative State in American Samoa

Hernandez Tragesser, Sophia, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Barzun, Charles
Milligan, Joy

American Samoa, an "unincorporated territory" of the United States situated thousands of miles from the nearest U.S. coastline, presents a unique case study of indigenous governance amidst colonial influences. This paper explores the historical dynamics of American Samoan governance, focusing on the resilience and persistence of the indigenous fa’amatai system despite the presence of the U.S. federal administrative state. Unlike other U.S. territories where indigenous systems were supplanted by colonial regimes, American Samoa has maintained its traditional governance structures alongside the imposition of certain aspects of U.S. administrative rule. Through a multidisciplinary approach drawing from Global Legal History, Legal Pluralism, Administrative State History, Federal Indian Law, and Federalism Legal Theory, this paper investigates the negotiation of sovereignty between the fa’amatai system and the U.S. Administrative State over time.
The paper examines into the historical context of Samoa in the age of imperialism, tracing the evolution of fa’amatai governance amidst colonization efforts by German, British, and American powers. Despite external pressures, the fa’amatai system persisted, negotiating with colonial authorities to preserve indigenous culture and governance. Furthermore, the essay discusses American Samoa's resistance to the traditional model of legal pluralism, wherein indigenous legal systems are gradually absorbed or marginalized by colonial legal regimes. Unlike the anticipated dominance of the U.S. legal system, American Samoa has retained recognition of fa’amatai law and legal actors, with the U.S. administrative state gradually returning power to indigenous leaders.

MA (Master of Arts)
Legal Pluralism, American Samoa, Fa'amatai, Global Legal History, Administrative State
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