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An American concept, carried out in Samoan style

The Tea Party movement has been working to oust the establishment by organizing protests throughout the country. Out in the Pacific, meanwhile, one of the United States’ colonial holdings, American Samoa, is using a more uncommon forum to rethink the role of the federal government. The island territory of 66,000 people is holding a constitutional convention.

Philadelphia 1787 it is not.

The opening ceremonies this week featured belly-baring men in traditional lava-lava skirts and shell necklaces. Formal consideration of the proposed amendments had to be delayed, in part because of problems with a copy machine before all the Samoan-language versions could be printed.

Each of the U.S. territories has a slightly different relationship with the federal government, but American Samoa’s is among the loosest. The United States provides the majority of the operating budget for the "unorganized territory," but American Samoans, as U.S. nationals, do not have the same rights as citizens.

"Samoa has been the smoothest of the relationships, in part because the treaty which is the basis for the relationship makes the U.S. job so simple, which is to protect their way of life," said Allen Stayman, a former official at the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs.

That means that some of the U.S. Constitution’s most sacred concepts — like the notion of one person, one vote — do not apply in American Samoa. For example, a network of tribal leaders, known as matai, controls communal lands and they serve as appointed members of the territory’s Senate.

But one piece of federal legislation that does apply has been blamed for economic hardship. The 2007 federal law increasing the minimum wage prompted the Chicken of the Sea Samoa fish cannery to close, eliminating more than 2,000 jobs.

One amendment under consideration would remove the U.S. interior secretary’s power to override the governor’s veto. But major changes to the territory’s political status are not on the agenda at the "ConCon." In his opening remarks in Samoan, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said the two-week convention should offer a road map for the next 100 years, according to a translation by The Samoa News.

Not everyone wants more autonomy, notably the sizable contingent of U.S. military veterans who want to keep ties close. One attendee even eschewed the floral lei in favor of a stars-and-stripes tie.

The U.S. Congress has final say on the changes, and proposals at odds with the American Constitution, like a call for a unicameral legislature based wholly on the matai system, would most likely face objections.

Still, the 145 delegates could make the convention memorable by codifying the right to trial by jury — or enshrining the Public Utilities and Services Commission.


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