Non-states inch closer to US Capitol’s Statuary Hall Collection

The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are one step closer to being represented in the US Capitol. Voting-rights advocates shouldn’t get their hopes up, however.

The US House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill that would allow the non-states to place one statue apiece in the US Capitol as part of the Statuary Hall Collection. According to the 1864 legislation that created the collection, the honor of placing statues in the Hall has is expressly reserved for the states themselves, which, however, are allowed to contribute two statues.

As with virtually all attempts to increase the non-states’ visibility in Congress, the statue issue has not been without controversy. In 2010, with the failed DC Voting Rights Act still a fresh memory, California Representative Dan Lungren (R) opposed District Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D) bill that would have placed two DC statues in the Capitol, suggesting the move was an attempt to confer “quasi-state status” on the city. The objection here, of course, was that adding two DC statues to the Statuary Hall collection would have given the city equal billing with the states, and therefore set the city on the path to full House voting rights, anathema to today’s Republican Party.

But Lungren isn’t firmly opposed to admitting statues from DC and the non-states into the collection outright; he only opposes conferring symbolic equality on the non-states by admitting their statues to the Capitol. After all, Lungren did introduce the bill that cleared the House today, noting on a previous occasion that statues are important to his constituents.

The House passed similar legislation to Lungren’s bill nearly two years ago, just before the dissolution of the 111th Congress in December 2010. But the Senate, not unexpectedly, let the matter die by not taking up the bill.

Should President Obama sign the bill into law after Senate passage–still an uncertainty–the non-states could move statues into Hall immediately. As far as I know, DC is the only non-state that has actual statues ready to deploy, and it looks like abolitionist Frederick Douglass would have the honor.

Douglass was chosen in 2006 after the city held a contest to select two historical figures to represent the city. The vote itself wasn’t without controversy, however, as the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities ultimately passed over jazz musician Duke Ellington–runner-up to Douglass in the vote–and instead commissioned a statue of French architect and Revolutionary War veteran Pierre L’Enfant, who in the early 1790’s drafted the initial plans for the design of the District of Columbia (Ellington, however, was later immortalized on the District’s quarter as part of the State Quarter program).

But with only one statue allowed under the legislation passed by the House, Douglass is no doubt the wiser choice. His efforts to end slavery in the United States aside, Douglass actually meets the Statuary Hall requirements that all persons immortalized be former citizens of the localities they represent. I could be wrong, but I don’t think L’Enfant ever actually resided in the District of Columbia–he was kicked off the DC planning project  after only a few months after it began and left what would become the District well before the city was incorporated in 1801. L’Enfant died penniless in 1825 on a farm outside the city in Chilium, Maryland.

If anyone knows what statues Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands would contribute to the collection, please let me know!

Non-States Roll Call, part II – the Democratic National Convention

In a follow up to our post on how the non-states branded themselves at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, we take a look at how Democratic delegates from the non-states introduced themselves during the Roll Call vote in Charlotte.

American Samoa: Geography was front and center for Democrats and Republicans from America’s southernmost territory, as Democratic delegates last night echoed their Republican peers by branding themselves as “the only part of the United States south of the equator” In a bit of progressive flair, the American Samoan Democrats pointed out that the territory is “the land of our nation’s cleanest air.”

District of Columbia: DC Mayor Vincent Gray’s impassioned speech harkened back to the nation’s founding in resistance to taxation without representation, and could have been lifted right out of a Republican speechwriter’s notebook. Before casting the District’s votes for President Obama, Mayor Gray asked all Americans to help “bring justice and equality to the District of Columbia.” Gray’s appeal for DC voting rights stood in stark contrast to the DC Republicans’ roll call speech in Tampa. After their suggested amendment to the GOP platform calling for DC voting rights and home rule were roundly rejected by the Republican platform committee, the DC GOP meekly stated they were excited to cast their votes for candidate Mitt Romney.

Guam: Guam voiced support for President Obama’s plans for a military buildup in Guam that is “done right.” The military’s increased presence in Guam is part of the larger US strategy to rebalance military forces to the Asia-Pacific region. After lauding Obama’s support for medicare and working families, the Guam delegation voiced support for Obama’s belief in the territory’s “right to self-determination.”

Northern Mariana Islands: No delegation present, as the territory did not hold a Democratic Party primary or caucus.

Puerto Rico: Unlike the Republican Puerto Rican delegates, the Democrats made no reference to statehood. Instead, the territory’s Democrats gave a shout out to the Supreme Court’s first Latina justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent and is an Obama appointee. The Delegation called Obama a “good amigo” of the people of Puerto Rico.

US Virgin Islands: In front of a nearly-empty convention hall at 12:48 AM Eastern Time, US Virgin Islands Democratic Party Chair Emmett Hansen, on behalf of the “proud Caribbean Americans” of the US Virgin Islands (USVI), called on the country to support the territory’s aspirations to one day cast votes for president in the general election. Currenly, the District of Columbia is the only non-state to have this distinction. Hansen wrapped up his short speech with a bit of a tourist pitch, casting the territory’s 12 votes from “the hills and windmills of St. Croix, the wonderful shopping in St. Thomas, and the beautiful jewel St. John.”

American Samoa, American football

The 2012 NFL season got underway Wednesday night when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the New York Giants 24 to 17 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

One presence that will be greatly missed this season is former linebacker Junior Seau. Fans were shocked a few months ago when Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, was found dead in his California home. A medical examiner’s report ruled that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

Aside from being one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, Seau was one of professional sports’ most famous athletes of American Samoan descent. Although he wasn’t born in the distant American territory, he spent several years there as a kid before returning with his family to California to enter grade school. According to his player bio, he didn’t speak English until age seven.

His feats and outsized presence on the field, not to mention his charitable work off the field, were sources of pride for American Samoans both in the continental United States and in the South Pacific. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, probably the league’s most well-known active player of American Samoan descent, described Seau as an inspiration to Samoan youth.

To many, Seau was proof that American Samoans could make it big in one of the mainland’s most popular sports. T.J. Taimatuia, a University of Hawaii sophomore linebacker, probably summed up the sentiment of other American Samoans with dreams of making it to the NCAA or going pro when he recently described football as a “meal ticket off the island.”

There’s a tendency in this country to view such aspirations as noble, but ultimately unrealistic. I think most people would cite Americans’ habit to glamorizing professional athletes as the root cause of such impractical dreams. After all, the odds are stacked against us. Only about 200 collegiate players ever make it to the NFL every season, and NCAA fans are no doubt familiar with the Home Depot add campaigns that remind us that the vast majority of NCAA athlethes go “pro” in something other than sports.

But, Taimatuia’s description of football as a meal ticket off the island has a little more credibility for American Samoans.

According to Wikipedia, about 30 of the NFL’s nearly 1,700 players were of American Samoan descent during the 2010 season. A 2002 ESPN article claimed that 200 American Samoans play Division I NCAA football, although that number has no doubt grown in the last decade.

Alone these numbers don’t mean much, but keep in mind that American Samoa’s population is, according to the 2010 Census, only about 55,000, or the size of a small American city. Some sources estimate that a boy born in American Samoa is 40 to 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than someone born on the mainland. And, although not all of these players were born and raised in American Samoa, the news media would take note if Terre Haute, Indiana—population 60,000—had such close ties to 30 active NFL players.

So how did this come about?

Like cricket in southeast Asia and the West Indies, or rugby in places like Australia and New Zealand, football owes its popularity in American Samoa to western colonization.

The American presence in what is today American Samoa dates back to the 1870’s, although the US government did not formally annex the territory until 1900. By 1940, a few American Samoans had made their way to the US mainland and found spots on college and professional team rosters. Players like Al Lolotai, Charles Ane, and Bob Apisa paved the way for people of American Samoan descent in the early days, but the sport’s popularity didn’t really explode in the territory until the late 1960’s, when government-controlled television widely introduced the sport.

Television itself debuted relatively late in the islands because for the first 60 years of US rule, American naval administrators mostly pursued a policy of non-interference in American Samoan’s traditional, centuries-old way of life. Save for the construction of roads and some basic public schools, the US government for decades made no widespread attempt to modernize the territory.

But with the advent of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier”—an effort to eradicate poverty and lift American living standards through an array of government spending programs—Washington altered its approach to American Samoa, and in 1961 the federal government launched a programmatic effort to modernize the islands’ economy and educational standards. Allegedly, after reading a Reader’s Digest article which detailed the territory’s poor economic state, President Kennedy tasked H. Rex Lee—a civil servant who had spent most of his career in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs—with stimulating social and economic change in the territory.

A central element of Lee’s program was reforming the territory’s schools and education system, including by introducing educational television network that could be beamed into the territory’s classrooms. The network was inaugurated in October 1964, and according to a program list found in Wilbur Schramm’s academic work on the subject, by 1965, 25 minutes were devoted to “Physical Education Activities” every Monday morning.

The high schools that H. Rex Lee established were organized in 1968 into an athletic league, and, according to former Sports Illustrated executive editor Richard Johnston, the territory-wide TV station was used to broadcast football training films. In line with longstanding practice, Lee’s changes were introduced with an eye to preserving fa’a Samoa–or the traditional, Samoan way of life–an approach that allowed Samoans to accept Lee’s reforms as additions to American Samoan culture and not “substitutes for it,” according to Schramm.

Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to the US House of Representatives, Congress, made this point in a 2002 ESPN interview, when he described contact sports like football as “inherent in the Samoan character.” In fact, Johnston says that in the sport’s early days, before the rules were fully understood, the enthusiasm and exuberance that the territory’s residents brought to the game produced sometimes ludicrous results, like the time when 21 players–from both teams–tackled the ballcarrier. Maybe Polynesia’s familiarity with and passion for rugby–which Faleomavaega described as Samoans’ first love–was to blame.

By the 1970’s, when commercial television became popular throughout the territory, professional football had found its way onto American Samoan television sets. Within a few years, the territory’s residents were cheering on players like Mosi Tatupu who had followed Al Lolotai to glory on the mainland.

When ESPN asked Junior Seau in 2002 why American Samoans are so disproportionately represented in football’s top ranks, he said he believed it was “tied to the work ethic within the home,” and “not taking anything for granted.”

Johnston’s SI article from the 1970’s records similar sentiment. Back then, Al Harrington, an American Samoan of Hawaii-Five-O fame who also played football at Stanford University, likened American Samoans’ drive to make it big in football to pursuing the American Dream.

“We think hard work and merit will pay off,” he told Johnston, adding that for American Samoans, “football and other sports have provided a way toward fulfillment of the dream.”

For this small, football-crazy American territory in the South Pacific, this holds true today, as American Samoans continue to make their way in the world by by merging fa’a Samoa with elements of mainland America.

Clinton heads to Pacific, but no American Samoa stop planned

Amid talk that the US intends “pivot” or “rebalance” its military forces to Asia and the Pacific, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jets off this weekend to the Cook Islands en route to East Asia.

Clinton embarked on a similar trip to Asia in late 2010 under similar pretenses. She wrapped up the visit by making a brief stop in American Samoa, a territory she won in her failed bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President. However, It doesn’t look like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be stopping in American Samoa this time around. Continue reading

Non-states roll call

Courtesy of Maclean’s, a run-down of how the GOP delegations from the non-states branded themselves during the Roll Call vote for the Republican presidential nominee:

American Samoa: “The only American soil in the southern hemisphere.”

District of Columbia: Apparently the DC delegation didn’t brand themselves at all, only saying that they were “excited” to vote. Perhaps they were still smarting from the RNC’s refusal to adopt their own stance on DC voting rights?

Guam: “America’s tropical paradise.”

Northern Mariana Islands: “We are strong believers in God.”

Puerto Rico: “The 51st state of the union!”

US Virgin Islands: “America’s paradise.”

Seating the non-states at the GOP Convention

A recently-published map of the convention floor provided by Politico shows that the non-states have snagged some precious real estate at the Republican National Convention this week.

(click for larger) Continue reading

The Northwest Ordinance…in space?

With the GOP Presidential Primaries behind us and the candidates no longer courting votes from the US Territories in their quest for the nomination, the issue of statehood will probably disappear again from the campaign trail for another four years.

That is, unless, Mitt Romney bucks common sense and for some reason selects former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as his running mate.

You may remember that Gingrich made headlines when the primaries were in full swing for some remarks he made on statehood. It wasn’t his comments on Puerto Rico that grabbed headlines—that honor went to Rick Santorum who falsely claimed that the territory would have to adopt English (and only English) as its official language for Statehood to be a legal possibility.

Instead, Gingrich made headlines for his grandiose plan to colonize the moon and then admit Earth’s celestial cousin to the Union as the 51st state. Continue reading

Non-states at the White House

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I had the chance to attend the welcome ceremony for UK Prime Minister David Cameron on the South Lawn at the White House.

While the Prime Minister and President Obama were swapping jokes about the British burning Washington in 1814, I snuck over to the side to snap a picture of the non-States’ flags lined up just underneath the East Room.

              from left to right: DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands

American Samoa dragged into the Israel-Palestine debate

An ongoing disagreement between the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto over the legal status of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories has ensnared American Samoa.

The beef started when Goldberg criticized an Israeli government report that classified the West Bank as sovereign Israeli territory, rather than occupied territory. Goldberg argued that if the West Bank is in fact Israeli territory, then Israel should treat people living there–Jewish or Muslim–as Israeli citizens, and extend to them full voting rights.

Taranto took issue with this, demanding that Goldberg be packed off to American Samoa, an American territory where the native population lacks US citizenship and federal voting rights. Continue reading

Prologue

You may be surprised to know that there’s more to these United States than the 50 multi-colored shapes you’d find on a classroom wall map. Uncle Sam, always careful to disavow any interest in seeking empire, nevertheless claims ownership of dozens of islands, atolls, reefs, and rocks that dot the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as a federal district wedged between Maryland and Virginia. We, the 4.4 million Americans who inhabit these non-States, lack full representation in the US Congress.

Growing up in Indiana, I never considered what it meant to have actual representation in Congress. I took it for granted. Spotting my Senator sleeping during the State of the Union was always a thrill. I didn’t consider that people in other parts of the country would never know the joy or embarrassment of seeing one’s Senator threaten a cable news anchor to a duel or be embarrassed for marriage infidelity or some intern scandal.

Even when I moved to the DC, I didn’t give the matter much thought. The “Taxation Without Representation” license plate that I slapped on the front of my Volkswagen seemed like a gimmick. I saw it more as a conversation starter on return trips to Indiana than a city’s cry for political rights.

But then the 112th Congress arrived in town. With the new House Republican majority came rule changes. The media focused on the important ones, like the reintroduction of Styrofoam plates to the House cafeteria. Mostly ignored was the rescinding of a rule that had given non-States—DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—a vote on House committees.

Weeks later Congress found itself unable to pass a federal spending bill. As a federal employee, Congressional dithering meant the possibility of an unpaid vacation. But, as a resident of DC—the only city whose budget requires Congressional and Presidential approval—a federal shutdown also meant a suspension of city services, from trash collection to pothole repair. DC’s 600,000 residents became hostages to Republic-shattering battles such as devoting .0001% of the federal budget to public broadcasting.

All of this coincided with a trip my girlfriend and I took to the Virgin Islands. Rather than devote our first day there to the beach, I dragged my girlfriend to the territory’s legislature—a former Danish military barracks—for a civics lesson. There we swapped stories with a local about life outside the bounds of statehood.

Eventually, Congress passed a spending bill, and trash collection continued in DC. Over the ensuring months, as Congress explored ways to drive its approval rating ever downward, 4.4 million Americans remained without a vote in the body that has a great deal of power over our communities.

Maybe our plight is due to the fact that the rest of the country seems wholly ignorant to our existence. Though small in size and number, we do have interesting stories to tell. This blog will shed some light on life in the non-States, the small slice of America that the rest of the country has forgotten about.