The United States of America is not just a nation of states but also – legally and officially – of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our outposts far from the North American continent: the territories of the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, along with the uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands.
They have U.S. National Parks and American Legion posts and U.S. post offices – just a standard first-class stamp gets your mail there; it’s all the same country. Their millions of citizens earn American dollars and pay into Social Security and Medicare and serve in the U.S. military at impressively high rates. They participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and receive Pell Grants and play Little League baseball and have 4-H Clubs and serve as United States Ambassadors. They pledge allegiance to the American flag, even if Old Glory hasn’t made room for them.
Yet for the average resident of the states (lowercase s – because States would be the whole nation), the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential, vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini-golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there – an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical-island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form – and for a moment we think, oh, right …we have territories. Then, just as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.
The territories are not part of our conception of ourselves.
I know we’re all dealing with multiple crises at the moment – pandemic, police violence, economic disruption, racism finally under national examination – but try to remember back in 2017. Man, that was a long time ago. Ok, hurricanes, especially Maria, that devastated Puerto Rico (and the US Virgin Islands, but somehow that never really got on our radar screen), the President of the United States throwing rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, Jose Andre’s World Central Kitchens feeding an island while politicians sat on their thumbs, a corrupt deal with an out-of-its-element electrical company to repair the Puerto Rican grid, and it went on and on for months until we got bored and started looking for new outrages, which, sadly, are always available.
Somewhere in that time frame, a tweet by Doug Mack crossed my path. The question about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans kept coming up, and it seems his book about the US Territories had been published earlier that year and answered a lot of the questions that were coming up. Not just about Puerto Rico, but about all the territories, however many there were, because most of us had no idea.
I got that book for last year’s in-between reading period, but I never got to it (appropriately enough) so I rolled it over to this year. I was a little unsure, since I’m not really interested in “travel books”. Turns out it’s not a travel book at all. Oh, there are some tales of people and interesting places and a chance encounter with a CIA-trained chef (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy shop, for those who didn’t spend years mesmerized by Top Chef), but it’s really a book about history and culture and American colonialism and why we don’t know anything about the US Territories.
Mack became interested in researching the Territories after an encounter with “the Quarters of Destiny”: you know, those special-issue quarters each state has, with a specific image carved on the back. Turns out the Territories have them, too, which he discovered looking at a portfolio of the quarters. Then a few days later he read something about American Samoa, and thought, “That’s one of those mysterious places on the quarters.”
Until very recently, I couldn’t even list the territories, let alone tell you anything about them. And if there’s anyone with no excuse for this, it’s me, a travel writer with a college degree in – ahem – American Studies.
My obsession with Americana runs deep, pulsing through my childhood in Minneapolis ….Years later, at Carleton College, amid the prairies and cornfields of southern Minnesota, I channeled this fascination into actual academics. I could rattle off esoteric facts (about the states ) and tell you the name of just about every capital (of the states). I graduated with the self-satisfied confidence of the newly diploma: I am a credentialed expert on all things American.
When I started out as a writer, my gaze turned overseas. I filed stories from Rome, from Ecuador, from a tiny Icelandic island. I was ever on the lookout for Americana and how it translated abroad ….
Yet in all this time, it never occurred to me, Mr. American Studies Guy, Mr. Globally Aware Travel Writer, that there was more of my very own country to consider. Parts of the USA about which I was not just fairly ignorant but almost wholly unaware. Places I could not reliably find on a map, within a thousand miles or even, in some cases, within the correct hemisphere.
And then one day I encountered what I now think of as the Quarters of Destiny….
It also seemed that, right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation….It was one of the focal points of the 1900 presidential election, between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
A century or so ago, Americans didn’t just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation? Was there a compelling reason why they mattered for the present day USA, or were they just remnants of a long-past historical moment?
These questions form the backbone of the book. Some of the answers may surprise you. For instance, in some ways they seem an awful lot like… colonies, can that be true? What’s a commonwealth, anyway? What’s the difference between an American national and an American citizen? What does guano have to do with all this?
It all started with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, when farmlands needed fertilizer and all these uninhabited islands covered in bird poop were just sitting around waiting for the taking. We still have Navassa (Haiti thinks they have it, and we’re pretty much in a stalemate that nobody seems to care too much about) though mining ended in the 19th century. From there, it became a game of I’m a Big Boy Now, as the US decided to make its mark on the world by acquiring non-contiguous lands; at the same time, the Navy wanted to become King of the Pacific, ceding the Atlantic to Great Britain. War seems to be a major motivation. Some territories were picked up after the Spanish-American war. Others became strategically important in the World Wars.
Mack goes through the territories one by one, while continuing the overall theme of answering those questions of how we came to have territories and why we don’t think of them now. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the history, he switches over to a nice little dinner he had with some people he met in a bar and we find out more about the attitudes towards the US and some of the culturally important aspects of island life. And then we’re back to political analysis and maybe a little economic scrutiny, ending with another group of new friends in “the rain forest version of Cheers. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, keeping a full-length narrative running while delving into details for each individual territory. It’s also very successful at keeping me turning pages.
Some details I found interesting:
The US Virgin Islands
In terms of the overall structure, Mack focuses his attention in this chapter on why the territories were acquired to begin with (guano), while delving into the USVI specifically.
On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum is a paean to “Danish industry and Manor life” and pretty much ignores the indigenous peoples and the more recent colonial struggles, including a major slave revolt in the 18th century. There’s a reason for this:
[Danish tourists] come to the territory in droves, specifically for the history, for the portal to their 19th century glory days. The American tourists come for the beaches and the shopping. The museums and historic sites, intentionally or not, reflect this imbalance and tailor their content to their ticket-buying audience: the Danes. History is written not just by the victors but by those who are most eager to underwrite it.
Next time someone tries to tell you only White Christian Europe has ever produced anything important, remember all the peoples and things that have been left out, overshadowed, or appropriated to create that impression.
This seems, to me, like the most appealing of the islands Mack discusses. Again, he contributes to the overall story by focusing on the Imperial Moment and Insular Acts of the early 20th century, with the assistance of Columbia Law Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa.
Ponses answers all pointed back to the turn of the twentieth century, the USA’s so-called Imperial Moment. “That’s what the historical actors at the time see as the question: can we do empire?” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government has become more powerful and the United States is now flexing its muscle on the international stage and European powers have been annexing colonies, so the question arises, Do we do this, too?
The nation’s answer: “Let’s go for it!”
This leads to constitutional questions: does the Constitution follow the flag? The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, left that up to Congress. Yeah. There’s also some routine racist stuff about how alien races can’t possibly be included with Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, it’s a well-constructed book, it can handle being thrown across the room a few times.
Turns out American Samoa made the decision to decline citizenship – they are American nationals – to avoid possible “outsider land-grab”. The Lapita have been here for 3500 years, and trace their ancestry back another 3500 before that. They aren’t giving that up for a Marriott and a bunch of designer outlets. “There was pressure, even duress, but the fact remains – and American Samoans are deeply proud of this fact – that these islands were granted to, not claimed by, the USA.” They’d rather keep fa’asamoa – the Samoan way.
One surprising fact is that American Samoa – the Territories in general, in fact – have a much higher rate of military enlistment than any state. The NFL and professional wrestling also have an outsized proportion of Samoans. And: they have fa’afafine, the third gender, a person who is born male but identifies as female. Maybe they could help some mainland Americans understand how that works.
The prominent overall theme of this section is the general public’s waning interest in the Territories:
The Spanish-American war had helped put the United States on the global stage, and soon there were much bigger battles, literally, than what was going on in these small islands. The United States became more deeply involved than ever before in goings-on across the globe, at the same time that the ever-growing mass media was covering ever more stories in ever more distant places. The territories were overshadowed by the competition. These “foreign” islands were no longer the most interesting foreign lands.
We always have been suckers for bright shiny new objects.
One of those goings-on was a little thing called WWII, and Guam bears the scars. They may have the world’s largest Kmart (not sure if that’s still the case) and watch out for karaoke clubs (they aren’t really about karaoke) but they also have the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, where signs warn you to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the brush.
When Guam fell to the Japanese in the early days of WWII, the Chamorros were put in rapidly constructed, crude concentration camps, or just murdered.
Nearly twelve hundred Chamorros died during the years of Japanese occupation and the Battle of Guam. (If you think about the standard narrative of the war in the Pacific, it’s always USA versus Japan, with little acknowledgement that many of these islands were already populated by people caught in the middle.)
The South Pacific Memorial Park was established in 1970, a joint Japanese-Chamorro project. There’s no ill will here, just a mutual sorrow.
“Nearly a million Japanese citizens visit Guam every year.” Guam also has a very high rate of US military service; in the Iran and Afghanistan wars, the casualty rate for troops from Guam was six times higher than any state. I’m trying to understand these things.
The Northern Mariana Islands
In terms of the overall arc of the book, this section looks at some of the legal and political issues the Territories have dealt with in more recent decades, including the growing discomfort the US began to feel with their role as colonizers. Yet, as you might imagine, when a group of people can’t vote for President and have congressional representation that can’t vote on anything, there’s little motivation to cater to their needs and opinions. Alas, the territories can’t seem to agree themselves on their relationship to the US.
“Saipan is the most welcoming place on the planet,” Angelo had told me in an email before I arrived, and every day I met people who proved him right. And the landscape really was gorgeous, with the sky so pristinely blue that it felt manufactured and seemingly endless flame trees, ablaze with bright orange flowers.
But there was also an unmistakable sense that all was not well on Saipan, a disquieting feeling that the whole island had been burned, hardcore.
It was often the stillness of abandonment: empty houses, empty shops, entire vacant factory complexes, with broken windows and the occasional tree growing out of a roof.
I pulled my Hyundai to a halt when I saw an entire abandoned mall. …
The more modern the ghost town, the more disconcerting it is. Pompeii has a certain charm area Chernobyl does not. Recent ruins indicate research, relatable failings: THIS COULD BE YOU. Here, not too long ago, were vigor and joy and laughter and big plans. And then something went horribly wrong.
I’ve read this chapter three times now, and I still am not sure what it is that went wrong. It seems to be the predictable aftermath of Congress using the territories to experiment with economic approaches. One Speaker of the House called it his “Galapagos Island.” Mack has a particularly juicy way of describing it: “Imagine that you used a Club Med brochure and Atlas Shrugged as your manuals for constructing a new economy in a place with a long history of insularity and colonialism. What’s the worst that could happen in this laissez-faire Shangri-la?” Then there’s this tidbit, which I find shocking: “On Saipan, the tap water for most residents is not potable.”
The wartime history of this island again echoes the “caught in the middle” tragedy. It’s not just the mass suicide of the Japanese who realized they were losing the island. It’s the ghost of the North Field airbase on the small, now mostly abandoned island of Tinian, where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the Enola Gay and Bockscar. Mack incorporates these aspects of the island with great sensitivity.
On the softer side, there’s the ubiquitous laundromat/poker room combination, and a lovely evening that included “Fanta with a Founding Father.” But overall, it’s the bleakest chapter.
The overall sense of this chapter is a summary. Mack presents his nine points answering the question of why no one cares about the Territories any more, one of those points being “it can get ugly so let’s not think about it.” That might be the ultimate American attitude towards everything, from colonies to race to COVID testing.
The chapter starts out, however, with an anecdote that delighted me: a visit to artist Samuel Lind’s house and a close look at his sculptures and prints celebrating the bomba dance. This charmed me because, four years ago in Pushcart 2016, I read a fascinating short story featuring bomba as both a plot and structural element: a dance with doctors in the interests of patient advocacy. As the header image, I chose a Lind print. All of this was out of a place of complete ignorance; I had to google “bomba” to learn what it was and why it was pertinent, and my choice of Lind was completely random. But it stuck with me, and now, four years later, I run into it again. This is why I blog what I read; it makes it more likely I’ll remember it later.
The main issue here is the conflict within the territory about its relationship to the States. The three sides – status quo, independence, and statehood – are passionate about their positions. The politics goes a little beyond me. The humanity doesn’t.
This is also where, by sheer accident, Mack ran into the CIA-trained chef (“I was Emeril’s sous chef in Orlando”), as well as an architectural student who, along with his photographer wife, got them into what might be the most opulent home Mack had ever seen – including “around eighty handmade tiles telling the story of Don Quixote.” There was a year when everything I read or did ended up connected to Norway; this year seems to be all about Don Quixote. And, fun fact: Puerto Rico has the highest concentration of Walgreens in the US, and the highest concentration of Walmarts in the world, which depresses the hell out of me.
The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them – implicitly or explicitly – as foreign. But when you consider everything tangled up in the territories – issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world – it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today. And there’s the rub: the territories are the most important domestic policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic policy issue at all.
Yes, the territories are, in fact, modern day colonies. Of course they are. This fact has not changed since the Imperial moment. And that’s a problem, one that we, the United States of America, must resolve.
This was, in terms of the political content, a more intense read than I was prepared for at the moment. Turns out, it was a good read anyway. I learned a great deal about the Territories (beginning with what they are), actually found them on maps, figured out the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia (sort of), and felt everything from sorrow to amusement to delight. It’s not a travel book, but it’s not a history book, either; it’s somewhere in the middle, which is so appropriate for the subject of places somewhere in the middle of us and them.