Counter-Histories of United States Insular Imperialism

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 12:00 PM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; Race


The United States Insular Empire is a crucial geography to explore the limits of citizenship and inclusion in 20th century U.S. history. U.S. citizenship in the territories was given incrementally, some territories receiving the privilege earlier than others, or, in the case of American Sāmoa, not at all. U.S. citizenship, however, did not rectify the colonial status of the island territories themselves. Although it seems that citizenship can be a pathway to inclusion and equality within a nation-state, this panel focuses on and emphasizes the activism and resistance of the Indigenous peoples and residents of U.S. territories because their histories demonstrate how citizenship did not necessarily mean full integration within the American political system. Colonial subjects and indigenous peoples from the Philippines, Guam, American Sāmoa and the United States Virgin Islands had varied movements and responses concerning U.S. citizenship and the definition of belonging in the context of empire. Often, U.S. citizenship in the territories brought settler colonialism, environmental degradation, and cultural loss. As colonies acquired in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines and Guam demonstrate the improvised nature of colonial administration in the Western Pacific. Adrian De Leon explores how Filipino laborers with experience working in California farms were recruited to help colonize the frontier of the Philippine archipelago, Mindanao, in an attempt to build a cohesive Philippine nation-state. Kristin Oberiano historicizes how “Guam Citizenship,” a non-binding political status created by a Naval Governor on Guam, posed problems for Filipino-Chamorro families. The U.S. Naval Government questioned their right to own land, unsure whether they were “alien” or “native” to the United States due to the island’s position as a U.S. territory. Both De Leon and Oberiano show how the U.S. settler colonial process of the North American continent was transported to the U.S. Pacific colonies. Line-Noue Memea Kruse explores territorial quest for constitutional equality versus self-autonomy over the last century. American Sāmoa has resisted homeland dispossession and is the only territory that has not petitioned for a new or reformed political status or proposed replacement of the current territorial constitution established under federal territorial law. The federal footprint in American Sāmoa has purposely been narrow to preserve culture and customary communal land ownership. Issues of equality are being further complicated by inter-territorial hegemony. Lastly, shifting to the Caribbean, JoAnna Poblete demonstrates how U.S. territorial policy in the U.S. Virgin Islands incentivized the establishment and maintenance of oil refineries in St. Croix from 19652013, which caused heavy industrial pollution and illnesses for residents of the area. Territorial policy decided by politicians and bureaus in Washington D.C. continues to adversely affect territorial peoples. This panel brings the conversation of citizenship and inclusion beyond the North American continent to the island territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Centering the American Empire, these papers push the field to think about not only the limitations of U.S. citizenship, but how U.S. citizenship itself can be a guise for continued imperialism and settler colonialism globally.

Papers Presented

Pinoy John Waynes: Recuperative Masculinities and Filipino Settler Colonialism in Mindanao and California

In March 1938, representatives from the Philippine Commonwealth and Filipino American community organizations organized the “First Official Filipino National Convention.” This convention responded to the various perceived social ills of their less-educated kababayan (countrymen), and considered ways to capitalize on the exclusionary 1935 Filipino Repatriation Act. At this convention, these leaders proposed to send these men to colonize Mindanao, the archipelago’s recalcitrant Moro (Muslim) and Lumad (non-Muslim and non-Christian Indigenous) South. Since Filipino workers had already participated in the colonial land-grabbing of California through their agricultural labor, they would find uplift as subjects of the new emerging nation-state and the conquest of its “unconquered” frontier. Furthermore, not only would repatriation-as-colonization ward off the threat of an encroaching Japanese presence in Mindanao, but would also be a win-win situation in making a “Philippines for Filipinos.” Colonization would “mak[e] responsible citizens of these repatriates and at the same time benefiting the home government indirectly.” This talk unravels the transnational relationship between respectability politics, settler colonialism, and the creation of a nationalist subject. I show how Philippine and Filipino American community leaders envisioned settler colonialism in California and Mindanao as a project of recuperative masculinity for destitute Filipino migrant men on the West Coast. This study suggests that the creation of a Filipino nationalist subject and a Philippine nation systematically depended on deploying these subjects for the elimination of non-Christianized native peoples, and the codification of patriarchy into national citizenship.

Presented By
Adrian De Leon, University of Southern California

Litigating Environmental and Health Issues of Unincorporated Territorial Status on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

While those born in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) became citizens of the United States in 1927, their region’s in-between status as an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1917 has resulted in the establishment and maintenance of pollutive heavy industries on the island of St. Croix. From 1965 to 2013, one of the largest oil refineries in the world was located on this 84-square mile island, providing a crucial amount of the gasoline and diesel fuel for the southern and eastern coasts of the United States during that period. Such petroleum refining on St. Croix was encouraged and bolstered by tax and tariff breaks from both the U.S. federal and USVI territorial government. Over time, this industry has negatively impacted the health of the local community, particularly low-income families, as well as the marine environment and air and water quality due to their close proximity to the plant. Lawyers like Lee Rohn and Jack Dema have successfully sued the oil refinery which polluted the island’s main aquifer and ignored the health and wellness needs of residents living downwind from the refinery. This presentation demonstrates the limits of U.S. empire, particularly due to unincorporated territorial status, as well as the lack of inclusion and unequal treatment of those living in this colonized space.

Presented By
JoAnna Poblete, Claremont Graduate University

Native and/or Alien: Property, Citizenship, and Belonging for Filipino-Chamorro Families in Guam, 1930–1935

After several unsuccessful indigenous Chamorro petitions to attain United States citizenship, U.S. Naval Governor Willis Bradley bestowed an improvised “Guam Citizenship” upon all native people of the island of Guam in 1930. Although it was not legally binding or official, Guam Citizenship was a boon for Chamorros who had been advocating for greater inclusion into the U.S. since the beginning of American colonization on Guam. For Filipinos who resided in Guam, however, Guam Citizenship potentially jeopardized their land ownership on the island because of their “alien” status. This posed a problem for the Chamorro women married Filipino men because their husbands ultimately held the titles to their and their children’s property. Furthermore, as a matrilineal society, Chamorro women held cultural power within their families; Filipino men – although public figures themselves - merely assimilated into Chamorro society and culture. In this presentation, I explore how Filipino men, deemed aliens by the Naval Government of Guam, legally argued that they should not be considered aliens because of their birth in the Philippines. In doing so, they pointed out the hypocrisy of U.S. colonial empire, as they also sought to protect their Chamorro wives and children’s claim to land and property in Guam. Most notably, Pancrasio Palting, a former Filipino revolutionary exiled to Guam in 1901 by U.S. General Arthur MacArthur, launched a legal case to protect his family’s land and property. The relationships formed between Filipinos and Chamorros on Guam, thus, highlights the complicated, entangled definitions of belonging and inclusion, the presence of conflicting racial and gender ideologies, and the limits U.S. citizenship within the U.S. Pacific empire.

Presented By
Kristin Oberiano, Harvard University

Inter-territorial Hegemony and American Sāmoa: Fighting for Autonomy

The political pathway of territories each fighting for unique political and legal relationships with the U.S. has led to less territorial autonomy beginning with Northern Mariana Islands in 1976 to Guam’s failed attempt for an enhanced version of the commonwealth regime of internal self government. Guam again failed to sponsor a plebiscite due to federal court declaring it unconstitutional discrimination against non-Chamorro U.S citizens of Guam. Puerto Rico and NMI continued unsuccessfully for more self autonomy while Guam attempted to secure privileges and special rights under autonomous commonwealth. These failed attempts led to Guamanian legal eagles carpetbagging into American Sāmoan citizenship issues in order to receive federal equality of “citizenship” in continental federal courts. Opposed to congressional grant which to some corners may be rescinded (read: Trump and foreign aliens), American Sāmoa has resisted homeland dispossession and is the only territory that has not petitioned for a new or reformed political status or proposed replacement of the current territorial constitution established under federal territorial law. The federal footprint in American Sāmoa has purposely been narrow to preserve culture and customary communal land ownership. Issues of equality are being further complicated by inter-territorial hegemony.

Presented By
Line-Noue Memea Kruse, Bringham Young University, Hawai'i

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Christopher Capozzola, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Christopher Capozzola is Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 2002. At MIT, he teaches courses in political and legal history, war and the military, and the history of international migration, and in 2018 was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT’s highest teaching honor. He is the author of Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America’s First Pacific Century (Basic Books, 2020), and has published articles and essays in American Quarterly, Diplomatic History, Georgetown Law Journal, and the Journal of American History.

From 2014 to 2017, he served on the Development Committee for the Advanced Placement examination in U.S. History, and was a Co-Curator of “The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I,” a multi-platform public history project focused on American civilians who volunteered in Europe during and after the First World War. He is the Forum Editor of Modern American History and serves on the editorial boards of California History, the Law and History Review, and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. He has been an OAH Distinguished Lecturer since 2011 and currently serves on the OAH International Committee.

Presenter: Adrian De Leon, University of Southern California
Adrian De Leon is an Assistant Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is at work on two monographs. The first, Forging Filipinos: A Native History of an American Diaspora, reorients the racial knowledge of the “Filipino” in the United States empire to the archiving of native peoples in Northern Luzon under an encroaching capitalist order in the 19th century. The second, Pinoy John Waynes: Filipino Migrant Masculinities on the American Frontier, explores how Filipino migrant men on the Pacific Coast consolidated a diasporic national identity along the lines of recuperative masculinities, as they experienced hyper-mobility and precarious labor conditions. These projects are the first two installments of a planned trilogy on insurgent histories of Filipino America. His creative work includes two poetry collections and a co-edited literary anthology: Rouge (2018), FEEL WAYS (2020), and barangay (2021).

Presenter: Line-Noue Memea Kruse, Bringham Young University, Hawai'i
Line-Noue Memea Kruse is adjunct faculty in Pacific Islands Studies at Brigham Young University, Hawai’i and lecturer at University of Hawai’i, West Oʻahu in Pacific Islands Studies. Kruse authored, The Pacific Insular Case of American Sāmoa: Land Rights and Law in Unincorporated US Territories (2018 Palgrave Macmillan), her scholarship explores the evolving legal relationship of the U.S. territories and affiliates with the U.S. in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to trace and situate American Sāmoa into the vernacular of American empire-building and self-determination in the twenty first century. She also authored, American Sāmoan Land Tenure-Apportionment of Communal Lands and the Road to Individually Owned Land Rights (2019 Pacific Studies) is an examination of Western legal land rights introduced by the U.S. Naval regime in the early twentieth century that evolved into private property rights that are antithetical to communal values and customary land rights.

Presenter: Kristin Oberiano, Harvard University
Kristin Oberiano is a History PhD candidate from Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Filipino Immigration, Chamorro Indigeneity, and the Making of the United States Pacific Empire,” examines the contingent processes of race-making, Indigeneity, and militarization in her home island of Guam during the 20th century. She is a third-generation Filipino born and raised on Guam, keen on writing and representing relevant histories of the people of Guam. At Harvard, she has been a Graduate Co-coordinator for the Harvard Asian American Studies Working Group and the Chair of the Organizing Committee for the Harvard Graduate Conference on International History (Con-IH). Her research has been supported by the Fulbright Program (Philippines), the Harvard Center for American Political Studies, and the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Presenter: JoAnna Poblete, Claremont Graduate University
JoAnna Poblete is an associate professor of history at Claremont Graduate Uni­versity. Having received her MA and PhD in His­tory from UCLA and a BA in History with a minor in Asian American Studies from UC Davis, she was a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill and taught at the University of Wyoming for six years. Poblete’s first book, Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai‘i, received the Best Book Award in History from the Filipino Section of the Association for Asian American Studies in 2018. Her second book, titled Balancing the Tides: Marine Policies in American Sāmoa, became available as an open-access, free PDF in 2019. The paper copies of the book will be published in March 2020 by University of Hawai‘i Press. Poblete has also articles in American Quarterly, the Pacific Historical Review, Cambridge History of America in the World, and the Critical Filipinx Studies Keywords Project. Poblete’s third book project is on the role of women in relation to the oil industry on St. Croix, part of the unincorporated territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 2018, Poblete received the Faculty Di­versity Award for Outstanding Teaching given to one faculty member among the seven Claremont Colleges each year.