Teaching U.S. Territories

Holger Droessler and Kristin Oberiano

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, tensions in the Taiwan Strait have risen again. In the event of a military escalation between the United States and China over Taiwan, U.S. territories such as Guam and American Samoa would be in the crosshairs as well. Because of these developments, the Pentagon has announced plans to strengthen Guam’s missile defenses. But even though Guam’s more than 160,000 residents—many of them U.S. citizens—are most exposed to missile attacks by China or North Korea, much of the debate about the U.S.-China rivalry remains centered on the U.S. mainland. 

In our article, we argue that a more expanded geographic perspective on U.S. history is needed to understand current events in the Pacific and beyond. As history professors at a technical university and a small liberal arts college, we believe that teaching U.S. history with a focus on the development of the U.S. empire from continental conquest to the acquisition of insular possessions in the Pacific and Caribbean can transform our students’ understanding of the geography and the character of the United States. In our classes, students reconsider the fundamental assumptions we take for granted when we study U.S. history including the limits of American democracy, the double-edged sword of civil rights, the impact of warfare and militarism within the nation’s borders, as well as the imperial origins of labor migration. While U.S. historians have finally accepted that their country of study is, in fact, an empire with colonial territories, most students entering the college classroom are less sure. That is why in our courses we try to pierce the still-dominant narrative of U.S. imperial benevolence that has naturalized U.S. control over its fifty states, fourteen territories, and the District of Columbia. As experts on American Samoa and Guam, we argue that incorporating the history of unincorporated territories into U.S. history and historiography courses fills a critical gap in our students’ knowledge. 

Our students’ background knowledge and the class level shaped our different approaches to teaching about U.S. territories. In our experience, most students have little to no prior knowledge about U.S. territories. In an introductory course, “The United States and Territories Since 1898,” that Holger teaches, the focus lies on challenging common assumptions about what and where the United States is. The course’s learning goals are to empower students to think of the United States as a territorial empire, analyze spatial data to think beyond the “logo map” (the U.S. mainland or lower 48 states), and use historical skills to tell fact from fiction in today’s media landscape. With Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire (2019) as guidebook, students encounter the history of U.S. territories often for the first time.

Students learn how the United States transformed from a small settler colony into a powerful settler empire at the turn of the nineteenth century, incorporating new territories on the North American continent through warfare, occupation, and outright theft of Native American lands. Following the acquisition of guano islands in the Pacific and Caribbean in the second half of the nineteenth century and the purchase of Alaska (1867), the expanding U.S. empire annexed a string of new insular possessions after the war with Spain in 1898. U.S. colonial projects in the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (since 1917) took different forms, but all raised new questions about old aspects of the American experience: democracy, voting rights, labor migration, military service, and even sports.

Nothing illustrates the advantages of a territorial approach to U.S. history more than the thorny history of U.S. citizenship for American Samoans. After Samoan matai signed deeds of cession to Tutuila in 1900 and the Manuʻa Islands in 1904, U.S. Congress took until 1929 to finally confirm annexation of the South Pacific islands. In the preceding years, a Samoan-led movement, the Mau, complained against Navy misrule, corruption, lack of funding, and the islands’ undefined legal status. In 1930, Congress also considered the Samoa Organic Act, which would have formally organized the territory and granted its residents U.S. citizenship, but ultimately failed to pass the legislation. Greater self-government would not come to American Samoa until the 1970s when residents were allowed to choose their governor and members of the territorial legislature. Despite these changes, American Samoans today remain the only people born on U.S. soil without automatic birthright citizenship. Instead, American Samoans continue to be classified as American “nationals,” a colonial category forged in the aftermath of 1898. In recent years, several American Samoans have filed lawsuits to claim full birthright citizenship, but so far federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have declined to take up the matter by pointing to Congress’s plenary power over territories. By studying the case of American Samoa, students think differently about how desirable full incorporation and U.S. citizenship were and are.

Relatedly, the history of territories complicates our understanding of race in U.S. history. After English settler colonists declared their independence from London in 1776, they turned the United States into an aggressive settler empire. Through expropriating Native American lands and exploiting enslaved Africans, the U.S. settler empire had to manage newly acquired territories and nonwhite populations on the continent, in the hemisphere, and across the Pacific. Race emerged in the cauldron of these varied colonial encounters. For example, Native Hawaiians who had moved to the port towns of New England in the nineteenth century often mingled among African Americans, as both groups faced residential segregation. For their part, African American soldiers fighting in the Philippine-American War shared dominant racial and religious stereotypes about Muslim Moros, but also drew links between the racial violence against colonized people and their own second-class citizenship status in Jim Crow America. Finally, the so-called “Insular Cases” of the early 20th century relied on racial understandings of the fitness for self-government to justify the new legal categories of “unincorporated territories” and U.S. “nationals” for Puerto Ricans and Filipinos. In doing so, the Supreme Court laid bare the deep connections between settler colonialism, anti-black racism, and nativism. 

Beyond citizenship and race, territorial histories of the United States also provide a unique way for students to learn the craft of history. Kristin’s course, “United States Overseas Imperialism,” is an upper-level undergraduate seminar that focuses on the historiography of the U.S. empire in two distinct fields: U.S. diplomatic history and American Studies. There were two main goals for this course: 1) that students have a general knowledge of how the United States amassed and governed its insular possessions and 2) how scholars of the U.S. empire have written about it. The first half of the class considers the frameworks and historical context of the U.S. empire across the global geography of the U.S. empire in the Pacific and the Atlantic, including islands that have been “lost” in the historiography of U.S. imperialism such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.

Learning about the history of the islands of the U.S. empire provides a fruitful topic for history writing. The second half of the course deals with themes that could further explore how historians have written about the frameworks and contexts, in particular what we uncover when we view U.S. history on an imperial scale. By comparing and contrasting authors from the two different fields, students are able to see how and why authors choose specific tools—primary sources, chronological or thematic structures, theoretical frameworks—in the historians’ toolbox. What emerges is a discussion about how historical narratives are crafted and shaped depending on the authors’ personal and intellectual positionalities, their choice of sources, their political goals, and their willingness to confront the unknowable in the historical record. Even more, students gain a perspective from the vantage point of empire via a diverse set of scholars who are from the islands and engage significantly with territorial histories.[1] Whether it be a reading within the field of U.S. diplomatic history or American studies, students are encouraged to think about the day’s readings in connection to the large overarching questions of the course: where would this reading fit in the grand narrative of U.S. empire? What field of thought would this reading fit into? And how would other fields write this kind of history? 

One pertinent example is how the territories shift our perception of the U.S. military’s role in the world. Rather than studying militarism as a nationalist project or one that seeks to safeguard democracy on the global scale, the history of the territories shows students how this project comes at the expense of the U.S. empire’s own colonized peoples. As the U.S. military presence in foreign countries grew costly and was criticized by local populations, the legal territorial statuses of Guam and Puerto Rico allowed for convenient locations to place military installations geographically far from the “nation” and into the rest of the world. Across the U.S. island empire, U.S. military installations have acted as settler colonial institutions dispossessing Indigenous peoples of land and curtailing Indigenous sovereignty for the purposes of national defense via the U.S. military—the “nation” understood as the continental United States plus the State of Hawai‘i. In the case of Guam, this process of settler militarism—the relocation of a U.S. Marine base from the Japanese island of Okinawa in 2024—continues to necessitate massive deforestation of limestone forests, the importation of foreign labor, and the denial of Indigenous self-determination as stipulated by the United Nations. This process has moved forward despite vocal Indigenous opposition and widespread questions as to the impact these military personnel would have on the island’s economy, community, and culture since the relocation was first announced in 2006. When viewed from the perspective of the U.S. territories, especially the Indigenous Chamorro people, U.S. militarism is not a one-dimensional phenomenon. It encompasses the familiar issues of diplomacy and foreign policy, economics, social movements, and  melds them with critical issues of Indigenous sovereignty, the lack of representation within empire, and the paradoxical character of twenty-first century colonialism. Militarism, as seen from Guam, makes students think about how the United States gained its global power, and at what cost.  

Our course evaluations show that students appreciate the conceptual and spatial shift in perspective on U.S. history. Centering on U.S. territories makes students wrestle with different categories of territories, the politics of incorporation, gradations of belonging, and the differential distribution of rights and resources across the U.S. empire. In addition, students also learn that historical concepts are contextual and always in flux throughout history and in the present. In student evaluations of Holger’s intro course, the most common response to what students particularly liked was that the course offered “a new perspective on U.S. history,” and that it revealed important aspects of U.S. history that are not usually highlighted in other courses. As specific historical examples, students cited the annexation of Hawaiʻi, the Guano Islands Act of 1854, and the Polynesian pipeline for American football. Generally, students were not aware that the United States consisted of states and territories with different degrees of incorporation, rights, and resources. One student in Kristin’s course noted how the focus on territories “forc[ed] me to rethink how I consider debates and practices in both the country and the field of history.” These comments show that teaching about U.S. territories not only fills gaps in students’ knowledge, but also pushes them to recognize the power of historical narratives.

Whether it be Guam’s role in Asia-Pacific geopolitics or American Samoans’ legal status, students need to be familiar with the history of U.S. territories, as they are essential not only to understand the historical trajectory of the United States but also to make sense of U.S. influence in the contemporary world. Based on our shared experience of teaching U.S. territories, a more expansive conceptual and geographic perspective on U.S. history benefits students in several ways. First, learning about militarization in Guam or citizenship in American Samoa complicates traditional, mainland-centered debates. Second, a deeper historical understanding of U.S. colonialism in the Pacific  contextualizes current events in the Pacific, including rising tensions with China. Finally, students are encouraged to think about their own relationship to the U.S. empire and decolonial futures. As the contingent historical trajectories of U.S. territories show, their future remains ours to shape.

Teaching Resources

Teaching U.S. Territories Teaching Guide

Maps

Sources

Abbreviated list of available scholarship on U.S. Empire

  • Bevacqua, Michael Lujan and Manuel Lujan Cruz. “The Banality of American Empire: The Curious Case of Guam, USA.” Journal of Transnational American Studies 11(no. 1, 2020). 
  • Briggs, Laura. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. (2002).
  • Camacho, Keith L. Cultures of Commemoration: The Politics of War, Memory, and History in the Mariana Islands, (2011).
  • Chang, David A. The World and All the Things Upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration, (2016).
  • Choy, Catherine C. Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History, (2003).
  • Clutario, Genevieve. Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1941, (2023). 
  • Droessler, Holger. Coconut Colonialism: Workers and the Globalization of Samoa, (2022).
  • Findlay, Eileen. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920, (1999).
  • Flores, Alfered Peredo. “‘No Walk in the Park’: US Empire and the Racialization of Civilian Military Labor in Guam, 1944-1962,” American Quarterly, 67 (no. 3, 2015), 813-835. 
  • Frymer, Paul. Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion, (2017).
  • Kauanui, Kēhaulani. Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity, (2008). 
  • Hirschberg, Lauren. Suburban Empire: Cold War Militarization in US Pacific, (2022). 
  • Hopkins, A.G. American Empire: A Global History, (2018). 
  • Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, (2019).
  • Kramer, Paul A. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines, (2006).
  • McCoy, Al. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, (2009). 
  • McKenna, Rebecca Tinio. American Imperial Pastoral: The Architecture of US Colonialism in the Philippines, (2017). 
  • Memea Kruse, Line-Noue. The Pacific Insular Case of American Sāmoa: Land Rights and Law in Unincorporated U.S. Territories, (2018).
  • Meléndez-Badillo, Jorell A. The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico, (2021). 
  • Misco, Thomas, and Megan Stahlsmith. “What Should Become of the Territories? Teaching the Problematic Past and Present of the ‘Unincorporated’ Territory,” The Social Studies, 111 (no. 1, 2020), 11-17.
  • Na’puti, Tiara R. and Michael Lujan Bevacqua. “Militarization and Resistance from Guåhan: Protecting and Defending Pågat,” American Quarterly, 67 (Sept. 2015), 837-858. 
  • Nebolon, Juliet. “‘Life Given Straight from the Heart’: Settler Militarism, Biopolitics, and Public Health in Hawai‘i during World War II,” American Quarterly, 69 (March 2017), 23-45. 
  • Oberiano, Kristin and Josephine Faith Ong. “Envisioning Inafa’maolek Solidarity: The Importance of CHamoru-Filipino Mutual Relations for a Decolonized Guåhan,” Critical Ethnic Studies, 7 (Fall 2021).
  • Poblete, JoAnna. Islanders in the Empire: Filipino and Puerto Rican Laborers in Hawai’i, (2014).
  • Poblete-Cross, JoAnna. “Bridging Indigenous and Immigrant Struggles: A Case Study of American Samoa.” American Quarterly, 62 (Sept. 2010), 501-22.
  • Saranillio, Dean. Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai‘i Statehood, (2018). 
  • Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism, (2004).
  • Thompson, Lanny. Imperial Archipelago: Representation and Rule in the Insular Territories under U.S. Dominion after 1898, (2010).
  • Uperesa, Lisa. Gridiron Capital: How American Football Became a Samoan Game, (2022).
  • Winkelmann, Tessa. “Rethinking the Sexual Geography of American Empire in the Philippines: Interracial Intimacies in Mindanao and the Cordilleras, 1898-1921” in Gendering the Transpacific World (2017), 39-76.

Authors

Holger Droessler is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. history, with a special focus on imperialism, capitalism, and the Pacific Ocean. In his book, Coconut Colonialism: Workers and the Globalization of Samoa (2022), Droessler argues that the globalization of Samoa at the turn of the twentieth century was driven by a diverse group of working people on and off the islands. His next book, “War Workers,” will tell the global story of non-citizen civilians working for the U.S. military from the Civil War to Iraq. For more info: https://www.wpi.edu/people/faculty/hdroessler 

Kristin Oberiano is an assistant professor of history at Wesleyan University where she teaches courses in US history, US in the World, US imperial history, Asian American Studies and Pacific Islander Studies. Focusing on her home island, her research explores the emergence of US militarism on Guam in the twentieth century and its impact on the indigenous Chamorro people and the Filipino im/migrants that call Guam home. She earned her PhD in history at Harvard University.

Notes

[1]These scholars include (but are not at all limited to): in the case of Guam include Keith Camacho (in addition to the Northern Mariana Islands), Vicente Diaz, Christine Taitano DeLisle, and Alfred Peredo Flores. And in the case of American Sāmoa, Line-Noue Memea Kruse and Lisa Uperesa.