By Katherine Hodge, Project Archaeology Interim Program Lead
Gates of the Arctic may have sounded like the most remote National Park in the U.S., but the one to actually win that prize is the National Park of American Samoa. Located almost 5000 miles from the coast of California, American Samoa is one of the most remote U.S. territories. American Samoa is located in Polynesia and is made up of ten islands and two coral atolls. The National Park takes up a total of 13500 acres, with 4000 of those acres protecting the ocean’s surrounding coral reefs as well.
This park is unique for many reasons. It is the only U.S. park south of the Equator. It is also not owned by the U.S. government. The National Park of America Samoa is currently under a 50 year lease between the National Park Service and the Samoan people. It is currently the only National Park with this type of agreement, and it is because of the traditional way of life on Samoa. The Samoan people have a culture that is centered around communal living, so the concept of owning the land or selling a great deal of land to the National Park Service does not agree with this philosophy. Instead of the National Park Service purchasing the land to create the National. Park, they worked with Samoans to collaborate on a way to make a park possible. Together, they created an agreement with the National Park Service leasing the land for the park from Samoan chiefs. This lease outlines the protection of the park and land as well as shared management between the National Park Service and the Samoan people. The agreement itself is very unique and an experiment that, if successful, could lead to a new way to create National Parks within the U.S.
This National Park was created to protect the rainforest, the habitats of animals like the flying fox, and the surrounding coral reefs. It is spread between three different islands. The park has different trails for people to hike on and allows for swimming, snorkeling, and diving in the coral reefs within the park. However, the park is also land still home to
many Samoan people. They live and farm within the park on their land, and sometimes hikers or visitors must ask permission before hiking through the area. This type of living has been happening for thousands of years and was an important part of the lease agreement to ensure its protection and continuation.
The Samoan people have a deep connection with their islands. In fact, the word “Samoa” means “sacred earth.” Archaeologists believe that people have lived on the islands that make up Samoa for 3000 years, and it is one of the oldest cultures in Polynesia.
Samoa, along with many other Pacific Islands, was first settled by the Lapita around 3000 years ago. Archaeologists have found pottery sherds with this culture’s distinctive patterns on them. There are also stone adzes and points that can be found on the island as well, hinting at the rich cultures who lived there in the past. The Lapita are originally
from Southeast Asia, but they began their expansion and discovery of islands over 3500 years ago. They would find new islands and settle them, developing their own distinct culture in that new area. Archaeologists have found evidence of the Lapita on many of the Pacific Islands. However, while this one culture may unite much of Polynesia to a common ancestor, all of these island nations have developed unique and independent cultures.
Samoa calls their own way of life Fa’asamoa, which encapsulates their cultural ways that most still follow today. These cultural practices include traditional dress, beliefs, social organization, and other subsistence practices. It is the embodiment of the Samoan people’s connection to the land and the sea.
The National Park of American Samoa protects more than just a landscape. Within its 13,500 acres, there are stunning coral reefs, lush rainforests, and incredible biodiversity in the animal and plant life. There are also important archaeological sites that speak to the rich cutltures that have lived on these islands for thousands of years with modern villages nearby, preserving Fa’asamoa for future generations.
While it may be far from the mainland U.S., this National Park is, without question, worth the trip.