Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that he has requested assistance from the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) to determine the full nature of the relationship between the United States and the U.S. Territory of Swains Island.
The complete text of Faleomavaega’s letter of July 6, 2011 to Secretary Salazar, which was also copied to Assistance Secretary Tony Babauta, and the Swains Island Delegate to the Fono, Su’a Alex Jennings, is inserted below.
Dear Mr. Secretary:
I am writing to respectfully request your assistance to determine the full nature of the relationship between the United States and the U.S. Territory of Swains Island, in particular, the Administration’s position with respect to federal funding.
Swains Island, which is privately-owned, was officially annexed on 4 March 1925 and made part of American Samoa “under the jurisdiction of the administrators and judicial authorities of the government established therein by the United States” (48 U.S.C. 1662). Subsequently, Swains Island was placed under the administration of the American Samoa Government (ASG) four years later when, on 20 February 1929, the U.S. Congress officially accepted and ratified American Samoa’s two treaties of cession. Under the terms of the ensuing ratifying Act, civil, judicial and administrative jurisdictions over American Samoa, including Swains Island, were vested with the Executive Branch – the said authority currently resides with the Department of Interior (DOI).
The outcome of such arrangement can be best described as very complicated and ambiguous. Indeed, I am not aware of any federal assistance for Swains Island other than allocated funds in the American Samoa Government (ASG) budget. For these reasons, I am hoping you can share DOI’s position regarding federal assistance and the overall nature of our relationship with Swains Island.
Based on available information, Swains Island’s current political status is closely linked to the claim of ownership by the American Sea Captain Eli Jennings and his descendents, which dates back to the 1850’s. Since that time, ownership of the island passed to various members of the Jennings family through inheritance, albeit sometimes amid disputes with other claimants. During this time, there was also some question about whether the island would be better affiliated with American Samoa, the Independent State of Samoa, or with the other three atolls (Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafa) that make up the Tokelau Islands Group. Historically and traditionally, Swains Island was part of the Tokelau group.
In 1924, Secretary of State Charles Hughes concluded that the status of Swains Island, so far as the jurisdiction of the United States is concerned cannot be accurately defined. The resulting resolution signed by President Calvin Coolidge on March 4, 1925, provides that:
- Whereas Swains Island (otherwise known as Quiros, Gente Hermosa, Olosega, and Jennings Island) is included in the list of guano islands appertaining to the United States, which have been bonded under the Act of Congress approved August 18, 1856; and
- Whereas the island has been in the continuous possession of American citizens for over fifty years and no form of government therefore or for the inhabitants thereof has been provided by the United States:
- Therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the sovereignty of the United States over American Samoa is hereby extended over Swains Island, which is made a part of American Samoa and placed under the jurisdiction of the administrative and judicial authorities of the government established therein by the United States.
When Congress officially ratified the two deeds of cessions for American Samoa four years later, it also delegated administrative responsibilities to the Executive Branch and that eventually became vested with DOI. And as the agency primarily responsible for federal assistance to ASG, I respectfully request your assistance to shed light on the Administration’s position with respect to Swains Island.