Op-Ed: The Invisibility of the Pacific
“No, we don’t wear leaves. No, we don’t live in huts. And no, we don’t swim to school." When I first visited the U.S. mainland three years ago, these were my answers, all of which I assumed to be common sense to the students who asked me about my life at home.
I’m from American Samoa. And if you don’t know where that is (don’t worry, 99.9 percent of people I’ve met in the U.S. mainland don’t either), it’s a small archipelago of seven islands located in the South Pacific. With a population of around just over 57,000 people, my home spans only about 76 square miles, and it is quite literally a dot on the map. Given our “tininess,” it was never my expectation that everyone in the mainland would know every little detail about my home or my culture. But I figured that they would have at least heard of us, considering the word “American” in American Samoa, and known enough not to ask such ignorant questions.
But barely anyone seems to know where American Samoa is, or is even able to name more than two island groups in the Pacific for that matter. The extent to which most people understand life in the Pacific is encapsulated by Disney’s 2016 major animated film Moana, which is the story of a Polynesian girl who goes on a long voyage to save the fictional island of Motunui—a place some have actually assumed to be my home. Why is there such little understanding of life in the Pacific among students on the U.S. mainland? Could it be because Pacific Islanders only make up a fraction of a percentage of the U.S. population? Or is it maybe because we’re separated from the mainland by the vast Pacific Ocean?
No. The reason why the Pacific islands remain one big mystery is because we have been nearly erased from American textbooks. Growing up under a curriculum designed by the U.S. Department of Education, it was hard for me to visualize a place for people like me outside of my island home.
In elementary school geography, we were taught that the world is made up of only seven continents: North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, Antarctica, and Australia. I quickly learned that our islands belonged to none of these, instead falling under the unnamed loose conglomeration of tiny specks in the Pacific Ocean. In middle school science, I was taught about scientists from all over the world and their contributions, like Galileo and the invention of the telescope.
Yet, somehow the incredible advances of Polynesian star navigation and wayfinding never quite made the cut. In high school world history, I was taught about the rise and fall of great empires such as the Roman Empire. But not once was America’s dethroning of Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani or Independent Samoa’s long “Mau” Movement toward independence from New Zealand ever mentioned. Instead, the sliver of a section that we were most graciously allotted in their historical textbooks painted us as the “savages” that Western colonization had transformed into the “civilized.”
So, you see, we have been ostracized from the beginning––not because of our small population and not because of the vast Pacific Ocean that divides us. It is because of this double standard—the double standard that requires us to learn everything about the Western world, but does not require the Western world to learn anything about us.