Raising the issue of who is a native Virgin Islander is certain to be a controversial one. If it is undertaken by someone not even born in the islands, it can be dismissed on that basis alone. For that reason, a draft of this column was circulated to highly respected members of the community who have deep ancestral roots here and possess an informed knowledge of the subject. The questions posed were: Is the language offensive or insensitive? Is it factually accurate? Is the analysis sound? No objections were received. Indeed, publication was encouraged.
This column by no means pretends to be the final word. Rather, it is an invitation to engage in an informed discussion of a topic that is often avoided or treated in an emotional manner. Only by removing the taboo presently associated with it can we make progress on matters of urgent concern to the future of the Virgin Islands. So, let’s begin.
One of the most heated topics in Virgin Islands’ politics – and society – is the question of who is a native Virgin Islander and whether that status confers any special benefits. The controversy starts with the use of language. Is “native ” the right word, or should it be ” aboriginal” or “indigenous”? Let’s start with how these words are usually defined and move on to the way they will be used here.
According to Merriam Webster, a native is someone “belonging to a particular place by birth” (e. g., Paul Leary is a native of New Jersey). According to the last census in 2010, the number of native-born in this sense is almost 47 percent — and many of them are most likely first or second-generation descendants of those born elsewhere, most likely the eastern Caribbean. This is not what advocates of “native” Virgin Islanders have in mind
Then how about “aboriginal”? According to Merriam Webster, this means “being the first or earliest known of its kind present in a region” (e.g., the Mayan people are the aboriginal inhabitants of large parts of Mexico). Since the demise of the Tainos in the 16th century, there are no aboriginal people left in the V.I.
“Indigenous” is a more useful term. The dictionary definition is: “produced, growing or occurring natively or naturally in a particular region or environment; an indigenous culture; innate, inborn” (e.g., the Lakota are indigenous to western North America). This is probably what advocates of “native” Virgin Islanders have in mind. They are the descendants of those who lived here at least as far back as 1917 when control of the Danish West Indies was transferred to the United States and under whose sovereignty their pre-eminent position in the society began to erode.
But the term “native Virgin Islander” has entered deeply into the political vocabulary of the V.I. To attempt to replace it with “indigenous” or even “native/indigenous” would only invite confusion. So, this column will use the term “native Virgin Islander” with the understanding that it refers to an indigenous population that can trace its roots at least to 1917, not simply someone who was born here.
Why is 1917 so important as a starting point? When the U.S. assumed sovereignty, it also assumed control over and responsibility for what occurred under its watch. This includes the transformation of the population that took place from 1917 to the present — the period when the people then living in the islands were, over time, relegated to the position of a minority.
The first major impact under U.S. control took place after common citizenship was granted in 1927. At that time the V.I. was in dire straits- — an “effective poorhouse” in the words of President Herbert Hoover. Citizenship opened the door to better economic chances on the mainland, and significant numbers migrated northward, particularly to Harlem, where they soon formed a distinct community. They even had their own godfather, Casper Holstein, who was prominent in the lucrative, if illegal, numbers game. Around the same time, they shared American citizenship between the V.I and Puerto Rico (citizens since 1917) facilitated an influx of people from Vieques to St. Croix in search of work in agriculture. They would form a permanent part of the Crucian population. Thus, the conference of U.S. citizenship, viewed as a progressive reform at the time, had a major impact on V.I. demography. It encouraged an outflow to the mainland and an inflow from Puerto Rico.
The situation worsened in the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression. Bad as conditions were in the U.S., they were even worse in the V.I. A number of New Deal programs were established but did little to ameliorate the prevailing poverty. Even the military activity that came with World War II (centered in the Sub Base area of St. Thomas) and the revival of rum production with the end of Prohibition provided only a limited boost.
If we look at the census figures, it is clear there was a stagnant, even declining local population from 1917 to 1960:
1930: 22, 012 (-15.9%)
1940: 24,899 (+13.1%)
1950: 26,665 (+ 7.1%)
1960: 32,079 (20.4%)
Then came a demographic explosion. The islands’ population tripled between 1960 and 1980, going from around 32,000 to over 96,000. It also changed dramatically in its composition.
The booming tourism industry required workers that were not locally available. The federal government stepped in, issuing “temporary” work permits (the H2 visa) that over time became the basis for a new, permanent set of the population. Most of the immigrants were for the then impoverished nearby islands, such as St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla and Antigua. On St. Croix, the opening of the Hess Oil Refinery in 1966 attracted a similar influx. The residence rights of these newcomers were legalized in another federal action, the immigration reform enacted in 1982. As of 2010, almost 35 percent of the population was born in the nearby Caribbean, and no doubt many of the 47 percent listed as born in the Virgin Islands had recent origins there.
Another significant inflow came from the mainland U.S. The “continentals” arrived to seek opportunities in the professions, business, real estate and other areas. By 2010 they constituted 16 percent of the residents. As common citizens, they had every legal right to settle here. It is important to note an important difference though between the continentals and the eastern Caribbean groups. The latter were here to stay and put down firm roots, becoming closely integrated into all sectors of the community. Using their citizenship-based right to vote, they even helped elect members of their community to the Legislature, including the post of president. The continentals were more transient and did not, by and large, become interwoven into the island way of life.
If we try to discover how many of the present residents can trace their ancestry in a largely unbroken line to 1917, it is very difficult. The data for individuals may be obtainable from various public records but requires extensive research. All we can say with certainty is that as a group they are a small part of the present-day population.
As a result of the policies of the controlling (colonial) power, the United States, this marginalization occurred without their consent and, probably, awareness. Even If you make the argument that under international decolonization precedents the descendants of native Virgin Islanders should be granted a separate say on the matter, how [do you] identify who they are? How overcome the resistance of present inhabitants to what they would consider an unfair and undemocratic exclusion from the process? How convince Congress to go along with an initiative that would require it cede control to an organization like the UN? Exactly what special rights should be granted? What reparations, if any, should be made?
This is an impossible path to follow.
The Virgin Islands faces major future challenges in such areas as climate change (more and more severe storms); a shaky financial structure; a “one crop” economy overly reliant on tourism; environmental and cultural degradation related to mass tourism; possible shifts in the tourism market, such as the inevitable return of Cuba as a destination; an educational system that is not delivering the type of graduates a high tech future requires: a shifting political climate in Washington… and the list goes on.
Would it not be best to expend available political energy on future challenges rather than on a futile focus on the past? The anger of some dispossessed native Virgin Islanders is understandable. But constantly revisiting the issue and stirring up social divisions diverts attention from building a better community. If we fail there, all parts of the population will suffer the consequences.
Editor’s note: Paul Leary, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of the Virgin Islands.