This paper traces Islanders’ developing legal efforts to have a say in nuclear affairs in their ancestral atolls during the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing on archival research in activists’ papers, court records, Trust Territory records, and US government agency collections, the paper explores Islanders’ lawsuits over nuclear testing. Using scientific knowledge about the biological effects and environmental pathways of radiation, Islanders and activist allies sought to renegotiate relationships between nuclear harm and political belonging. Doing so, they hoped to expand the boundaries of the polity beyond the borders of the nation-state.
Islanders’ lawsuits failed in both US and Trust Territory courts. Despite suffering from acute embodied and environmental harms, Islanders’ status as stateless, Indigenous dependents, located in a “foreign” UN territory caused their claims to fail. A parallel lawsuit by an American scientist, however, met with modest success in limiting the authority of the US Atomic Energy Commission in the Pacific. By exploring these roughly contemporaneous legal challenges, this paper demonstrates how the fraught nexus between citizenship, Indigeneity, and territory limited Islander activists’ search for participation in the American polity.