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Ancient History — A Warrior Tradition

The PCC's own Director of Cultural Islands, Pulefano Galea'i — the originator of the Center's Samoan World Fire Knife Dance Competition and accompanying cultural arts festival as well as an outstanding knife dancer in his youth — explains the Samoan fireknife dance ('ailao afi) is a relatively modern innovation on ancient gestures of victory in battle that used a hand-held wooden weapon, the nifo oti or "deadly tooth."

"Old Samoan traditions say warriors would use the relatively lightweight nifo oti like a hacking sword," Galea'i says, noting that some of these wooden swords or clubs had boar tusks or shark teeth attached, while others had sharp "teeth" carved into the edges that could do serious damage to an enemy in close combat.

Galea'i, who has overseen each of the PCC's previous competitions, explains the nifo oti was eventually combined with another Samoan weapon, the lave or hook, which was used to snare various body parts of an enemy.

In more modern times after village, tribal and interisland warfare faded into history, the nifo oti has become an important element in the Samoan ta'alolo or gift-giving procession that honors special visitors: Custom now demands in the most formal occasions that the ornately decorated manaia or "prince" and taupo or "princess," each carrying and twirling nifo oti, should lead ta'alolo processions.

Galea'i suggests for a more detailed explanation and historical account, read the book Flaming Sword of Samoa – The Story of the Fire Knife Dance by Freddie & Patricia Letuli. The late Letuli, who mentored the young Galea'i and also served as a judge for previous PCC World Fire Knife Dance competitions, is credited with adding fire to his nifo oti routines, and is considered by Galea'i as the Father of the Fire Knife Dance. His book is available for purchase from our online store.



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