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Culture of Samoa

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Culture of Samoa

  1. Overview

    Modern Samoa is geopolitically divided into two parts: the much larger, independent nation
    of Samoa — formerly known as Western Samoa; and the relatively small American Samoa,
    the only U.S. territory south of the equator. Even with different systems of government, the
    Polynesian people of both Samoas share a common language and culture, and the traditional
    hereditary chiefs still exert significant influence in the daily lives of the people.
    Samoa lies south of the equator, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, in the
    Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean

  2. Geography

    Samoa which shares the Samoan archipelago with American Samoa, consists of nine islands
    west of longitude 171 W – Upolu, Savai’i, Manono, and Apolima, all of which are inhabited,
    and the uninhabited islands of Fanuatapu, Namu’a, Nu’utele, Nu’ulua, and Nu’usafe’e. Samoa
    is now officially named the Independent State of Samoa. Up until 4 July 1997, it was known
    as Western Samoa. The capital city is Apia.
    American Samoa, a United States of America Territory, lies 40 miles east of Upolu. Tutuila,
    with its deep harbor at Pago Pago, is the main island and administrative center. The smaller
    islands of the Manu’a group — Ta’u, Ofu and Olosega — are located about 70 miles to the
    east.
    Independent Samoa has 2,860 sq. km. of land, mostly divided between the two major islands
    of Upolu and Savaii. It is slightly smaller than Rhode Island. America Samoa has 199 sq. km.
    of land, most of it on the main island of Tutuila. It is slightly larger than Washington, D.C.

  3. Population

    Samoa: 197,097 (2019); America Samoa: 55.222 (2019). Significant populations of Samoans
    also live in New Zealand, Australia, Hawai’i, California, Utah and Missouri.

  4. History and Discovery

    Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen happened upon the islands in 1722. In 1768, French
    Admiral Louis de Bougainville visited the islands. He was so impressed with the Samoan’s
    numerous canoes and their great skill in handling them that he gave Samoa its original
    European name, “The Navigator Islands.” Germany took possession of the western portion
    of the Samoan archipelago from 1899-1914. At the outbreak of World War I, New Zealand
    troops took possession of the island country. Following WWI, the newly formed League of
    Nations gave New Zealand its mandate to administer the islands, which resulted in close ties
    between the two countries that still exist to this day. The newly formed United Nations
    extended New Zealand’s mandate until January 1, 1962, when Western Samoa, or Samoa i
    Sisifo as the Samoans called it, became the first independent Polynesian nation. In 1997 the
    island nation officially shortened its name to Samoa.
    Today, Samoa has a parliamentary style of government and an education system reflecting
    its former ties with New Zealand. In light of 19th century European involvement in the
    Pacific, the traditional chiefs of eastern Samoa ceded their islands to the United States in
    1900. The U.S. Navy administered the islands until after World War II, at which time the
    Department of the Interior took over. Today, American Samoans have a U.S. style of
    government and education, and sends a non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress. The
    people are U.S. Nationals who can freely travel into the United States.

  5. Languages

    Samoan and English are the main languages spoken in Samoa. Samoan is a major Polynesian
    dialect, and as such, is similar to Hawaiian, Tongan, Tahitian, Maori and other island
    languages. It is not necessarily mutually intelligible with the other dialects, although many
    words are identical or nearly identical, with identical or similar meanings.
    Reduplicated words — such as Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa — are common in
    Polynesian languages; but many people do not realize that the letter ‘g’ in Samoan
    represents the unreleased ‘ng’ sound as in the English word ‘singer’ — not the released-G
    sound as in the word ‘finger.’
    Also of interest is the fact that the sounds represented by the letters ‘k’ and ‘t’ are
    completely interchangeable in vernacular Samoa without changing the meaning of the
    words. For example, there’s no meaningful difference between talofa and kalofa, which both
    mean ‘hello.’
    Most Polynesian languages also use regular and longer-sounding vowels, with the latter
    sometimes marked with a macron over the letter. Polynesian long vowels are not to be
    confused with English long and short vowels, as in the words “hate” and “hat,” respectively.
    While English vowels can actually be lengthened in pronunciation, that doesn’t change the
    meaning of the word; whereas in Samoan the use of a long vowel vs. the same vowel in its
    regular form changes the meaning of the word. For example, mama means ‘ring,’ mamä
    means ‘clean’ and mämä means ‘lightweight’ (please note we’re using a European-style
    umlaut over the long vowels since most computers do not have fonts with macron
    capability). So, if you want to impress a Samoan, lengthen the first vowel in the word Sämoa.

  6. Village Life

    Samoan Tattoos

    Tattoos, or pe’a, demonstrates the strong ties many Samoans feel for their
    culture. Samoans have practiced the art of tattooing for both men and women for over 2,000
    years. To this day, a man’s tattoo extensively covers from mid-back, down the sides and
    flanks, to the knees. A woman’s tattoo is not quite as extensive or heavy. The geometric
    patterns are based on ancient designs, and often denote rank and status. The va’a or canoe,
    for example, stretches across a man’s mid-back.
    Samoan oral tradition generally recognizes that two Fijian women, Taema and Tilafaiga,
    introduced the practice of tattooing. Before the arrival of Christian missionaries, starting in
    1830, all Samoan males got a traditional tattoo. Though the early missionaries did not
    succeed in outlawing the practice, which they considered as defacement of the human body
    and heathenish, they eventually succeeded in refocusing the custom on the sons of chiefs.
    In Samoa’s cultural past most males were tattooed between the ages of 14-18, when it was
    determined they had stopped growing, so the designs would not stretch and suffer in
    beauty. Today, there has been a strong revival of traditional tattooing in the past generation,
    not only in Samoa but throughout Polynesia, often as a symbol of cultural identity. The
    Samoan word for tattoo is tatau which means “correct or workmanlike.” It also signifies the
    correct quadrangular figures in reference to the fact that Samoan tattoo designs do not
    include circular lines, although other Polynesian tattoo motifs do. Early Englishmen
    mispronounced the word tatau and borrowed it into popular usage as tattoo.
    Traditional tattooing is a painful process. The Samoan tattoo master dips his cutting tools
    into black ink made from the soot of burnt candlenut shells, and then punctures designs into
    the skin. The cutting tool, or “needle,” consists of a short piece of bamboo or light wood with
    a piece of tortoiseshell bound at right angles at one end. A little bone comb is bound to the
    lower broad end of the tortoiseshell. The larger the comb, the greater the area on the skin is
    covered with fewer strokes. The master uses a small mallet to repeatedly tap a shorthandled instrument. The process takes days, and is sometimes partially accomplished over
    longer periods, with recuperation in between.
    Tattoo designs have changed to include freehand symbols such as the kava bowl
    representing hospitality; the characterization of the Samoan house, or fale, signifying
    kinship; emblems of nature — shells, fish, birds, waves, centipedes; and the traditional
    geometric lines and angles of different lengths and sizes.

    Samoan Houses

    In modern Samoa many homes are now constructed using western
    materials and designs; but still each village, indeed usually each extended family in Samoa,
    traditionally has a fale talimalo (guest house) and/or a fale fono (meetinghouse) where the
    chiefs convene. Sometimes they are one and the same. The exact size and lavishness is
    determined by the power and position of the families and village.
    Samoan custom traditionally requires families and villages to offer passing visitors
    hospitality, extending to overnight accommodations. Such visitors may enter the guest
    house at any time for a short rest. The immediate family will respond with time-honored
    traditions and quickly prepare food and water for the visitors. After the guests are fed and
    rested, the chief will politely inquire about the purpose of the unexpected visit and the
    intended length of stay. Should the guests choose to extend their visit for a day or two, they
    are treated with kindness and consideration and provided bedding. The chief offers any
    further help if needed.
    When pre-arranged guests arrive, the immediate or extended family, or even the whole
    village will make sure the proper protocol is carefully and accurately conducted. They will
    prepare leis (which the Samoans call ula), food and special decorations. Included will be a
    welcome ceremony, the elaborateness of it depending on rank and importance, especially of
    the chiefly guests.
    The floor of a guesthouse is typically covered with flat, smooth round-shaped river stones
    which have been found ideal for balancing the temperature of the building. On hot, humid
    days, the stones cool the building; on cooler days they retain the sun’s heat to keep the
    building warm and comfortable. For comfort, mats are placed over the rocks, starting first
    with thicker coconut leaf pola, topped with finer-woven laufala made from dried pandanus
    leaves.
    The many posts which encircle the interior of this building have much greater significance
    than holding up the roof. Whenever any meetings are held in the building, certain
    participants always sit with their backs to a post, the exact one being rigidly determined by
    the persons’ rank, family, and home village. Other minor participants sit on mats spread
    around the outside rim. The post 90 degrees to the left side of the entrance is for the
    highest-ranking person in the visiting party, usually the chief. The post opposite that person
    is for the highest-ranking person of the home village, again usually the chief. The posts
    immediately next to the entrance way are for the chiefs’ representatives or spokesmen,
    known as their talking chiefs. The first two posts on the left side are for the other local
    talking chiefs. An equally significant post is the fourth post on the left side, or the stranger’s
    post. A stranger coming unannounced to a meeting can summarily walk up to that particular
    post and rightfully demand that it be surrendered to him. The three large posts in the middle
    are also important, for from there any food to be served during the meeting is dispensed.
    This building is also referred to as the fale fono, or chiefs’ meetinghouse. In the Samoan
    tradition of diplomacy, the fale fono is always round. Discussions include monitoring the
    performance of individual families who are expected to abide by the rules and laws
    approved and passed by a council of chiefs. In addition, every family is required to
    participate as a village unit and cooperate in such things as securing public safety;
    beautifying yards and homes, keeping prayer curfew each morning and evening and
    observing the Sabbath; planting taro patches to encourage self-reliance, growing food crops
    including breadfruit, bananas, yam, and sugarcane; and raising pigs and chickens.
    The rock foundations of guest houses are usually elevated, sometimes as high as 5-8 feet: In
    general, the higher the foundation, the more important the chiefly title and rank of the
    family and/or village. The height of foundations symbolize the dignity and respect accorded
    a high chief. It will usually take a master builder, or tufuga and his crew a month to complete
    such buildings.
    The tufuga supervises the construction including the correct measurements of all poles,
    beams, choice of thatching leaves, amount of sennit rope and performance of the workers.
    The roof is traditionally thatched with sugarcane leaves and when properly prepared and
    attached the first time, will last 10-15 years. The cone-shaped roof allows rain to easily fall
    to the ground without the moisture permeating the leaves and causing leaks inside. During
    sunny days the high dome allows the heat to rise and seep through the thatching, cooling the
    house. The open walls of the house allow breezes to flow freely. During rainy or windy
    weather, or when privacy is required, coconut leaf blinds can be lowered.
    Even though such buildings are reserved for important purposes, they remain open and
    empty most of the time. Samoans accept this fact and acknowledge that their guest and
    meetinghouses stand ready as places of refuge for anyone in need of help. In the highest
    sense, these buildings represent the power, prestige, generosity and hospitality of the
    families who build them and their affiliated villages.
    Traditionally, the maota tofa, or high chief’s house is the largest and most elevated house in
    a village, signifying the chief’s prestigious position. As with other Samoan buildings, the highdomed roof helps cool the house. A high chief’s house was usually simply furnished. In
    ancient Samoa only a chief of the highest rank would sleep on a bed in one end of this
    building. The bed consisted of mats piled up to a desired height of comfort.
    Because finely-woven mats are exchanged as items of wealth in Samoa, the more mats a
    chief possessed and displayed, the richer he was. Such mats are still important as a method
    of paying tribute at weddings, funerals, and other public events. The chief’s pillow was
    traditionally made of bamboo or other wood. Samoan legend has it that sleeping on hard
    surfaces gave Samoans their erect, strong and straight stature.
    The tunoa, or Samoan kitchen is a man’s domain. Preparing and cooking food the Samoan
    way is considered physically demanding, including the daily preparation of coconut meat and
    milk, which is essential in many Samoan dishes. A fa’atoaga, or Samoan garden is usually
    planted close to the tunoa, providing the family with staple foods such as sugar cane,
    bananas, taro, tapioca, sweet potato, and breadfruit. Cocoa is also grown in Samoa, prepared
    locally and drunk full-strength. Pork, chicken, fish and shellfish of all kinds are the most
    common meats.
    Once all the food is prepared, some of it may be cooked. For faster preparation, Samoans
    often boil green bananas, taro, breadfruit and other produce. Otherwise, they will bake their
    food in an umu or covered steam oven. Hawaiians traditionally cook their food in an imu,
    which uses the same principle as a Samoan umu, but the imu is done in a hole in the ground
    while an umu rests on top of the ground. A Samoan umu typically has four logs arranged in a
    square. Kindling and firewood go inside the square “box,” with the rocks piled on top. When
    the fire has heated the rocks until they’re white with ash, any remaining charcoal debris is
    pushed aside and the food is carefully placed on the rocks. Fire resistant leaves are used to
    sheath the food to protect them. The whole oven is then covered over with banana leaves
    and other insulating materials. The food takes a couple hours to cook.
    Samoans traditionally eat two hot meals a day: In the morning they boil food over a fire and
    in the afternoon the men prepare an umu.

    Coconut Cracking

    Samoans traditionally husk a coconut by firmly thrusting it onto the
    sharpened end of a stout stick, which is securely planted in the ground or otherwise wedged
    upright. After piercing the husk, they hold the coconut against the stick with one hand, and
    press down with the other, separating off sections of husk. This motion is repeated until the
    entire husk is stripped off the coconut.
    All coconuts have a face with one of three seams running between the two “eyes.” The point
    of the seams form a “nose,” and the “mouth” is below the nose. While the “eyes” are shellhard, the mouth is always the softest part of a coconut, even a dried one, and can easily be
    punctured by something sharp and thin. To crack the coconut open, Samoans use a rock,
    stick, or back of a heavy knife. Simply locate the seam that runs between the “eyes,” turn the
    coconut sideways, and strike that seam along the coconut’s “equator.” One good whack
    should do it. Of course, some or most of the relatively clear “juice” is going to spill out.
    Samoan men also scrape the mature coconut flesh before squeezing out the coconut milk,
    which is creamy and milky white in appearance, hence the term coconut “milk.” They usually
    give the left-over shreds to the chickens or pigs.
    Normally, Samoans only drink the juice of young, sweet coconuts, which can sometimes
    develop a natural effervescence. To do this, they simply cut off the top of young green
    coconuts, without husking it. Other times, they may husk the young coconuts, puncture the
    “mouth” or crack off a small portion of the top, and enjoy one of nature’s finest natural fruit
    juices.

  7. Interesting Facts

    The Samoans are known throughout Polynesia as the “happy” people because of their
    enjoyment of life and their good-spirited nature. Famous author Robert Louis Stevenson,
    known in Samoa as Tusitala or “story-teller,” fell in love with the happy and giving spirit of
    the Samoan people and settled here. He is buried on Mt. Vaea in independent Samoa.
    Samoa and American Samoa are on different sides of the International Dateline. Samoa sees
    the beginning of each day and American Samoa sees the last of the same day.

Samoa | Polynesian Cultural Center