The culture in the islands of Samoa makes for a fascinating read. Read on to find out more about a system based on mutual respect, strong societal values, and fraternity – the Samoan culture.
The Samoan Islands in the South Pacific are politically divided into two groups: the western and eastern islands. The western half of these islands forms the independent country called Samoa, while the eastern part is an unincorporated territory of the United States, known as American Samoa.
This article deals with the culture of both these regions collectively, since it is geography, rather than politics, that defines the way of life for the people of this Polynesian archipelago. American Samoa is being increasingly influenced by Western civilization (although in the case of Samoa, the US actually lies to the East), but the native culture remains venerated, and is largely followed to the letter. Hence, the word ‘Samoa’ in this article refers to the geographical region of the Samoan islands, unless otherwise stated.
Samoans, along with other Polynesian islanders, were famed in the middle ages for their exceptional navigational ability. This, combined with the remote location of these islands, made Europeans quite curious about the culture of these islands.
Let’s take a look at the culture of this mystical and isolated region.
Fa’a Samoa (The Way of Samoa)
The culture and traditions of Samoa are based on Fa’a Samoa, which literally translates to The Way of Samoa. The three crucial parts of the cultural traditions are family, faith and music. Let’s understand the nuances of these aspects of the Samoan life.
Fa’amatai (or fa’a matai)
If you break the word into two parts, matai means the head of the family, and the prefix fa’a stands , as we saw before, for ‘the way of’. Hence, this aspect deals with the customs, rules, and traditions of Samoan families.
The matai is a revered position in the Samoan culture. Matais perform the ritual duties of a Samoan family, and in the modern administrative system, are the only ones allowed to run for parliamentary office. Earlier, matais were also the only ones allowed to vote, although this right has since been diluted to grant suffrage to the masses. Matais of individual families (large, joint families called aiga) in a village make up the town council, or the fono. The larger the aiga, the more respect its matai commands.
There are two types of matai: ali’i (high chief) and tulafale (orator chief). The ali’i’s wife is called faletua whereas the tulafale’s wife is called tausi. The orator chiefs speak on behalf of the high chiefs at public events and ceremonies. They are also responsible for record keeping of data pertaining to genealogies (gafa) and pedigree (fa’alupega). Men and women have equal rights to become a matai.
In Samoa, about 80% of the population lives on family land, on which the government has no say, right, or claim. Looking after this land is a crucial duty of a matai, encapsulated in the local proverb,
E le soifua umi le tagata fa’atau fanua — The man who sells family land will not live to an old age, for devils will bring about his early death.
Everyone is entitled to become a matai through his/her ancestry. However, the title isn’t passed in a hereditary fashion. Titles aren’t inherited, but awarded by the extended family, who decide which candidate would serve them best. The title is bestowed upon a person in a ceremony called saofa’i. The titles are added before the Christian name.
In modern times, the traditional honor of the matai is being devalued by instances of conferring the title to gain political leverage, or personal gains. However, the occurrence of such events is still comparatively rare.
Basically conducted to mark important events and ceremonies, the ‘ava ceremony is a unique and vital ritual in the Samoan culture. Important events, such as the conferring of matai titles, are not considered complete if ‘ava has not been served.
The basic rituals remain the same, with certain alterations depending on the occasion and the parties involved. One of the main rituals in this ceremony is preparing the ‘ava drink. The right to prepare the drink is a coveted honor among Samoan families. The beverage is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, the kava plant. A process has been designed by the community for preparing and serving this drink. The person who serves the beverage is called tautu’ava, and the one who makes it, the aumaga. It is prepared in a bowl called tanoa which is hosted on a number of sticks for support and served in a smaller cup made from the shell of a coconut, called ipu tau ‘ava. Even the seating position for these ceremonies is decided by tradition, with the chief and the orators receiving prominence.
Samoan houses are called fale. Mirroring the communal emphasis on values such as respect and fraternity, these fale have no walls, and are built as domes or cones, supported by pillars. The site on which they are built is called tulaga fale. Fale are lashed together by a plaited rope called ‘afa, which is made from coconut fiber. Preparing the ‘afa is a complex procedure that involves performing numerous processes on the versatile fiber, such as soaking, beating, and braiding. All these procedures are collectively known as ‘lashing of the ‘afa’, which can take months to complete. The entrance to the house faces the main road in the village. The area immediately outside this entrance is called malae and is used for important ceremonies and gatherings.
Although fale don’t have doors, privacy is achieved through blinds made from natural fibers or large leaves. A similar process is used to divide the house into various sections.
Traditionally, no metal was used in the construction of these houses; it was only after the arrival of Europeans that Samoans started using metal in their construction, and traditional methods are still popular.
There are many types of fale, such as the faleo’o (beach fale) fale tele (big house), and afolau (long house).
Fale is also used to describe other buildings ‘housing’ some facility. For example, hospitals are called fale ma’i which means ‘house of the ill’.
The word tufuga denotes the mastery of an individual over a particular vocation. For example, fau fale means house builder. However, if you add tufuga before the term, the resultant tufuga fau fale means ‘master house builder’. Tufuga is similarly used in other instances, such as tufuga ta tatau (master tattoo artist), or tufuga fau va’a (master navigator). The assistants of a tufuga are called autufuga. To avail the services of a tufuga, people have to follow appropriate customs, and can’t just hire them like any other workman.
The traditional attire in Samoa consists of puletasi, a skirt and tunic worn by women. The skirt and the tunic are usually of matching colors and patterns. Additionally, they’re adorned with traditional Samoan designs. Both men and women wear the lava-lava, a type of sarong. The puletasi and lava-lava are usually worn to traditional events and other formal occasions. Today, there are a lot of variations to these dresses, and in cities, Samoans usually wear contemporary clothing.
Most — 99% — of the population in Samoa is Christian. The Baha’i Faith is the largest minority. There are only seven Baha’i Houses of Worship in the world, one of which is in Samoa. Hinduism and Buddhism are followed by extremely small communities.. In Samoan society, it is very important to participate in and donate to religious functions and events. The constitution provides every citizen with freedom of religion, which is usually upheld with great respect; reports of religious disturbances are very rare.
Although Samoans are officially Christian, they — especially the ones from the independent Samoa — have integrated various native customs into the prevalent norms of Christianity, so that the Christianity observed on these islands is a highly homogenized mixture of local traditions and traditional Christianity.
Fa’aaloaloga means the formal presentation of gifts in Samoan culture. It is performed at almost every function, from weddings to funerals. It is a very prominent part of the culture and every Samoan must abide by it. Gifts are always given first to religious representatives, then people with highest ranks and then to the chiefs. The gifts can include things like money and mats and are usually presented on a tray with some drink and biscuits. Depending on the rank of the person, these gifts are amplified — in size or type.
Like all coastal regions, Samoan cuisine depends heavily on seafood and coconuts. A special part of Samoan dining is the communal Sunday umu. Umus are ovens made of hot rocks, and are used to cook various foods, such as whole pigs, seafood such as crayfish and seaweed, coconut products, taro leaves, and rice. Sundays are traditionally ‘rest days’, and many families gather to prepare and enjoy the umu feast. The elders eat first, and then invite the others to join in.
Music and Dance
Music in Samoa is not so much a pastime as a cultural obligation, an inseparable aspect of Fa’a Samoa. Music is used by Samoans for expressing every emotion; Music is used to both celebrate and commiserate, as well as to admire and reflect upon the usual, day-to-day life.
The prominent instruments include conch shells, pan flutes, nose-blown flutes, and numerous idiophonic instruments, i.e., instruments played by striking two components together; while the vocal component is usually manifested in the form of ever-enthusiastic — if not always musically refined — chorus.
Samoan music hasn’t gathered universal acclaim, but some ensembles, such as the bands Past to Present and The Katinas have gained considerable following in Oceania and the United States, besides fame in their homeland. Modern bands have incorporated contemporary instruments, such as the guitar and the keyboard, into their music in a moderately successful bid to appeal to wider audience.
Samoan dance, like their music, stems from the desire to reflect every emotion through art. A popular genre of dance is Siva, which is usually performed by men. A unique and spectacular part of Samoan dance is the Siva afi, or the fire knife dance. Traditionally, machetes wrapped in towels at both ends were used in this thrilling spectacle, with the towels set on fire. In modern renditions, the steel blade is usually substituted by wooden staffs, or are blunted or shortened considerably. These modern practices, especially popular in the more westernized American Samoa, do not sit well with the Samoan traditionalists.
The culture of these Polynesian islands places great emphasis on respect for the established social hierarchy, communal events, and its unique brand of music. The Samoans respect these customs immensely, and this isolated Polynesian society has been held together by these very strands of societal norms for centuries.