World Cultures | Samoa

Culture Name

Samoan

Orientation

Identification. Oral tradition holds that the Samoan archipelago was created by the god Tagaloa at the beginning of history. Until 1997, the western islands were known as Western Samoa or Samoa I Sisifo to distinguish them from the nearby group known as American Samoa or Amerika Samoa. The distinction was necessitated by the partitioning of the archipelago in 1899. All Samoans adhere to a set of core social values and practices known as fa'a Samoa and speak the Samoan language. The official name today is Samoa.

Location and Geography. Samoa includes nine inhabited islands on top of a submarine mountain range. The largest islands are Savai'i at 703 square miles (1820 square kilometers) and Upolu at 430 square miles (1114 square kilometers), on which the capital, Apia, is located. The capital and port developed around Apia Bay from an aggregation of thirteen villages.

Demography. The population is estimated at 172,000 for the year 2000, 94 percent of which is is ethnically Samoan. A small number of people of mixed descent are descendants of Samoans and European, Chinese, Melanesians, and other Polynesians who settled in the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Linguistic Affiliation. Samoan belongs to a group of Austronesian languages spoken throughout Polynesia. It has a chiefly or polite variant used in elite communication and a colloquial form used in daily communication. Samoan is the language of instruction in elementary schools and is used alongside English in secondary and tertiary education, government, commerce, religion, and the broadcast media. The language is a cherished symbol of cultural identity.

Symbolism. A representation of the Southern Cross appears on both the national flag and the emblem of state. The close link between Samoan society and Christianity is symbolized in the national motto "Samoa is founded on God" ( Fa'avae ile Atua Samoa ) and in a highlighted cross on the national emblem. The sea and the coconut palm, both major food sources, also are shown on the emblem. An orator's staff and sinnet fly whisk and a multilegged wooden bowl in which the beverage kava is prepared for chiefs are symbolic of the authority of tradition. A political movement, O le Mau a Pule , promoted independence in the first half of the twentieth century, calling for Samoa for Samoans ( Samoa mo Samoa ) and engaging in confrontations with colonial powers over the right to self-government. For some, the struggles of the Mau, in particular the martyrdom of a national chief in a confrontation with New Zealand soldiers, are symbols of the nation's determination to reclaim sovereignty. Samoans celebrate the peaceful attainment of constitutional independence in 1962 on 1 June.

The national anthem and a religious anthem, Lota Nu'u ua ou Fanau ai ("My Village in Which I Was Born") are sung to celebrate national identity. Samoans refer to their country in these anthems as a gift from God and refer to themselves in formal speech as the children of Samoa, brothers and sisters, and the Samoan family.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. In the mid-nineteenth century, Germany, Britain, and the United States established consular presences and attempted to impose their authority. Mutual suspicion, disunity, and a lack of military resources meant that the powers were largely unsuccessful until they agreed

Samoa

Samoa

to "rationalize" their Pacific interests at the turn of the century.

 

The western part of the archipelago came under German control, and the eastern part under American naval administration. The German administration was determined to impose its authority and tried to undermine the Samoan polity and replace its titular heads with the kaiser. These attempts provoked varying degrees of anger between 1900 and 1914, when a small New Zealand expeditionary force, acting on British orders, ended the German administration.

After World War I, New Zealand administered Western Samoa under a League of Nations mandate. It too was determined to establish authority and pursued a course similar to that of the Germans. It proved an inept administration, and its mishandling of the S.S. Talune's arrival, which resulted in the death of 25 percent of the population from influenza and its violent reaction to the Mau procession in 1929, left Samoans suspicious and disillusioned. These and other clumsy attempts to promote village and agricultural development strengthened Samoans' determination to reclaim their autonomy. Their calls found the ear of a sympathetic Labor government in New Zealand in the mid-1930s, but World War II intervened before progress was made.

After World War II, the United Nations made Samoa a trusteeship and gave New Zealand responsibility for preparing it for independence. A better trained and more sympathetic administration and a determined and well-educated group of Samoans led the country through a series of national consultations and constitutional conventions. That process produced a unique constitution that embodied elements of Samoan and British political traditions and led to a peaceful transition to independence on 1 January 1962.

National Identity. The national and political cultures that characterize the nation are unambiguously Samoan. This is in large part a consequence of a constitutional provision that limited both suffrage and political representation to those who held chiefly titles and are widely regarded as protectors of culture and tradition. These arrangements continued until 1991, when the constitution was amended to permit universal suffrage. While representation is still limited to chiefs, the younger titleholders now being elected generally have broader experience and more formal education than their predecessors.

Ethnic Relations. Samoan society has been remarkably free of ethnic tension, largely as a result of the dominance of a single ethnic group and a history of intermarriage that has blurred ethnic boundaries. Samoans have established significant migrant communities in a number of countries, including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, and smaller communities in other neighbors.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The spatial arrangement of villages beyond the capital has changed little. Most villages lie on flat land beside the sea and are connected by a coastal road. Clusters of sleeping houses, their associated cooking houses, and structures for ablutions are arranged around a central common ( malae ). Churches, pastors' homes, meeting houses and guest houses, and women's committee meeting houses also occupy prominent positions around the malae. Schools stand on land provided by villages and frequently on the malae.

The availability of migrant remittances has transformed the design and materials used in private homes and public buildings. Houses typically have large single rectangular spaces around which some furniture is spread and family portraits, certificates, and religious pictures are hung. Homes increasingly have indoor cooking and bathing facilities. The new architecture has reshaped social relations. Indigenous building materials are being replaced by sawn lumber framing and cladding, iron roofing, and concrete foundations. The coral lime cement once used in larger public buildings has been replaced by concrete and steel.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Samoans eat a mixture of local and imported foods. Local staples include fish, lobster, crab, chicken, and pork; lettuce and cabbage; root vegetables such as talo, ta'amu, and yams; tree crops such as breadfruit and coconut; and local beverages such as coffee and cocoa. Imported foods include rice, canned meat and fish, butter, jam, honey, flour, sugar, bread, tea, and carbonated beverages.

Many families drink beverages such as tea throughout the day but have a single main meal together in the evening. A range of restaurants, including a McDonald's, in the capital are frequented largely by tourists and the local elite.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Sharing of food is a central element of ceremonies and features in Sunday meals known as toana'i , the feasts that accompany weddings and funerals and the conferring of chiefly titles, and annual feasts such as White Sunday. Special meals are marked by a larger than usual amount of food, a greater range of delicacies, and formality. Food also features in ceremonial presentations and exchanges between families and villages. The presentation of cooked whole pigs is a central feature of such events, and twenty-liter drums of salted beef are increasingly popular. Kava ( 'ava ), a beverage made from the powdered root of Piper methysticum, made and shared in a ceremonially defined order at meetings of chiefs ( matai ) and less formally among men after work.

Basic Economy. The agricultural and industrial sectors employ 70 percent of the workforce and account for 65 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The service sector employs 30 percent of those employed and accounts for 35 percent of the GDP. Much of this sector is associated with the tourist industry, which is limited by intense competition from other islands in the region and its dependence on economic conditions in source countries.

The economy ran large trade deficits in the 1990s. Products are exported to New Zealand, American Samoa, Australia, Germany and the United States, and imports, intermediate goods,

Samoan artist Fatu Feu'u attends the South Pacific Arts Festival.

foods, and capital goods come from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and the United States. The economy is highly dependent on remittances from expatriates in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and American Samoa and aid from New Zealand, Australia, and Germany. These remittances are declining because overseas-born children of migrants have attenuated their connections with the nation, whose geopolitical significance has declined since the Cold War ended.

 

Land Tenure and Property. Much agricultural production comes from the 87 percent of the land held under customary tenure and associated with villages. The control of this land is vested in elected chiefs (matai), who administer it for the families ( aiga ) they head. The remaining 13 percent is land held by the crown and a small area of freehold residential land around the capital.

Trade. Samoa produces some primary commodities for export: hardwood timber, copra and coconut products, root vegetables, coffee, cocoa, and fish. Agricultural produce constitutes 90 percent of exports. The most promising export crop, taro, was effectively eliminated by leaf blight in 1993. A small industrial sector designed to provide import substitution and exports processes primary commodities such as coconut cream and oil, animal feed, soap, biscuits, cigarettes, and beer. A multinational corporation has established a wiring harness assembly plant whose production is reexported; and a clothing assembly plant is planned.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Samoan society is meritocratic. Those with recognized ability have traditionally been elected to leadership of families. Aside from four nationally significant chiefly titles, the influence of most titles is confined to the families and villages with which they are associated. Title holders gained status and influence not only from accumulating resources but also from their ability to mobilize and redistribute them. These principles work against significant permanent disparities in wealth. The power of chiefs has been reduced, and the wealth returned by expatriates has flowed into all sectors of society, undermining traditional rank-wealth correlations. The public influence of women is becoming increasingly apparent. A commercial elite that has derived its power from the accumulation and investment of private wealth has become increasingly influential in politics.

Political Life

Government. The legislative branch of the government consists of a unicameral Legislative Assembly ( O Le Fono a Faipule ) elected to five-year terms by universal suffrage. A twelve-member cabinet nominated by the prime minister is appointed by the head of state, Malietoa Tanumafili II, who has held that position since 1962. Forty-seven members are elected by Samoans in eleven electorates based on traditional political divisions. Two members at large represent general electors. Only holders of matai titles can be elected to the Fono.

Legislation is administered by a permanent public service that consists of people chosen on the basis of merit. The quality of public service has been questioned periodically since independence. Concern with the quality of governance has led the current government to engage in training programs aimed at institutional strengthening.

The judicial branch includes a Supreme Court, a court of appeals, and a lands and titles court. These agencies deal with matters that cannot be dealt with by village polities. Village polities ( fono a matai ) are empowered by the Village Fono Act of 1990 to make and administer bylaws for the regulation of

Upolu police officer in traditional dress.

village activities and to punish those who break them.

 

Social Problems and Control. The role of village politics in the maintenance of order is important because the state has no army and a relatively small police force. This limits the ability of the state to enforce laws and shapes its relations with villages, which retain significant autonomy.

Samoans accept and trust these institutions but have found that they are ineffective in areas such as the pursuit of commercial debts. Recent cases have pointed to tension between collective rights recognized, emphasized, and enforced by village polities, and the individual rights conferred by the constitution in areas such as freedom of religion and speech.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

The government is responsible for health, education, and welfare in cooperation with villages and churches. Health care and education are provided for a nominal cost. Families provide for their members' welfare. The state grants a small old-age pension, and the Catholic Church runs a senior citizens' home.

 

People under the portico of the immigration office as traffic passes by in Apia. Ethnic tensions are virtually non-existent in Samoa.

 

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The most influential nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are the churches, in which 99 percent of Samoans participate actively and which actively comment on the government's legislative program and activity. A small number of NGOs work for the rights of women and the disabled, environmental conservation, and transparency in government. Professional associations exert some influence on the drafting of legislation. These organizations have a limited impact on the life of most residents.

Gender Roles and Statuses

The organization of traditional production was clearly gendered, and the parts of this mode of production that remain intact are still gendered. The constitution provides for equality of opportunity, and there are no entrenched legal, social, or religious obstacles to equality for women. There is some evidence of growing upward social mobility by women.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Samoan society is composed of extended families ( aiga potopoto ), each of which is associated with land and a chiefly title. All Samoans inherit membership and land use rights in the aiga of their parents' parents. They may choose to live with one or more of aiga and develop strong ties with those in which they live. Choices are determined by matters such as the availability of resources and status of various groups and personal preference. Aiga potopoto include resident members who work the land, "serve" the chief, and exercise full rights of membership and nonresident members who live outside the group but have some rights in its activities. Resident members live in clusters of households within the village, share some facilities and equipment, and work on family-land controlled by the matai.

Inheritance. Rights to reside on and use land are granted to members of a kin group who request them, subject to availability. Rights lapse at death, and matai may then reassign them. There is a growing tendency to approve the transmission of rights to parcels of land from parents to children, protecting investments in development and constituting a form of de facto freehold tenure. Since neither lands nor titles can be formally transmitted without the consent of the kin group, the only property that can be assigned is personal property.

Many residents die intestate and with little personal property. With increasing personal wealth, provision for the formal disposition of wealth may assume greater importance. This is not a foreign concept, since matai have traditionally made their wishes known before death in a form of will known as a mavaega . The Public Trust Office and legal practitioners handle the administration of estates.

Socialization

Child Rearing and Education. Younger people are expected to respect their elders and comply with their demands. Justification for this principle is found in Samoan tradition and Christian scripture. The only exception exists in early childhood, when infants are protected and indulged by parents, grandparents, and older siblings. After around age five, children are expected to take an active, if limited, part in the family economy. From then until marriage young people are expected to comply unquestioningly with their parents' and elders' wishes.

Great importance is attached to the family's role in socialization. A "good" child is alert and intelligent and shows deference, politeness, and obedience to elders and respect for Samoan custom ( aganu'u fa'a samoa ) and Christian principles and practices. The belief that the potential for learning these qualities is partly genetic and partly social and is defined initially within the family is grounded in both Samoan and Christian thought.

Formal education is provided in secular and religious institutions. There are elementary, intermediate, and secondary secular schools run by the government or churches and church-linked classes that provide religious instruction. There is great respect and desire for higher education, and a significant part of the education budget is committed to supporting the National University of Samoa, the nursing school, the teachers training college, the trades training institute, and overseas training.

Religion

Religious Beliefs. Samoa is overwhelmingly Christian. The major denominations—Congregationalist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Latter-Day Saints—have been joined recently by smaller ones such as the SDA and charismatic Pentecostal groups such as Assembly of God. Clergy and leaders are prepared at theological training institutions at home and abroad. Small Baha'i and Muslim groups have formed in recent years.

Medicine and Health Care

Parallel systems of introduced and indigenous knowledge and practice coexist. Certain conditions are believed to be "Samoan illnesses" ( ma'i samoa ) that are explained and treated by indigenous practitioners and others to be "European illnesses" ( ma'i papalagi ), which are best understood and treated by those trained in the Western biomedical tradition.

Bibliography

Ahlburg, D. A. Remittances and Their Impact. A Study of Tonga and Western Samoa , 1991.

Boyd, M. "The Record in Western Samoa to 1945." In A. Ross, ed., New Zealand's Record in the Pacific in the Twentieth Century , 1969.

Davidson, J. W. Samoa mo Samoa , 1967.

Fairbairn Pacific Consultants Ltd. The Western Samoan Economy: Paving the Way for Sustainable Growth and Stability , 1994.

Field, M. Mau: Samoa's Struggle against New Zealand Oppression , 1984.

Gilson, R. P. Samoa 1830–1900: The Politics of a Multicultural Community , 1970.

Macpherson, C., and L. Macpherson. Samoan Medical Beliefs and Practices , 1991.

Meleisea, M. Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa , 1987.

——. Change and Adaptations in Western Samoa , 1992.

Moyle, Richard M., ed. The Samoan Journals of John Williams 1830 and 1832 , 1984.

O'Meara, T. "Samoa: Customary Individualism." In R. G. Crocombe, ed., Land Tenure in the Pacific , 3rd ed. 1987.

——. Samoan Planters: Tradition and Economic Development in Polynesia , 1990.

Pitt, D. C. Tradition and Economic Progress in Samoa , 1970.

Shankman, P. Migration and Underdevelopment: The Case of Western Samoa , 1976.

University of the South Pacific. Pacific Constitutions Vol. I: Polynesia , 1983.

World Bank. Pacific Island Economies: Toward Higher Growth in the 1990s , 1991.

——. Pacific Island Economies: Building a Resilient Economic Base for the Twenty-First Century , 1996.

—C LUNY M ACPHERSON

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