LOCATION: Polynesian archipelago comprising Western Samoa and American Samoa; west coast of the United States (including Hawaii)
POPULATION: Over 330,000
LANGUAGE: Samoan; English
RELIGION: Christianity (Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Catholic, Mormon)
Samoans are the residents of a chain of islands, or archipelago, in the Polynesian culture area of the south Pacific Ocean. The Samoan archipelago is politically divided into the independent nation of Western Samoa and the United States territory of American Samoa. Western Samoa was owned by Germany, England, and New Zealand before gaining independence in 1962. It has many cultural and historical ties with neighboring Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Tahiti.
The population of Western Samoa is estimated at around 214,000. That of American Samoa is about 59,000. Many people (an estimated 65,000) have left American Samoa and moved to the west coast of the United States. Another 20,000 now live in Hawaii. This section focuses on the Samoan way of life, or, as it is called by Western Samoans, fa'a Samoa.
Western Samoa is located about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. Western Samoa is made up of two main islands, Upolo and Savai'i, and a few smaller ones. The two main islands are of volcanic origin. They are mountainous with rocky soil and lush vegetation, thanks to the tropical climate and plentiful rainfall. The average humidity is 80 percent. Of the two main islands of Western Samoa, Savai'i is more rural and has a much smaller population. The only city in Western Samoa, Apia, is located on Upolo.
The official language of Western Samoa is Samoan. It is closely related to the other languages of Polynesia including Tahitian, Tonga, Maori, and Rarotongan. Although English is spoken by educated Samoans in the city of Apia, it is rarely used by rural Samoans.
Samoans have a creation myth very similar to the creation story in the Bible. The Samoan creator God is Tagaloa. Many of the traditional myths have been forgotten because many Samoans have been converted to Christianity.
Ninety-eight percent of Samoans are Christians. They are extremely proud of their devotion. Several Christian denominations, including Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, and Mormons, have built churches in Samoan villages. In traditional Samoan belief systems, at the time of death the body separates from the soul. The soul is believed to live on as an "ancestor spirit" called aitu. Rituals devoted to the aitu were an important part of religious life in pre-contact Samoa (before the arrival of Europeans).
Samoans celebrate the holidays in the Christian calendar as well as some secular holidays. Samoan Mother's Day is celebrated on May 15 and is a public holiday. There are elaborate song and dance performances by the Women's Committees throughout the country. They celebrate the contributions that mothers have made to Samoan society. Samoan national independence celebrations last for the first three workdays of June.
From the time they are toddlers, children are expected to obey their elders without question or hesitation. There is no tolerance for misbehavior or disobedience. Older children are expected to take care of their younger brothers and sisters. Adulthood in traditional Samoan society is marked by receiving a tattoo.
Status (position or rank) in society governs every interaction in Samoan society. Greetings are determined by status. A very informal greeting in Western Samoa is talofa. For more formal greetings at home, neither person speaks until the visitor is seated. Then the host will begin a formal greeting and introduction with, "Susu maia lau susuga," which translates roughly as "Welcome, sir."
Unmarried women are almost always chaperoned in Samoan society. Premarital sex is discouraged and rare.
Huge amounts of foreign aid have come to Western Samoa since independence in 1962. It has been used to modernize even the most isolated parts of rural Savai'i. Today there are many European-style houses with wooden frames, iron roofs, and glass windows.
Traditional Samoan-style houses can still be found in Western Samoa. These houses are rectangular and built on black, volcanic boulder foundations. Traditional roofs are high-peaked and covered with thatch. There are no walls, but shutters or blinds of braided coconut leaves can be lowered to keep out the blowing rain.
The Western Samoan standard of living is hard to describe. On one hand, food is plentiful and the pace of life is relaxed. On the other hand, people are always striving to find ways to make money. The economy is very limited. Most money comes from foreign aid.
In traditional Samoan society, households were centered on the extended family (parents and children, plus other relatives). The nuclear family (just parents and children living together) has now become the most common family unit. Nuclear families can be very large by American standards. Many women have as many as a dozen children.
Names for relatives in the Samoan language are different from those in Western cultures. There is a single term for the mother, mother's sisters, and father's sisters, and a single term for the father, father's brothers, and mother's brothers. This pattern continues through each generation, so that female cousins (in the American sense) are called "sisters" and male cousins are called "brothers."
Traditional Samoan clothing has been adapted to modern life in Western Samoa. The wraparound skirt, called lavalava, is worn by men and children. Even important village leaders who work in the city may choose to wear a formal lavalava, a sport shirt, and a wide leather belt around the waist. Women wear dresses or matching long blouses and skirts called puletasi. Civil servants (government workers), both male and female, often wear uniforms in dark colors.
Tattooing is a very important form of adornment. Western Samoa is one of the areas of Polynesia that has seen a rebirth of the tradition of tattooing. Young men, more than young women, have returned to the custom of tattooing.
Traditional Samoan foods included taro root, yams, bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, fish, turtle, and chicken. Even though pigs are raised, pork is reserved for ceremonial occasions. Samoan meals are always accompanied by a salted coconut cream condiment called pe'epe'e. It is poured over boiled taro root and heated before serving. For many rural Samoans, this is a staple food and is served at the two daily meals.
Coconut is not eaten in Western Samoa as it is in other areas. For a Samoan, eating coconut is a sign of poverty. The favorite Samoan beverage is koko Samoa, which is made from fermented cacao beans (the source of chocolate and cocoa), water, and brown Fijian sugar. It is an essential part of the village meal in Western Samoa.
The literacy rate (proportion of the people who are able to read and write) in Western Samoa is about 90 percent. Parents see education as absolutely necessary for their children's future. Even in the most isolated villages, parents send at least some of their children to school.
In Western Samoa, as opposed to American Samoa, traditional Samoan songs are the favorites of young and old alike. In American Samoa, American popular music is preferred by the young people. Polynesian dancing is still practiced in Western Samoa.
Making persuasive speeches is considered an art among all Samoans. Village leaders participate in political debates to show off their skill in public speaking.
The city of Apia provides Samoans with work opportunities in many fields, including jobs as government workers, teachers, nurses, clerks, business entrepreneurs, and secretaries. Men hold approximately 60 percent of the wage-earning jobs.
Cricket is an important game, and there is a cricket pitch in the middle of every village green. Rugby is also a very big spectator and participant sport. Boxing, wrestling, and American football are favorite sports in both parts of Samoa. A number of professional football players in the United States are of Samoan descent.
For Samoans who live in or near Apia, most of the usual forms of entertainment found in any modern city are available. Longboat races, called fautasi, are held at important festivals and public celebrations. Dominoes are a favorite pastime of Samoan men in both rural areas and towns.
The traditional art of barkcloth ( siapo ) manufacturing has been all but lost in Samoan culture today. In traditional Samoan society, artists who specialized in house construction, canoe building, and tattooing were organized into guilds, groups somewhat like modern unions. These artists worked for families of high status who could afford to pay them well.
Migration out of the area is a major problem for both Western Samoa and American Samoa. Over 60 percent of the American Samoan population has moved to the U.S. mainland and Hawaii.
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Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. London, England: Penguin, 1961 (orig. 1928).
O'Meara, Tim. Samoan Planters: Tradition and Economic Development in Polynesia. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1990.
Western Samoan Visitors Bureau. [Online] Available http://public-www.pi.se/~orbit/samoa/welcome.html , 1998.