Samoan americans

by Paul Cox


The Samoan archipelago consists of 15 inhabited islands in the South Pacific that are located approximately 14 degrees south latitude and between 171 and 173 degrees west longitude. The archipelago is a politically divided one. The eastern group of islands is known as American Samoa, a U.S. territory with a population of 41,000. The total land area of American Samoa is 77 square miles and includes seven major islands: Tutuila (which includes the territorial capital of Pago Pago), Aunu'u, Ta'u, Ofu, Olosega, Swains Island, and Rose Atoll. American Samoa is administered by an elected governor and territorial legislature as well as a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The native-born residents of American Samoa are considered American nationals. While they do not pay U.S. income taxes or vote in U.S. presidential elections, they may serve in the U.S. armed services.

The western half of the archipelago comprises Western Samoa, an independent country. These islands have a total population of 182,000 and a total land area of 1,104 square miles. Western Samoa includes four inhabited islands: Upolu (which houses Apia, the nation's capital), Manu'a, Apolima, and Savaii, which is the largest but also the most underdeveloped of these islands. A former United Nations protectorate under the administration of New Zealand, Western Samoa is a member of the British Commonwealth.

Samoan weather is usually hot and wet, with a mean temperature of 79.5 degrees fahrenheit and heavy annual rainfall. In the city of Apia, for instance, annual rainfall measures about 80 inches.

The number of Samoans living outside of Samoa easily exceeds the combined population of both American and Western Samoa. Large populations of expatriate Samoans can be found in Auckland, New Zealand; Honolulu, Hawaii; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; and Salt Lake City, Utah. Smaller groups have settled in Wellington, New Zealand; Sydney, Australia; Laie, Hawaii; Oakland, California; and Independence, Missouri. Most older expatriate Samoans are immigrants, although many of their offspring are natural-born citizens of their host countries. Regardless of birthplace, however, peoples of Samoan descent are linked by a distinctive cultural heritage that continues to flourish on those South Pacific islands.


The Samoan islands were colonized between 500 and 800 B.C. by an oceanic people distinguished by their production of Lapita pottery—a unique pottery form named after one of the original sites of pottery shard discovery in Melanesia. Based on archaeological, botanical, and linguistic evidence, it seems almost certain that the ancestors of the Samoans originated in Indo-Malaysia, spent several centuries living along coastal areas of New Guinea, and then colonized Samoa and Tonga, another island in the Pacific Ocean. It is unclear whether Samoa or Tonga was colonized first, but it was within these archipelagos that Polynesian culture developed from its Lapita roots. Over time the descendants of these original immigrants colonized other regions, including Tahiti and other areas of eastern Polynesia, the Marquesas, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The ancestors of the Polynesians brought with them a group of agricultural plants distinguished by a variety of tree crops that produced nuts and fruits (including breadfruit) and a set of starchy tuberous crops, including taro and yams. Once in Samoa, the Lapita potters developed a material culture characterized by a few large stone fortifications, early attempts at irrigation, and a startling talent for producing highly finished boat timbers.

The quality of the ship timbers produced by the Samoans did not escape notice. Indeed, the first European accounts of Samoa speak admiringly of the work of the islands' inhabitants in this respect. The quality of Samoan boats suggested an easy facility with tools of iron, according to the journals of Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to discover Samoa. Roggeveen happened upon the islands in 1722 during his ill-fated voyage from the Netherlands to New Ireland. He recorded that the Samoan seamen were a sturdy, healthy group, although he mistook their tattoos for paint. Although he traded a few nails for coconuts, Roggeveen was unable to entice any of the Samoans to board his ship. Concerned about the lateness of the season and the poor anchoring terrain, Roggeveen decided not to attempt a landing.

The second European explorer to visit Samoa, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, named the archipelago the "Navigator Islands" in honor of the superb sailing vessels manned by the natives. "Their canoes are made with a good deal of skill, and have an outrigger," he wrote. "Though we ran seven or eight knots at this time, yet the [canoes] sailed round us with the same ease as if we had been at anchor."

After sighting Bougainville's ship, the Samoans sent out a party in a canoe to meet him. Bougainville reported they "were naked, excepting their natural parts, and shewed us cocoa-nuts and roots." The "roots" presented to Bougainville were likely those of Piper methysticum, used in Samoa to make kava, a beverage that is consumed on ceremonial occasions. The present of both coconuts and kava to Bougainville constituted a sua, or ceremonial offering of respect to a traveling party. Kava roots were also ceremonially presented to the next European to visit Samoa, the French explorer La Perouse, on December 6, 1787. The presentation of Piper methysticum roots was accompanied, per usual Samoan practice, by soaring rhetoric that added considerably to the ambience of the kava ceremony.

Unfortunately, the La Perouse expedition met with tragedy when 11 members of the crew were later killed by Samoans. The French claimed the attack was unprovoked, although they admitted the attack came after they had fired muskets over the heads of a few Samoans to persuade them to release a grapnel rope to a long boat. Later reports indicated that the massacre occurred after the French shot and killed a Samoan attempting to steal an iron bolt. Verification of this report came from the missionary J. B. Stair, who wrote that the massacre occurred after the French had hoisted a Samoan up a mainstay of a long boat by the thumb in retribution for a petty theft (Stair, Old Samoa, 1897). Regardless of the root cause of the altercation, La Perouse fostered a myth of barbarity about the Samoans in its wake, bitterly remarking in his memoirs that he would leave the documentation of Samoan history to others.

The massacre of the French sailors from the Astrolabe in 1787 gave the Samoans a reputation for savagery that deterred future European exploration of the islands, except for a few brief contacts such as the visit of that H.M.S. Pandora in 1791. Only a few whalers and warships called at Samoan ports for the next number of years.

In 1828 Tongan Wesleyan missionaries arrived in Samoa, but they had little success in their proselytizing endeavors. In 1830, however, John Williams sailed the Messenger of Peace to Savaii under the guidance of a Samoan convert from Rarotonga. He first traveled to Sapapalii village, home of Malietoa, the highest-ranking chief in Samoa. During an interview on the ship, Williams obtained permission from Malietoa to land Tahitian and Rarotongan missionaries in Samoa. In addition, he secured a commitment from Malietoa to avail himself of the missionaries' teachings.

Williams returned to Samoa in 1832 to find the new Christian faith thriving. Other religious groups were quick to follow. In 1835 Peter Turner formally established the Wesleyan mission on Manono island. Proselytizing activities proceeded at a fast pace, particularly when George Pratt and Charles Wilson of the London Missionary Society translated the Bible into Samoan.

Although the missionaries were explicitly instructed by Williams to confine their activities to the religious sphere, the impact of the European missions on Samoan culture was rapid and profound. Samoans abandoned their former religious beliefs and made dramatic changes to central cultural practices. Warfare as an instrument of political change was discarded, as was polygamy, abortion, "indecent" dances, and certain common articles of clothing (such as the titi , a skirt made from Cordyline terminalis leaves). The missionaries introduced new agricultural plants and practices, new items of clothing ( siapo or tapa cloth), and new forms of housing construction. In only a few years, a fundamental restructuring of traditional Samoan society had taken place. Faifeau or ministers played a new and pivotal role in this culture, a respected status that continues to this day.

Later, other papalagi (foreigners) with less evangelical interests visited Samoa. The U.S. Exploring Expedition visited and mapped Samoa in 1839. Commander Charles Wilkes appointed the son of John Williams as American Vice-Consul. In 1845 George Pritchard joined the diplomatic corps in Apia as British Consul. Both Williams and Pritchard avoided native intrigues and concentrated on assisting in the naval affairs of their respective countries.

The geopolitical importance of Samoa grew over time due to its proximity to southern whaling grounds and the unparalleled harbor of Pago Pago. In 1857 the German firm of Godeffroy greatly expanded copra trade, establishing a regional center in Samoa. This led to the establishment of a German consulate in 1861. This increased interest in Samoa created significant tensions between the three colonial powers on the island. Samoa was finally partitioned between the east (Eastern Samoa) and the west (German Samoa) during the 1880s.

American Samoa was eventually ceded by the chiefs of Tutuila and Manu'a to the United States and administered by the Department of the Navy as a U.S. territory. The region was largely forgotten until the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy told Governor John Hayden to "get Samoa moving." During the 1960s and 1970s construction on American Samoa increased dramatically. A hospital, television transmission facilities, and schools were built throughout the territory. Steps were taken to institute a popular election to determine the territorial governor, a position previously filled by appointment from Washington, D.C.

Western Samoa's development during the twentieth century was a little more dramatic. Western Samoa changed hands from German ownership to New Zealand administration during the First World War after a bloodless invasion. After the war, Western Samoa was declared a League of Nations Trust Territory under New Zealand Administration. A nascent independence movement, called the "Mau," was ruthlessly crushed by New Zealand colonial administrators. One of the leaders of this movement, a Samoan chief and a man of great wisdom and presence, Tamasese, was shot and killed by New Zealand armed forces during this conflict. Later, though, New Zealand assumed a more benign role in Western Samoa, assisting the country as it prepared for independence in 1962. Today, Western Samoa is led by a parliament and prime minister, with His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II acting as the ceremonial Head of State.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Immigration of Samoans to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States accelerated during the 1950s. Western Samoa, with its historically close ties to New Zealand, sent a number of scholarship students to pursue college degrees in New Zealand. American Samoa saw many of its citizens enroll in U.S. military services. Samoans who chose to pursue ecclesiastical endeavors were often educated by Anglicans in London. Others entered Catholic seminaries in the South Pacific and studied in Rome, while those who became local leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) traveled to Utah. All these experiences overseas encouraged growing numbers of Samoans to emigrate from Samoa to these distant countries. Since the initial wave of the Samoan emigration overseas numerous second-generation Samoans have been born not on the islands but in their new country. In the 1990 census of the United States, over 55,000 Americans reported themselves to be of Samoan descent. Approximately 26,000 of the respondents resided in California, with another 15,000 in Hawaii, and 2,000 in Utah. But the influence of Samoan Americans has spread far beyond these limited regions.

The contributions made by Samoan Americans have been many and diverse. The courage and valor of Samoan soldiers became legendary during the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war. Prowess on the athletic field led to significant recognition for Samoan Americans in the sports of college and professional football, New Zealand rugby, and even Japanese Sumo wrestling. Samoan American political leaders such as Faleolemavaega Eni Hunkin, who served as staff council for the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Lands and later as the American Samoan delegate to the United States Congress, and Governors Peter Coleman and A. P. Lutali have played an increasingly visible role in formulation of U.S. policy in the Pacific rim.

Many recent immigrants from Samoa, though, have been forced to pursue low-paying jobs as untrained laborers. Others have been forced to rely on governmental entitlement programs for support. A few members of the Samoan community are undocumented aliens who are legally, linguistically, and culturally isolated from their host countries.

As a group, Samoans in America face all the tensions and difficulties encountered by other immigrant groups as they enter new homelands. Many older Samoans, particularly those from Western Samoa, speak English haltingly. Yet in areas of significant Samoan population concentration, even Samoan Americans who are fluent in English have faced considerable prejudice. Just as in the time of the La Perouse expedition, Samoans have in some areas gained unwarranted reputations as perpetrators of violent crime. The involvement of small numbers of Samoan youth in gang activity has led some to dismiss all young Samoan Americans as hoodlums. Such prejudice can have devastating consequences: even impartial observers concede that there have been instances when it has been difficult for a person of Samoan descent to receive a fair criminal trial in Hawaii.

In New Zealand, Hawaii, California, and Utah there is now a reawakening and organization of expatriate Samoan communities in an attempt to reach out to younger people of Samoan ancestry and inform them of the traditional ways and cultures. Samoan culture, while based largely on hospitality, is at times mystifying to Westerners as well as to the offspring of expatriate Samoans who know little of the ways and language of their ancestral home. Scholars are also sometimes confused, and as a result Samoan culture has been the topic of much controversy. In Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead argued that Samoan adolescents are spared the sturm und drang of American adolescence. She argued that, unlike their counterparts in Western cultures, young people in Samoa pass relatively easily through adolescence. Her views have been challenged by the anthropologist Derek Freeman, who argued that, contrary to the easy-going Samoan nature portrayed by Mead, Samoan culture is hierarchical, power-conscious, and occasionally violent.

The nature of Samoan society is considerably more complex than either camp may wish to admit. Unlike Mead's assertion that Samoans are a "primitive" people, Samoan culture is elaborate and sophisticated and is exemplified by Samoan rhetorical skills, which are considerable. Samoan villages are equally complex in their structure, with a plethora of different levels of matai , or chiefs. Villagers are related in various complex ways from a series of common descent groups.


Samoan cuisine is fairly bland and varies little. Samoans eat two or three meals a day consisting of boiled taro or rice cooked with coconut milk, fresh fish, breadfruit, and usually some form of tinned or fresh meat. Fruit, although plentiful in the island, is seldom eaten during the mealtime. Raw Samoan cocoa—which for many visitors is an acquired taste—orange leaf tea, lemon grass tea, or coffee is usually served with meals. Samoans do not usually engage in conversation while eating, since the hosts typically do not eat until the guests have finished their meals. Many Samoans have, in recent years, strayed from the traditional diet of starchy roots and fruits to a more westernized diet. The medical community believes that this dietary change has translated into a high incidence of diabetes among Samoan people. Although in traditional villages Samoans tend to be very trim in appearance, in some expatriate communities obesity is common, possibly as a result of a more sedentary lifestyle.


Clothing in Samoa consists of a lavalava, a single piece of cloth that is worn as a wrap-around skirt by both men and women. Brightly colored floral print shirts or blouses, or in more informal settings, T-shirts, complete the typical outfit. In remote villages some women go without tops while washing clothes or performing other household tasks. While Samoans prefer colorful floral designs in both their lavalava and tops, darker colors are preferred on formal occasions. In such instances, Samoan men often wear a lavalava made from suit cloth material. Such a formal lavalava, when combined with leather sandals, white shirt, tie, and suit coat, is considered appropriate dress whether attending a funeral or hosting government dignitaries. In such settings women will wear a pulu tasi, a sort of mu'umu'u designed by the early Christian missionaries. On Sundays, Samoans prefer to wear white clothing to church.

Although Samoan concepts of personal modesty may differ from western concepts, they are very important to Samoans. The area between the calf of the leg and the thigh is considered to be especially inappropriate for public exhibition. Many traditional Samoan villages ban beach wear such as bikinis and swimming suits. Some even ban women from wearing trousers.

While the appearance and garb of Samoan women are subject to a range of cultural restrictions, full-body tattoos are common on Samoan men. The tattooing process is prolonged and painful. It is believed by Samoans to be a means of helping men appreciate the prolonged labor pains involved with childbirth.


Both American Samoa and Western Samoa celebrate their respective national holidays. Christmas, Easter, and other religious holidays are also of great significance to Samoans. In addition, the second Sunday of October is celebrated by most denominations as "White Sunday." On this day, the service revolves around memorized recitations by children. After the service, Samoan children are waited upon by the adults of their family, served a festive meal, and presented with gifts.


Samoans have a traditional system of healing that plays a very important role in Samoan culture. Traditional Samoan healers use a variety of massage treatments, counseling techniques, and herbal preparations to treat illness. Recent scientific analysis

A Samoan American woman plays the ukulele at a family picnic on Queen's Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
A Samoan American woman plays the ukulele at a family picnic on Queen's Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
of Samoan healing practices show them to have some degree of empirical justification: a large number of plants used by Samoans for medical purposes demonstrate pharmacological activity in the laboratory. The National Cancer Institute, for instance, recently licensed the new anti-HIV compound prostratin, which was discovered in a Samoan plant used by traditional healers.

Samoans believe that there are some illnesses that cannot be cured by Western medicine. These include illnesses of the to'ala, the reputed center of being located beneath the navel, and cases of spiritual possession. Musu , a psychiatric illness of young women characterized by a nearly autistic withdrawal from communication, has been treated successfully in New Zealand by traditional healers. Samoan healers exist and practice, albeit covertly, in most expatriate Samoan communities.

Samoans believe that the major sources of disease are poor diet, poor hygiene, and interpersonal hostility. Since Samoa is a consensus culture with a heavy emphasis on responsibility and family, many believe that an individual who does not support his family, who does not shoulder the responsibilities of village life, and who otherwise does not participate in traditional culture, has a high risk of becoming ill. Linguistic isolation complicates some medical interaction with the older Samoans, but in general Samoans are appreciative of Western medicine and responsive to prescribed courses of medical treatment.

Samoan Americans are particularly susceptible to high rates of diabetes and other illnesses associated with a high-fat diet and decreased patterns of physical activity. As a population, though, Samoans show lower cholesterol levels than would be expected given their diet and patterns of obesity. Coconut oil, which is very rich in saturated fats, plays an important part in the Samoan diet. Many Samoan delicacies such as palusami (young taro leaves with coconut cream) are cooked in coconut cream. Such a diet, combined with sedentary lifestyle, is a key contributor to cardiovascular illness.

American Samoa maintains a fine hospital, the L.B.J. Tropical Medical Center in Fagalu, near Pago Pago. The Western Samoa National Hospital at Moto'otua is a fine facility as well, especially for a developing country. When necessary, difficult cases are referred by L.B.J. and Moto'otua to hospitals in Honolulu and Auckland, respectively.


The Samoan language is an ancient form of Polynesian dialect. It consists of three basic types of language. Common Samoan is the Samoan language of commerce and normal village interactions, while Respect Samoan includes honorific terms used for others of equal or greater rank. The third language type employed by Samoans, Rhetorical Samoan, is a set of proverbial, genealogical, and poetic allusions.

Samoan vowels are pronounced very simply; the French approach to their vowel pronunciation is similar. Consonants are nearly identical to English consonants with two exceptions: the glottal stop indicated by an apostrophe is an unaspirated consonant produced in the bottom of the throat that can best be approximated as the break in the English expression "oh oh." Thus the Samoan word for "thank you,"— fa'afetai —is pronounced "fah-ah-faytie." The Samoan "g" sound is also difficult for some foreigners to master. It is pronounced similarly to the "ng" in "sing along;" the Samoan word for gun— faga —is thus pronounced as "fah-ngah." The "n" sound is pronounced as "ng" by Samoans as well. Finally, in colloquial Samoan, the "k" sound is pronounced instead of the "t;" hence fa'afetai becomes "fa'afekai." Samoans, however, do not like foreigners to use colloquial pronunciation. In Samoan words all syllables are given equal timing with a slight accent placed on the penultimate syllable.

The following are several common Samoan greetings and their English translations: talofa —hello; fa'afetai —thank you; tofa —goodbye; malo —congratulations; lau afioga —your highness (high chief); lau tofa —your highness (orator); lau susuga —sir.


Ceremonial Samoan may be one of the most complex rhetorical forms known on the face of the earth. Eloquent oratory has long been an integral part of the Samoan culture. In the case of a village or district dispute, the victor is often the side represented by the most eloquent orator. Oratorical ability in Samoa is a treasured commodity because it has historically brought its finest practitioners prestige, cultural influence, and material goods.

The importance of rhetoric in Samoa has even been institutionalized in the Samoan system of chiefdoms. In Samoan culture there are two types of chiefs: high chiefs, who function very much as the corporate executive officers of the village; and orators or "talking chiefs" who speak for the village in its dealings with others. Samoan orators are expected to memorize an amazing array of information, including the historical events of Samoa, an exhaustive list of Samoan proverbial expressions, and the genealogies of most of the major families in Samoa. Orators are also expected to be able to speak with power and eloquence in an extemporaneous fashion.

Listening to Samoan oratory at a kava ceremony can be an awe-inspiring experience. Sophisticated allusions to ancient events, nuanced proverbial expressions, and powerful political insights are combined with extensive references to the Bible and the genealogies of those present to produce an exquisitely cerebral poetic work. Samoan oratory is delivered in a cadence and clarity of voice that is clear and ringing. Frequently speeches are yelled out as a sign of respect to visitors. Unfortunately, this oral tradition, the highest of all Samoan arts, is the art form most inaccessible to foreigners. Very little Samoan formal rhetoric has ever been translated into English.

Family and Community Dynamics

Samoans have an expansive view of familial bonds. A Samoan a'iga or family includes all individuals who descend from a common ancestor. Samoan familial ties are complex and highly interwoven, but also very important; all Samoans are expected to support and serve their extended families. Each extended family has one or more chiefs who organize and run the family.

Family pride is a central part of Samoan culture as well. Individuals in Samoan villages fear breaking village rules not only because of any individual consequences but because of the shame it might bring

These Samoan American men are gathered at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Oahu, Hawaii.
These Samoan American men are gathered at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Oahu, Hawaii.
to their family. In cases of serious transgression, the entire family may be penalized by the village council. In extreme cases the transgressor's chief may be stripped of his title and the family disinherited from the land. The fear of shaming one's extended family thus serves as a potent deterrent in the culture. This philosophy extends not only to transgressors but also to victims. An offense committed against anyone, particularly elderly individuals—who are revered in Samoan society—or young women, may be seen as an offense to the victim's entire family. In contrast to western philosophies that laud individualism, Samoan culture emphasizes the importance of family ties and responsibility.

In Samoan culture, serious offenses may be redeemed by an ifoga (a lowering). This is a ceremony that reflects deep contrition on the part of the perpetrator. In an ifoga, all of a transgressor's extended family and village will gather before dawn in front of the residence of the offended or injured party. There they will sit covered by fine mats as the sun rises. They remain in that position until forgiven and invited into the house. They then present fine mats, pigs, and cash as evidence of their contrition. There is no Western equivalent to an ifoga, but performance of an ifoga in western Samoa, even for a serious crime, will often result in waiver or dramatic reduction of the criminal penalties that would have otherwise been assessed.

The Samoan concept of family has profound economic consequences. All Samoans are expected to provide financial support for their families. Many expatriate Samoans routinely send a large portion of their earnings back to their relatives in Samoa. Such foreign remittances constitute a significant portion of the income of Western Samoa. Although such remittances are a godsend for the relatively weak economy of Western Samoa, there is concern that the third generation of expatriate Samoans may become so assimilated into western cultures that this practice will not survive.


While older Samoans enjoy the regard in which they are held, younger members of the culture grapple with the complicated process of courtship. In remote villages dating is frowned upon. The culturally acceptable way for young men and young women to meet each other is for the young man to bring presents and food to the young woman's family and to court his intended in the presence of the woman's family. In traditional villages, even slight deviation from this pattern may place the young man at some risk of physical harm from the young woman's brothers.

Romantic affairs are, of course, difficult to transact. Typically an intermediary called a soa (go-between) is used to communicate the amorous intentions of a young man to the soa of the young woman. If romantic interest is reciprocated, young men and young women will visit surreptitiously at night under the cover of darkness. Such liaisons, however, are fraught with danger should the young woman's brothers discover them. Brothers in traditional Samoan culture consider it their familial duty to aggressively screen out unwarranted suitors or inappropriate attempts to court their sister without parental supervision.

Physical contact between the sexes, including kissing and hand holding, is considered to be in poor taste in public. Even married couples avoid physical contact in public. These traditional practices, however, have changed as Samoan culture has become more westernized. In Pago Pago and Apia, boys and girls date, attend dances, take in films, and socialize in most of the ways common to Western countries. However, any offense to a young woman, including swearing, is still taken as a deep offense by a young woman's brothers and may result in violence.


Marriage has become more common since the advent of Christianity, but in Samoa many people live together and even raise children without the benefit of marriage. This custom, called nofo fa'apouliuli , sometimes functions as a sort of trial marriage in which a Samoan tests the relationship before settling on a single partner.

Illegitimacy does not have the same negative connotations in Samoan culture that it does in other cultures. Children are warmly welcomed into a family and are frequently raised by grandparents or other relatives as their own offspring. In general, children within the Samoan family have a great deal of mobility. It is not uncommon in Samoa for children to be raised by people other than their biological parents. In many cases children are raised by members of extended family or even friends. All children are, regardless of their genetic relationship to the husband and wife in the family, treated equally and expected to assist with family chores.

Until approximately age seven boys and girls are reared in nearly identical fashion in Samoan culture. But girls from eight to ten years old are expected to play major roles in caring for other infant children. It is not uncommon in Samoan villages to see eight or nine-year-old girls packing a six-month-old baby on their hip. Once boys and girls approach puberty deep cultural taboos take effect that preclude their continued close association. Past puberty, brothers and sisters are not allowed to be alone in each other's presence.


In Samoa infant children and their mothers occupy special status. New mothers are usually presented with vaisalo, a rich drink made of grated coconut, coconut milk, manihot, and the grated flesh of the vi apple. On occasion fine mats may also be presented to the mother.

A Samoan wedding typically involves feasting, dancing, and much merriment. Weddings are generally held in accordance with local customs or ecclesiastical protocols, followed by a large reception for the bride and groom.

Conveyance of a chiefly title is another noteworthy cultural event in Samoa. Typically the family of the chief-to-be will prepare kegs of corned beef, fine mats, money, and other items with which to "pay" the village granting the title. Visitors to the ceremony are also hosted in extravagant fashion. Extended and sophisticated rhetoric is exchanged by orators representing the various families in attendance and includes analysis of the genealogical provenance of the title. In some villages the candidate for the chief position is wrapped in a fine mat tied with a bow; he becomes a chief when the bow is untied. Many times paper currency is placed in an ornamental fashion in the chief's headdress. All chief ceremonies, however, regardless of village, culminate in the kava ceremony wherein the candidate drinks kava for the first time as the new chief. Invitation to attend a chief investiture ceremony or saufa'i is a signal honor, one rarely granted to foreigners.

Conveyance of a chiefly title is far more than an honorific. Individuals in the group immediately adopt the chief's title as their own first name. All people in the village, other than the immediate family, refer to the new chief by the new title. Furthermore, in traditional Samoan culture all the dependents of the new chief use the chief's title as their new last name.

Once established, the new chief is expected to attend village councils, act with a sense of decorum and dignity, support village activities via manual labor and cash donations, and behave with the interests of his family and village foremost in his mind. As a member of the village chief council, the new chief will participate in decisions reached in consensus with the other chiefs. Some chieftains in Samoa also have special titles such as Malietoa, Tamasese, Tupuola, or Salamasina. These titles have national significance. Individuals bearing such titles should be treated as the equivalent of European monarchs.

The conveyance of chief's titles has become a difficult business for expatriate Samoans since in traditional Samoan culture all chief's titles are tied to an identifiable piece of land in Samoa. Expatriate Samoans seeking titles usually must return to Samoa for the ceremonies. In New Zealand some chief investiture ceremonies have been held. However, titles so conferred outside of Samoa are controversial within Samoa. Infrequently, diplomats, aid workers, and other foreign visitors are granted honorific titles that have no validity in terms of Samoan land relationships and are not recognized by the Lands and Title Court. Exceptions to this arrangement are rare but do occur. Although nearly all chiefs are men, several women hold chiefly titles, and in at least one case a village conferred a valid title, registered with and recognized by the Land and Titles Court, on a Samoan-speaking foreigner.

Samoan funerals include important demonstrations of high Samoan culture. In a funeral the extended family of the bereaved prepares money, fine mats, kegs of corned beef, pigs, and case goods to present to visitors at the funeral. Visitors attend with a single palm leaf held aloft in front of them. On arrival at the home of the bereaved, the orator representing the visitors stands outside the hut, addresses the dead person with an honorific string of titles, and then speaks to everyone present. After the speech the visitors are invited to sit and wait as other visitors trickle in. The funeral concludes with an orator who acts as a representative for the bereaved family. The orator speaks before distributing gifts to the visitors.

At funerals and chief investiture ceremonies a great deal of cash and a large number of fine mats—which may take up to six months to complete—exchange hands. In some instances, more than 2,000 fine mats and as much as $20,000 may be redistributed.


The Samoan culture is very hospitable to foreigners. Usual expectations of strict formal behavior and rigorous rhetoric are suspended for visitors. Knowledge of a few simple courtesies, however, will help ensure goodwill in such settings. When entering a Samoan house or cultural event, it is important to quickly glance to see if other people are wearing shoes. It is usually considered disrespectful to walk across a mat in a Samoan house with shoes on. Shoes can be removed and left at the door. When walking in front of anybody one should bend low and say Tulou ("too-low").

When entering a room or assembly of Samoans in a cultural setting it is considered good manners to walk around the room and shake each person's hand, smiling and looking them in the eyes. Talofa ("tah-low-fah") is the greeting. After greeting everyone present, the visitor should sit where directed. It is considered rude in Samoan culture to stand while addressing someone who is sitting.

It is important to accept whatever hospitality is offered by Samoans. Hence, if everyone is seated on a mat on the floor but the visitor is offered a chair, the visitor should sit on the chair. If seated on the floor a visitor should cross his legs and avoid pointing his feet at anyone. If this position becomes uncomfortable the visitor can place a mat over his extended legs.

The presentation of kava is considered to be the highest symbol of respect that can be granted to a visitor. If presented with a cup of kava, one may drip a few drops on the ground (symbolic of returning goodness to the earth) and say Ia manuia ("eeah mahn-wee-ah"), which means "let there be blessings." At that point one can either drink from the cup or return it to the server.

The acceptance of gifts is important in Samoa. No gift offered by a Samoan should be refused. Such refusal might be considered an indication of displeasure with the person presenting the gift. The most common gifts are those of food or mats. Gifts are frequently given as an indication of the status or prestige of both the giver and the receiver. Gifts are given without expectation of reciprocation. During dancing or other fundraising activities, however, cash donations are usually welcomed. It is also considered good manners to publicly offer a significant cash payment to an orator who has given a speech of welcome or greeting.

Samoan culture also features several rules of etiquette concerning food. Never eat in front of a Samoan without offering to share your food. When served by others, it is important to show due respect to the food. While the meal does not have to be eaten in its entirety, the food itself should be handled and treated with respect, since it represents the finest that the hosts can provide.

Display of negative emotions, particularly irritation, anger, or other hostility, is considered to be in very bad taste and a sign of weakness. Samoans treat each other with extraordinary politeness even under difficult circumstances. One who exercises decorum even under stressful circumstances receives high marks in Samoan culture.


Samoans value education very highly. For a developing country Western Samoa has an astonishingly high rate of literacy—approximately 98 percent. In traditional villages education is first received at a minister's school, where children are taught to read. Later they attend elementary and secondary schools. The emphasis in Samoan education is largely on rote memorization.

Differences in educational philosophy can be found from island to island, however. Western Samoan students, for instance, pursue an education that in many ways resembles the system taught in New Zealand, while children in American Samoa receive an education that resembles, in many respects, the curriculum taught on the American mainland. In Western Samoa the best schools are frequently operated by churches. Some of the Catholic schools are particularly prestigious.

Although there is a community college in American Samoa and two university campuses in Western Samoa, many Samoans pursue higher education either in New Zealand or the United States. Many Samoan Americans major in education, law, or other social sciences.


In Samoa religion plays a huge role that remarkably has been ignored by many anthropologists studying Samoan culture. The Samoan culture is a pious one. Most families in Samoa conduct a nightly lotu or vespers service in which the family gathers together, reads from the Bible, and offers prayers. Prayers are offered at every meal. Church attendance in Samoa is almost universal; the major denominations on the islands are Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, and Mormon. Ministers of religion occupy a status in Samoa tantamount to that occupied by high chiefs and are granted extraordinary deference.

Religion in the Samoan setting, however, has a unique Polynesian twist. Most Samoan Americans prefer to organize and participate in Samoan-speaking congregations, with some accommodation made for their non-Samoan speaking offspring. Singing in a Samoan congregation is enthusiastic and beautiful. The Samoan Bible, which was translated directly from Greek, is quoted extensively in most Samoan services. By and large, Samoans are far more familiar with Bible scripture than their Western counterparts.

Politics and Government

Since American Samoans do not vote in national elections and the region has been administered in a fairly bipartisan manner by the Department of Interior, it is difficult to assess Samoan American political leanings. Hawaii, which has been traditionally a strong bastion for the Democratic party, is home to many Samoans, but many Samoan Americans live in the staunchly Republican areas of Orange County, California, and Utah as well. Given their relatively small numbers, however, it is unlikely that any unified voting behavior on their part would have more than local political significance.

Minimum wage laws are a constant concern to those who live on American Samoa. The islands received a waiver from obeying the minimum wage law due to the havoc that implementation would likely create for the tuna canneries in American Samoa. In 1997 the waiver was replaced by a board which will use industry standards and fairness to set the minimum wage in American Samoa. Union involvement appears to be fairly minimal among Samoan workers.

Western Samoa has a lively political climate, with much jousting and intrigue between the different political parties. There continues to be, in some circles, discussion of a possible unification of the two Samoan regions into a single independent country. Few American Samoans appear to be in favor of this idea. Their resistance to Samoan unification is driven not only by the tremendous economic disparity between American Samoa and Western Samoa, but also because of different cultural trajectories. Thus, while there are significant cultural and linguistic similarities between Western and American Samoa, unification seems unlikely. Instead, many Western Samoans seek to immigrate to American Samoa. Some have even joined the U.S. armed forces.

Individual and Group Contributions

The following individuals have made significant contributions to American society. Frank Falaniko, Jr. (1956– ) is a landscape construction engineer and president of Green City, Inc.; Eni Faauaa Hunkin Faleomavaega, Jr. (1943– ) is a government official; Al Noga (1965– ) played professional football with the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins; and Mavis Rivers (c. 1929-1992) was a jazz vocalist who joined her father's band during World War II and sang with the Red Norvo combo, George Shearing, and Andre Previn.


American Samoa maintains a television station that produces local programming under the direction of the territorial government. Three channels are broadcast throughout American Samoa. These carry American network programming in the evening and locally-produced educational programming in the daytime. Western Samoa has recently begun a television production facility as well.

Both American and Western Samoa operate several radio stations. In Western Samoa 2AP is the national radio station and the major means of communication with individuals in remote villages. Every evening messages reporting deaths, births, conferences, or other family news are aired on 2AP as a way of informing people who have no other ready access to information on developments and events on the islands. Samoan-language radio programs are also broadcast by radio stations in Auckland, Honolulu, and Salt Lake City.


Samoa News.

Address: P.O. Box 909, Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799.


Online: .

Organizations and Associations

Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC).

Presents, preserves, and perpetuates the arts, crafts, culture, and lore of Fijian, Hawaiian, Maori, Marquesan, Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, and other Polynesian peoples.

Address: 55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, Hawaii 96762.

Telephone: (808) 293-3333.

Online: .

Museums and Research Centers

Major libraries on Samoa are the O. F. Nelson Memorial Library in Apia, the Oliveti Library in Pago Pago, the Turnbull Library in Wellington, and the Bernice P. Bishop Library in Honolulu. Major museum collections of Samoan items can be found at the Dominion Museum in Auckland, New Zealand, the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the Lowie Museum in Berkeley, and the Ethnological Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Sources for Additional Study

Baker, P. T., J. M. Hanna, and T. S. Baker. The Changing Samoans: Behavior and Health in Transition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Cox, P. A., and S. A. Banack. Islands, Plants and Polynesians: An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany. Portland: Dioscorides Press, 1991.

Davidson, J. M. "Samoa and Tonga," in The Prehistory of Polynesia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Fox, J. W., and K. B. Cumberland. Western Samoa. Christchurch, New Zealand: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1962.

Freeman, D., and Margaret Mead Samoa: The Making and the Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Kennedy, P. M. The Samoan Tangle: A Study in Anglo-German-American Relations. Dublin: Irish University Press, 1974.

User Contributions:

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Jun 29, 2006 @ 10:10 am
i find this topic on Samoa very informative and interesting at the same time.It has given me valuable materials for my reseach assignment.many thanx.
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Mar 30, 2007 @ 10:10 am
Talofa!! also samoan would be nice if we could get together
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May 28, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

Thank you for this informative article on my beautiful and unforgettable island home. It has rekindled my much beloved culture and customs that I value to being a true blue Samoan.
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May 30, 2007 @ 6:06 am
Thank you for this informative and interesting article which has given me priceless information with new insight for my research assignment. Once again, Many Thanks.
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Aug 9, 2007 @ 3:15 pm
Thank you for this article! I am only half Samoan and was raised in America and unfortunetly do not know much about the culture. I found this article to be very imformative and helpful as I am trying to learn more about where my family comes from. Fa'afetai
Aloma Soloai
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Sep 13, 2007 @ 9:21 pm
Its great to know more about Samoa especially me as a young Samoan that is still learning and trying to hold on to the ways and the preactices of the Samoan culture and the has somehow expanded my horizon concerning my island heritage!!
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Sep 28, 2007 @ 10:10 am
Thank you for the informative elements pertaining to my heritage. I am Americanized by being 1/2 Samoan. I have learned some things growing up with a Samoan mother. Interesting enough, I did not realize the significance of some of the rituals I participated in throughout my life. This article shed some light onto this and I have a better appreciation for it. I can respect the culture even though it was not pressed upon me growing up.Thanks.
sajid shaikh
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Nov 8, 2007 @ 4:04 am
hi there, i would be happy if U can help me find a friend risiding in western samoa. can U tell me how can i get her phone no.or Email Id though ia am having her address but i want to talk to her as letters are not enough as i got no response of any since i reside in india and i am not sure she might be getting any letter we were very good friends but since she left india i have no contact with her.
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Apr 21, 2008 @ 11:23 pm
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May 6, 2008 @ 8:20 pm
this site and the information it provides is really informative, especially that i am a samoan and i just found out most of the things i have not learn or have leant but kept it to myself as i thought this was my own belief, but thanks to the site i have understood alot now. and i am from the independent state of samoa not from american samoa but things are similar, only the names of the country but the culture and how it goes stays the same. thanks again
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Jul 22, 2009 @ 5:05 am
I'm very interested in the samoan culture. Not samoan but do respect the culture and the people like I do to my own race. Wish to marry one as well. Thanks for this lovely and useful informations on samoa.
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Aug 13, 2009 @ 8:08 am
samoans...are of south american descent....with a lot of mixes...afterwards.....hawaii was actually inhabitted before samoa.n tonga..n samoan came b 4 is said the samoan king....last name tongalia left or was driven out of samoa..some of your facts are incorrect, there is actually a samoan geneology book handed down which states the correct occurances, itz even in the maori history aswell. Alot of history is still remembered just from verbal passings.But there are a few books which belong to the high rankin families still in existence..
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Sep 9, 2009 @ 8:08 am
Samoans cannot possibly be from South America. Firstly, our language is malay in its roots. The Samoan numbers are almost identical to the Malagasi of Madagascar (a Malay people) and even to Malay in Malaysia. If there are any connections to South America or North America--it's the reverse. We Polynesians went to those places. There are chickens of the same DNA found in Fatumafuti, American Samoa and South America.
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Feb 7, 2010 @ 10:10 am
Thank you for the article. I found it very informative and interesting. I was researching samoa for a college paper and your article has given me a lot of information. Thanks again.
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Feb 28, 2010 @ 2:14 pm
I really enjoyed reading this fine article. This is a very important article to me, because my beautiful and wonderful bride is Samoan, and I am American. This fine work does much to remove the veil of confusion and misunderstanding that can come from cultural differences; and, a lack of knowledge. In the light of the things written here, I can see myself "through Samoan eyes" and be able to improve my relationship with my Samoan family. Thank you Mr. Cox for your words, and to you, "Malo Lava"! I am going to copy your article to my P.C. and read it "aso uma" to remind me of those things I should always remember about Samoan life. Thomas John Ferguson (Timu Tele)
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Jul 8, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
I live in Australia and my boyfriend is Samoan. Im nearly 18 and hes 19 and I think his mother disaproves of me. Is it against Samoan culture to date someone younger and/or of different racial background?
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Aug 25, 2010 @ 7:19 pm
Samantha, if the mother does dislike you for those reasons it has nothing to do with Samoan culture. She may have a preference for her son to be with a Samoan girl as sometimes it's easier to relate but once she gets to know you I'm sure she will slowly open up and embrace you as a daughter. I believe it has nothing to do with age or race. If she sees you have respect for yourself, her son and their family then all should be well. Mothers have a special bond with sons and it's never easy letting go. If it doesn't improve then move on, it's not worth it. All the best. Sarah.
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Apr 17, 2011 @ 8:20 pm
Terrific article Paul! Fa'a fe tai tele lava. I am impressed by the accuracy even as I have read your book and know your background with Samoa. Well done!
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Apr 17, 2011 @ 8:20 pm
Terrific article Paul! Fa'a fe tai tele lava. I am impressed by the accuracy even as I have read your book and know your background with Samoa. Well done!

Thank you for this informative article on my beautiful and unforgettable island home. It has reopened my eyes to my beloved culture and customs that I value to being a true blue Samoan. I also thank you for this informative and interesting article which has given me a lots of valuable information with new insight for my research assignment. Once again, Many Thanks or Faafetai tele lava.
Elizabeth T.
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Oct 3, 2011 @ 1:13 pm
Beautiful article! Growing up in California, my mother didn't teach me much about our culture. My grandparents however (RIL), practiced a lot of the Samoan customs at home and taught me how to speak it. I moved with them back to the homeland when I was a little girl and became fluent. After about 3 years, I returned to the states and lost a lot of what was taught. I have such a divine respect for our elders because they ALL remind me of my own grandparents. I wish to regain those teachings and practice them with my own children. Thank you!
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Oct 5, 2011 @ 4:16 pm
Talofa Lava,

I want to foremost say FAAFETAI to you Paul, for this wonderful article. It has been well said and well explained to the world to read. It contains all the important values and standards that we Samoans are proud of. It does not matter if you were born on the island but raised off-island, half samoan, or even dating a samoan; we are all Samoans. We are people from the sun and God has bless us indeed. Samoa are people with love and care to whomever will want to visit. I know that stories of our island had fled to the shores of other islands and countries. For those that don't know Samoa, I would encourage you to visit yourself and see it for yourself then you will understand what we Samoans do and what we are. Once again, I love my island, my culture, my language, my Samoan blood. Thank you again Paul!!!
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Oct 5, 2011 @ 9:21 pm
hai im wan from malaysia and i a malay i seen a lots of similarity between samoan and malay espsecially the skin tone,face and many else even the language example 50 lima fulu samoa and malay lima puluh atcually we all come from same race..and i right..
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Jan 27, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
Such an interesting article which I stumbled on... I have taught many Samoan students in Sydney and found them to be delightful people .. I have always wanted to visit samoa and I am now even more determined. Thanks for the insight about the cultural norms to be aware of .. Always good to know before being a visitor !!
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Feb 7, 2012 @ 11:11 am
this article is written well, and i apperciate every word.
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Feb 18, 2012 @ 5:17 pm
I am doing an assignment on the the way in which personal care would be delivered to a samoan client
I need to consider a range of issues like dress privacy and male / female relationships and whether it would be appropriate for say a female to care for a male client and visa versa
Any help would be appreciated
Naomi Ausage
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Jul 23, 2013 @ 4:16 pm
Talofa! i am doing assignment about scavenger hunt of Samoa. How many athletes of Samoa descent have won gold medals at the Summer Olympics and who are they and what sport did they win their gold medals in?
Any help would be appreciated
Thank you
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Aug 8, 2014 @ 11:23 pm
As a palangi, after spending 4 years in Samoa, Friends Samoan, ex-Wife Samoan and having half Samoan kids,
13 years later it all came to a head and I was left with a deep bitterness and a hatred of all things Samoan.
But after reading your article, confirming what I already knew but I couldn't piece it together after all these years,
It must be time to forgive and forget our sins.
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Sep 4, 2015 @ 10:10 am
I grew up in new Zealand with kiwi samoan friends and I day I hopefully get a rock of my own 1day oh baby the rock is the rock thanks for bit of history
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Feb 17, 2016 @ 2:02 am
I'm so grateful of this article. It really helps with my Samoan paper that I'm working on.
Really looking forward for more of Samoan mysteries.

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