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People and Cultures of Hawai'iThe Evolution of Culture and Ethnicity$

John F. McDermott and Naleen Naupaka Andrade

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780824835804

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824835804.001.0001

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The Samoans

The Samoans

(p.240) Chapter 11 The Samoans
People and Cultures of Hawai'i

John R. Bond

Faapisa M. Soli

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes Samoan life and culture. In addition, the chapter considers the migration process of the Samoans to Hawaiʻi, and examines how they fare in terms of settlement in the Islands. Some of the difficulties experienced by Samoans in Hawaiʻi include a language barrier, lack of adequate training, lack of resources or awareness thereof, and responsibilities to the aiga (a rough analogue to the Western concept of the extended family). The lifestyle back in the Samoan islands in terms of employment, technology, and education does not completely prepare Samoans for life in Hawaiʻi or the United States in terms of the necessary skills and adequate experience required.

Keywords:   Samoa, American Samoa, Samoans, aiga, Samoan life and culture, Samoan Hawaiians, Samoan culture

The Samoan archipelago is comprised of nine main volcanic islands located in the central Pacific about 10 degrees south of the equator. It is situated almost precisely in the center of a vast equilateral triangle that spans much of the South Pacific and stretches across the equator into the north-central Pacific. This Polynesian Triangle is anchored on the southwest corner by New Zealand; its base stretches five thousand miles eastward to Easter Island, and its apex is found approximately an equal distance to the north in Hawai‘i. The first recorded European contact with the Samoan archipelago occurred in 1722, a half century prior to James Cook’s arrival in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. Jacob Roggeveen, captain of a Dutch West India ship, first sighted the easternmost island of Ta‘ū while on a westerly course in the South Pacific.1

During the last several years of the nineteenth century, a decades-long contest between England, Germany, and America for control of Samoa intensified. In the spring of 1889, there were no less than seven warships of these three powers riding at anchor in Āpia Harbour and prepared to support the efforts of their respective governments. However, on the sixteenth of March, just prior to the commencement of open conflict, a severe hurricane destroyed six of the seven ships. This apparently served to cool the pending hostilities and the conflict was moved to Berlin, where the three Western powers agreed upon a treaty.2 In December of 1899, following decades of vying for control of Samoa, a tripartite convention resulted in a political bifurcation of the Samoan islands. England’s primary acquisitions at the Berlin parley were Tonga and the Solomon Islands. Savai‘i and ‘Upolu, the two major islands at (p.241) the western end, came under German control. In the early 1900s, the five smaller islands to the east became an unincorporated trust territory of the United States, and they continue in that status as American Samoa or Amerika Samoa.

Of the American group, the westernmost is also the largest island, Tutuila, and contains the capital, Pago Pago, with one of the largest and safest harbors in the entire South Pacific. Under American trusteeship, American Samoa’s governor was appointed by the U.S. Department of the Navy from 1900 to 1951. In 1956, the secretary of interior appointed the first native Samoan governor, who later became the first elected governor in 1977. In 1979, they also began electing their nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress. Citizens of American Samoa are called U.S. nationals and are treated as any other American regarding travel. They also receive most of the benefits available to U.S. citizens, except the privilege of voting in national elections.

In 1914, at the start of World War I, New Zealand occupied German Samoa, which became Western Samoa, a New Zealand mandate. At the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, Western Samoa’s status changed to that of a New Zealand–United Nations trusteeship. In 1962, Western Samoa gained its independence and was also known as the Independent State of Samoa. Finally, in 1997 the “Western” was dropped and its name is now simply Samoa. It has a parliamentary, democratic form of government that consists of a head of state, prime minister, premier, and cabinet members. Citizens of Samoa require a visa to enter the United States.

Although Samoa and American Samoa have been separated politically for over a century, the kinship ties that have bound them together for a millennium continue the cultural congruity of all Samoans to the present date. The Samoan language is the same among the islands; however, the residents of Samoa notably exhibit a British accent when speaking English as opposed to the American accent possessed by residents of American Samoa. While they are well aware of the differences in their political status, both Samoan entities are more importantly aware of and influenced by their lineage and traditions, irrespective of international borders.

Samoa is roughly five times the size of American Samoa and has a population three times larger. Neither Samoa has had a truly self-sufficient economy during the past century. The early 1950s saw the beginning of large-scale movements of American Samoans to both Hawai‘i and the continental United States, as well as Western Samoans, who (p.242) traveled to New Zealand. Samoa had largely depended upon New Zealand for both financial aid and as a place where its young adults went to seek education and employment. American Samoa, likewise, has been heavily dependent upon the United States for financial support, and many of its youth have come to either Hawai‘i or the U. S. mainland for both schooling and economic opportunities.

The population of American Samoa is currently estimated at 66,000, and Samoa’s at 220,000.3 According to the 2000 U.S. Census, some 130,000 Samoans (full-Samoans and part-Samoans) live in the United States, with Samoans residing in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Samoans are the second-largest Pacific Island group in the United States after Hawaiians. California, Hawai‘i, and Washington report the largest Samoan populations.

In 1925, there were 33 Samoans living in Lā‘ie on O‘ahu. In 1951, about 117 Samoan naval personnel were in Pearl Harbor, and by 1970 there were some 5,733 Samoans in Hawai‘i. The 2000 census indicates that the Samoan population in Hawai‘i is estimated at approximately 16,000, or 28,000 including part-Samoans.4 This number represents less than 3 percent of Hawai‘i’s 1.2 million population total.

Support for American Samoa from the United States has been substantial, to the extent that its per capita income has been approximately three times that in Samoa. In recent years, this disparity has served to create an eastward population movement between the two Samoan island groups and also to increase the number of Samoans from the western islands continuing on to either Hawai‘i or the continental United States. Still, the majority of Samoans in Hawai‘i remain those from American Samoa.

Traditional Samoan Culture: Fa‘a Samoa: The Samoan Way

The Samoan people are Western Polynesians, similar to the natives of Tonga and Tokelau. Although several intriguing theories exist connecting Polynesians to American Indians or Basques, it is generally held that individuals from Southeast Asia are the ancient ancestors of Polynesians. Tonga and Samoa were likely settled first, in about 1300 to 1000 B.C., after which the migration continued. Centuries later and thousands of miles to the east, Easter Island was probably reached by about A.D. 500, and two thousand miles to the north, the Polynesian voyagers likely arrived in Hawai‘i between A.D. 300 and 1000.

Samoans, like all Polynesians, are typically quite tall, with brown (p.243) skin; thick, wavy, black hair; and a scarcity of body hair. The Samoan language is described by Peter Bellwood as one of variations of the Austronesian linguistic family, which spans the Pacific, halfway around the globe.5 It is composed of the five vowels used in English and only twelve consonants—both greatly augmented by a variety of pronunciational devices. Howells comments that the most unique feature of the Samoan language is its use of a special set of what he calls “honorific terms.”6 These comprise a collection of deferential words that are used in place of ordinary ones to show respect to anyone, but they apply especially when one is addressing chiefs, elders, and clergy.

The single most important element in Samoan social organization is the aiga, which is essentially a very broad extrapolation of the Western concept of the extended family. From the moment of birth, every Samoan has roots in the extended families of both father and mother. Each is special and important in determining how an individual relates to all others throughout his or her lifetime.

Historically, the primary geopolitical unit of Samoan society is the village. Each village is comprised of different aiga. Within and parallel to the aiga matrix is the organized designation of the various chiefly ranks and titles—the matai system. Each aiga has its own number of titles, which tradition maintains have all come from God. The village is governed by the fono (village council), comprised of the matai of each aiga. In the fono, most matters are decided by consensus, but important decisions require unanimity. In this and many other ways, the very nature of the social organization hierarchy in Samoa differs significantly from those of a number of other Polynesian groups.

In general, eligibility to a matai or chiefly title is through both service and kinship connections and is conferred by deliberation and consensus within the aiga. The matai who make up the fono vary in status, and the matai with the highest status represents the village in the district fono. The result is a complex, interwoven relationship among the various titles, with their origins often lost in antiquity. Although most of the titles are held by men, females can also hold matai titles.

Within the elaborate matai system, a high chiefly title still carries with it considerable prestige and authority. However, it also bears a host of carefully enumerated duties and responsibilities. The hereditary basis regarding titles is not rigidly adhered to and allows elective progression to occur. The relationship among titles is historically based. There are Samoan chiefs who now call Hawai‘i home but who readily travel back to the Samoan islands when needed. Although there are no “villages” in (p.244) Hawai‘i, its Samoan community continues to respect the matai system, for it is Fa‘a Samoa—the Samoan Way. Typically, the titled members of the village are more mature, reinforcing another important aspect of the Samoan value system—respect for elders. Blessings bestowed by elders are significant and honorable in the aiga. Being respectful is a moral principle that is not only shown toward elders but also to anyone older, which includes an older sibling or acquaintance.

Because of the familiarity, dominance, and sense of belongingness of the aiga in village life, there is a tendency felt by some Samoans to view individuals outside of one’s aiga with caution. But strangers and guests are always welcomed in the home with hospitality. All Samoans have traditionally grown up as an integral part of their aiga, but there have sometimes been conflicts between different families. The relationships between individuals of different aiga are usually influenced, if not directed by, the relationships between their respective aiga. Typically, however, the relationships between various families, particularly those in the same village, are close and amicable, as are those of the individual members of each family. This relationship is important, as it is the foundation of another important component in the Samoan culture—fa‘alavelave.

When there is a funeral, a wedding, or the bestowing of an important title to a certain individual, it means that immediate and extended families are expected to help, either voluntarily or involuntarily. The assistance may be in the form of giving one’s time to help with chores or contributing ie toga (fine mats), food, and especially money. Although this custom is respected, too many fa‘alavelave can also cause severe financial hardship and become a burden to many families, especially when one is the benefactor and not the recipient. Even in Hawai‘i, Samoan families continue with this obligation to their aiga either willingly or unwillingly, not only locally but also in the Samoan islands.

Another important element within the aiga is status, a matter of primary concern in the Samoan social and political systems. One’s status tends to indicate his specific place within the intricate aiga-matai hierarchy, which is critical not only for Samoans living in Samoa but also for those residing in foreign communities. Knowing where one fits into the system provides a sense of identity and comfort, as well as providing guidelines for appropriate interaction with other Samoans. In most cases, paramount chiefs and pastors possess high status. Government officials and those with prominent professional and successful careers are also highly esteemed.

(p.245) In addition to the aiga and matai, virtually all aspects of Samoan culture emphasize the importance of togetherness, group orientation, and deference. While this has undoubtedly been encroached upon by several centuries of contact with the competitiveness and individualism of Western culture, it remains an important value for Samoans. Today, whenever opportunity allows, Samoans living in other lands seem to inherently congregate tightly together, not only because it is economically convenient, but perhaps reflecting their past experiences in Samoa. Samoan hospitality simply does not allow refusing a relative food or shelter. This, however, may run afoul of customs or laws in countries where eight or ten persons living in a single two-bedroom house is not acceptable. In addition to sharing domiciles, Samoans overseas also tend to congregate with their brethren geographically by country, state, or a specific locale within a city. The strong and pervasive influence of the combined aiga-matai system has likely been the reason why, perhaps more than any other cultural group in Hawai‘i, Samoans have maintained very strong kinship ties over a lifetime and across thousands of miles.

Individual Life Cycle

The evolution of the Samoan adult is predicated upon a two-decade-long indoctrination that focuses upon relatively few traditional core values. It is group oriented and directed and produces citizens who are closely tied to both their primary groups and to the Samoan culture. The most significant aspect of the early phases of Samoan childrearing is the paramount importance of the group relative to that of the individual. In this context, the group incorporates the aiga, the village, the matai, and the entirety of the Samoan people and culture. In addition to the emphasis upon deference for the Samoan culture in its entirety, the cultural education of Samoan children has traditionally had three basic goals. One is a comprehension of and respect for the complex aiga social structure. Another is a grasp of the family titles and the matai system in general. The third is a thorough understanding of correct social behavior to avoid bringing any disharmony or shame to the aiga, the matai, or the village. All children learn these basic axioms in order to live their lives Fa‘a Samoa.

Small children are typically placed in the care of older siblings to keep them from harm, to provide for their basic needs, and most importantly, to make sure they do not intrude unduly in adult matters. (p.246) The eldest child is expected to be a role model and provide support for the younger children. Boys are to protect their sisters and assist in laborious tasks. Girls help out with household tasks and caring for the younger siblings. Children are taught to be on their best behavior, for they are a reflection of their parents and the whole aiga. All adolescents growing up in the village have been thoroughly immersed in the traditions and folklore of the culture.

In the village, it is not only the siblings and biological parents but virtually all the adults within the aiga who serve as parental figures with regard to discipline and learning. In contrast to their counterparts in America and Europe, where the first two decades of learning have been largely conducted by two parents and a relatively small coterie of teachers, the overall education of a Samoan child literally “takes a village.” This is still largely the case, even though the past two centuries of increasing contact with the outside world have created the opportunity for church and public schooling and the introduction of a broader Western perspective. These new educational settings afford Samoan youngsters a glimpse of a wider world, but they have not eliminated the still-important triad of educational goals.

Growing up in Hawai‘i, where one is away from the village and no longer surrounded by the extended family, the education of the child is broadly influenced by the American way of life. The clothing fashion styles, language, food, and the media pop culture soon begin to shape a new lifestyle. Although most of the children who move to Hawai‘i at a young age or are born and raised in Hawai‘i do not speak the Samoan language fluently, most of them would understand it. Parents or grandparents typically speak Samoan, and the child responds in English.

As an adult, one is expected not only to take an active part in providing for one’s family but to also assume responsibilities regarding the extended family. The placement of an elderly member of the aiga in a nursing home is unheard of in Samoan families. This sense of duty is in response to the love and care received from both parents and grandparents. In Hawai‘i, Samoan families continue to hold steadfastly to these traditions.

There is little reason to believe that the psyche of individual Samoans, like those of people elsewhere in the world, is devoid of avarice, jealousy, or any of the other negative emotions that can readily lead to anger and hostility. It may be puzzling for the Western observer, aware of the high value placed upon domestic tranquility, to witness the speed with which a Samoan parent or parent surrogate responds to the misbehavior (p.247) of a child with what appears to be harsh physical punishment. While some Samoans, cognizant of Western child abuse laws, may tend to deny or at least minimize this common disciplinary tactic, others are inclined to defend the behavior.

The defense is typically based upon one of two different justifications. Neither varies significantly from the reasons frequently put forth by many Western parents accused of being excessively harsh with their children. The first is that the dramatic castigation in response to inappropriate behavior of a child is necessary to discourage future behavior that may disrupt the serenity of the family or village. A great many Samoans have adopted Christianity, both avidly and literally, and the second justification for corporal punishment is that the physical punishment of a misbehaving child is biblically prescribed. Many Samoans are quick to point out that the disrespect they perceive non-Samoan children showing their parents, teachers, and elders is clearly indicative of the timidity and ineffectiveness of permissive Western parenting techniques. And again, discipline is not only the prerogative of the biological parents in Samoa but of the various surrogate parents as well.

In spite of the harsh punishment of children, it is also true that most of the Samoan cultural values are antithetical to aggression. Fa‘a Samoa stresses that any behavior is unacceptable that is discourteous to elders, brings shame to the aiga or village, disrespects the matai, or dishonors the culture as a whole. Such behavior is rarely perceived as simply an act by one individual against another but rather as a collective transgression involving the families of both parties. It is not that the misbehaving individual fails to be denigrated; he or she is. But it is traditionally the responsibility of both the offender and his or her aiga to make amends and right the wrongs that have been done. Often it is the village matai who will determine what the appropriate atonement will be and will decide when the offense has been appropriately rectified. This tradition continues in Hawai‘i, as leaders of each family or church attempt to resolve any major conflicts that resulted in physical harm or property damage. As the Samoan people become more knowledgeable about the judiciary system and their rights, some are opting to settle disputes in court. However, customarily an apology is rarely rejected, and it is sometimes accompanied by gifts and monetary donations as a token of humility or profound regret of the conflict, depending on the situation.

Compare the typical American childrearing by one or two parents with the traditional Samoan child reared by his entire village. The (p.248) physical discipline is likely to be both swifter and harsher. Generally, Samoans tend to be considerably less verbal with their children than American parents. At the age when the American child is beginning to move into the verbal phase of the process, the Samoan child is still likely embroiled in an extension of the physical. There is little concern about the advantage of being able to control the child from a distance since the number of surrogate parents virtually blankets the child. Even when the child is older, the constant presence of parental figures willing to instruct, direct, or punish obviates or significantly reduces the necessity for the child to internalize the lessons learned.

As the Samoan child matures, an important difference has occurred between the development of his conscience and that of his American contemporary. The American child has developed an internalized, working conscience that is useful in many different circumstances. In contrast, in Samoa, the Samoan child’s reliance upon others for guidance has led to a dependency upon a pragmatic, working conscience. He or she is quite able to function appropriately as a member of his or aiga, village, and culture, and he or she behaves Fa‘a Samoa. Even later, family elders are not only present in the village during an individual’s formative years, but they are still there to encourage appropriate behavior during one’s adult years.

The distinction between the two developmental models, however, is not readily apparent as long as both the Samoan and American remain in their respective cultures. It is when the two individuals move to a different social environment that the difference is often evident. The portability of an internalized conscience makes it invaluable when the American leaves his family or even his culture. This is not the case with the Samoan, for whom the indicators of desirable or undesirable behavior have always come from the environment itself. In a different culture, the new behavioral indicators he perceives may be confusing at best and misleading at worst. The result is that the ease and speed of his successful acculturation may be seriously impaired.

The Role of Religion

European and American missionaries of various denominations were prominent among the early Western settlers of the various Polynesian islands. In the past two centuries since their arrival, they have had a profound impact upon virtually all of these lands. The missionaries have often been characterized as harsh and smothering in their (p.249) criticism and alteration of the heretofore natural, unfettered, and idyllic lifestyle, which the French philosopher Rousseau had idealized in his concept of the “noble savage.” With their often narrow concepts regarding sin and decorum, many of the early missionaries launched sincere efforts to convert the heathen natives into Christians with little thought regarding the centuries of culture they were attempting to change.

Notwithstanding this fact, it is also true that they provided great benefits for the Polynesian people, as Bellwood has observed.7 They constructed written languages where none had existed. They informed the natives of these isolated islands about the world around them and taught entire populations to read both religious and secular works. Samoans shared a belief with other Polynesians that a single paramount god—Tagaloa—was the creator of the earth, multiple heavens, and more specifically for Samoans, the islands of Samoa and its inhabitants. Culbertson et al. suggest that in Samoa the acceptance of Christianity was likely facilitated by an ancient Samoan legend in which the goddess of war, Nafanua, predicted the coming of a new God with far greater powers than all the existing Samoan gods.8 Although the Wesleyans arrived in Samoa from Tonga in 1828, the great impact of Christianity upon Samoa really occurred two years later when the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived. The new religion was accepted by the Samoan people in place of the traditional religion. This relatively rapid displacement appears to have been facilitated by a kind of rationalization in which the Christian God was perceived as an affirmation of the existing Samoan belief in a single Supreme Being. Aiding the missionary cause was the propitious decision by both the LMS and later the Mormon Church to support Fa‘a Samoa by letting church government be handled within the village structure. As a consequence, the Christian faith remains very strong and is widely practiced by Samoans both at home and abroad.

According to Holmes, the Sabbath in a Samoan village offers many insights into secular life in the community.9 After the predawn ringing of the church bell, there is hurried cooking activity, as it must be done prior to sunrise. Sunday clothing, typically white, is donned and the females take special care with their hair. Before eight, families leave their fale (houses) and proceed to the church, where they are seated—women on the left, men on the right. The choir is at the front and there is special seating for important matai and their wives. At the rear are the children’s pews, monitored by one or more village elders with canes used to minimize any disruption by occasional raps on the youngsters’ (p.250) heads. Religious services occur almost continually the entire day, and the exuberance, repetitive rhythm, and robust voices of the faithful are clearly heard everywhere. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier, pre-Christian worship of Tagaloa, which always occurred in silence. The ringing of the bell at four o’clock signals the more casual afternoon service, which is devoid of children; they will attend their own service later.

An interesting contrast with Euro-American services is the formality and very public manner in which offerings are conducted relative to the private, almost surreptitious procedure in Euro-American churches. The difference underlines the importance of both the communality of the village members and also of the emphasis upon giving as a means to achieve or retain status in Samoan society. After the last hymn, the church deacons stand in front of the Communion rail and read the names of all the church families. As each name is read, a member of the family comes forward and places its offering on the table. The amount of the offering is announced aloud by a deacon, who also records it in the record book. As Holmes observes, it is not surprising that the contributions are usually substantial.

Even today, villages enforce the importance of making time to worship God daily by implementing the sa, or curfew. Usually around six or seven in the evening, the aumaga (village police), comprised of selected village men, announces the sa using a shell horn. Everyone is required to go inside their home and use this time to conduct a family prayer, or lotu. In a sense, this time is an enforced “mandatory family time.” During this quiet and peaceful time, one can hear the different hymns sung by each family and witness the earnest prayers offered as everyone sits on the floor in the form of a circle. An hour later the horn is sounded again, which signals the end of the sa. The villagers are allowed to freely roam around, continue with their yardwork, or simply socialize. Finally, around nine or ten at night, another sa is carried out and this is specifically for all the children and youth. They are required to be at home sleeping or doing schoolwork and are not allowed to wander around the village. This measure not only helps the families but also serves as a preventive measure for any possible problematic youth activities.

Traditional Samoan families in Hawai‘i continue to have family lotu in their homes in the evenings. This family lotu time is considered an important element of the Fa‘a Samoa. However, more and more Samoan families no longer make time for this custom, as parents are busy with work and children with extracurricular activities or other such matters. Traditional and religious leaders often refer to the absence of (p.251) this ritual as one of the main reasons why the aiga structure weakens, because families are not spending time in prayer and with each other.

Religion continues to play an important part in the lives of almost all Samoans at home and abroad. It would be difficult today to find a Samoan who identifies himself as either an atheist or an agnostic. Churches are and are likely to remain the hub of Samoan life, both in the home islands and in Samoan communities abroad.

A number of Samoan churches can be seen around Hawai‘i. Their members can be observed wearing the traditional formal wear—the women their puletasi (a two-piece dress) and the men with their buttoned-up shirt including a tie and ie faitaga (wraparound skirt). Those who are part of the choir are usually required to dress in all white. It is important to know that Samoan churches are formed not because they choose to worship separately from other ethnic groups but because they understand the Samoan language best. All worship services are conducted in Samoan, including singing and the sermon, which is preached using the Samoan-translated Bible.

The Samoan churches in Hawai‘i also play a significant role in bringing Samoans together and helping to preserve the Fa‘a Samoa. Different Samoan churches, often of different denominations, get together annually and showcase various talents such as singing, traditional siva (dance), skits, and the opportunity for fellowship with each other. Samoan families in Hawai‘i continue the tradition of having a big toana‘i (feast) after church services. This is usually the favorite time for many and provides another opportunity for the aiga to spend time together.

Samoans in the Western World

In both Samoas, the economy has historically been subsistence agriculture and village based. Work was traditionally delineated along several dimensions: gender, age, and skill level. The growing male child was expected to gradually assume most of the heavy physical work, including fishing, harvesting the fields, preparing food using the umu (underground oven), and for those with the requisite skills, house and canoe building. Young females were trained to make mats and baskets, tend the family garden, and help with a variety of tasks around the fale. As it has in many other parts of the world, the past half century has brought about a clouding of gender roles in Samoan life, with young men and women both seeking higher levels of education and leaving the villages in search of paid employment.

(p.252) Light industry and tourism have gradually begun to find a place in both Samoas. However, copra, fish, bananas, and other foodstuffs generated in the villages scattered around the various islands remain important not only for sustenance but also for the continuation of the Samoan lifestyle. Because of its value as an important food source, the coconut remains an important crop, and almost all parts of the palm tree are employed in a great many ways for food, handicrafts, and construction.

During most of the last century, neither the village life nor the economy of the western islands of Samoa was significantly altered. This was not the case with American Samoa. During and after World War II, the presence of the military, followed by increased funding by America, resulted in a large increase in the U.S. commercial and sociopolitical presence.

Early Europeans visiting the islands frequently commented upon the Samoans’ skill in both sailing and fishing. As a result, they were frequently referred to as the “Navigators of the Pacific.” Perhaps with this in mind, in the mid-1900s the United States attempted to improve the American Samoa economy by building a fish cannery in Pago Pago. The plan was for Samoans to process Samoan-caught tuna. This effort has been only moderately successful.10 With access to other sources of government largess and the ready availability of canned seafood in the stores, many Samoans apparently declined to either work in the cannery or go to sea to provide the fish for it. As a result, vacant jobs both ashore and afloat were filled by Asians, whose presence contributed to varying degrees of racial discord on the main island of Tutuila.

The Second World War also brought about another change to American Samoa, which has probably had the greatest impact of all. A growing number of young Samoan males had a glimpse of the “American Dream” and wished to pursue it. They discovered that although they lacked the sufficient skills to enter the U.S. marketplace directly, there was a way to do it tangentially through the American military. So many American Samoans enlisted in the U.S. armed services during the 1950s and 1960s that within a short time it appeared there were as many Samoans living overseas as there were in American Samoa. Even today, Samoans have a strong military tradition as they willingly and loyally continue to serve the United States. American Samoa has one of the highest military recruitment per capita rates of all the states and territories. The opportunities and benefits offered by the military are enticing, especially in contrast to the few employment options in (p.253) American Samoa. The economy at home benefited from the receipt of allotment checks, and it was not very long before a generation of more affluent and worldly Samoan veterans began to leave the military and settle down in places such as Long Beach in Southern California and Honolulu. In recent years, these Samoan communities often come together to bid farewell to the sons and daughters preparing for deployment to the Middle East. Unfortunately, they have also come together all too frequently to mourn the death of their fellow Samoans killed in battle. American Samoa regrettably has the highest per capita fatalities in the Iraq war.11

The shift from the Samoan lifestyle to a westernized one has apparently produced negative health effects in the Samoan community. Samoans are generally felt to be among the most obese ethnic groups in the world. A greater percentage of Samoans living in Hawai‘i are statistically overweight relative to Samoans living in either American Samoa or Samoa. This problem leads to an increased number of Samoans with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. In a recent study that compared the mortality age of the different ethnic groups in Hawai‘i, it was found that Samoans had the shortest life expectancy.12 This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lifestyle, socioeconomic status, perception of Western medicine, and lack of health care coverage.

New Ethnocultural Identity

An important element to be considered in the migration process of Samoans is the concern that the longer and farther away they move, the higher the possibility of letting go and losing some important aspects of their culture. The acculturative stress experienced by Samoans has not been fully studied, nor how much it impacts their settlement in Hawai‘i. Some of the difficulties experienced by Samoans in Hawai‘i include a language barrier, lack of adequate training, lack of resources or awareness thereof, and responsibilities to the aiga. The lifestyle back in the Samoan islands in terms of employment, technology, and education does not completely prepare Samoans for life in Hawai‘i or the United States in terms of the necessary skills and adequate experience required. Although most Samoans are bilingual, English is a second language and the older generation is usually not fluent in it. This creates the problem of the younger generation having difficulties coping with both the Samoan traditional way of things and the local culture in Hawai‘i.

In an effort to complement and update the data available for this (p.254) chapter, twenty-one interviews were conducted, either individually or in small focus groups. All of the interviewees were Samoan and were born in Samoa, American Samoa, or Hawai‘i. Males and females were almost equally represented, and their ages ranged from late teens to the late fifties. All are currently residents of Hawai‘i and have been here for periods of time varying from a few to over forty years, some since birth. All volunteered to both respond to questions and share their own thoughts and impressions.

They were asked about their prior lives in the Samoan islands, their move to Hawai‘i, and their lives in their new home. The group was virtually unanimous in acknowledging the value of their continuing ties with their aiga, their church, and to a lesser degree, their matai. In a variety of ways, they also were very clear regarding the importance to them of their generalized Samoan traditions. Only the younger ones in their teens or twenties, whose residence in Hawai‘i has been relatively brief, appeared to be comfortable regarding the possibility that a gradual acculturation into the core culture of Hawai‘i could result in an erosion of some of their Samoan heritage. Almost all of the older respondents in their thirties to fifties, along with one in her late twenties, made it clear that, although there was much they liked about their lives in Hawai‘i, they had no real intention of becoming a permanent part of the polyglot group they perceived as the core of Hawaiian culture.

An interesting constant in the responses of young and old alike was their dislike of the absence or laxity of authority in all phases of life in Hawai‘i. They offered numerous examples to support their feelings, including childrearing, school behavior, religion, sexuality, and the attitude and behavior toward elders.

Almost all of the respondents reported being aware that in Hawai‘i there exists a generally negative attitude regarding Samoans, although none of them felt they had suffered personally from it. They knew that Samoans have a reputation in the state of being tough, aggressive, and larcenous and members of organized crime. One also remarked that even vocationally, Samoans were stereotyped as always being in positions such as security guards and nightclub bouncers. This brought about a lively discussion, as some group members said that this wasn’t just stereotyping—it was factual. The issue was ameliorated when all agreed that in years past, most Samoans new to Hawai‘i had gravitated to either menial labor jobs or ones that were security related, but that now, many more were seeking higher education and the social, economic, and class privileges that result from it.

(p.255) The respondents were almost evenly split regarding the appropriateness of the local anti-Samoan prejudice. Slightly more than half of one group indicated that they believed the negative bias was the result of the “bad” non-Samoan conduct of a very small minority of Samoan males. This subgroup felt that most of these antisocial Samoans had unfortunately distanced themselves from their family, their church, their leaders, and their cultural ties and had subsequently lost their moral compass. They implied that had these delinquents been encompassed by the “village,” they would not have acted criminally or aggressively.

The remainder of the group responding to this issue tended to be defensive. Although they acknowledged personally knowing some Samoans who have behaved badly, they intimated that Samoans were probably no more deserving of this sobriquet than any other racial or cultural group. When asked why they felt Samoans in particular had garnered this unwanted reputation, some attributed it to the intimidating size of many Samoan males or once again to the lure of the unfettered and morally lax lifestyle in Hawai‘i, without recognizing that the same enticements would be present for all acculturating groups.

Overall, it seems fair to say that growing up in a traditional village in Samoa is probably not a very effective preparation for life in urban Hawai‘i. It is certainly not uncommon for any new group of immigrants to acquire negative or less than savory stereotypes. The discussants suggested indirectly that at least part of the reason may be because a significant number of Samoans living in Hawai‘i are essentially lukewarm at best regarding their desire to “blend in” with Hawai‘i’s core culture. This impression did not stem from direct statements on the topic by the Samoan respondents but rather from their personal answers to several related questions. Even those who have lived here for a decade or two and who felt generally positive about their lives in Hawai‘i appeared reticent about becoming part of the Hawaiian mix. As noted earlier, this feeling seems to reflect the concern that identifying with the core Hawai‘i culture would require relinquishing some of their Samoan identity. In their answers to a multiple-choice question, all of those interviewed, including three who had moved to Hawai‘i thirty or more years ago, perceived themselves as “Samoans in Hawai‘i”—not “Hawaiians” or even “Samoan Hawaiians.” Even those who have lived in Hawai‘i for three or four decades reported a continuing strong affiliation with their aiga, their Samoan identity, and to a lesser extent, their matai.

(p.256) The interviewees were also asked about intermarriage. Three of them had non-Samoan spouses and responded that in Hawai‘i, there is a lot of intermarriage of Samoans with Hawaiians or part-Hawaiians. They commented that this is not surprising since the cultures and traditions are similar in so many ways. Others also noted that a majority of Samoans, even in Hawai‘i, do not intermarry but wed other Samoans. However, the marriage of a Samoan to someone of a different ethnicity is not uncommon, and it is not dishonorable to the Fa‘a Samoa.

There was a general consensus that the problems of Samoan youth in Hawai‘i today are because they are out of touch with traditional cultural values. In an effort to help increase Samoan cultural awareness and to preserve their culture, various Samoan organizations, with help from the City and County of Honolulu, instigated a weeklong celebration of the Samoan Flag Day in Hawai‘i. This observance reflects the celebration held annually in American Samoa to commemorate its becoming a U.S. territory. A large number of participants travel from both Samoas to join Samoans from the mainland during this celebration. Throughout the week, there are performances of cultural songs and dances, and traditional food and apparel is sold to the public. The event is celebrated each year to uphold the spirit of unity among the Samoan people and promote cultural awareness.

There are also a number of other positive aspects relating to Samoan immigration to Hawai‘i. One is the broad base of countrymen already present who can provide support and guidance for the newcomers. For Samoan children, improvements in the educational system in Samoa have served to lessen the stress of entering Hawai‘i’s school system. The continuing shift in Samoa from the agricultural, communal life of the village to a cash economy has also helped adults enter the Hawai‘i job market. In addition, more than a half century of TV and other media exposure to Euro-American ways has minimized the shock of the transition, which to some extent should also be reduced by the fact that, imbedded within the trappings of life in modern Hawai‘i, evidence of its common Polynesian origins is ubiquitous.

Finally, there are the individual Samoan successes in Hawai‘i. These have been prominent in a number of endeavors, including sports and the successes of local Samoans in high school, college, and professional football; the entertainment world; academia, with an increasing number of Samoans receiving advanced degrees in a variety of fields; and in the attainment of professional status, where Samoans have succeeded in the fields of medicine and law. More recently, Samoans (p.257) have had good cause to be elated and inspired by the election of a part-Samoan as the mayor of Honolulu.

Summary and Conclusions

In retrospect, if there is any single aspect regarding Samoan culture that sets it apart from other Pacific Island groups, it is likely the manner in which Samoans have dealt with the aftermath of European contact. The Samoans dealt with Western discovery and intrusion in a different manner. Although they were not immune to internecine conflict, the strong family ties that stretched across the various islands of the archipelago had created a relatively peaceful atmosphere prior to the arrival of the first Europeans. The extensive aiga network was tightly interwoven. The matai filigree that permeated all the islands of the archipelago also served to unify Samoans to a degree that was relatively unique among the island realms of nineteenth-century Polynesia.

The resulting cohesiveness allowed the Samoan people, exposed to unfamiliar Euro-American customs, language, values, and religions, to accommodate to them without losing or doing irreparable damage to their own hereditary customs, language, values, and religion. They accomplished this largely by absorbing selected portions of the foreign inputs in a way that resulted in their being amalgamated into the traditional Samoan way of life. Fa‘a Samoa was modified but without doing it irreparable harm, and this actually served to strengthen its value as a critical part of the cultural cement.

The result was the avoidance of a dramatic internal schism and strong internal conflicts of the kind that occurred elsewhere in Polynesia. In Samoa, the new ways were sometimes ignored, while in other instances they were adopted intact; more often, however, they were subtly woven into the traditional Samoan customs or language. A quaint example of the latter came about because pea soup was apparently one of the early and more common imports of canned goods shipped to Samoa. Over the years a linguistic displacement has somehow occurred, so that today in Pago Pago, if you wish to purchase a can of corned beef, you simply ask for pisupo—a preferred choice of food for Samoans even in Hawai‘i and abroad.

Because of the strength, depth, and tenacity of Fa‘a Samoa, the Samoan people have managed to retain much of what existed in precontact days. The consequences of this cohesive, group-focused, cultural durability for Samoans who emigrate to other lands such as Hawai‘i (p.258) seems to be severalfold. By its very nature, Fa‘a Samoa serves to encourage cultural cohesiveness, wariness of outsiders, and the insulation of Samoans living abroad. These all likely serve to retard acculturation into a host culture. In addition, Samoans have traditionally been raised in an extended family environment in which literally dozens of parental surrogates are always nearby to quash or punish asocial behavior. This reduces the need for an individual sense of right and wrong. As a result, when they emigrate, some Samoans may have more than the normal degree of difficulty adapting to the rules and laws in a society that presumes that its citizens have evolved some form of personal, internalized conscience.

It has been almost sixty years since the major migration of Samoans to Hawai‘i occurred. This Pacific population may be understudied in some areas because much of the research lumps Samoans in a “Pacific Islanders” or “Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders” category. Disaggregated research shows that the Samoan adolescents in Hawai‘i have high rates of actual arrests, incarceration, and gang involvement and are at increased risk for self-reported youth violence.13 The Samoan community and its leaders are concerned and are taking action by coming together to help its youth. It is generally believed that an important part of the solution involves reminding Samoan juveniles of their cultural values and the Fa‘a Samoa. This illustrates an important point regarding the education of Samoans. In most instances, the prioritization of the Fa‘a Samoa and responsibilities to the aiga can actually become a challenge to a youth. For example, a child with a lot of homework would most likely have to help out with household chores upon arriving home by cleaning up or preparing dinner or both, help watch the younger siblings and care for any elderly family members, attend church youth practice, and then finally have time to study and do schoolwork. Many community leaders conclude that noninvolvement in the Samoan culture is one of the primary reasons why Samoan youths encounter problems. However, as one interviewee pointed out, Samoan juveniles know very well about their culture, but the problem is rather the lack of a good education or stressing the importance of obtaining a higher education as a means of improving the quality of life and an opportunity to better provide for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.

Any acculturational reticence noted earlier does not appear to be due to a pervasive dislike of Hawaiian or Western culture. It is more likely because as a people, Samoans differ in several important ways from most of the other groups who have emigrated to Hawai‘i. As a relatively small, homogeneous, and isolated group, Samoans have been (p.259) able to sustain a more unified sense of their own history, identity, spiritual beliefs, and culture. This has continued to unify the entire Samoan archipelago even after over a century of political bifurcation. Until now this has allowed Samoans to essentially cherry-pick those aspects of the Western world that they choose to incorporate into their own culture rather than the converse. Samoans have modified their dress, their eating habits, their economics, and even their religion as a result of Western contact. They have been far more resistant, however, in allowing any significant changes to the pillars of their traditional Samoan society.

It is important to note that any family, community, or governmentrelated decisions made in the Samoan islands often inadvertently have an effect on a large number of Samoans overseas. Fa‘a Samoa provides Samoans with an ancient unifying code and a solid sense of kinship both at home and abroad. Even in a foreign land, no Samoan is alone if another Samoan is nearby. As their world is becoming increasingly westernized, Samoans too will likely relinquish some of the cultural identity they have so steadfastly maintained for centuries.

As this process takes place, like other groups before them, they may finally begin to think of themselves not as “Samoans in Hawai‘i” or “Samoans in California” but rather as “Samoan Hawaiians” or simply “Hawaiians”—but they will very likely be among the last to do so.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

“American Samoa Government.” Official Web site: http://americansamoa.gov/, 2009.

Bellwood, P. The Polynesians: Prehistory of an Island People. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Culbertson, P., M. N. Agee, and C. O. Makasiale. Penina Uliuli: Contemporary Challenges in Mental Health for Pacific Peoples. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

Gao, G., and P. Perrone. Crime in Hawai‘i 2005: A Review of Uniform Crime Reports. Honolulu: Office of the Attorney General, State of Hawai‘i, 2007.

“Government of Samoa.” Official Web site: http://www.govt.ws/, 2009.

Gray, J. A. C. Amerika Samoa: A History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1960.

Holmes, L. D. Samoan Village. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

Howells, W. W. The Pacific Islanders. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

(p.260) MacDonald, J. M. “The effect of ethnicity on juvenile court decision making in Hawai‘i.” Youth Society 35(2) (2003): 243–263.

Mayeda, D. T., E. S. Hishinuma, S. T. Nishimura, O. Garcia-Santiago, and G. Y. Mark. “Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center: Interpersonal violence and deviant behaviors among youth in Hawai‘i.” Journal of Adolescent Health 39 (2006): 276.e1–276.e11.

Mayeda, D. T., L. Pasko, and M. Chesney-Lind. “You got to do so much to actually make it: Gender, ethnicity, and Samoan youth in Hawai‘i.” AAPI Nexus 4(2) (2006): 69–93.

Ngan-Woo, F. E. Fa’asamoa: The World of Samoans. New Zealand: Office of the Race Relations Conciliator, 1985.


(1.) J. A. C. Gray, Amerika Samoa: A History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration, Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1960: 3–4.

(2.) Ibid.: 80–102.

(3.) CIA World Fact Book, “American Samoa,” retrieved May 29, 2009, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/aq.html.

(4.) P. M. Harris and N. A. Jones, “We the people: Pacific Islanders in the United States,” United States Census 2000 Special Reports, 2005, retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/censr-26.pdf.

(5.) P. Bellwood, The Polynesians: Prehistory of an Island People, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

(6.) W. W. Howells, The Pacific Islanders, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

(7.) Bellwood 1978.

(8.) P. Culbertson, M. N. Agee, and C. O. Makasiale, Penina Uliuli: Contemporary Challenges in Mental Health for Pacific Peoples, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

(9.) L. D. Holmes, Samoan Village, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

(10.) Gray 1960.

(11.) E. Faleomavaega, “American Samoa death rate in Iraq War is highest among all states and U.S. territories,” U.S. Congress [Press Release, March 23, 2009] retrieved from http://www.house.gov/list/press/as00_faleomavaega/asdeathratehighestamongstates.html.

(12.) C. B. Park, K. L. Braun, B. Y. Horiuchi, C. Tottori, and A. T. Onaka, “Longevity disparities in multiethnic Hawai‘i: An analysis of 2000 life tables,” Public Health Reports 124(4) (2009): 579–584.

(13.) G. Gao and P. Perrone, Crime in Hawai‘i 2005: A Review of Uniform (p.261) Crime Reports, Honolulu: Office of the Attorney General, State of Hawai‘i, 2007; J. M. MacDonald, “The effect of ethnicity on juvenile court decision making in Hawai‘i, Youth Society 35(2) (2003): 243–263; K. Umemoto and V. Verwudh, Preliminary Analysis of Juvenile Arrestees in Waipahu Using 2001 Juvenile Justice Information Systems (JJIS) Data, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Department or Urban and Regional Planning, 2003; D. T. Mayeda, E. S. Hishinuma, S. T. Nishimura, O. Garcia-Santiago, and G. Y. Mark, “Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center: Interpersonal violence and deviant behaviors among youth in Hawai‘i,” Journal of Adolescent Health 39 (2006): 276.e1–276.e11.


(1.) J. A. C. Gray, Amerika Samoa: A History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration, Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1960: 3–4.

(2.) Ibid.: 80–102.

(3.) CIA World Fact Book, “American Samoa,” retrieved May 29, 2009, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/aq.html.

(4.) P. M. Harris and N. A. Jones, “We the people: Pacific Islanders in the United States,” United States Census 2000 Special Reports, 2005, retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/censr-26.pdf.

(5.) P. Bellwood, The Polynesians: Prehistory of an Island People, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

(6.) W. W. Howells, The Pacific Islanders, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

(8.) P. Culbertson, M. N. Agee, and C. O. Makasiale, Penina Uliuli: Contemporary Challenges in Mental Health for Pacific Peoples, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

(9.) L. D. Holmes, Samoan Village, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

(11.) E. Faleomavaega, “American Samoa death rate in Iraq War is highest among all states and U.S. territories,” U.S. Congress [Press Release, March 23, 2009] retrieved from http://www.house.gov/list/press/as00_faleomavaega/asdeathratehighestamongstates.html.

(12.) C. B. Park, K. L. Braun, B. Y. Horiuchi, C. Tottori, and A. T. Onaka, “Longevity disparities in multiethnic Hawai‘i: An analysis of 2000 life tables,” Public Health Reports 124(4) (2009): 579–584.

(13.) G. Gao and P. Perrone, Crime in Hawai‘i 2005: A Review of Uniform (p.261) Crime Reports, Honolulu: Office of the Attorney General, State of Hawai‘i, 2007; J. M. MacDonald, “The effect of ethnicity on juvenile court decision making in Hawai‘i, Youth Society 35(2) (2003): 243–263; K. Umemoto and V. Verwudh, Preliminary Analysis of Juvenile Arrestees in Waipahu Using 2001 Juvenile Justice Information Systems (JJIS) Data, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Department or Urban and Regional Planning, 2003; D. T. Mayeda, E. S. Hishinuma, S. T. Nishimura, O. Garcia-Santiago, and G. Y. Mark, “Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center: Interpersonal violence and deviant behaviors among youth in Hawai‘i,” Journal of Adolescent Health 39 (2006): 276.e1–276.e11.