Walk down the Samoan History Lane


Our guest blogger Anna Taylor shares a quick snapshot of (Western) Samoa’s history – from our origin story, to European colonial rule, to independence. Come take a walk with her back in time…

The History of the Samoan people is one that is shrouded in a lot of ambiguity. Several theories have been put forward about where the Samoans came from. One commonly stated theory is that the Samoans came from East Indies. However, the Samoans have a different story altogether. According to Samoans, the other Polynesians might have originated from the West Indies. As for them, they are the cradle of the Polynesian culture. They believe that they are the original inhabitants of Samoa and were created by their traditional god when he was making the universe long time ago.

Early Visitors
Despite being seen as a very exotic far away land, Samoa became a very busy shopping mall from as early as 1770.This happened when ships were moving along the spice route started docking in the Island Samoa on regular basis. The Samoans were very unfriendly to foreigners and this explains the fights that they had with various European visitors who came to the Island. When the British people came with their army to look for Christian Fletcher, the Samoans were still very unwelcoming. This led to a bloody fight with the British that led to loss of several lives.

Arrival of Missionaries
It is quite astonishing that when the missionaries finally arrived in the early years of the 19th century, they were welcomed. This was a miracle as the Samoans who had been known to be violent. They welcomed the missionaries and accepted the bible and their message. This is attributed to the fact one of the Samoan traditional gods had long predicted that a new religion will come to the Island. The Samoans went ahead to accept Christianity and to date it is still considered as one of the Pacific counters who value the Bible very much.

By 19th Century, the British, American and the Germans had all set their eyes on Samoa. They started tugging this Island in a three way tug of war, not to protect it but rather for commerce. The tension heightened and small Apia Harbor started to be flocked by British, German and American ships.. In the end however, negotiations led to Samoa being divided in two. Western Samoa was given to the Germans and Eastern Samoa went to the Americans. The British went home empty handed.

The Germans made a very big error when they decided to disregard the local customs and the local Samoan leaders. Tired of chaffing under the autocratic government, the locals decided to resist the German rule. This lead to a war outbreak in 1914. New Zealand came into the war and helped deliver the Samoans from German rule. New Zealand went ahead to rule Samoa and even introduced rugby to the locals. Despite the change in rulers, the people of Samoa continued to agitate full independence. As the resistance increased, applications were tabled to the United Nation which led to Samoa finally gaining its independence in January 1962.

When did we become beggars?


I’m not a social scientist or an economist or a politician or a lawyer. (For those kinds of very intelligent posts, check out our friend NiuZila‘s blog.)

I AM an observer, though, who asks a lot of questions… and a recent chat with my mom about her growing-up days in Samoa got me wondering a lot about our national identity.

My mom was born and raised in a mountainous region far from the city area of Upolu, Samoa. Today we laugh about those ‘kua’ villages and make comments about how poor and uncivilized they are, but back in the 1950s and ’60s, my mom remembers flourishing plantations of every kind of crop – taro, fa’i, niu, ulu, mago, vi, kolo etc. – and that her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens, then hunted for lupe (wild pigeons) and pe’a (fruit bats) and collected fresh water shrimp and eels from nearby rivers.

These people never worried about a shortage of food.

My mom’s parents raised nine children, and worked hard to send every single one of them to school – not just elementary (primary) and intermediate school, but right through high school, giving all of them the opportunity to go to university, too.

It’s not only my grandparents who knew the value of education. I met a lady recently who’s well into her 70s and only retired from her cleaning job last year. Her mother was Samoan, so she spent part of her school years at Leififi College in Malifa.

She told me that parents in those days did everything they could to get their children educated, some even ‘adopting’ their kids out to relatives with Palagi last names so they could go to the (supposedly) more elite schools.

My mom didn’t have the fa’ai’u (last name) for any of those schools, but her parents did send her to live with cousins in Lalovaea so she could attend Intermediate in the Apia area. Every Friday evening she would go home to see her parents, then Sunday night they’d send her back to town with basket loads of food and money for her host family.

She eventually moved up to Samoana High School in Pago Pago, then on to university in Hawaii, where she became the first woman from her district to gain a bachelors degree. The hard work and dedication it took to graduate? That was all my mom… but the opportunity she had to go that far in her schooling could only have come from an environment where education is considered a worthwhile investment in the family’s future.

Last week, my mom and I were talking with an uncle and aunt who are on their way back to the USA after 11 years in Samoa. They told us stories about the state of Samoa today, how so many parents will pull their children out of school early so they can start making money.

But it’s not like it’s easy for anybody to find a paying job in Samoa, so these kids end up either working as housegirls/boys for better-off families (usually the same homes their parents work in) or on the streets hawking everything from Q-tips and rubber bands to popcorn and bobby pins.

When I was in Samoa earlier this year, I met a beautiful 7-year-old boy who is the sole breadwinner for his large family, which includes a bunch of siblings and his unemployed mother. The little mercy in this story is that he hasn’t dropped out of school (yet) and he manages to get top scores even though he spends his afternoons and evenings roaming Apia with an armful of things to sell.

I still can’t get over just how many people walk around town – into shops and restaurants even, knocking on doors and windowpanes – with something for sale. One time, a guy dragged a huge box of freshly cooked taro into the Internet cafĂ© I was in and went around tapping shoulders to interrupt us with his pitch about desperately needing money for something or other.

I’d never seen anything like that before. While my heart went out to the guy, I couldn’t help thinking that the Apia I remember as a child was such a different place.

My mom says this kind of street soliciting was unheard of when she was young, but she concedes that it was just a different day and age.

Back then, if you wanted to eat, you had no option but to grow, raise, hunt or collect your own food. Education really was the key to progress and adventure in those days. For a lot of Samoans, long distance communication was not possible, so if your loved one traveled overseas, the farewell was as painful as a funeral… and receiving money from relatives in another country? That was something like a miracle.

My expat Samoan uncle and aunt have a slightly darker view of things. My uncle, who’s about the same age as my mom, thinks Samoans experienced a major shift in mentality over the last few decades thanks to the (financial) influence of other countries.

Where we were once all about hard physical labor and self-reliance, our kua villages are getting quieter every year. Everybody’s abandoning the plantations and flocking to the ‘fast money’ lifestyle of Apia… or we’re maneuvering our way into countries like New Zealand, with that generous fairy godmother called Social Welfare.

And why wouldn’t we? As a country we seem to be proud of the fact that most of our income is development aid or private remittances from overseas. Somewhere along the way, many of us never learned the importance of education – I know from experience that lots of Samoans in NZ, too, pull their children out of school to work.

From what I can see, this mentality that money is more important than progress, tradition and character – that it should be fast, easy and plentiful – is the reason we have so many overgrown plantations in Samoa’s mountains and villages. It’s why, for all our lush, volcanic soil, we can’t seem to maintain a strong agricultural export market. It’s why so many of our children are on the street, selling, rather than in school, studying. It’s why Apia is struggling to maintain a bunch of ornate but empty, power-draining, Asia-donated government buildings. It’s why Samoans abroad have a bad reputation for giving all their money away while their cupboards are empty.

This is not the Fa’asamoa that our parents and grandparents knew.

For a lot of us, though, this focus on money and lack of foresight sadly IS the definition of the “Samoan way of life”.

If we don’t do something to fix that now, this is the ‘Samoa’ we’re leaving behind for our children to despair over.

The good news is that culture is created by people.

What can we do to punch our culture back into a shape we can be proud of?

Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

I’m still working on the the final of my 3-part series about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau) – everything I learned from personal research and from my teacher of Samoan culture, the late Afioga Tofaeono Tanuvasa Tavale.

The previous two parts are here:

Thank you so much to everyone who read, shared and commented on those posts. Before I complete part III, I just wanted to briefly(?) address one of the most common questions we’ve received about the Samoan Tattoo:

Do I have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?

Please note that in this case, I can only answer with an (educated, thoroughly-pondered) opinion.

The quick answer:

It’s not difficult to find a tattooist who will take your money for a bit of Samoan looking skin art. It’s your body. Do what you want.

Just be prepared for some side glances or head-to-toe scanning, accompanied by sighs and solemn head shakes, from real Samoans who hold our culture – and the art we produce to express our identity – dear to our hearts.

Photo of a photo: The Auckland War Memorial Museum

The not so quick answer:

Only two tatau forms are considered truly traditional. These are the malofie (known commonly as the pe’a) for men and the malu for women.

peaBoth these tatau cover a person’s thighs, with the pe’a reaching up over a man’s hips to his waistline. They are administered by skilled tradesmen (tufuga) in the art of tatau, using handmade tools called ‘au ta, in a painful procedure that lasts hours for the malu and up to several months for the malofie.

Both these tatau have deep cultural significance. What does that mean?

It means the patterns and symbols used tell a story about Samoan people, our traditions and our family histories.

It means that a man with a malofie (a soga’imiti) has certain responsibilities in his family or village that un-tattooed men don’t. It means that a soga’imiti has a higher social status in his community than others, and is given more opportunities to learn correct protocol, history, oratory skills and other intricacies of the Fa’asamoa.

In the traditional Samoan village, every young man is expected and encouraged to receive a pe’a as part of his natural progression from boy to village laborer to student of the matai (chiefs) to family leader.

The context for the women’s tatau is not the same, but it still carries a lot of cultural weight. In the old days, only daughters of very high ranking chiefs – especially those who were bestowed a taupou title and danced regularly for village and family events – received a malu.


Today, the malu is a symbol of beauty, grace, strength and commitment to the values of a ‘good’ Samoan woman. The malu is sexy! But in that regal and virtuous way where sex is sacred, reserved for the sheets (not displayed on the streets).

If you are NOT Samoan, knowing now what I’ve just told you about these traditional tatau, why would you even want to get a malu or malofie?

Without the ties to our culture and family protocol, they would mean nothing to you but a long ordeal of pain for a little bit of body art. Unless you fully adopt our way of life, you’d be like the singer Madonna with the crucifix – making a mockery of a symbol that Catholics consider sacred.

A Compromise

Another branch of Samoan body art has become a lot more prominent in the last few decades. Based on old photos, I can only guess that these forms of tatau have been around for a while, but most likely only as decoration because they are never mentioned in any of our traditions about culturally significant tattoos.


I mean that you’d never hear a matai or an expert on Samoan culture refer to a Samoan style armband or sleeve or ankle tattoo as having any connection to the social structures in our families or villages.

In fact, my teacher Tanuvasa, didn’t think much of them at all. He believed the only [Samoans] who get those are too cowardly to endure the pain of the the malu or the pe’a. (I have the recording of him saying that, in case you want to hear it from the source.)

Tanuvasa reminded me that when our people dance in big groups for lively celebrations, we often wrap our wrists, upper arms and ankles in the long leaves of our ti trees. Our armband (taulima), anklet, sleeve, etc. tattoos are suggestive of those wrappings, so this tatau practice is similar to the recent trend of tattooing your ring finger instead of wearing a wedding band.

The good news is that while these tatau are only decorative, they’re often very beautiful. Modern tattooists are able to capture the essence of Samoa in these skillful creations, using the patterns found in our malu and malofie, as well as in our siapo and elei (fabric art) and our carvings.

Image from Tatau Awards, 2013

To me, this is the kind of tattoo you get when you want to express your love for Samoa and admiration for our culture, but don’t necessarily have the means or the family ties to fully commit to the Samoan identity.

This is the kind of Samoan tattoo you get when you’re not Samoan… or when you’re proud of your Samoan heritage but have no intention of serving in a village, being responsible for your extended family or studying our traditions under the tutelage of a high matai.

The Story-time Conclusion

I read a short story / essay ages ago for school. I tried to find it again, but I can’t remember a lot of its details, or who wrote it. Maybe you’ll recognize it and let me know.

Anyway, it’s written from the perspective of a Caucasian lady who was traveling through a poor, third world country either in Africa or Asia. She fell in love with this place, especially with its people, and she wanted to take home a souvenir.

As was usual in this part of the world, she came across a table set up by the side of the road that displayed little home made trinkets for sale. This lady looked through them for the perfect reminder of her time in this country. Then she noticed that the young girl behind the table was wearing a gorgeous, traditional jade (I think) bracelet. Set against her dark skin, it caught the sunlight and shimmered magically, and this lady knew she had to have it.

After only a little persuasion and some money, the girl happily gave this lady the bracelet… and the lady continued on her way, excited about her beautiful new purchase. She slipped it onto her own wrist, and then something happened.

She couldn’t understand it at first, but somehow, the bracelet didn’t look the same anymore. It didn’t sparkle the way it did before. It looked lifeless and bland now.

It took a little while before she realized that much of the beauty in this piece of jewelry came from its setting against the skin of its previous owner. As an expression of that girl’s culture, it was a part of her style and identity… and was never going to look quite the same on anyone else.

The Moral of the Story is…

Do you have to be Samoan to get a Samoan tattoo?


Should you be?

You tell me.

Book Review: The Story of Lauli’i, A Daughter of Samoa

Samoan Ava Ceremony,_c._1900-1930_unknown_photographer, Wikipedia

Do you know how they made the ava (kava) back in the day? I’m talking over 100 years ago…

Well, the taupou in the village would break off pieces of the ava root, chew them into a pulp, then spit all that good stuff into the tanoa (that’s one of these things), where it would then be mixed with water, strained and served to the matais.


As part of today’s ava ceremony, the drink is served in coconut shell cups by an untitled man of the village, but did you know that in those days, the cup-bearer was always a girl?

Just a couple things I learned about old Samoa from this incredible autobiography I came across at my local library. It’s the memoirs of Lauli’i, a Samoan woman who was born in an Upolu village, also called Lauli’i, all the way back in 1865.

Lauli’i married Alexander Willis, a carpenter from California, who took her to America where they worked with an editor to tell her story, to describe what life was like in Samoa.

Through history books and lots of great period films, I have a fair understanding now of what life must have been like a couple centuries ago for people of other cultures (Europeans, Americans, Indians, etc.), but Lauli’i Willis has blessed me with my first ever telescopic view back into the world of my own ancestors.

Read more

How to use the Samoan word ‘Uso’

Uso is the Samoan word for either brother or sister, depending on your gender.

You’ll see/hear this word thrown around a lot amongst Samoans – “Eh, uso!” or “Ua ‘li’i, uso?” and sometimes more ‘urban’ Samoans will make this short word even shorter: “Hey, uce!”

Not my favorite variation of the word, but I’ll let it slide as long as we’re using it in the right context.

These days, I notice a lot of guys calling their sisters (or female relatives/friends) ‘uso’, or girls calling guys ‘uso’ and I can’t tell whether they’re just trying to be all “bend-the-rules-cool”, or they really don’t know the correct way to use this word.

SO I figured it was my responsibility as a citizen of Samoa (seriously, I was born there) and a publisher of Samoan-related stuff to share a little knowledge. To be fair, and in the interest of non-judgement, I myself only learned this distinction a few years ago.

Thank goodness for adult community education and a NZ government that encourages Pacific language learning.

This post is also inspired by a couple of very enlightening articles by teacher and blogger Liz M.


Any questions?