Why you shouldn’t become a Samoan matai (and also, why you should)

A few years ago I wrote this introduction to the world of the Samoan matai.

More recently, I started a series on the path to becoming a Samoan chief… as in, how do you get chosen (against other eligible relatives) for a chiefly title? How do you prepare for the bestowal ceremony, or saofa’i? What events can you expect on your saofa’i day? How much does all of that cost to you and your family? What are your responsibilities after you become a matai? Etc.

I’m still working on the next post in that series, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the matai today. We all know it’s a big deal to become a Samoan chief, but do we really understand what that job entails? What would be expected of you, regardless of where in the world you happen to live?

As I was learning about Samoan culture, I remember deciding that I wasn’t interested in gaining a taupou title (the highest ranking female role in a family/village). Instead I wanted to become a proper matai – which still isn’t common amongst women.

But then I did some research and a lot of observation… and I evaluated my lifestyle and attitudes towards family and village affairs… and then I had to finally admit to myself that I’m not cut out to be a matai. It’s not a role that I could wholeheartedly commit to, for number of reasons.

If you’re considering putting your name forward for a matai title, maybe have a think about what that would really mean to you.

Please DON’T become a matai if…

  • you’re just after land to build your house on in Samoa – matai (especially high ranking) have more of a say over family land, but it’s still not your own personal land
  • you want it so you can get a pe’a tattoo – you don’t need to be a matai to get traditional ink
  • your side of the extended family is only trying to collect as many titles as possible so they have the political advantage over all the other sides of the family – well, nothing I say is going to stop this happening, so whatever lol
  • you don’t even know the name of the village your matai title comes from – Sadly, I’ve met a few (usually young-ish) matai like this…
  • you’re only doing it for the trip to Samoa and the party – okay, I can’t really be mad at this one lol
  • you have no intention of supporting the extended family physically (by at least participating in matai meetings) and financially – seriously though…

On the other hand…

Please DO become a matai if…

  • you want to help make decisions that affect your extended family – we need smart, wise and bold leaders to speak up for us in those matai meetings
  • you’re willing to pitch in time, effort and money to help the family accomplish goals – remember, these goals will be worthwhile because YOU helped to choose them when you counselled with the other matai
  • you’re always thinking about the needs of your family members – from your aging elders to the newest babies in your family, your life is about caring for and protecting them
  • you’ve got a keen sense for politics and you know (or want to learn) how to gain power and influence people – your increase in power and influence is a good thing for your whole family, as long as you gain it wisely and for the right reasons
  • you have a deep love for your culture, and you know the difference between true Fa’asamoa and a version of it that has been corrupted by greed – if you know exactly what I’m talking about here, you have my blessing and sincere encouragement to PLEASE go get that matai title!

Do you agree/disagree with my list? What would be your advice to hopeful matai?

Please tell us in a comment below.

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Known offline as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, Hamo Geek Girl is just learning what it means to be Samoan. When she's not here, she's over at Manaui: Savour Oceania mostly talking about her other favourite topic: Food!

3 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t become a Samoan matai (and also, why you should)

  1. My advice to hopeful matai, or the fia matai.. please go for it, I think everyone should become a matai. Because today, matai or not you are still obligated to contribute to family fa’alavelave, so might as well fai sau nofo and abolish the fa’ataulele’a..lol

    But if you don’t want to get strip naked by the usu a le gu’u when you arrive home, then either remain as a taule’ale’a or loose your Samoan identity and go as a tourist. lol

  2. Nice read.

    Sadly, the ‘Don’t’ list is the very reason(s) why some want to become a matai or give away a significant birth right.

    There are Samoans who really don’t care for the historical, cultural, spiritual value of a unique and fundamental tradition. Look at how many non-Samoans hold titles now. Yeah, of course people are going to say: it’s their business who they bestow matai to. Yeah, well, it doesn’t mean they’re immune to criticism, eh. Don’t cry when the non-Samoan leases your land without proper consultation (protocol) and/or challenges and makes demands because he or she is a matai. It has happened.

    I used to blame the ‘Don’t’ list on the effects of colonisation and globalisation from the Western/Metro-centric influence. You know, greed and power. The foreign way of life is superior to our own way of life.

    I chose to think: that’s right, it’s the White Man’s fault.

    Not my, our forebears.

    Now, I begrudgingly acknowledge that some of our people are blinded by individualism (is that even a legit word? lol -- I no care hah). An individualist. The me, me, me vs us (aiga) attitude is more important and relevant in this day and age. For some.

    Because we’re known as a communal society, almost everything is shared equally -- or rightfully, according to rank (authority), genealogy, mavaega (oral will) et al.
    We take care of our own, no-one gets left behind sort of mentality, context.

    Which has for some, been replaced with, I have to take care of me first; aiga comes a distant second, or even third. To some degree, I understand this choice, especially for Samoans who live abroad who don’t have the aiga support network.
    #gottadowhatyagottado

    Or I have to make me and the aiga look good no matter the cost, reputation or lack of bound by duty and responsibility.

    Whether Samoans want to be a matai based on the ‘Do’ list is pretty much straightforward. Whether Samoans lie based on the “Don’t’ list that is the ongoing problem to the matai system.

    I look forward to reading more about this subject, HGG.

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