We’ve all seen it. You’re Googling something to do with Samoa and you see from the search results that others have been asking questions about Samoan people, too – but they’re really basic questions that you thought everybody knew the answers to by now. Surely!
But then you realize the world is a big place and Samoa is, relatively, only little… so it makes sense that people would have a lot of questions about us, still. That’s all good.
What’s not so great is when you see helpful people in forums or on social media provide answers that are 100% wrong….or they’re almost right, but not quite there.
Those answers are usually posted by well-meaning folk who do have some love for and knowledge about Samoans… and sometimes they’re even Samoan themselves (just not fully informed about stuff)… so the intention is beautiful. It’s just the information provided that needs a bit of work.
So anyway, I figured since this is a website about Samoans and I am a Samoan-born Samoan, from a big Samoan family, living in a community that has a large concentration of Samoan people (God bless South Auckland)… I figured, how about we do a roundup of some these most asked questions about Samoa / Samoans and then do our very best to answer them correctly?
My other qualification for this job is that I’m a geek who reads a lot and asks a lot of questions as well, and I’ve been fascinated by Samoan language and culture for over a decade now.
That’s not to say I’m the brainiest expert on all things Samoan – not yet lol. But don’t worry. For all the questions I didn’t know the answers to, I’ve checked them with other Samoans who are much smarter than me.
Okay! Let’s get to it.
Questions about Samoan Geography and Politics
1. Where are Samoan people from?
Samoan people are from Samoa.
(Woohoo! That was easy.)
2. Where is Samoa?
Samoa is a group of islands located in a region of the Pacific Ocean called Polynesia.
Let me get you a map. (Thanks Google.)
So this is the Pacific ocean. See how big Australia is and how New Zealand is right next door?
Well, above and to the right of New Zealand, if you look really close, you’ll see a dot marked ‘Apia’. That’s the capital of Samoa (what was formerly known as Western Samoa).
Here’s a closer up view – can you still see Apia? Apia is on the island of Upolu (not labeled). The bigger island next to it is called Savaii.
Both Upolu and Savaii belong to the area of Samoa called… well… Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa).
The area of Samoa called American Samoa is itself made up of a few islands, the biggest of which is Tutuila.
Samoa and American Samoa are the two politically distinct (but culturally united) parts of the one archipelago called Samoa.
3. Is Samoa a poor country?
That depends on your definition of poor.
According to Global Finance mag’s list of the richest countries in the world (judged mostly by GDP), Samoa is number 136 out of 191 countries.
(Note: we’re talking here about the Samoa side of Samoa. American Samoa would fall under the USA. )
So by this standard, Samoa is definitely not a ‘rich’ country, but we’re still not the poorest either.
For me, a really poor country has trouble feeding or housing its people. That’s not a problem in Samoa.
In the capital town of Apia, you will get a lot of street hustlers – people (children, even) walking around trying to sell you everything from cotton buds to coconut oil – but only in very rare situations are these people ever homeless. They’re not starving. The kids should be in school, but they’re fairly healthy.
And this street-selling culture in Apia is a relatively new development. I visit Samoa every few years, and the last time I was there, it actually surprised me to see so many people on the street basically begging for sales.
But street-selling aside, the rest of Samoa is lush with vegetation, lined with villages that are beautifully maintained and governed by a culture of love and concern for the welfare of our friends and family.
In that respect, Samoa is pretty wealthy, actually.
4. Is Samoa a safe place to visit?
Samoa is like anywhere else you’d visit – most of our people are really friendly and harmless, but you get your bad eggs in any country.
As a world traveler, you just have to keep yourself away from potentially dangerous situations… and common sense is your key to the kingdom.
A few practical tips:
In any country, standing out as a foreigner or tourist is always going to make you more vulnerable to predators. While you mostly can’t help your physical features, you can blend in a little more by learning a bit of our language respecting our local etiquette and staying relatively low key (i.e. no flaunting of bling-age).
Not only will this help you attract less attention from no gooders, they might be less inclined to mess with you if they think you’re almost a local.
Knowledge is power.
For the more party type travelers, the night life in Samoa is on the rustic side, especially if you’re used to big cities, but it can be really fun, too.
Just make sure you go out with people you know, keep an eye on your drinks, don’t skol from a stranger’s bottle (I see you) and don’t get so blind wasted you wake up in a remote village married to the high chief’s next-in-line.
Basically, keep your wits about you.
Adventure tourists? Samoa is a gorgeous place to climb mountains, chase waterfalls, discover waterholes and encounter the most stunning of secluded beaches… but we all know that Mother Nature has a terrifying side.
If you’re in a river and you see a storm brewing in the nearby mountains, get out of the water. Samoa is prone to flash flooding, which has taken far too many lives.
Pay attention to weather warnings. Have a plan for natural disasters. Make sure you know your hotel’s evacuation procedures and learn all the surrounding pathways to higher ground.
You are, after all, on a volcanic island in the Pacific Ring of Fire, surrounded by ocean.
5. Does America own Samoa?
No. Samoans ‘own’ Samoa.
But some of the Samoan islands are part of an unincorporated territory of the United States. These islands make up what we call American Samoa, and like Puerto Rico, they are politically controlled by the US but don’t have access to all the constitutional rights of American citizens.
The entire Samoan archipelago has 16 islands (some uninhabited). Six of these islands are part of American Samoa:
- Rose Atoll
- Swains Island
The reason for the political separation of the Samoas is a long, historical story, but here’s my (only slightly biased) extremely abridged version:
Back in the day, Samoans had civil wars that were fueled (like literally funded and armed) by western world powers, specifically Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Then in 1899, when the natives were sufficiently crippled by all the fighting, the world powers were like, woohoo! Let’s divide and conquer – Germany you take the western islands – jetzt geht’s ab! – and USA you take the eastern isles – yeeehaw!
(Yes, it happened just like that.)
Over several decades, the western islands managed to wriggle themselves out of European control and eventually won independence. Eastern Samoa, however, continues to enjoy the fundamental rights afforded to nationals of the United States of America.
6. Are Samoans US citizens?
Unless their parents are actually citizens, people born in American Samoa are not automatically US citizens.
Instead, they are called US nationals, which means that while they have certain privileges as part of the United States family, they don’t have other constitutional rights:
- they can’t vote
- they can’t hold office
But they can live and work anywhere in the US, they can join the military and they are welcome to apply for full US citizenship.
People like me who were born in the other Samoa (the Samoa that was initially won by Germany) have no ties to America, so we’re automatically just proud Samoan citizens. 🙂
7. Was Samoa a British colony?
Great Britain did have some interest in Samoa back in the late 1800s, enough to sign an agreement with the US and Germany to provide political ‘supervision’ of the Samoan islands. But they lost interest in us soon after, leaving Germany and the US to divide the spoils between them (i.e. politically separate Eastern Samoa from Western).
After Germany had enough of the Western side of Samoa, New Zealand rocked up (in 1914) with what they called their ‘Samoa Expeditionary Force’ and just decided they owned us now.
The thing is, prior to this overtaking, New Zealand had been a full on British colony for decades. Technically, New Zealand was no longer a British colony by the time they swooped in on Samoa, but their ‘release’ from colonization was only a formality – a response to their own petition for sovereignty.
In reality, they were still very much under British rule (they didn’t actually gain independence till much later) and they even claimed Samoa on behalf of some guy named King George V.
So, although Samoa was never actually a British colony itself, we were ruled I mean governed for almost 30 years by New Zealand, a former colony that still had very strong political ties to the UK.
8. Does Samoa have a king?
We have four kings… but they’re not the kind of monarchs you’re probably thinking of.
Oh boy, this could turn into a very long story. We’d have to delve into Samoan cultural history for this answer. But let me see how briefly I can summarize this for now (and maybe I’ll write a longer post about it later).
Okay, so every Samoan family (in all of Samoa, east and west) can trace its origins back to 16 or so main families. We call these founding family groups Aiga Sā – which literally means, sacred family.
Back in the ancient Samoa days – long before the Europeans showed up to strategically gift us with guns and ammo – we had a lot of our own un-aided wars… which were about land, sure, but also about the political hierarchy of these founding families and their chiefly titles.
It’s such a rich, complicated history, but suffice it to say, over time, four major titles elevated to truly royal status – each of them ruling their own areas of Samoa. The holders of these titles, the regional monarchs that we call Tama a ‘Aiga, would contend (sometimes in full on war) with each other for recognition as Samoa’s reigning ‘king’.
But then the Europeans (and Americans) got involved and messed up some of our indigenous political systems. Even after Western Samoa gained independence (in 1962), we adopted a more European style of government complete with a prime minister and a parliament, etc. but we re-mixed it with a little bit of our traditional governing practices.
In our current government, the four paramount chiefly titles (the Tama a Aiga) are given the status of Ao o le Malo or Head of State, and one of them is chosen by parliament to actively serve in that ‘kingly’ capacity at a time.
In Samoa, our Head of State is kind of like Britain’s monarchy. He’s the figurehead of the government who can issue pardons and approve laws, but the real power is with the prime minister (especially now *ahem*) and parliament.
Our current Head of State is le Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II.
9. What is the motto of Samoa?
If you’re talking about the national motto of the formerly Western part of Samoa, it is:
Fa’avae i le Atua Samoa
Fa’avae means foundation (literally: “to make legged” lol) and Atua is our word for God, so this motto expresses how Samoa should be founded on God. In other words, let God be the foundation of Samoa.
American Samoa‘s motto is very similar:
Samoa muamua le Atua
Which means, Samoa, God is first.
Questions about the Samoan ethnicity
10. What race are Samoans?
We are Samoa! (That’s a song).
Samoan is a race of its own, but when ancient academics needed to classify the inhabitants of the Pacific ocean, Samoans were grouped together with the likes of Hawaiians, Tahitians and Māori etc. and labeled Polynesian, which apparently means ‘many islands’.
That was to distinguish us from other identified island groups in the Pacific, like Micronesia (little islands) – which include the Northern Mariana and Caroline Islands – and Melanesia (dark islands?), made up of islands like the Solomons and New Caledonia.
11. Are Hawaiians and Samoans the same?
Are Thai people and Cambodians the same? Are Mexicans and Bolivians the same? Are French and Spaniards the same?
Hawaiians and Samoans are two different ethnicities that come from two different island nations in the Pacific ocean. But we have such similar linguistic and cultural profiles that we obviously have common origins (from right back in the day) and that’s why we are both classified as Polynesians.
Just like Thai and Cambodians are Southeast Asian, Mexicans and Bolivian are Latin Americans and the French and Spaniards are European.
12. Are Samoans Black?
If you randomly pulled 20 Samoans out of a crowd and lined them up, you’ll see that we come in all different shades of brown, different shapes and sizes (we’re not all big, honest) with facial features reminiscent of a bunch of different races.
Compared to the rest of the world, Samoa is a tiny group of islands with a small population and a long history of um… hospitality towards visitors (and settlers) of other ethnicities. (How’s that for euphemism?)
I consider myself full Samoa because both my parents are Samoan, both born and raised there, but only one generation separates me from the equivalent of one European ancestor, one Tongan ancestor and an unconfirmed but possibly Melanesian ancestor. You can see all that genetic variation amongst myself and my siblings (none of us look alike) and cousins.
I have other relatives – again, born and raised in Samoa – who have at least one full Chinese parent or a full Indian grandparent and even African American grandparents… and those are only the recent genetic mixes. Imagine what other bloodlines are swimming in our DNA after all these generations.
So to answer your question… are Samoans black?
Some of us are. For sure.
13. Are Samoans Asian?
This question could be answered like the last one (i.e. Yes, some of us are Asian. For sure…). but as a race, the Samoan relationship with Asia is a little bit more tangible than our connection (if any) to Africa.
Some scientific evidence points to the possibility that Samoans actually originated in Southeast Asia (and Papua Niu Guinea).
I haven’t done any anthropological research of my own, so my testimony about us coming from Asia is based on observation alone (a lot of us kinda look like we could be Asian and I do know our language has a few similarities with Tagalog)..but yeah.
It’s a strong possibility.
Questions about the Samoan language
14. What language do Samoans speak?
We speak Samoan and English.
Okay, some of us don’t speak English that well, but when you visit Samoa, I guarantee you every person you meet will know at least a little bit of English… and just about all of them will speak better English than you can speak Samoan.
15. What is the Samoan language called?
The Samoan language is called the Samoan language. Or just, Samoan…as in:
‘Can you speak Samoan?’
‘Why yes. Yes, I can speak Samoan.’
In Samoan, we call our language, le gagana Samoa.
Le = the; gagana = language; Samoa = Samoan.
We also refer to our language as fa’asamoa, as in,
‘E lelei lau fa’asamoa?‘ (Is your Samoan language ability good?)
“Aua e te gagu. Fa’asamoa mai.‘ (Don’t speak English. Talk to me in Samoan.)
Fa’asamoa is also our word for the Samoan way of life in general. More on that later.
16. Why are Samoan names so long?
The Samoan language didn’t have a writing system until the helpful Christian missionaries made one up for us in the 1800s, so we kept our history by telling stories in our chanting while we worked, in our songs and in our lauga (formal speeches given to commemorate events).
Our ‘higher’ Samoan language, used often by chiefs and orators, is an especially proficient vessel for our cultural wisdom and lore. It is full of poetry, proverbs and metaphors that memorialize lessons passed down throughout generations.
Another way we kept (and continue to keep) our cultural and family history is in the names we gave our children. This could be as simple as honoring, say, your grandfather by naming your child after him… or it could be as poetic (and slightly awkward) as naming your child after a significant event that happened around the time of his or her birth.
The thing is, the Samoan language doesn’t have as many words as English does, so sometimes it takes a lot of Samoan words to express an idea in place of only a few English words.
Here’s a random example:
English: I want a car.
Samoan: Ou te fia mana’o i se ta’avale.
English: Read this book. (Imperative)
Samoan: Tago e faitau le tusi lea.
You see what I’m saying? And then when you upgrade to our higher Samoan language, you have to add even more words, more metaphors to express veneration and respect.
Soooooo… put that all together and you should begin to understand why Samoan names can be so long.
- They can help preserve stories from our history
- They can share wisdom – proverbs – passed down from our ancestors
- They can be very poetic, constructed in Samoa’s ‘higher’ language
- Samoan sentences are often longer than English sentences anyway
This couple made the local headlines for the length of their son’s name:
While the general public may think that was just a cute story, or that the couple were just being extra, those who love the Samoan language would know that, actually, it’s a very beautiful Samoan name.
17. Do they speak English in Samoa?
It’s kind of annoying, actually, especially for people like me who are looking for an immersive kinda of Samoan language experience.
When I was younger, I could visit Samoa and find lots of people who preferred not to speak English… so I had endless opportunities to practice my fa’asamoa, so much so that I’d come back home having forgotten lots of English words for things. Love that!
But these days, you go to Samoa and as soon as someone can tell (from my English-i-fied accent) that I’m not a usual Samoan speaker, they switch to English. And I try to continue speaking Samoan to them, but after a while I just feel dumb cause their English is usually near perfect.
Next time I’m in Samoa, I’m going to stay far away from the main town where all the fluent English speakers live. I’m just going to have to hunt down my language immersion experience.
Questions about the Samoan culture
18. What is the Samoan culture? (What is it known for?)
Growing up (on various Pacific islands including Hawaii and New Zealand), I was fed this idea – just from around the community – that Samoans are mean and tough and watch out world, don’t mess with us cause we will beat you all!
I think a lot of Samoans buy into that stereotype and do their darnedest to perpetuate it – but I’m not a fan.
When I started learning about my actual culture, I discovered that, yes… our communities around the world are plagued with the socio-economic disadvantages that tend to breed violence and abuse – for people from any ethnicity – but that’s nowhere near the essence of who we are.
Our cultural heritage is one of alofa (love), first and foremost.
We might not be great at verbalizing this love (in any language) but come into our families and see how much our parents sacrifice for their children. Watch how children are taught to respect and serve their elders… how they grow up to care for their parents in their senior years.
No one lives this value perfectly, of course. It’s far too easy to take (evil) advantage of love… and to allow yourself to be overextended by the intention of love. This is why so many of our families are crippled by the debt they’ve taken out in order to support their relatives through difficult events.
But if we look back in our history, that was not the spirit of our traditions and protocol.
One of my Samoan cultural mentors told me once that back in the day, if a prominent chief from a certain district attended a funeral in your family, that in itself was considered a huge honor worthy of veneration – even if that chief only brought one fine mat and a highly refined, eloquent lauga (speech).
Today, we tend to value the material donations over the gesture of solidarity, and that is not a Samoan thing. Not originally. No, our concern for the accumulation of stuff came from external influences.
Anyway, my point is (pardon my tangents) that the Samoan culture is all about love, and that’s what we should be known for.
19. What is a Samoan skirt called?
We call them ie lavalava in general, but we have different kinds of ie (ie means a sheet of fabric).
The soft, usually colourful ie you commonly see worn casually, we call those ie solosolo. Men wrap them around their waste, tied at the front, and they usually hang down just past the knee. Women wear them either down to their ankles or hovering around the knee-line, tied at either the left or right hip.
Ie solosolo can be worn anywhere (if you’re not shy about flaunting your Samoan-ness lol). You’ll usually have a few ‘home’ ie, to wear for sleep or doing chores around the house, then you could have nicer (cleaner) looking ie for running errands around town or going to the beach.
Our more formal ie for men are called ie faitaga, which literally means: ie with pockets. These are made with thicker fabric (sometimes even the fabric you’d use to make a pair of dress pants) and are pretty much always a solid color. They hang down just past the knee, are secured at the waist with built-in straps and, as its name implies, the ie faitaga comes with pockets. Men wear them to church and any to any occasion where a suit would be appropriate.
The women’s version of a formal ie lavalava usually comes as part of a top and bottom pair – we say péa, although this outfit’s more proper name is, puletasi. The bottom part of the péa, we simply refer to as ie, but the ie from a péa is always long – down to the ankle – and is fitted at the top with long, thin straps that you can wrap around your waist a few times then knot either at the front or the back.
A note about wearing any kind of ie lavalava: unless you’re a guy wearing an ie solosolo, you’re going to want to make sure the bottom of your ie (whether it’s at your ankle or near your knees) is lined up horizontally straight. Having bits of fabric peeking out in crooked edges from beneath the hemline – whether you’re a girl or a guy in an ie faitaga) is pretty much the same as walking around with your slip dress hanging out under your skirt.
But then, that could just be your thing, in which case… do you, Boo.
20. What is a high chief in Samoa?
Uuughhhh another question with a long az answer!
Luckily, I’ve already written long as posts to explain a bunch of Samoan chief-ly things. Please check them out here:
- Matai: A Complicated System of Chiefs
- How much did your matai title cost?
- Matai – The Path to Becoming a Samoan Chief
- Why you shouldn’t become a Samoan matai (and also why you should)
And now that I’m being such a good Hamo Geek, producing a new post every two weeks even (yayyy me!!), you should expect another article all about Samoa’s matai system in the second week of August.
So there you have it! Have I answered all your burning questions? Do you have any more for me? Please let me know.
For the Samoans in this audience, do you agree with all my answers? Did any of them make you angry? Good! Let’s fight about them in the comments lol.
Whatever insight you can add will only help the world get to know us – and our beauuutiful Samoan-ness – even more.
Ma le fa’aaloalo lava… Amene.