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 matai.


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.

I don’t know about you, but I barely recognize the place.

Have you ever heard of a ‘beauty lock’? A ‘sope’? Apparently back in Lauli’i’s time, it was fashionable for children to keep their entire heads shaven except for a small section of hair – at the front of the head or on either side above the ears – which they would dye red with burnt coral. According to Lauli’i:

“…the girl who had the reddest ‘sope’ attracted the most favorable attention, and incidentally reflected credit upon her mother…”

I had no idea.

But my own mother can verify this ‘sope’ story. Apparently they were still shaving children’s heads like this when she was a child back in the 1940s and ’50s. Mum says the idea was to make them look like those red things on the top of roosters’ heads.


Lauli’i’s fascinating description of the Samoa of her time, however, only serves as a backdrop for her own intriguing story.

She was a very young child when her father, who held the Tuiletufuga title, led the Tuamasaga district (supporters of Malietoa) in a war against the Atua district (Tupua Tamasese territory). While the men fought, the women did their part by preparing food to send into the battle zone.

One morning, Lauli’i and other girls from her family crept to the war camp – bullets whizzing over their heads – to take food to their fathers. In the forts, the men had built shelters out of banana leaves, and Lauli’i says that when she and the girls arrived, they saw a pile of what looked like slaughtered pigs under one shelter.

“I was rejoiced,” she says, “at the prospect of fresh pork and began to laugh and speak of it to others; but they told me to be still, that it was not pigs but dead men.”

I had heard, of course, of major civil wars in Samoa, but to read a first hand account like this, in the un-sentimental voice of a simple girl just trying to share her experiences, made history appallingly – and beautifully – real for me.

This book reads like a collection of thoughts and memories loosely linked chronologically, as if you’re actually sitting there with Lauli’i coaxing her with questions: What kind of school did you go to? What were your parents like? How did you meet your husband? What was it like when you first went to America? Did you ever return to Samoa?

The vernacular of the time is a bit of a crack up – when she talks about all the men who ‘made love’ to her, I was thinking oka. Maybe Mead was right, after all… until it became clear that Lauli’i meant ‘sweet talk’ or ‘hitting on her’… and then I was like, oooohhhh.

And the spelling? ‘Shapo’ for ‘siapo’… ‘Tapou’ instead of ‘taupou’…? Well, full credit I guess to Lauli’i’s husband and their editor for trying.

Just about every page of this book was a revelation. The whole time I was reading it, I was sharing bits of new knowledge with anyone who would tolerate my enthusiasm. It sparked some great discussions with my family about our culture and history.

I just can’t get over the fact that this book even exists, though. Why had I never heard of it before? It should be on every Samoan person’s bookshelf.

I even went to Google to make sure this story was for REALS, that it was the voice of a real Samoan woman who actually lived in the 1800s… only because I can’t imagine many of them back then had the opportunity or the foresight to document their lives in writing like this.

All I can say is, if you have any kind of interest in Samoan history or your own Samoan heritage, you have to read The Story of Lauli’i, A Daughter of Samoa.


Order a hard copy version of this book.

This article was first published on 13 Feb, 2010.