Matai – How to become a Samoan Chief [Part 2]

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Matai – How to become a Samoan Chief [Part 2]

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This is the second part of our series on The Path to Becoming a Samoan Chief. Please read Part 1 first, if you haven’t already.

Part 1 gives you a bit of background – where do matai titles come from? Who decides how your family’s titles are distributed? How do you become a candidate for a matai title? And it also looks at some of the complications in that part of the process.

But now, let’s say your family has finished deliberating and you are the chosen one… the let’s say you did some soul-searching and ultimately decided that, Yes. You will accept the sacred call to become a matai.

What happens next?

Let’s start by looking at what is SUPPOSED to happen – ‘traditionally’ – then we can talk about how lots of families make adjustments to the program in order to accommodate the world we live in today.

Please note: I’m describing how this happens with matai titles from Samoa (formerly Western Samoa). I assume it’s the same process for American Samoa, but I have yet to confirm that. I can confirm now that the process is generally the same for American Samoa, which has its own Land and Titles Court.

Okay. Here we go:

How you officially become a Samoan chief

1. Le Saofa’i – your title bestowal ceremony

Now that your family has agreed for you to hold a matai title, it’s time for them to present you to the village.

As explained in Part 1 (and also in this article about how the matai system works), your matai title is part of a collection of titles that come from your extended family… and because your family is part of a village, their titles belong to the village’s general collection of titles.

So, becoming a matai means you’ve become part of an exclusive group of title holders in your family, and they will need to introduce you – like baby Simba – to your whole village’s council of matai. This event is called a saofa’i.

As you can imagine, the saofa’i is a huge day of formality and celebration. All the village matai come together for the solemn ava ceremony, where the new matai (that’s you!) is given the opportunity to show off his oratory skills, pledging his commitment to the family and village.

Gifts of fine mats and food are exchanged (mostly from the new matai’s family to the village matai) and then, of course, a gigantic feast is served.

As the new matai, you (and your family) should be prepared to host the saofa’i, to pay for the feast and to provide gifts for guest matai. How much this costs will depend almost entirely on how big your village’s matai council is… and how much you want to feed them. These days, I never hear of any saofa’i costing less than 5 thousand (NZ) dollars.

Ideally, you will also be well versed in the higher, oratory language of all matai… or just do like me and get your mom/uncle/granddad to write you a speech you can memorize.

2. Register with Land and Titles Court

After your saofa’i, you new title needs to be registered with Le Ofisa o Fanua ma Suafa, or Samoa’s Land and Titles Court, which is part of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration in Mulinu’u, Samoa.

To register your title, your village’s pulenu’u (the village mayor) needs to complete a form confirming that your saofa’i did, indeed, take place in your village.

Then, your family’s sa’o – highest ranking ali’i title holder – or another matai that he appoints, has to take this form to the Land and Title’s Court, where he will also need to pay the registration fee.

The last time my own family registered matai titles – about 2 years ago – it cost something like WST$60. It might cost a little more than that now.

After your saofa’i is complete, you have 21 days to register you title.

3. Wait a stand down period

The registration of your title will be published in Samoa’s official, government-run newspaper, Savali News, in their monthly edition, Savali Samoa, which is dedicated to Land and Titles Court decisions.

Your title’s registration may also be broadcast across Samoa’s radio stations.

The big public announcement thing is so that anyone who has an issue with how your title has been assigned has a chance to dispute it. They can lodge their complaint directly with the Land and Titles Court, who will then contact your family.

If no one steps forward with any objections during the 21-day 3-month stand down period, you’re free to begin officially using your new title name.

4. Using your new matai name

Your family will most likely have called you by your title name since they first decided it was yours – even before it was registered. Once it’s officially approved by Land and Titles Court, though, you should share your new name with everyone.

It works like this: if your given (birth) name was, say, John Smith and your new matai title is, say, Maugaoleatuolo, your full name should now be:

Maugaoleatuolo John Smith

And then from now on, anyone who wants to show you a little respect should refer to you first by your matai name.

Side note: I love how this new chapter of your life is marked with a new name. It always reminds me of how Abram became Abraham in the Old Testament, or how Jesus gave Simon the name Peter. A new name can mark a coming of age, which also reminds me of this verse:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11

Very cool.

Anyway, as your matai title will generally stay with you for the rest of your life, you should also consider having your name changed by deed poll, or with whatever government you live and work under. At the very least, it should be changed on your passport (but not on your birth certificate… because you didn’t have your title name at birth).

This will not only help keep your identification records straight, family historians who specialize in Pasifika will also thank you profusely.

Trust me.

5. But wait! There’s more!

If for any reason you were not able to have a saofa’i when your title was registered (see the Shortcuts and Roundabouts section below), then you can make it up to the village by having what we call a o’o.

Basically, you host a belated celebration feast for the village matai council (and the entire village) to thank them for their blessing on your title and to express your commitment to their care and protection.

It’s after this major feeding-of-the-village that your title is considered officially and ultimately sealed to you, till death do you part, amene.

Read more about becoming a matai:

Shortcuts and Roundabouts

As you can see, the path to obtaining your matai title is not easy… or cheap.

You can probably see now why, these days, a lot of families bestowing matai titles don’t strictly follow this process anymore, especially in situations where the majority of them live outside Samoa.

Let me share a few scenarios that I know first hand – from my own circle of friends and family – to show you how us innovating Samoans have found clever ways around some of the complications of becoming a matai.

Skip the saofa’i

This happens a lot.

As long as you can get your village’s pulenu’u to sign that form to confirm that your saofa’i was held (*wink*wink*) in the village, you can take it straight to Land and Titles Court.

You don’t even have to be in Samoa to do this. Just send some money to your uncle/brother/cousin in Samoa – this person should actually be a matai, though – to register your title for you.

As long as your registration makes it – uncontested – past the stand-down period, congratulations! You’re a matai!

However, for the sake of your family’s honor in the eyes of your village, you should still have a plan to do your saofa’i properly, or at least do the o’o, at some stage in the future, when you can afford it.

Multiple saofa’i at one time

It’s like those double or multiple weddings that some people have.

If it costs a minimum of $5000 to have a saofa’i for one person, you might as well chuck a bunch of other new matai in the same saofa’i for only a few hundred dollars more.

One day. One village council of matai. One massive village feast … and 2 to 20 (or more) new matai in your family get their saofa’i sorted?

That sounds like a good deal to me.

So many families choose this option these days, and it’s actually pretty cool… especially when your family has to travel to Samoa from overseas. The mass saofa’i can turn into a very festive party.

Have your saofa’i by proxy

If you’re really not able to be in Samoa for your saofa’i, but your family has a good matai representation in Samoa, they can take care of the ceremonial stuff for you.

Your family matai in Samoa could organize a mini saofa’i, where the pulenu’u signs your title’s registration form, the village’s minister gives a lauga and blessing on your title and then the village dines together – but on a smaller scale than with a full on saofa’i.

As soon as your title is registered, it’s as if you were there in Samoa all along.

Skip Samoa altogether

Okay, this is going to be the most controversial shortcut.

Becoming a Samoan matai has so much to do with your Samoan family in your Samoan village, on acres of customary Samoan land that is intricately connected to your Samoan title.. So your saofa’i has to be held in Samoa.

(How else are you going to host the matai council and feed the village?)

But I know some people who have held their bestowal ceremonies outside of Samoa…and I also know some young matai who have never been to Samoa and don’t even know the name of the village their title comes from (but that’s another story).

This practice is thankfully not very common (yet), and is highly looked down upon. The Samoan prime minister, even, has recently, quite vehemently denounced it (and for once, I actually agree with him on something). But it does happen.

Are the titles bestowed abroad considered legitimate, though..? Well, faimai le palemia e le kaulia… which means, probably not.

But, if the titles have been registered properly with Land and Titles Court…remember, their village’s pulenu’u should have vouched for them… then those matai should technically be recognized, still.

If not, you can probably still function as a matai in your own family gatherings, but it’s highly unlikely that your title will be accepted by your village or the Samoan government.

Don’t be Samoan

I just remembered one other way that the bestowing of matai titles can completely bypass all the steps mentioned above:

Very high ranking leaders in Samoa are able to gift honorary matai titles to non-Samoans overseas. I have even attended a couple of hugely public celebrations where our Head of State (once in Hawaii, the other time in New Zealand) bestowed a matai title on a prominent palagi man for his services to our Samoan community.

The actual title names are real – they come from real families in real villages – but to be honest, I don’t know if those honorary bestowals are even registered with Land and Titles Court. I don’t see the point, as it’s highly unlikely an honorary matai will sit in village council meetings or contribute to family endeavours (i.e. fa’alavalave).

While I think it can be a beautiful gesture to gift someone with a title – especially when they have done good for our people – it is a controversial practice… but not because we think the honorary matai hasn’t ‘earned’ his place or anything.

The problem is that our matai titles – specifically the title names – carry a measure of prestige based on the reputation and actions of every person who has ever held that matai. Our ancestors even had civil wars over some of these names. Some titles are so revered, they’re held back by families, sometimes for generations, until someone proves himself truly worthy to hold it.

Now, imagine how it would feel to hear that the Head of State has given that same title name to someone who doesn’t even know your family. As well deserving as the honorary matai might be, the title name might not seem so special anymore.

But I digress.

Invite me to your saofa’i

I hope this long story was helpful for anyone wondering about the mysteries of the Samoan fa’amatai system.

For many reasons (including the fact that I’m pretty useless at engaging with my extended family), I’m not a matai… but I love hearing about my friends and relatives who are stepping up to take a more authoritative role in family affairs.

If you’re a new matai, or if you’re planning your own saofa’i, please share your experiences with us in the comments.

Has this article (or website) helped at all in your preparations? Have I missed answering any of your burning questions? Did I get anything wrong?

Would love to hear from you.

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Known IRL as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, I'm just a Hamo Geek Girl, sitting behind a screen... learning, deep-thinking and typing up Samoan things.

2 thoughts on “Matai – How to become a Samoan Chief [Part 2]

  1. Perhaps the practice has changed, but normally a matai title must be registered and publicize by the news paper before having a saofa’i. For what’s the use of spending thousands of dollars for a saofa’i and end up losing the title in court. May be it has changed.
    I also happen to agree with the Prime Minister about having a title bestowal outside of Samoa, what’s the use of having a title that only a family recognize and that matai can’t function outside of the family because the village can’t validate for they did not give their blessings not only through their covenant minister but also by the village council neither they were fed in a saofa’i.
    Today matai titles are given away like hotdogs in a homeless camp. without ever considering the glory that was parted and given to the title as validation of this important calling. Remember this old song
    Ua tofia nei e le Atua Samoa ina ia pulea e matai, aua o lona suafa (mamalu/glory) ua valua iai. this is truely what they are giving away, sold, and discarded.

    1. That’s what I was thinking, too.. That the title should be registered first. That’s what makes sense… But I double checked, and the form they submit definitely requires the pulenu’u to confirm the saofa’i already happened. It must have changed, then, yeah?… Everything else you said, I agree. Lol

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