A while ago I wrote an introduction to the concept of Matai, Samoa’s complicated system of chiefs

…mostly because there’s a lot of confusion these days, especially amongst us who were not raised in “fully Fa’asamoa” families, about the role of the Samoan chief.

Some people hear you’re a ‘chief’ and assume you’re the leader of your tribe somewhere.

In Samoa that’s only true to an extent.

It depends on what kind of chiefly title you were given (some are leaders, some are speakers, some are caretakers, etc.) and how it ranks against the other titles in your extended aiga (family)…

Plus what YOU do as a chief can bring additional honor – and possibly some advancement – to your name.

But today, let’s wind our matai discussion back to Step One: How do you even become a matai to begin with?

Well, if you’re famous with any kind of connection to Samoa, or you’re a political or community leader in a country that financially supports Samoa, you pretty much just have to wink and smile and someone in Samoa will gift you an honorary matai title.

(Yes, that is a bit of cynicism in my aura right now. Don’t worry about it.)

For us regular people, here’s the more traditional path to becoming a Samoan matai.

First, you must be an heir to a title

The good news is, if you’re even a little bit Samoan I’m 99.9% sure you’re the suli (heir) to at least one matai title.

Samoa is a small country with only a few major families, and each of them has a governing body of several matai titles.

Basically everyone with a blood (or sometimes even adopted) connection to the originators of these titles – our ancestors from generations ago – is an heir.

And we’re not like the British royal family where you know who’s next in line to the throne.

In Samoa, once a title becomes available, any suli can petition for it.

He or she just has to have some support (it doesn’t hurt to have other matai or well respected elders arguing for you) and also, ideally, a track record of service to the family.

O le ala i le pule, o le tautua

..is a well-known Samoan proverb that means, “The path to leadership is service”.

You might find that your bid to become a matai is better supported if your family can see how much you love and labour (and contribute financially to fa’alavelave *cough*) for them.

Second, a matai title needs to be available

A Samoan chief holds on to his matai title “till death do us part”, but I have heard of the rare occasion where a matai willingly gave up his title due to illness or old age.

The title is then available and the family’s remaining matai – under the direction of their sa’o, or highest ranking ali’i chief – will decide when to begin searching for successors.

Sometimes, especially for titles of lower ranking, it might take a long while before they get around to finding new matai. It’s not unusual for a family to have, say, 3 or 4 “un-manned” titles in their collection with no word on when the next saofa’i (bestowal ceremony) will happen.

The delay could be for a lot of reasons:

Maybe the suli and their supporters are still arguing over who the next few matai should be.

Or perhaps they need time to raise some cash – because the saofa’i is not going to be cheap.

Or maybe one of the titles is being disputed in court by another family claiming ownership of it… a situation that is, sadly, quite common.

Whatever the case might be, it is always in a family’s best interest for its governing board of matai titles to be fully occupied.

Sooner or later, inevitably, your extended aiga will begin to buzz with the search for new chiefs.

Next, you have to be chosen

By the way, as with all customs and traditions, not every family or village will do things exactly the same way. What I’m describing here (and in all my posts about the Fa’asamoa) is only what my sources, teachers, advisers and I have personally witnessed over a lot of years. I’m confident, though, that this is a pretty accurate snapshot of what generally happens with most families.

Back to the story:

When it’s time to choose a new matai, especially if it is for a more prominent title, whoever is currently the highest ranking chief in your aiga will call a talanoaga, or formal gathering to deliberate.

All the suli who are interested in the title need to show up and be ready to fight debate.

Here’s where it helps to not only know your language, but to be versed and practiced in Samoa’s higher, chiefly tongue.

You’ll hear this all the time: that ours is a culture of words. Of lauga (speeches). Of eloquent oration.

One elderly friend of my parents – a well-known scholar and writer in Auckland’s Samoan community – once told me that nothing warms his heart more than to hear powerful words, intricately and meaningfully woven by a masterful orator. He said this love for the poetry of language is in the soul of all Samoans.

Well, I don’t know about ALL Samoans… 🙂

…but in a battle against other worthy suli, you best come armed with your show-stopping lauga.

Go hard or go home, right?

After the suli (and their supporters) have had their say, the current group of matai will weigh in.

They will discuss the suitability of each of the candidates. Their deliberation will look at a number of factors, including:

  • the suli’s leadership skills and work ethic
  • what kind of service he/she has provided the family so far
  • how well this suli’s parents have served the aiga (well enough to deserve this reward?)
  • how influential the suli is amongst peers and in the community

…and so forth.

The idea is that by the end of the talanoaga, the family will have reached a unanimous decision about who the next matai will be.

That’s in an ideal world.

The Exceptions

Remember how I said that our matai system can get pretty complicated?

The reality is that not all of these matai deliberations are resolved so… unanimously.

Sometimes it takes more than a few talanoaga to come to a decision.

Sometimes a suli who is not chosen will protest all the way to Land & Titles court, and then no one is allowed to bestow that matai title until the court case is settled.

And those cases can take anywhere from a few months to many years – plus a LOT of money – to fight.

Sometimes, to keep the peace (and save some cash in legal bills), a family will decide to fa’asafua, or split the title between two suli, or even amongst all of them.


So now, 2 or more people will hold the same exact title, at the exact same rank, and all their voices will count equally in future deliberations over that title’s associated land and responsibilities.

Obviously this is not a popular decision. I’ve seen it spark even worse fighting amongst families, usually about the degradation of a title’s value when it’s split, etc.

Back to court for those aiga.

Other Scenarios

A big talanoaga with the wider extended family is not always necessary for titles of lower ranking. Suli are still encouraged to express interest in these titles, but your family’s sa’o can usually decide by himself who to give them to.

Another increasingly common scenario is when families struggle to find suli who even want to be matai. I’ve seen some families search for years – calling distant Kiwi or American relatives, promising a bunch of incentives even – only to hear, “No thank you” over and over again.

Why wouldn’t you want to become a matai? Some reasons I’ve seen/heard:

  • It’s too expensive. Not only do you have spend a lot for the endowment ceremony, but matai are expected to lead by example and contribute generously to all family initiatives.
  • We don’t see the value in it. Sometimes we’re too far removed from the culture to understand (or care) about the importance of our matai structure to the Samoan way of life.
  • We don’t have time. For a lot of us these days, the affairs of our extended family don’t rank very highly on our list of priorities.

In other families, I’ve witnessed another kind of scenario.

Did I mention that our higher ranking titles come with stewardship over customary land in Samoa? That’s what I mean when I talk about the land that is associated with matai titles.

Anyway, to preserve their control over family land, some matai will go ahead and bestow major titles to, say, their teenage children, without consulting with the larger extended family. I’m talking about full on saofa’i ceremonies on the sly and quietly registering these new matai with Land and Titles court.

And when the other suli find out what they’ve done?

Ia. More fodder for the courtrooms.


Whatever the situation might be, when it’s decided that you are agava’a – suitable to receive a matai title – congratulations!

You’ve just taken step one in a journey that, if traveled well, will change the rest of your life.

In the next Chapter

In Part 2 of Matai – The Path to Becoming a Samoan Chief, we’ll talk about:

  • Registering your title with the Land & Title’s court
  • Preparing for your saofa’i
  • Whether or not your saofa’i has to be in Samoa
  • How much your saofa’i will cost
  • Where does the money go?
  • How your life will change, now you’re a matai

…and more.

Till next time!

xx HGG