An estimated 177,000 people live in independent Samoa, the vast majority of them full-blooded Samoans. They are the second-largest group of pure Polynesians in the world, behind only the Maoris of New Zealand.
Although divided politically in their home islands, the people of both Samoas share the same culture, heritage, and, in many cases, family lineage.
"Catch the bird but watch for the wave" is an old proverb expressing the Samoans' conservative approach, which is perhaps responsible for the extraordinary degree to which they have preserved their ancient customs while adapting it to the modern world. Even in American Samoa, where most of the turtle-shaped thatch fales have been replaced with structures of plywood and tin, the firmament of the Samoan way lies just under the trappings of the territory's commercialized surface.
The showing of respect permeates Samoans' lives. They are by tradition extremely polite to guests, so much so that some of them tend to answer in the affirmative all questions posed by a stranger. The Samoans are not lying when they answer wrongly; they are merely being polite. Therefore, visitors who really need information should avoid asking questions that call for a yes or no answer.
The foundation of Samoan society is the extended family unit, or aiga (pronounced ah-eeng-ah). Unlike the Western nuclear family, an aiga can include thousands of relatives and in-laws. In this communal system, everything is owned collectively by the aiga; the individual has a right to use that property but does not personally own it. In a paper prepared for the government of American Samoa by the Pacific Basin Development Council, it states: "the [Samoan] attitude toward property is: if you need something which you don't have, there is always someone else who has what you need."
At the head of each of more than 10,000 aigas is a matai (mah-tie), a chief who is responsible for the welfare of each member of the clan. The matai settles family disputes, parcels out the family's land, and sees that everyone has enough to eat and a roof over his or her head. Although the title matai usually follows bloodlines, the family can choose another person -- man or woman -- if the incumbent proves incapable of handling the job.
Strictly speaking, Samoans turn all money they earn over to their matai, to be used in the best interest of the clan. The system is being threatened, however, as more and more young Samoans move to the United States or New Zealand, earn wages in their own right, and spend them as they see fit. Nevertheless, the system is still remarkably intact in both Samoas. Even in Samoan outposts in Hawaii, California, Texas, and Auckland (which collectively have a larger Samoan population than do the islands), the people still rally around their aiga, and matais play an important role in daily life.
Land ownership is a touchy subject here. About 11% of the land here is freehold, which Samoan citizens can buy and sell. Non-Samoans can lease freehold and communal property, but they cannot buy it outright.
Keep an Eye on Your Camera -- As is the case throughout the South Pacific islands, traditional Samoan custom is at odds with Western concepts of ownership. You may notice the difference directly when a camera or other item left unattended suddenly disappears.
Organization & Ritual
Above the aiga, Samoan life is ruled by a hierarchy of matais known in English as high-talking chiefs, high chiefs, and paramount chiefs, in ascending order of importance. The high-talking chiefs do just that: talk on behalf of the high chiefs, usually expressing themselves in great oratorical flourishes in a formal version of Samoan reserved for use among the chiefs. The high chiefs are senior matais at the village or district level, and the paramount chiefs can rule over island groups. The chiefly symbol, worn over the shoulder, is a short broom that resembles a horse's tail.
Missionaries & Ministers
Like other Polynesians, the Samoans in pre-European days worshipped a hierarchy of gods under one supreme being, whom they called Le Tagaloa. When the Rev. John Williams arrived in 1830, he found the Samoans willing to convert to the Christian God. He and his Tahitian teachers brought a strict, puritanical version of Christianity. About a third of all Samoans are members of the Congregational Christian Church, which he founded. His legacy can be seen both in the large white churches that dominate every settlement in all the Samoa Islands and in the fervor with which the Samoans practice religion today. Independent Samoa almost closes down on Sunday, and things come to a crawl on the Sabbath even in more Westernized American Samoa. Swimming on Sunday is tolerated in both countries only at the hotels and, after church, at beaches frequented by overseas visitors.
Christianity has become an integral part of fa'a Samoa, and every day at 6:30pm each village observes sa, 10 minutes of devotional time during which everyone goes inside to pray, read Scripture, and perhaps sing hymns. A gong (such as an empty acetylene tank hung from a tree) is struck once to announce it's time to get ready, a second time to announce the beginning of sa, and a third time to announce that all's clear. It is permissible to drive on the main road during sa, but it's not all right to turn off into a village or to walk around.
Wonderful Harmony -- When I first came to American Samoa in 1977, I lived for 2 months in Nu'uli village on Tuituila. Every Sunday, my girlfriend and I were treated to Samoans singing hymns in wonderful harmony in the village church. Even if you don't understand the sermon, going to church here is a rewarding experience.
Miss Mead Studies Samoan Sex
Despite their ready acceptance of much of the missionaries' teaching, the Samoans no more took to heart their puritanical sexual mores than did any other group of Polynesians. In 1928, Margaret Mead, then a graduate student in anthropology, published her famous Coming of Age in Samoa, which was based on her research in American Samoa. She described the Samoans as a peaceable people who showed no guilt in connection with ample sex during adolescence, a view that was in keeping with practices of Polynesian societies elsewhere. Some 55 years later, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he took issue with Mead's conclusions and argued instead that Samoans are jealous, violent, and not above committing rape. The truth may lie somewhere in between.
The Samoans share with other Polynesians the practice of raising some boys as girls, especially in families short of household help. These young boys dress as girls, do a girl's chores around the home, and often grow up to be transvestites. They are known in Samoan as fa'afafines.