Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Samoan Identity Crisis

It's well known among Samoans that they can be the best of actors when it comes to playing character on various stages in life. And this blog was inspired by a number of discussion topics in a forum I frequent online. Such questions were "Why do Samoans in general act all sweet and innocent in public, but behind close doors they can be your worst enemy?", ....why is it Samoans think they're tough once they wearing their uniform?" (This came from a samoan bloke who was inside an Australian prison and was badly mistreated by samoan guards for no apparent reason.)

I believe this type of character-playing has become a standard method of assimilation for not only the 1st generation immigrants but even to the 2nd but hopefully not the 3rd generation.

For centuries, Samoa has been governed by a comprehensive, well preserved and observed Matai (Chief) system. This traditional way is still followed by the majority of Samoans, however up until recent times the western world has had it's influence by introducing a westernised government. The Matai system of old did not require police, a court, a bank, psychologists etc as the Matai's of each village monitored and settled their own affairs among themselves. Nowadays, there is a police presence, there is a court etc etc. And still the Matai system lives on and it is important to note that only Matai's are able to occupy parliamentary roles in Samoa.

I mention the Matai system because in this structure, people learn that they occupy specific roles, and in these roles they have a formal obligation to the official forum and to the people of the village, giving each person a specific identity or role.

The roles in a broad brush stroke usually consist of the leader (ali'i) who is assisted by (the pulenu'u). The Ali'i is considered to be too important to discuss issues/problems of the village and therefore a speaking chief (tulafale) is appointed. This chief speaks on behalf of the Ali'i, and is well versed in the history of his family, and the chief titles. Not only his but they will learn to address chiefs of other villages by learning their history and thereby respecting other villages in official ceremonies, and social ceremonies such as weddings.

While this is all going on, there are young men (taulele'a) who stand outside the meeting place ready to act on any small errands that come from the chiefs. And in turn they learn how the meeting is run, hear the verbal transactions and in every way are trained by experience.

With the arrival of missionaries, Samoa absorbed the Christian teachings quickly and applied it to their way of living. The running of the Church structure was similar to the Matai system, and to this day people who hold a Priest, Pastor, Reverend etc title are revered by the Samoan people. With Christianity came the need to analyse the fa'asamoa (samoan way) and possibly do away with practices that were contrary to the teachings of the Bible e.g cannibalism, polygamy etc. So then, the tension of Religion vs Traditions pervaded Samoan society. And the clear roles and identity needed to be clarified. For example, do the Samoan people listen to their religious or village authorities?

Further down the pages of history come the invitation to go to places such as New Zealand with the propects of working and sending money to assist family in Samoa. Again this challenges the roles/identity of the samoan individual as they enter the way of the western world. A world that does not recognise the Matai system, and do not view the samoan individual in the light of the title that the family honoured them with. They were commonly a factory worker, but outside of this mundane monotony, they held positions in the church and in the eyes of their family and even their village members.

Along come their children, (I'm apart of this generation) and we're educated in the western world, all the while learning the fa'asamoa and the teachings of Christianity. And personally, I struggled with the tension of these three areas of my life. In retrospect I knew how to play the characters after years trial and error, consider the following examples:

1. At home I wasn't to look in the eyes of my parents when being instructed or scolded. But at school, the teacher thought it rude that I didn't look in their eyes and they would literally say "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

2. At home you didn't speak unless you were permitted or asked to speak. At school, they encouraged us to speak up. In general discussions, although I wanted to say something, I would wait for the teacher to ask me directly, which seldom occurred.

3. Back chat at home was unacceptable, and Dad and Mum ensured we felt it. At school it seemed the teachers were blase about it.

These are just a few examples, but the confusion led me to know how to act in my respective roles. At home, I played the Samoan kid as best as I could and was trained. And at church, I played good christian boy, and at school by the time I was in my early teens, I was doing everything contrary to my Fa'asamoa and Christian upbringing. By my mid-teens I was confusing the roles, and I had found an outlet but at the cost of disrespecting my parents. By the time I recognised my dilemma, I had decided that by the exceptionally mature age of 17 I would ditch both the Fa'asamoa, and Christian tensions. (Please refer to my "Keep the Faith" Blog to see how my plans didn't turn out the way I intended).

But in identifying this and sharing with other Samoans of my generation, we all agreed that we had all faced these tensions, some handled it better than others, and more friends than I care to admit joined street gangs because the other polynesian kids seemed to relate to their demise.

I know I took a long time to get to this point, but this is why I believe Samoans are good at putting on masks, and worse yet when authority grants them power, and they have a uniform, they have the ability to abuse or empower. Unfortunately those who are insecure about their role and identity choose to abuse.

But this is not just a Samoan dilemma, people of different backgrounds, cultures and upbringing all need to come to terms with these differences.

However, being inconsistent and playing characters isn't healthy. It becomes tiresome and living a lie becomes an individuals truth. The only way I have found to settle this tension is through my Christian upbringing. Jesus says in the bible "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is the way walk you in it. You shall know the Truth, and the truth shall set you free. He that has the Son has life, he who does not have the Son does not have life" John 14:6, Isaiah 3:20, John 8:32, 1 John 5:12".

His example of being consistent in every facet of life has been an awesome testament for me. Not only this but even my parents. My parents are full-fledged proud Samoans BUT they never have in my entire life compromised their commitment to Christ. And now that I know Christ for myself, I see that He was consistent and in his roles as Leader, as Priest, as a life-giver, as creator.....and more, He always served and empowered others. So too, we in our different roles in our various areas of life, can serve and empower. This is what we were created for, this is our life mission.....and all the while I can do this being a New Zealand born Samoan residing in Australia.




  1. While I agree with most of stories I don't think there is necesarily a opposition between the Faasamoa vs Christianity. Faasamoa consist mostly on Christianity and its teaching, the way we as Samoan behave, walk, dress, respond to others and treat each other is consist mainly of Christianity teaching. Before missionaries came to Samoa, they believed in cannibalism and if there was an opposition to the God's way of life then Samoans could've easily chased them away. We weren't helpless to the teaching of missionaries, we didn't just sit there and let them preach and accept what is being told to us. There has to be some sort of acceptance from the Samoans in order for the missionaries to impart their knowledge. That said, your point about western influence on Samoa, its so true. I think the main point of this argument is faalavelave, Samoans know this word very intimately but every time you try to explain to someone that isn't from our Island they have a hard time grasping and accepting that when there is a faalavelave, Faasamoa dictates that we help out, even if its not a direct relation.

    Thank you very much for the enlightening post!!!!

  2. Thanks Anon for your comment. And I apologise for the late reply, I only noticed this in my inbox (I'm still familiarising with blogger). I agree with you about the Fa'asamoa and the ease of transition on most parts. But the best words I can find to explain the tension is from Margaret Meads observation who wrote "Had the young people been inspired with a sense of a responsibility to a heavenly rather than an earthly decree and the boy or girl been answerable to a recording angel, rather than a spying neighbour, religion would have provided a real setting for conflict" p114 "Coming of Age Samoa" Obviously it makes sense in the context of the topic but the quote points out how much Samoans adapt to a structure so much so to a point that they feel responsible to the structure and forget, yea neglect to see that personal character needs correction and growth. e.g. Kids go to church and do all the right things "on stage", and the audience accept what they see, when in reality these kids are partying like there's no tomorrow and not giving two hoots about what they performed "on stage". This is where I believe, tradition still has tension with religion.

    Fa'alavelave's are not such a bad thing, insomuch from the giving end coz it sucks the guts from the wallet, however we don't complain when we're on the receiving end. The expression has it "A mu le lima, e tapa i le iofi" So love it or hate it, the calvary arrive whether you call them or not. Your use of the word "dictates" sounds harsh, but it's too close to the truth.

    Thanks again for your feedback!