American Samoa Culture

A photograph of American Samoa women, dated 1897.
A photograph of American Samoa women,
dated 1897. from

The Polynesian inhabitants of the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific are called Samoans. These people are recognized as the best representatives of the remarkable and interesting Polynesian race, and their traditions hold that these islands were the center from which the race spread to other Pacific Islands. The Samoans have long best famous as sailors and boat builders, and they have many legends and tales of great beauty and interest. They are a folk of splendid physical build, showing marked likenesses to the Caucasians. Practically all are now Christians, and they have shown keen appreciation of the education offered by the mission schools.The Samoan people have up to twenty dwellers in their homes at the same time; all family, these people do not concern themselves with privacy. Everything is done together and as many ancient cultures do, the elders are the most respected and highly regarded members of the family. These of the elder generation are responsible for making family decisions and teaching the children about their culture, their values and traditions. Children learn about their culture on their own initiative without explanations from the elders. They in essence “watch and learn” from others in the family. At first, children perform tasks with supervision, perhaps working alongside an older brother or sister. Children are highly motivated in this race to observe the behavior being modeled and they spontaneously imitate the action, receiving corrective feedback if they do something wrong. They are never given an explanation of the nature of the wrong they did, but are expected to figure it out on their own. This may explain why there is little need for a legal system in this culture. The American Samoans must acquire knowledge of their culture by observation, imitation and incremental participation. The rules or perceptual concepts shape their skills and experiences.

In keeping with the relationship between elders and children, these cultures are organized in the minds of the people as simplified models of what the world is like, how one ought to act and feel and think. This knowledge, developed from prior experience and observation for example, would lend itself to the obvious initiation of helping an elder who is passing by with a heavy basket on a hot day. The Samoan children are raised to know that if this takes place, they should offer to carry the heavy basket, bring the elder into the shade and serve them a cool drink.

While the parents work making their wares and farming the ground throughout the week, Sundays are still today considered a day of rest. With a largely Christian population, the churches are many on the islands of Samoa and are usually very well attended. Afterwards, the American Samoans will sit and eat as a family with the elders being the first to partake of the meal. After the oldest members of the family eat, the children are then allowed to eat. The food served during the meal is consistent with island fare, coconut being used in many dishes, fruits and crayfish along with seaweed and breadfruit leaves are the most common foods eaten in this culture.

The American Samoa parents who work all week are busy making siapo, which is beaten mulberry bark with pictures painted on them. Using a natural brown dye, pictures of fish and flowers are painted on with skill and precision learned by watching the elders. Others use siapo to make clothing as well as decorations for homes. Mats, ornaments and jewelry are made in addition to hair accessories made of natural island materials like seashells and coconuts. Many parents work in modern type occupations in addition to the traditional ones. Tuna production in the American Samoa culture is very large. With about 5,000 workers, the American company StarKist exports several hundred million dollars of StarKist canned tuna to the United States.

Not everyday is filled with just work and learning, there are recreational things that the American Samoa enjoys participating in. Rugby Union and Samoan Cricket are two of the most popular sports played in the Polynesian Islands. These people have not limited themselves to competition within their own race. The Rugby World Cup has seen Samoans in the quarter finals for years as well as the Pacific Nations Cup and the Pacific Tri-Nations. There are clubs and teams that form leagues and have done very well in other major competitive gatherings such as the Rugby League World Cup and the Australian Football International Cup. There are also about thirty of the American National Football League players who are ethnic Samoans. Wrestling is also a popular recreational activity and some have seen success in the competitive wrestling arena in America.

The cultural influences are largely European with Scottish and Irish as well as some southern influence from Asian cultures. The Chinese New Year (this year, the year of the Pig) and Diwali are celebrated by the American Samoans and large festivals (Pasifika) are held in honor of these holidays. Music and film are also prevalent in the American Samoan culture. The most famous for its international success is Jane Campion’s Academy Award winning film The Piano. The Lord of the Ring’s trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, also part of the Polynesian Islands and another famous actress, Lucy Lawless who played Zena in the once popular warrior show also comes from these islands.

With so much of the responsibility for protecting and defending the American Samoans, it is amazing that more is not known about these people by American citizens. A fascinating group of individuals, the society of the American Samoan could benefit us greatly overseas if more of their values were reflected in our own society.