SYNONYMS: Tagata Samoa

Identification and Location. There is no generally agreed upon explanation of the meaning of the name “Samoa.” According to one Samoan version, the name is compounded of “Sa,” meaning “tribe, people of,” and “Moa,” which means “chicken,” referring to the “family” of the Tui Manu'a, the highest-ranking titleholder of eastern (American) Samoa. Another proposal suggests that linguistic evidence points to the meaning of Samoa as “people of the ocean or deep sea.”The Samoan Archipelago (about 3,000 square kilometers in land area) lies in western Polynesia in the central Pacific, from 13° to 15°S to 173°W. The Manu'a group (Ta'u, Ofu, and Olosega), Tutuila, and 'Aunu'u comprise the Territory of American Samoa; 'Upolu, Manono, Apolima, and Savai'i make up the Independent State of Western Samoa. The islands are of volcanic origin. Beyond the coastal plains, the mountain ranges rise steeply to a maximum of 1,859 meters on Savai'i. The climate is tropical with abundant rainfall. Humidity averages 80 percent. The average monthly temperature ranges from 22° to 30° C.

Demography. In 1980, the Samoan population was about 188,000 (American Samoa: 32,000; Western Samoa: 156,000). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the aboriginal population of Western Samoa was estimated at 35,000; the aboriginal population of Tutuila was estimated at 3,900 in 1865. The Samoan Islands are the home of the largest concentration of full-blooded Polynesians in the world. Today, many Samoans live and work abroad, mainly in New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and California.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Samoan language belongs to the Polynesian Group of Austronesian languages. There are no dialects; except for minor local variants the same language is spoken on all the Samoan Islands.

History and Culture
Settlement of the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa area by people belonging to the prehistoric Melanesian Lapita culture took place between about 1500 and 1000 B.C. Genealogical, mythological, and linguistic evidence suggests that relations with both Tonga and Fiji were maintained throughout the prehistoric period, with intermarriage occurring among the upper classes especially of the Samoan and Tongan population. The first European to sight the Samoan Islands in 1722 was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, though he did not land there. In about 1800 some isolated European sailors and escaped convicts settled on Samoa, bringing with them the first notion of Christianity. In 1830, the missionary John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) landed in Savai'i during a power struggle among factions, bringing with him native Polynesian missionaries from Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The first permanent European missionaries arrived in 1835 (LMS and Methodists), followed by Roman Catholic priests in 1845. During the nineteenth century, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States strove for influence among the diverse Samoan factions. In 1900, Western Samoa became a German colony (until 1914) and Eastern Samoa was claimed by the United States. From 1914 to 1962, New Zealand administered Western Samoa, which became an independent state in 1962, with kings Malietoa Tanumafili II and Tupua Tamasese Mea'ole serving as joint heads of state. Before World War II, administrative policies by the New Zealand administration led to the “Mau,” a resistance movement (1926-1936) that mustered the support of about 90 percent of the Samoan population at its height. American Samoa remains a United States territory. After constitutional changes, Peter Tali Coleman became the first elected native Samoan governor in 1977.

The Samoans have been mainly a coast-dwelling people living in self-governing, autonomous towns (nu'u) linked by political and ceremonial alliances. Households center on the sacred central place (malae) of each nu'u where the ranking high chief's assembly house is also situated. Town populations range between 300 and 1,200 persons and average 450 to 600 persons. In the middle of the last century, town populations averaged 200 to 500 persons. However, a census taken of twenty-two towns in the district of Aana, Western Upolu, Manono, and Apolima in 1867 shows that town populations ranged between 40 and 310 persons only, the mean being 164 persons. In the nineteenth century, there were a few inland settlements, too. In recent years, there has been a tendency to give up settlements along the coast and to shift towns to newly built roads farther inland.

Subsistence. The Samoans are horticulturalists, raising tubers (taro and yams) on a swidden basis. They also grow bananas, breadfruit, and coconuts and supplement their diet through fishing. They raise chickens and pigs, too, but pork is reserved as a special food for ceremonial occasions. Hunting for runaway pigs is still practiced with the help of dogs, but it's probably done more for sport than for food. Pigeon snaring also formerly served as an entertainment and as a sporting event. Terracing and irrigation are not practiced. There are small house gardens for raising staple foods in the back of the households, but the main taro gardens often lie 3-4 kilometers farther inland. The primary cultigens are taro and breadfruit. Contact with Europeans resulted in the addition of new sorts of bananas and vegetables, which are grown today mainly by the small Chinese population for consumption and sale.

Commercial. Many Samoan families earn a small income by selling coconuts to the Western Samoan Trust Estate Corporation, which does the processing. There are many small family businesses, shops, and guest houses, the majority of them in Apia, the capital of Western Samoa. In many local communities there is a small shop where locals can buy a limited range of products, many of them imported.

Industrial. Aboriginal crafts included the making of bark cloth, house building, boat building, and tattooing. House builders, boat builders, and tattooers were organized in guilds. They met the demands of prestige consumption, since small boats and houses were and are built by the male members of each household. Mat weaving is practiced by women.

Trade. There was only a limited amount of interregional trade in precontact times. Samoan fine mats ('ie toga) were exchanged for parrots and red parrot feathers from Tonga and sometimes from Fiji. Intraregional trade, too, was limited. Some regions and places were noted for their products, such as nets, which are said to have been made mostly by towns in the interior. Some places were noted for their boats, adzes, and kava bowls. After contact with the Europeans, trade of coconut products (oil and copra) was encouraged by the missionaries, but it became a regular and important activity only after the German firm of Godeffroy and Son from Hamburg founded a branch in Apia, Western Samoa, in 1857. Traders were stationed in Samoa and on other Pacific islands, but there was also direct trading with the Samoans. In 1865, the firm established its first coconut plantations. Today, Western Samoa is dependent on the world market, its three most important export items being copra, cocoa, and bananas. Western Samoan governments seek to promote tourism, and beer brewing may develop into a profitable enterprise, at least for the regional market.

Division of Labor. Men do the more strenuous agricultural work, such as clearing and planting with a pointed hardwood digging stick, while women may weed and help in harvest activities. Men are responsible for fishing beyond the reef and for cooking; they engage in toolmaking, house and boat building, and ornament making. Women look after the household, raise the children, and plait mats and fans; formerly they also made bark cloth. They collect edible wild plants to supplement the diet and they forage in the lagoon and reef for small sea animals.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, the widest social unit for landownership was the community (nu'u). Its domain included all the territory from the central mountain ridge to the reef. The heads (matai) of the different descent groups ('aiga) of the community were entitled to claim blocks of land for themselves and their dependents. Overall authority over lands, however, was vested in the council of matai (fono), whose members could revoke ownership of the respective 'aiga. Individuals had the right to occupy and cultivate the land of the descent group to which they belonged. When Western Samoa became independent, 80.5 percent of its territory was still considered customary land, administered outside the statute law in accordance with traditional principles of tenure; 3.7 percent of the land was freehold; 11.3 percent was government land; and the Western Samoan Trust Estate Corporation owned 4.5 percent. American Samoa, too, has provisions that restrict ownership of land to Samoans.

Kin Groups and Descent. In Samoa there are overlapping cognatic descent groups ('aiga) with an emphasis on agnation. Each descent group has a localized section in a community where its lands and chiefly (matai) titles traditionally belong; other members live in other communities on the lands of other 'aiga. Localized sections hold and allocate land to their members, regulate marriage, and control conflict among members. Between the descent groups there exist multifarious relationships that are genealogically explained, forming ramified descent structures, both at the community and at the supracommunity level. Not all of these structures are descent groups in the strict anthropological sense of the term, however, since in some of them only matai are members. These structures are 'aiga in a metaphorical sense only. They play an important part in supracommunity territorial integration.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow a Hawaiian-type system.

Marriage and Family
Marriage. Members of the father's and mother's descent groups are forbidden as marriage partners, and community endogamy is also discouraged. Bride and groom should be of similar rank. Today, a church wedding is an important and costly affair, but many marriages are still customary ones, man and wife living together with their parents' consent after the appropriate exchange of goods. Premarital virginity is highly valued and a girl's moral code prohibits sexual relations with a man unless she is recognized as his wife. Customary marriages among younger people frequently end in divorce, however, and the partners may have undergone several such marriages before eventually contracting a church wedding. Residence tends to be virilocal, but during the early stages of married life a couple frequently resides with the wife's family. In pre-Christian times, polygyny was practiced, although probably only by matai of high rank.

Domestic Unit. The localized section of a descent group, forming an extended family and living in a group of houses clustered around a common hearth, is the customary domestic unit. In modern times, the nuclear family has become more frequent.

Inheritance. Members of the descent group retain rights to use and control of customary land occupied and cultivated by their 'aiga, regardless of where they live. The same applies to matai titles that are not subject to any automatic inheritance rule. A family council will decide to confer a vacant title upon a member—usually male—whom they consider to be the best choice. Especially with regard to high titles, however, agnatic succession is preferred.

Socialization. Starting at about 1½ years of age, children become subject to an education Europeans would label as “authoritarian.” They are expected to obey their parents and elders at once, without hesitation and without asking questions. Overt and direct expressions of hostility and aggression are discouraged, but musu, the state of sullen unwillingness to comply with orders, is a culturally tolerated outlet. Much of the actual education work takes place in the peer groups where older brothers and especially sisters are made responsible for the behavior of their younger siblings. Formal education in schools is considered essential for the well-being of the entire family today and parents usually encourage some of their children to remain in high school.

Sociopolitical Organization
Social Organization. Rank goes with age and the position a matai title holds within the complicated title structure. An older sister ranks higher than her brother. The descendants of a sister still enjoy a special respected status within the descent group. Christianity has emphasized the status of the wife, however, and the sister's position is not as pronounced today as it once was. Within most descent groups, there are two sets of matai: aristocrats (ali'i), who embody the group's dignity; and orators (tulafale), who take a more official role when they speak on behalf of the ali'i at certain formal public events. Each matai supervises and looks after the family under his immediate control and is responsible for it vis-à-vis the community.

Political Organization. Communities (nu'u) are politically independent but are organized into districts and subdistricts for ceremonial purposes. Aboriginally, war, too, was a supracommunity concern. Ceremonies on a supracommunity level often focus on the life-crisis rites of certain very high-ranking titleholders, the tama-a-'aiga, which are not to be confused with matai and should rather be called kings. Formal political control within the community is exercised by the council of matai (fono) with the 'aumaga (the untitled men's organization) serving as executive body. Women's committees exist today in all communities, playing an important role in community affairs as an unofficial arm of local government. They replace or complement the aualuma, the group made up of the sisters and daughters of the community, which played an important ceremonial role in former times.

Social Control. Informal social control is exercised through gossip and was formerly aided by the open Samoan houses, which prevented privacy. Formal control is exercised through the fono, which retains the right to expel individuals and, in rare cases, entire 'aiga from the community and its lands.

Conflict. In aboriginal times and throughout the nineteenth century, conflicts over titles and lands often resulted in wars. Such cases are adjudicated today by special law courts. Competitiveness—such as evidenced in, for instance, the zeal of untitled men to distinguish themselves as good servants to their matai, in oratory, in donations to the church, etc.—adds areas of conflict to social life.

Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Today, Samoans are devout Christians, following diverse Protestant denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic church. Pre-Christian beliefs in ancestor-spirits (aitu) are still widespread, but they are not openly confessed vis-à-vis Europeans. Aitu formerly were family gods, and they have retained their character as locally associated and kinship-bound deified ancestors. There was a belief in a supreme being, Tangaloa, but Samoa probably never developed a national cult like that of the Society Islands or Hawaii. Tangaloa was a deus otiosus who withdrew after having caused the emergence of the islands and set in motion the process which led to the evolution of natural phenomena and, ultimately, humans. Aitu were the active numinous beings who interfered directly in everyday life.

Religious Practitioners. In aboriginal times, each matai was a religious practitioner responsible for the worship of the family aitu. Some matai played paramount roles as oracles of particular aitu of supralocal importance. Today, matai continue to lead family prayers (to the Christian God), but there are also native pastors, trained in local theological seminaries, and priests who conduct formal church services.

Ceremonies. Many native ceremonies focus on life-cycle rites. Attendance is an expression of the rank of the persons involved. The kava ceremony, in which a beverage prepared from the 'ava root (Piper methysticum) was consumed in ceremonial style, was performed to honor important guests and to mark important social events, such as the deliberations of the fono.

Arts. Oratory, dancing, singing, and tattooing continue to be means of aesthetic expression. Today, hymns for church services are an important outlet for expressive needs. The traditional art of bark-cloth (siapo) making and printing is not very widespread today.

Medicine. In aboriginal times, disease was supposed to be caused by the wrath of some particular aitu. Treatment was sought with the aid of the special matai, Taulaitu (whose name means “anchor of the Aitu”). They were asked to intercede with the aitu they represented. Various herbs and plants were administered and massage was also applied.

Death and Afterlife. Samoans believe in the dichotomous character of human nature. The separation of the “soul” (agaga) and body (tino) is tantamount to death. That the agaga continued to live after death as an aitu was the focal topic of the pre-Christian religion. There are various accounts of an afterworld, but no uniform picture of its nature can be gleaned from the historical and ethnographic sources.



Cain, Horst (1979). Aitu. Eine Untersuchung zur Autochthonen Religion der Samoaner. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Finney, Joseph C. (1973). “The Meaning of the Name Samoa.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 82:301-303.

Gilson, R. P. (1970). Samoa 1830 to 1900. The Politics of a Multi-Cultural Community. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, Lowell D. (1974). Samoan Village. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 

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