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Samoa - The Traditional Village


In every traditional village there is a chief council which is composed of representatives selected by the village families. Among this group is one or more high chiefs also under-chiefs and orators. The group is vested with the power and authority to officiate in all community affairs and village functions. They pass laws and regulations, and they decide on all public matters which concern the welfare of the villagers. Families are very careful in the selection of their Matai (Chief). He must be intelligent, honest and capable as a leader. He must be well versed in the history of the family, their hereditary rights and privileges, as well as their genealogy. He must also know as much of the history, rights and privileges of other families in the village. He should be well versed in the rights and privileges of other villages and political districts. He must prove himself willing to serve and protect the rights and interests of his family, village and district, at all times, at all cost, and with his life if necessary. He should be the legal heir of the chief of the family that preceded him. In case of a broken link the family selects the next in line, if he qualifies. He should also prove that he would not rule with an iron hand, but with love and a real desire to discharge his duties for the benefit and blessing of all.


Samoan chief in traditional head piece, Samoa, c 1910.

Members of the chief council are trained to participate in the ceremonies, rituals and social functions in their own village, as well as in other villages on district affairs, or when they, with chiefs of other villages, assemble to pay tribute in royal funerals and weddings, as well as other celebrations. The high chief in each village is represented in public affairs by his official Tulafale (orator). Orators, being the spokesmen and mouthpieces of the high chiefs, perform their duties cautiously and wisely. Dignity, honour, rights and privileges of the high chief must be guarded and protected always. If the "Talking Chief" is found not equal to the task, in important matters the high chief represents himself and acts as orator for his village or district. It is not unusual for the high chief to demand the orator to be seated as he substitutes him in open-air debates. The honour and rights of his people must be protected any cost. It is for this that all members of the chief council are supposed to be steeped in the general knowledge of the village functions.

When a chief violates any of the codes of ethic and brings dishonour or humiliation upon the village, either by action or spoken word, he is immediately reprimanded. In severe cases he is either fined or deported. The family usually yields to the will of the Village Council, pays the fine and appoints someone to take his position.

Young men, as they serve the chiefs during the various ceremonies and village functions, start at an early age to study the rituals with an eye for the position of chief. Though the duties of a chief carry a lot of responsibilities, it is coveted by most of the male members of every family. The highest aim in the life of many is to become a chief who will be popular, and known for his wisdom and ability to lead his people.

In the high chief's family one of the young men may be selected to assume the role of a Manaia (handsome leading man). He is the representative of the high chief's family in all dances, entertainments, receptions and social functions. Likewise is the Taupou (village maid or virgin) selected, who takes a very important position in the chief's guest house. Either she or the Manaia or both officiate in leading the villagers in all their entertainments and ceremonies. These two positions are recognized by all the guests of the village and are honoured in every village where there is a high chief.

Early images of the Taupou - with traditional head-dress and dancing knife, Samoa.

In the Taalolo (formal presentation of the guest's food supply), either the Manaia or Taupou, or both, lead the group, composed of all the adults in the village, as they proceed, singing and dancing, toward the village central guest house. The ceremony is a common scene in every village of Samoa. All participants in this occasion wear their best Samoan costumes decorated with flowers and perfumed with scented oil. Either the Taupou or the Manaia, or both, wear the distinctive royal headdress (Tuiga), which is the insignia of rank worn exclusively by members of the high chief's family. They lead the group as they march, singing and dancing, and bringing to the village guests the best food in the village - roast pigs and a large variety of delicacies. On special occasions the high chief, himself, or his wife, or both, take the role of the Manaia and Taupou and they wear the headdresses.

Left: King Mataafa, his wife and daughters, Samoa.
Right: King Mataafa (seated) with his aides.

When the supply of food is formally presented to the guests on the high chief's lawn, chiefs among the hosts and guests exchange formal speeches of flowery phrases, and poems of congratulation and appreciation. When the high chiefs have properly showered their salutations through the talking chiefs of both parties, in the best phrases from their vocabulary, the selected attendant from the guests announces at the top of his voice what food was received in the presentation. He concludes by inviting any other visitors that are then in the village to make themselves known, in order that they may be presented with a share of the feast. Shares for all ministers of different denominations that are serving in the village are announced and the delivered. If the guests are staying overnight in the village, the villagers join the guests in the evening for family prayers with more food. The guest and hosts then dine together and spend the night exchanging island songs and dances. Parties of this sort are usually lively and fantastic.

Early traditional wedding ceremony, Samoa.

In the villager there are several guest houses. There should be as many guest houses as there are holders of hereditary chief and orator titles. The main guest house, however, which is usually in the center of the village is that of the highest chief of the village. In it the guests of honour are received and housed. It is the center of all village functions. Other members of the visiting groups are assigned to occupy other guest houses. Food and sleeping accommodations in any of these guest houses are given gladly, free of charge and without any thought of remuneration whatsoever. Visitors may stay as long as they wish and they are very well served and entertained.

The position of a chief is a profession. Holders of titles are, as a result of their training, very considerate, humble and polite. The word aiga (family) in Samoa does not mean the immediate family group of a father, mother and children. The word has a very broad meaning in Samoa, and also in other islands of Polynesia. All distant relatives are included in the family circle. Favouritism is never shown by the chiefs at any time. This is the way they teach their families unity and cooperation. Loyalty to the chief and his family is evident in the villages all over Samoa. To the Samoans it is a sacred obligation. Undoubtedly it is the spirit of helping each other that has made them a devoted, lovable and exceedingly happy people.


To avoid the frequent use of the chief's name, he is addressed in the family circle as "father' or "old man." However, in the guest house and in public, he is properly addressed as a chief should be. The term "old man" is revered in the family. It is a recognition of his much-appreciated, long service as a father and adviser. Being old, he is considered mature in judgment. The term is never intended as an insult, as it sometimes is among the Europeans.

Children in the village are named at birth to commemorate some great event of the time, such as war, famine, storm, sorrow, happiness, poverty, or wealth. Often these names are offered in courts of justice and at village council investigations to help trace past events, as well as to establish dates of historic events of the past for the families and the villages.

In the village a person carries only one name - the given name - without a surname. When a person becomes a chief he carries only his chief's name. This custom has created much trouble for the Samoans when they travel abroad, where they meet immigration officers. For identification the Samoans now are required to establish a surname.

Titles to family land are vested in the chief. The present Land and Title Commissions in British and American Samoa honour the chief's right. However, the chief always consults members of the family on important matters, such as exchanging or selling lands to another Samoan. Selling of lands to foreigners is at present prohibited by law. Should the chief act contrary to the will and wish of the family or against their common interest for his own personal gain, he is forced to forfeit his right as a chief and another is appointed to succeed him. The rights of the family in cases of this are upheld by the Courts of Justice and also the village chief council.

The most popular chiefs are the ones who can keep their families together. The system in the village is somewhat similar to that of the old biblical United Order with the chief acting now as the Bishop acted then to watch over the family and evenly distribute the fruit of their labour for the personal welfare and benefit of all concerned. The work of construction of houses and canoes is done mostly by free labour, furnished by the villagers by order of the chiefs who also donate their time and help supervise the work. Chiefs are duty-bound to give their whole-hearted support to all their fellow members. Farm produce and fish caught by the families are shared with the less fortunate ones in their neighbourhood. This system has unquestionably made the Samoans a generous and happy people, though it seems peculiar to the rest of the world.

Portions of this Web site are from Samoa, the Polynesian Paradise by Kipeni Su'apa'ia, Ph.D.
published by Exposition Press, New York, 1962.

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