An Introduction to Samoan Custom
CHAPTER II — The Organisation of Samoan Society
The Organisation of Samoan Society
A consideration of the conditions likely to be met on a malaga cannot usefully be attempted without a prior understanding of something of the structure of Samoan society. The fundamental elements of the organisation of the family and the village will therefore be dealt with in this chapter. It will probably be necessary for the reader to refer from time to time to this section in order to render clearer certain points in some of the chapters that follow. It is the basis only of Samoan society that will be discussed here; the explanation will not extend to a consideration of district and what may be termed national political organisation.
* It follows, therefore, that Samoans may belong to many families, since a woman marrying into another family confers on all her blood descendants membership of her own. In Samoan custom relationship may be claimed through female as well as male ancestors.
Adoption is not an uncommon feature of Samoan family custom; it may occur by reason of relationship, friendship or because of a lack of young people in the family concerned. There is no ceremony or formality associated with the practice. The boy or girl is taken into the family and insensibly with the passage of years and a record of good service comes to be regarded as one of the family.
It is the usual custom for a girl who marries to become a member of and live with the family of her husband. It is permissible, however, for a husband to live with his wife's family and serve her matai. The status of wife or husband in either of these two cases depends entirely upon acceptance by the family concerned, and the newcomers must be careful that their conduct is submissive and not such as to alienate people on whose bounty they depend. It is the usual practice for a woman whose husband has died to return to her own village; if she remains, her position is not very secure, especially if there are no children of the marriage, and she must be particularly careful to give no offence to the family or to any new matai who may have been appointed.
The matai bears a family name or title which succeeds from one holder to another. He thus has at least two names, his family name which he assumes only when he becomes head of the family, and his untitled name given to him some time after birth. A matai is addressed always by his title, and different holders of the same title may be distinguished from each other by appending the ordinary or untitled name. Where a matai is referred to by both his names his matai name is mentioned first. Thus a boy may have received the name Ioane (John) shortly after birth. Later he becomes head of one of the branches of the large Papali'i family and is addressed formally as Papali'i. To distinguish him from other holders of the Papali'i title, he will be known as Papali'i Ioane. There is nothing in Samoan custom to prevent a matai holding two or more page 12 titles, as intermarriage through many generations has united many of the leading families.
A title or family name may be split or shared, and there may be two or more holders concurrently. Indeed, certain well-known titles have been widely divided. Thus a family may remain one unit and look to two or more holders of their family name to protect their interests, or the family may actually break up into separate and distinct branches, each acknowledging as their head one particular matai, and neither interfering with the domestic affairs of the other. The relationship between branches, however, will not cease to be acknowledged, and the whole family will meet and act together if circumstances make this necessary or desirable.
All outward expressions of the respect and esteem in which a family may be held both by the village and the district or the whole of Samoa, may properly be directed to the matai. He is, so to speak, the trustee of the good name of the family and the fountain-head to which all ceremonial recognition of the status of his family is due. He is responsible for the proper maintenance of the dignity of his family and the adequate performance of their social obligations. If the matai is not shown proper respect on any occasion, that omission is resented as a slight to the family themselves. On the other hand, if the conduct of the matai in any way falls short of the standard expected, the displeasure of the community and the shame associated therewith will be shared by the family.
The world taule'ale'a in the Samoan language denotes a young man, but any untitled man, however mature his age, is known as a taule'ale'a, and ranks with others of similar status, although amongst themselves the untitled men will respect his greater age and experience. The group comprising the untitled men of the village is known as the 'aumaga, and the unmarried daughters of chiefs and orators are known as the aualuma, a group which is headed by a girl of rank termed a taupou, who is guarded by the old widow of some important matai. Many of the customs surrounding the aualuma are now, however, falling into abeyance, and there are few villages where the conditions of aualuma life are maintained with all the old strictness.
Without going deeply into an interesting and rather technical subject, a short reference may be made to the manner of choosing a matai or family head. Succession is not necessarily from father to eldest son, but all within the wide family group are eligible. The whole family meet and page 13 choose one whose conduct has commended him to them, questions of blood connections and descent, service to the family and previous holders of the title, and personal suitability all being taken into consideration. Even a stranger who has been adopted into the family and who has distinguished himself by unusual devotion and service to the family may be chosen, and there are many well-known instances of this having been done in important families. A woman may be appointed head of a family but this is not common, although there are authentic cases where women have had conferred on them important titles of even paramount political significance.
It is correct to state that there is no definite known person or heir who is entitled as of right to succeed a matai as the head of the family on the latter's death. As indicated above, it is the family concerned in most cases who decide on the basis of the qualifications already indicated. There are two further points, however, which may properly be referred to here. One relates to an element in Samoan custom termed toe o le uso which may be fairly translated as “the right of the remaining brother.”
On the death of a matai, if there should be a surviving brother, custom concedes that he has a very good claim indeed to be the next holder of the title. This privilege, however, is not exclusive or rigid, and must be considered in relation to the other qualifications that such a person can adduce in support of his claim. It is fair to say, however, that if such a candidate has served the previous matai and has attended faithfully to the interests of the family on all proper occasions, it is very difficult indeed in Samoan custom to set his claim aside. Thus, if there are many members of the family who possess approximately equally allthe other necessary qualifications, then it would be to the surviving brother that the right of appointment would normally go.
The other point refers to the custom of mavaega, relating to the practice of important chiefs of nominating their successors before death. Although this right was the prerogative only of the more influential chiefs and depended to a large extent upon the authority the chief had been accustomed to wield during his active years, yet the effect of such a pronouncement was not altogether divorced from acceptance by the family concerned. Acceptance was, however, likely to follow if the nominee was a suitable person and especially if the family felt any reason to fear an expression of dissatisfaction by the unquiet spirit of a page 14 powerful chief in the event of his wishes not being carried into effect after his death. This custom is tending to fall into desuetude in modern times.
Thus, although there is a sharp difference of status as between titled (chiefs or orators) and untitled persons, progress from untitled to titled rank is the normal aspiration sooner or later of most adult males.* The higher social grades are thus not closed or exclusive as is the case with certain other Polynesian peoples. There is a mutual interdependence and recognition of titled and untitled people, and each group has its recognised and respected place in the community. Social groups in Samoa are therefore complementary: on the one hand, respect, obedience and service with the hope of a later improvement in status, and on the other, a prudent appreciation of the essential contribution of the untitled members of society. Where social inferiors feel dissatisfaction at treatment received they are at liberty to withdraw their support and attach themselves to some other branch of their family connections in another part of the country, and thus a large measure of social equilibrium and social justice is maintained.
When a matai has been chosen by those entitled to do so and for the qualities that Samoan society esteems, he must address himself to preparations for his saofa'i, or election feast, which is a ceremony to mark his assumption of his new dignity. This is an opportunity for the new matai to demonstrate his chiefly status by a lavish distribution of food. For the assumption of an important title, the expenses of the saofa'i can be very heavy, and a wait of some months may intervene between election and consecration to afford the new incumbent the opportunity of acquiring the necessary cash or food-stuffs. Bullocks, pigs, kegged or tinned beef or fish, biscuits, bread, seafood, poultry, talo, breadfruit, ta'amu and other food may all contribute to a total expenditure that would astonish a European inexperienced in these matters.
* Out of a census total in 1945 of 62,422, 31,834 were males. 16,486 of the latter were over 14 years old, and of these 3,497 were described as matai or heads of families.
Titles in Samoa do not all rank together as equal in importance. The various grades will be indicated later in this chapter, but it may be stated that the principles of consecration mentioned above are similar for all. There may, however, be some difference in the degree of formality for different titles, and for the more important it may be proper to include the presentation of ceremonial fine mats ('ie toga) in the proceedings. For the ceremony of election to an ordinary matai name, the kava cup would be served to the new matai after recognition to the leading chief of the village, but where the new appointment is to the leading title of the village, then the first cup would be served to the new appointee.
Near the end of a long life of service for the family, a matai may feel the burden of his position pressing too heavily upon his aged shoulders. He may then call his family together and after expressing his wish to retire from the burden of leadership, he may ask the family to choose some other holder of the title. When this has been done the old man will announce his proposal to the assembled village and introduce his successor whose saofa'i will of course take place with due ceremony at some suitable time. Thereafter, custom will permit him to take his usual place in the assembly of the chiefs and orators without being troubled to any serious extent in respect of responsibility either as regards the family or the village. His cup will be distributed to him as usual in kava ceremonies, sometimes to him first and then to the new matai, or vice versa; occasionally he may even receive a place of honour at the end of the entire ceremony. Such a retired matai will wisely leave the greater part of the duties to his successor, putting forward an opinion occasionally without ostentation to help the new matai, who, if he wishes to win the approbation both of his predecessor and the village, will be careful from time to time to show respect and recognition to the old man. And so the latter ends his days in peace and quietness, treated with that peculiar delicacy and consideration of which Samoan custom can be so plesantly capable when the circumstances are favourable.
Reference has already been made to the possible organisation of a family into separate and distinct branches. Another aspect of family organisation which is very important indeed in Samoan custom, is that which deals with the page 16 male and female lines of descent of a family. A proper consideration of the interplay of rights and duties in two such lines of descent would open up the very wide field of the relationship known as the feagaiga, and lies far outside the elementary scope of this book. The respectful and traditional relationships raised by the feagaiga permeate the whole of Samoan society, and must always be taken into account at the time of the choice of a new matai and on other important occasions including marriages and deaths. This passing reference must suffice here.
The family land is administered by the matai for the benefit of all members of the family who elect to live thereon and serve the matai. Work is shared by the members of the family including the older generation, the bulk of the heavier work being attended to by the young people of both sexes who contribute food products from the land and sea. Samoan custom defines clearly which duties are the functions of males and which of females. The activities of the family are normally under the direction of the matai, particularly those relating to the use of land and the working of plantations. He also distributes or apportions the proceeds of the work, especially any cash income, although custom in this matter is at the present day suffering in some degree from the stress of modern social and economic changes. Generally speaking, however, until recent times and under normal conditions of social equilibrium, all concerned have contributed their quota willingly enough to a system that is so organised as to hold out the hope of some future improvement in status.
In theory at least the dignity of leadership of the family may be removed by the same authority that confers it, although in the days that preceded settled government the final resort in social as in political differences was probably that of force. At the present time families who feel that they have good reasons for wishing to change their matai, unless the latter respects their views and consents, usually find it necessary to make a petition to the Native Land and Titles Court for an investigation of their opinion. Their case has of course to be a very good one if the petition is to succeed.
Women take their position from that of husband or parent and their status in the community changes accordingly with that of their men-folk. When women assemble for the conduct of their share in village organisation, the interplay of respect is the same as that between men, and when kava is distributed at their meetings, the order of page 17 precedence is on a similar basis. Women's-kava is not, however, so common now as it was formerly.
This short study provides an incomplete and yet perhaps for present purposes a sufficient outline of the basis or ultimate unit upon which Samoan society rests.
It has been shown that a matai, acting if necessary with the advice and consent of members of the family, controls all the affairs of the family, who look to him for guidance and assistance in their time of need. It is now necessary to consider how the affairs of the village are directed, and the measure of authority excercised by the controlling body. A village comprises groups of families, either claiming descent from a common ancestor, or allied for traditional, matrimonial or other reasons.
The titular head and representative of each family is the matai, and village affairs are controlled and directed by a council of all the matai of the village. This group meets regularly, usually on Monday mornings, and on such other occasions as required, to decide any issues in village affairs or to enquire by a system of taking oaths, called tautoga, into any misdemeanours, and each family or matai acknowledges the authority of any decision reached after full discussion by the village council or fono. Although each matai controls his own family land, the fono normally exercises authority in matters relating to the lay-out and the precincts of the village itself, the reception of visitors, the use of water holes, the drawing up of local village laws or rules, the imposition of “fines” according to Samoan custom, (generally of foodstuffs) for the breach of a village law or rule, the consideration of or adjudication upon the conduct of any matai of the village, and generally speaking any aspect of the communal life that calls for a wider and more general control than that exercised by a matai. Matters requiring decision are debated until unanimity is reached and all signify their agreement. Majority voting or decision in the strict European sense has no place in Samoan custom, which prefers a show of unanimity even if a minority yield a point only as a respectful gesture.
A matai whose conduct has been called into question or who does not accept the otherwise unanimous opinion of the fono in regard to some decision, may carry his view to the extent of refusing to accept the decision. He may be prevailed upon to retract, but if he persists in his attitude, especially if that attitude covers a refusal to pay a fine of foodstuffs to the remainder of the matai, then he will probably be expelled from the faiganu'u or the fa'alenu'u page 18 which means in effect that his social status and that of his family are no longer recognised. He is not allowed to attend meetings of the fono or to express his opinion on any matter that has come up for discussion; he is ostracised, and any assistance that he may offer in the maintenance or entertainment of village guests would be refused. He and his family cease to take part in village affairs until the breach is healed by the offering and acceptance of his apology and usually the provision of a pig and other foodstuffs to mark his re-entry into social life.
The matai may be prepared to concede his fault, but public opinion may be such that he must for a time retire from social life. In such a case he will probably retire temporarily from the village, living with family connections elsewhere, and after a suitable interval he will make enquiries to ascertain whether or not his punishment is regarded as sufficient. If it is, he will return, make his apology and presentation of food, and be taken back into the social life of the village.
There is no legal compulsion for a matai under sentence as discussed above to leave his village if he does not wish to do so, but neither is there any legal compulsion on a village to take him back into the village life. In many cases, such a matai will accept the sentence and actually leave the village in order to demonstrate his respect for the remainder of the chiefs and orators and as the quickest means of securing forgiveness after a suitable interval has elapsed. A chief or orator who asks for the protection of the law in setting aside a sentence of physical banishmenet imposed by a village, as he is legally entitled to do, will certainly be ostracised for a much longer period and incur far greater displeasure than would otherwise be the case. Humble submission to the will of his brothers is the quickest way to forgiveness and reinstatement, and the wise man adopts that course.
This point has been discussed in some detail in order to demonstrate an important result. No such chief or orator who has been put out of the faiganu'u can, while his expulsion lasts, act as an effective link between his village and the outside world. He would not, therefore, be a suitable person with whom to discuss matters affecting the village or with whom arrangements should be made for a visit. This fact will be referred to again at a later stage.
It may happen that a disaffected matai may secure the support of and gather about him a section of the village who are either related to him or closely in sympathy with his page 19 views for some other reason. The village will then organise itself into two sections, each of which will continue to function as a village unit so far as that is possible. Such village divisions may continue for years and care must then be exercised to avoid dealing with one section as if the people comprising it did in fact represent the complete village.
An orator chief (tulafale ali'i) is one who unites in his person the dignity of both a chief and an orator. The origin of such dual rank in most instances goes back many hundreds of years, and in some cases the holder of such a dignity has a standing and perhaps also a political influence that extends far beyond his own village. An orator chief, if his chiefly rank permits it, will occupy the principal post at the end of a Samoan house rather than the post in the front of a house reserved for a leading orator. It is his chiefly rank that will receive first recognition although his position as an orator will be brought into prominence when it is in his own interests to do so. Strangely enough, leading orator chiefs are usually addressed with the honorifics of an orator.
In all villages which are a separate entity in the political structure of Samoa there is an orator or group of orators whose special duty it is to know all the traditional stories and genealogies affecting that particular village. Some villages are so organised politically in relation to the country as a whole that the group of orators referred to suffice for the performance of all necessary functions. In others, however, as a mark of special respect and dignity, the village may choose one of their orators to fill a position known as tu'ua. Not every village chooses a tu'ua. Such a person must enjoy high personal rank as an orator and have a degree of knowledge relating to village and perhaps district affairs which fits him for the position. Considerable deference is paid to him and it is to him that the village looks thereafter for pronouncements on any disputed point. The tu'ua is the one entitled to sit in the middle post of the front of a house and if he should arrive late or unexpectedly at a village meeting and that post is already occupied, the place will be vacated at once and left open for him.
There are certain villages which are the residences of important chiefs termed sa'o whose titles may be traced back far into the past. Not every village can claim this particular distinction, not necessarily because it is not of the required degree of importance, but because it may be organised socially or politically in an altogether different page 20 manner. Some villages or sub-villages, for instance, may be composed of groups of orators with a very real importance in the political structure of the country. Such differences in structure and of particular customs associated therewith call for a good deal of knowledge and care in estimating the importance of this or that village.
The sa'o is usually the head of a group of chiefs termed usoali'i, generally united by ties of kinship or tradition, whose common history can be traced back to the foundation of the particular village in question. The usoali'i owe a duty of allegiance and service to the sa'o who is charged amongst other duties with the protection and advancement of the interests of the whole group. All the chiefs of the village are not necessarily members of the usoali'i although it is possible for other matai with the consent of the sa'o and others concerned to be admitted to the distinction of membership of the group. In certain villages there are groups of chiefs sometimes all bearing the same title, known as usoali'i, who are not headed by any particular sa'o, and other usoali'i are composed in some cases both of chiefs and orators. Samoan custom in this, as in other instances, is not rigid; different villages have different constitutions.
All matai, whether chiefs or orators, join in village discussions but the weight attaching to the opinion of a particular individual or group varies from village to village. There are villages where, for traditional reasons which need not be discussed in detail here, it is the voice of the orators in whom the real power reposes. In others, a certain chief or group of chiefs may be predominant; in others again, the voice of an orator chief may exert great influence. But even Samoan custom allows some play to the personality of an outstanding individual, who in the course of a lifetime may build up the dignity of his particular title to a level not previously reached, and which a less capable person later holding the same title may be unable to sustain.
An important element in the social organisation and indeed the discipline of the village is the Women's Committee. The division of labour in relation to the sexes and the share borne by the gentler sex in the activities of the family will be dealt with more fully in a later chapter. It is the group activity of the wives of the matai and their part in village control that are referred to here. The Women's Committee, who usually wear a distinctive uniform that is different in every village, meet regularly and with the assistance in some villages of specially trained nurses devote themselves to baby welfare work. They also page 21 exercise a special jurisdiction in inspecting any equipment such as crockery and glassware that must be at the disposal of all families in the village for the entertainment of visitors, and any instructions they give relating to the replacement of damaged items or shortages are promptly carried into effect by the family concerned, or a fine (generally of foodstuffs) is imposed. They take a large share in the duties relating to the entertainment of visitors and are responsible for the decorations of houses in which guests of the village are quartered.
Descriptions of the social and economic functions of the taupou, the aualuma and the 'aumaga, to which references have already been made earlier in this chapter, will be found in a subsequent section. The status and functions of the Pastors of various denominations may also be considered more conveniently under another heading. Before closing this chapter, however, a brief reference to the duties of Government officials who are likely to be met in outer districts will be of use.*
There is a further official, the Pulenu'u, whose position warrants special description. The Pulenu'u is the direct Government representative in every village, and on the Government pay-roll. Where the village is a large one, or falls into two definitely recognised sections, there may be two Pulenu'u, whose duties are confined to their own sections. The Pulenu'u is charged with the recording of births and deaths and has other statutory duties of a special character which need not be further specified here. The Pulenu'u is the official to whom one would normally look for assistance and for whom one would enquire if there were no Faipule, who ranks as the senior official. The Pulenu'u is not necessarily the leading chief of the village; indeed, he generally is not so. It is important to bear in mind that if the Faipule or the Pulenu'u has for any reason been excluded from the social organisation of the village as discussed previously, he could no longer act as an effective link with that village, and the co-operation of some other member of the ali'i and faipule would have to be secured.
Although there may be many chiefs and orators in a village, there is generally one at least who enjoys a certain pre-eminence for reasons of descent, and such a chief or orator would be a proper person with whom to discuss matters affecting the village. Such a person of rank will certainly at some time, in his turn, be elected to the position of Faipule. A possible misconception lurks in these statements, however. The right of consultation and discussion, inherent in the organisation of the family, is one that is carried up through the higher grades of social and political organisation also. A matai, dealing with family matters of importance, will consider it prudent to report to or consult with the members of his family; so also a representative of the village approached on important matters affecting the village will wish to consult with and secure the agreement of his brother chiefs and orators, who, being the representatives of their families in the fono, are entitled after discussion to commit their families to a course of action. Thus, although a Faipule, Pulenu'u, leading chief or any other chief or orator may be a suitable person with whom to establish contact or to discuss the initial stages of any matter touching page 23 the interests of the village, the proper course according to Samoan custom is to secure the agreement and confirmation of the ali'i and faipule themselves to whatever is required. It is only in infrequent cases that a chief or orator may be prepared to speak for or commit others than his own family, yet when the village council is duly assembled in fono the opinions of leading chiefs and orators will be listened to with the greatest respect. But considerations that require this degree of careful treatment are unlikely to claim the attention of casual visitors to villages.
Other Government officials, as distinct from Samoan teachers and other full-time members of the Public Service, are members of the Legislative Council (Faipule Faitulafono), Native Judges (Fa'amasino), Native Plantation Inspectors (Pulefa'ato'aga) and Clerks or Policemen to the Native Judges (Failautusi or Leoleo), but a description of their duties need not be included here.
It has been shown that there are titles or matai names which, while entitled to general recognition in Samoan custom, yet possess their chief significance within a family. There are others which enjoy a wider degree of dignity or mamalu as holding an acknowledged position in the village organisation itself. Such titles may be those either of chiefs or of orators. There are still others which for traditional reasons have a pre-eminence within an entire district and others again which are so deeply rooted in the traditions of the country as to command a respect and standing that extend to the four corners of the Territory and indeed even to other countries in the Pacific. In an analogous manner the organisation and constitution of some villages have an important political significance and relationship and they are closely bound up with the political structure of the country as a whole. The distinctions in the ranking of titles are not, however, to be considered as being aboslutely definite and clear-cut. They exist for many practical purposes, but in a loose and ill-defined manner that is rather typical of the whole sociopolitical structure.
At the very peak of the Samoan official structure stand the Fautua, the heads of distinguished royal families of Samoa, who are appointed by the New Zealand Government to advise the Administrator. There are three Fautua at present and their term of office is for an indefinite period, all other Samoan nominated officials who are not full-time members of the Public Service being subject to change every three years. The titles of the Fautua are the most page 24 outstanding of those mentioned above as enjoying recognition in all parts of the Territory and in other countries of the Pacific.
The Fautua and their wives, who all speak English, visited New Zealand late in 1945 as guests of the Government. They were well received by the people of New Zealand. Another party comprising two chiefs and two orators, members of the Fono of Faipule, accompanied by an orator interpreter from the Department of Native Affairs, were also guests of the Government in New Zealand early in 1947.
These elementary aspects of social and political organisation have been briefly sketched so that visitors may understand the status of officials or of those chiefs or orators whom they may chance to meet. Only the family and the village have been dealt with in some little detail; a full examination of the higher and more complex district and national political organisation has no place in these notes.
We may now pass on to a consideration of the arrangements for a malaga or journey to areas outside Apia.