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Samoan Material Culture


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Samoa is a group of islands in the western Pacific lying 13.5° to 14° S. lat. and 168° to 173° W. long. Rose Island, the most eastern of the group, is of coral formation and uninhabited. The other islands are volcanic, well-wooded, mountainous, and for the most part surrounded by coral reefs.

Up to the year 1900, the affairs of the whole group were jointly administered by the three powers, Britain, America, and Germany. At that date Britain withdrew. The islands to the east of the 171st. longitude were given to the United States which delegated control to its Navy Department. The islands to the west were administered by Germany until 1914, when, owing to the state of war between Germany and Britain, New Zealand troops took possession on August 29, 1914. At the end of the war, Germany renounced all right and title to western Samoa. The principal allied and associated powers agreed that the territory be administered by Britain and in 1920, the Dominion of New Zealand was empowered to administer the mandated territory.

American Samoa consists of the large island of Tutuila and the Manuan group consisting of the three small islands of Ofu, Olosega, and Tau to the east of Tutuila. The naval station and seat of administration is at Pago Pago in Tutuila. Western Samoa consists of the two large islands of Upolu and Savaii with the two small islands of Apolima and Manono lying between them. The seat of administration is at Apia in Upolu. Savaii, about 48 miles in length by 25 miles in breadth, is the largest and most western island of the group. Upolu has the largest population and is the most important island politically. The small Manuan group is important in the traditional history of Samoa.

The Samoan population of western Samoa on January 1, 1926, was given as 36,308. The population of American Samoa by the census of 1922. was given as 8,194 without counting those of mixed blood. The native population of the whole group on this data is 44,502. Numerically this makes the Samoans the largest branch of the Polynesians next to the Maori of New Zealand. Though admixture has taken place, there is a very high percentage page 4of full-blooded Samoans. Government and popular writers have referred to the Samoans as being the purest branch of the Polynesians. Such statements are assertions not based on any scientific data and should be disregarded until an anthropometrical survey of all branches of the Polynesians has been completed. Measurements were made in Samoa by Mr. E. W. Gilford and Mr. W. C. McKern and the material worked up by Sullivan (37). The Polynesians are a mixed people and until they can be dealt with as a whole, it is futile to make statements as to which branch retains most of the physical characteristics of the original stock which broke into the Pacific.

The speech of the Samoans is a dialect of the Polynesian language. As the Polynesians had no written language, the early missionaries represented the sounds phonetically by English letters as was done throughout Polynesia, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The usual Polynesian consonants are present with the exception of h and k. The h sound of other Polynesian dialects is represented in some words by the sibilant s and in others by f. The k sound was dropped but its place in a word is represented by the glottal closure which causes a hardening of the following vowel or almost the sound of h. In the written language, the elision of the k sound is represented by an inverted comma placed above the position which the sound originally occupied in the word. For comparative philology, it is necessary that the glottal comma be shown in the right position. The interchangeable l, r, v, and w sounds take the form of l and v. The ng sound is present but was unfortunately represented by the compilers of the alphabet as g. This usage has become official and is a source of confusion to those not acquainted with it. The important naval station in Tutuila through being written as Pago Pago is usually pronounced by the travelling public as Pay-go Pay-go or Pag-go Pag-go instead of Pango Pango. Even at this late period, the erroneous g should be altered to ng. To facilitate comparison with other Polynesian dialects, the lead given by Handy (14, p. 4) in representing the ng sound by the letters ng will be followed in this work*. It was done originally with the dialects of New Zealand and the Cook Islands and has given complete satisfaction. The authoritative work on the Samoan dialect is still the "Grammar and Dictionary" compiled by George Pratt (23).

Recent changes have taken place in the spoken language in the substitution of k for t and a loose mutual interchange between the sounds n and ng. The re-introduction of k in place of t is extremely interesting as it evidently indicates a Polynesian tendency not confined to one dialect. A similar change has already completely occurred in the Hawaiian dialect in which it passed through two distinct phases. Thus, in the widespread Polynesian word kumete (wooden bowl) the first phase was the dropping of the k so that the page 5word became 'umete. In the second phase which occurred later, the t was changed to k and the word became 'umeke. Thus the lost k came back into the dialect but in no word did it reoccupy its original position. In the process of resurrection, the k displaced the t sound completely out of the dialect. In Samoa, the first phase of dropping the k had been completed before the Bible was printed in Samoan and kumete had become 'umete. The second phase of substituting the k for t is now taking place in everyday speech and a wooden bowl is now more often referred to as 'umeke than as 'umete. The talking chiefs make the change in official speeches and the retention of the t sound is regarded by the public as pedantic. It seems probable that the Samoan t like the Hawaiian t is doomed to extinction.

The interchange between n and ng has become so common that I had to constantly consult Pratt to find out which was the original sound used. Thus in spoken speech, it is more usual to hear paono instead of the correct paongo, and tafangi instead of the correct tafani.

The Samoan population lives in large well-organized villages. Except for the doing away with some of the highest ranks, corresponding to that of petty kings and provocative of war in grasping at power, the introduction of a foreign culture has made little fundamental difference to the basis of Samoan society. The hereditary titles of high chiefs and talking chiefs are still conferred and supported by the family groups entitled to them. These are not inherited by primogeniture on the male line but are conferred by the group majority and hence lead to much political intrigue. The village fa'alupenga (order of rank prestige) is still jealously observed. Ancient customs connected with the drinking of kava, the distribution of food, the giving of fine mats, and much social ceremonial are still living factors in the life of the people and give pleasure and satisfaction. The pleasure derived from the exercise of native institutions is perhaps the most important factor that has led to the persistence of Samoan customs and helped them to resist the disintegration that has taken place in other parts of Polynesia. The Samoans are thus more conservative than other branches of their race and their satisfaction with themselves and their own institutions makes them less inclined to accept the changes that foreign governments consider would be of benefit to them. Their viewpoint is bounded by their own immediate horizon. This attitude of the mass of the people is expressed in the reply of a talking chief to myself after I had sketched the migrations of the Polynesians from the mainland of Asia to the remote isles of the Pacific. "We thank you for your address," he said. "The rest of the Polynesians may have come from Asia, but the Samoans—No. The Samoans originated in Samoa." The Samoans are self-contained. Strictly speaking, they require little in the way of clothing or food from foreign sources. So long as life is filled and satisfied by local conditions, they cannot be blamed for thinking that they are fit to govern page 6themselves. When life ceases to get entire satisfaction from native institutions, the present self-satisfaction, may cease to be a bar to the progress that the introduced culture considers desirable.

Persistence of custom has led to the retention of much native material culture in Samoa. Custom and ceremonial must find material expression to obtain adequate satisfaction. The ceremonial treatment of chieftainship with observance of the fa'alupenga order of precedence found public expression in the calling of the kava in a properly constituted guest house. The need for guest houses kept up the ancient guild of carpenters who, to maintain a close corporation, perpetuated the native form of architecture and technique. The guild of carpenters also kept alive the craft of building the plank bonito canoe. Connected with chiefly prestige was the continuation of the art of tattooing. The survival of the custom of giving fine mats and bark cloth at births, deaths, and marriages has created a continued need for these articles and thus perpetuated the crafts of fine plaiting and making bark cloth. The village hostess (taupou) and the chief's son (manaia) had to be appropriately garbed on ceremonial occasions and this need led to the continuation of the making of various forms of kilts, shaggy garments, and headdresses of human hair. Samoa as a result of the persistence of custom has retained a greater measure of its material culture than other branches of the Polynesians who were more adaptable and who, as a consequence of accepting more of the elements of an introduced culture, have forgotten their own.

On the invitation of the high chief Tuitele of Tutuila extended on a previous visit to Mr. A. F. Judd, President of the Board of Trustees of Bishop Museum, an expedition consisting of Mr. Judd, Mr. Bruce Cartwright, and the author visited the island of Tutuila in September, 1927. A tour (malanga) lasting three weeks was made of the villages of Tutuila including the small island of Aunuu and everywhere the expedition was treated with the ceremonial characteristic of olden times. The sincere thanks of Bishop Museum are due to Tuitele and the chiefs of the villages visited for their hospitality and hearty assistance. Special reference must be made to Fepuleai Ripley who acted as our talking chief and interpreter during the tour.

On the return of my colleagues, I spent two months in the Manuan group, visiting all three islands. The district governor Tufele and his taupou Fa-apuaa rendered valuable assistance.

In western Samoa, two months were spent in Savaii and a short period in Upolu. Mr. E. Stehlin Jr., who acted as guide and consulting interpreter in Savaii rendered invaluable service. Government officials and traders in the two Samoas gave freely of their assistance. Many made gifts to the Museum, but special thanks are due to Mr. Anunsen of Manase, Savaii, for a collection of stone adzes which supplied valuable study material for that important island. My warm thanks are due to the Samoan chiefs of Savaii page 7and Upolu who imparted freely of their knowledge and gave liberally of their hospitality.

My thanks are due to Dr. C. M. Cooke, Jr., Mr. K. P. Emory, and other members of The Bishop Museum staff for assistance and advice during the compilation of the material of this work.

Where information was obtained first-hand in the field, it has not been considered necessary to refer to similar statements of fact made by other writers as no question of priority is involved. Much assistance was obtained from the manuscript account (17) of Mr. Judd's first visit to Tutuila and Manua in 1926. He recorded many details that were not observed by me and I have acknowledged the quotations made as the manuscript was not the least valuable of the works consulted. I am also indebted to the notes made by my two colleagues Mr. Judd and Mr. Cartwright of the 1927 expedition, as well as the kindly assistance and hearty cooperation which they extended to me throughout our investigations in Tutuila.

During the six months spent in Samoa, investigation was concentrated on material culture with such customs as shed light on the degree of importance played by the various complexes in the life of the people. Owing to the active continuance of many of the crafts, it was possible to record a good deal of technique in detail. The technique may be useful to the Samoans in days to come when the broadening of their horizon will inevitably lead to the decay of their native arts and crafts. From an ethnological point of view, details of technique are necessary to form exact comparisons in material culture. The question of diffusion has been confused by comparing end products which have been arrived at by different technical processes. Unless the technical details are similar, the end products cannot well be regarded as identical. Technique may be drudgery to the student but it has a romance of its own. It indicates how different groups of people have sought to supply their material needs by adapting an old method to local material, by evolving improvements, or by inventing a new technique. Throughout each technical process difficulties occurred that had to be surmounted and human thought is expressed by the manner in which skilful fingers sought to achieve the desired end. The end product may or may not be a masterly result but the details of technique reveal the stages of evolution through which the craft has passed. Technique reveals stasis or advance. When available, it must form one of the most valuable methods of judging what culture elements have been shared in common before the separation of various groups, what elements have been improved, and what developed as new inventions to meet local requirements or express the peculiar genius of a people.

* The Polynesian words "malaga" and "aumaga" are accepted by the Bishop Museum as English words. However, the n sound is included in their spelling throughout this text.