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Samoan Material Culture

Food customs

Food customs

Food customs are very important in Samoa and the ceremonial associated with them is still observed. All those to be described were seen several times, and play an important part in the social organization of the people. The chiefs are fed on the best food available. In ancient times, high chiefs who were regarded as kings, such as Malietoa, made a constant levy for food on the districts over which they had power. Bearers were constantly busy and even canoes from distant districts brought their tributes of food to swell the larder of their overlords.

A chief's food is termed sua, and the chief's word for ordinary food is suavai. It was cooked in leaves and brought in separate baskets to that for the lesser people. What is left over from the chief's meal may not be eaten by his own family. It is sa (prohibited) to them. It goes to his talking chief or to attendants not belonging to the chief's blood family.

Another individual custom is that of calling a chief's kava cup. During the ceremonial drinking of kava before a meal, a lesser chief could call out that he desired to follow a certain chief's cup (ipu). He received a cup of kava out of his turn. When the meal was served, the chief mentioned had to give his portion of food to the person who called his name. On Tutuila, the food part was not observed, but in Manua it was in force. Though the chief usually eats what he wants and passes the substantial remainder, strictly speaking, he should not eat any. He has to be satisfied with the honor. It occurred to me at Fitiuta, but fortunately I was not hungry, and was able to obey the" strict demands of custom without personal inconvenience.

The sua ta'i is the ceremonial meal brought in to a high chief to honor him (fa'aaloalo). Four bearers bring in a drinking nut, talo taisi, a fowl, and a roasted pig in that order. The bearer of the drinking nut has a piece of bark cloth siapo girded round his waist. The chief sits cross-legged before his proper wall post. The bearer as he nears him, sits down on the floor before and sideways towards him. He then passes the drinking nut sideways to the floor before the chief. He removes the siapo and hands that over also. The others follow in succession bearing the food on platters which are laid before the chief from the sideways sitting position. The whole meal is called page 141a sua and a sua ta'i from the way in which it is presented. The drinking nut is also a sua: it is punctured through the mata hole and a bent piece of green coconut leaflet midrib may be placed in the hole as a temporary stopper. The nut must be opened only in this manner. To crack the muli end as for ordinary drinking would be taken as an insult and lead to reprisals. The nut is drunk by the chief's officiating talking chief. Owing to the small hole, the fluid is drunk with sucking noises which are regarded as appropriate. The empty shell is then broken on the stone paepae of the house. This again is of high significance. In ancient days, coconuts were only broken for the gods and hence today are only broken for chiefs of the highest rank. The siapo goes to the talking chief, who now takes charge of the food. The leg of the fowl with the coccyx (le vae ma le muli), and the loins (tuala) of the pig go to the high chief with some of the talo taisi. The rest is divided up by the talking chief as he sees fit. The high chief has no jurisdiction. The pig thus presented is called a pua'a fata no matter what the size. The term pua'a fata is usually applied to a very large pig which is carried in by several bearers on a litter (fata). The talking chief puts the siapo round him, goes outside to ailao. The ailao is the custom of calling loudly to attract attention while he calls the name of the chief who gave the sua. He thus calls public attention to the fact that his own chief has been honored, and at the same time acknowledges his thanks to the chief who paid the respect.

If the chief is of outstanding rank, he alone is served on a platter. The others are served on leaves. If there are other chiefs of high rank, each may get a sua. Several sua may be brought to the one chief by various high chiefs in the village. After the visiting chiefs has received his one meal, his talking chief may do what he likes with the other sua. If he has relatives in the village, he may send them presents of pork.

The sua ta'i ceremony takes place after the ceremonial drinking of kava. It awaits the directions of the officiating talking chief. During the Bishop Museum expedition to Tutuila, Mr. Judd received the chief's name of Laloifi. At Nua, after we had received the welcoming bowl of kava, the local talking chief called, "Au maia le sua a Laloifi" (Bring in the sua of Laloifi).

On lesser occasions when pigs are scarce, the sua may consist of the drinking nut, talo, yam, and a fowl. The yam is cooked in leaves like the talo taisi.

The si'u laulau is a small meal given to visitors immediately after their arrival in a village. The local chiefs visit the guest house and bring kava root with them. This kava is for the ingunga (welcoming bowl). The si'u laulau is just enough food to provide a laulau platter for each to form a light repast. Now it usually consists of tea and sugar. The ceremonial meal follows later when the ovens are ready.

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The taunga is the very sensible custom of taking provisions when visiting another chief in the same village. The real meaning of the word taunga is surplus cooked food. When the cooking oven is opened, all the cooked food is placed in a basket or baskets. From them is taken what is needed for the ordinary regular meals. What is left over is used as a taunga and enables evening calls to be made for a number of purposes as follows:

1.Taunga i ma'i—to visit the sick (ma'i).
2.Taunga i alaalafanga—for a general meeting in the evening.
3.Taunga au moe—for visiting a young woman to whom respect or attention is to be shown.
4.Taunga i le aualuma—to the aualuma (unmarried women and girls in a village) who assemble at night in their own guest house, where those wishing to enjoy their society for singing and dancing take contributions of food.
5.Taunga i le foma'i, faifeau—for visiting individuals such as the doctor (foma'i), pastor (faifeau).
6.Taunga o le fale—for a special visit to builders who are constructing a house in the village.

From the above it will be observed what an important role food plays in the ordinary social life of the community. Food forms the basis of social intercourse. Hospitality is more than a virtue. It is a necessity. The taunga custom sought to relieve the burden of the host. The self-inflicted guest was sure of a welcome as he caused no embarrassment to his host.

The laulautasi is a presentation of cooked food to visitors by the chiefs (matai) of the village. The sua ta'i with pigs baked whole are given by high chiefs whose position or wealth enables them to give it. The laulautasi is a contribution in which all the lesser chiefs share. The matter of individual contribution is arranged beforehand by the village talking chief who makes a levy of three to five talo on each chief together with the appropriate accompaniment of a fowl, fish, or even tinned beef or salmon. Each chief sends his basket of food to the back of the house while he takes up a position within.

The baskets are collected in the back part of the house where the village talking chief presides over them. Each basket is handed to him in turn, and the name of the contributor is given. The talking chief calls the name saying "This is the basket of food of—. It contains five talo and a bird." As he calls the articles he lifts them up, drops them back again, and lays the basket to one side. Each basket is called, together with the articles contained, such as packages of fish or squid (afi). Some receiving chiefs make a running commentary on the food; as, "Five large talo in good condition. One bird very fat." The remarks are sometimes humorous; as, "A package of fish. If more fish were put in, the package would not feel so slack. One bird, the page 143bird from America which calls in the early morning to wake us up." The bearer of the basket tells the caller what is in the packages; as, palu sami, fai'ai, fish, and squid. The ceremonial name of a fowl is here ta'a paepae or manu tele. At one village the receiving talking chief held up three talo and said, "These are sungalo." The sungalo is an inferior talo from a cultivation overgrown with weeds. The senior village talking chief who sat in his official place asked for them to be passed over to him. He examined them, gave a grunt of disgust and laid them aside. The donor had not anticipated that the contents of the baskets would be scrutinized. He was dealt with afterwards and fined for attempting to evade the true spirit of the custom.

The visiting talking chief acknowledges the gifts of food in a speech. He then proceeds to divide up the food into two portions, one for the visitors and the other for the villagers. The packages of fish and palu sami are usually taken out of the baskets and placed with the fowls to enable him to divide more easily. The general distribution being made, the village talking chief again gets busy and makes the individual distributions on plaited platters which the attendants quickly place before guests and hosts. All eat together. The individual division of food is called tufaanga. A larger portion given to any privileged person is a tunga. Any person with some extra portion may pass or send some of it to another. It is an act of courtesy which is never refused by the recipient.

The ta'alolo is a presentation of food to visitors given by the village, and is of a more public character than the laulautasi. Visitors of distinction, after the introductory bowl of kava, are given a ta'alolo. For the evening meal the presentation of food takes the form of the laulautasi.

The food which includes roasted pigs is carried in a public procession and deposited in a heap on the house platform. The procession is headed by the taupou in full regalia, accompanied by buffoons, who by their antics, direct attention to her. The food is then handed over by the village talking chief with a speech. In the speech, he addresses the visiting chiefs by their ceremonial titles and names of the districts they came from, indicating that the food offering is a token of respect paid to them by the village, and enumerating the articles of food.

A chief representing the visitors steps out on the house platform beside the food. He is sometimes accompanied by others to show greater respect. With the lower end of his to'oto'o staff placed between the first and second toes of his right foot, he draws the attention of his own party to the food offering. The formula used is a variation of the following: "Silasila ia lau susunga a Laloifi, ma Falesau ma Faleomavaenga, Tuitele ma oe le matua ma lenei malanga i le fa'aoloalo" (Behold O presence of Laloifi and Falesau and Faleomavaenga, Tuitele and you the father and this company of travellers, page 144the respect paid you). The "father" is the honorific title of high talking chiefs in Tutuila. He then enumerates all the different kinds of food that have been brought, his neighbors reminding him of any he omitted. The public acknowledgment and thanks being duly rendered, the food is divided up and the visitors and local chiefs have their meal. The attendants, and those whose status does not admit them to a place in the guest house, eat their share afterwards.

In connection with ta'alolo, it was usual to serve some special dainty such as fa'ausi or taufolo. They were always brought in separately from the other food.

The fa'ausi of baked, grated talo in the oily niu tolo preparation of coconut is always brought to the house platform in a wooden bowl. Young men garlanded with leaves bring the bowl from the cook house with ailao yells of "Mua o", to herald their approach. This announces to the visitors and the village that special attention is being paid to the guests. Green leaves of the maopo breadfruit are used to hold the individual portions. The bowl bearer sets the bowl down on the house platform, an assistant cups a leaf in his hands, and the portion of fa'ausi cubes with a share of oil is ladled into it with a half coconut shell. In placing the portion before the guest, a hollow is usually made for the leaf platter by scraping away a few stones from the gravel floor in front of him. For high chiefs, the leaf is first placed on a mailo platter of coconut leaflets before the portion is served. In olden times, a mailo platter was used for high chiefs alone. The lesser chiefs were served on the bare leaf. Now everyone gets a mailo platter.

The taufolo preparation of pounded breadfruit is brought in the same way by garlanded attendants making the ailao yells. The already pounded breadfruit mass in a bowl is placed on the house platform. The bowl bearer sits before it while attendants pour in the coconut cream to which salt water has been added. The operator proceeds quickly to pinch off the pounded mass into smaller pieces which are rolled or pressed into rounded lumps. The portions are placed on maopo leaves with some of the cream and conveyed by attendants to the guests. Banana leaf may be used instead of maopo. The usual hollows are made on the floor if necessary. The taufolo is served to all alike on the bare leaves, and no mailo platters were used ceremonially in the past, though they may be used incorrectly now. While greatly appreciated, taufolo has not got quite the status of fa'ausi. For one thing there was no oil which the system required and had few opportunities of obtaining.

Talinga. Similar to the preceding ta'alolo ceremony is the women's ta'alolo, or talinga. This ceremony has gained ground and became separated from the men's ceremony owing to the organization of women's committees in the various villages. In those given to us at the Tutuila villages, the event took place in the afternoon some time after the official receptions were over.

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The women, arrayed in bark cloth and fine mats, assembled at some little distance from the guest house and then marched in mass. Each had some present of siapo, shell necklaces, or food. The food usually consisted of fruit such as bananas, papaia, and drinking coconuts. Sometimes fowls were brought. In front was the village maid arrayed in fine mat, dancing skirt of special make and the tuinga headdress of bleached hair. She carried a weapon, now usually the modern steel nifo 'oti. She advanced at a slow trot, every now and again making a curious little side step as if changing step and bending the body sideways towards the visitors. With the club, she made appropriate gestures. Associated with her, were one or two old women who by wild grotesque antics drew attention to her. They were dressed in an unusual manner to attract attention, and armed with sticks, ran about hitting trees, striking the ground, and pointing to the taupou. Their efforts were accepted as a matter of course and regarded as of a humorous nature. The village maid came right down to the guest house, paraded in front of it, and trotted back. During the whole time, the main body kept up a chant and beat time with their hands. Owing to the deliberate and slow approach of the main body, the taupou was enabled to make two or three excursions before the women got close to the house.

The women came forward, laid their offerings on the house platform, and retired a few paces. One of their leaders then made a speech welcoming the visitors in the usual ceremonial fashion. A visiting chief replied, thanking them for their tokens of respect (fa'aaloalo). Another chief replied also with a running commentary on the presents as he picked them up and bundled them into baskets. On these occasions, it was usual to let the younger or lesser chiefs reply on behalf of the party.

The women meanwhile had arranged themselves in rows usually on floor mats which were brought forward. They then performed a siva action dance in unison and in perfect time. Time was beaten on folded mats with two sticks and the bent knees in the cross-legged position kept time to the beat. The motions were made with the hands, head, and upper part of the body. Now and again the whole lines changed position on the mats so that they all faced to the side or back. In some movements, they rose to their feet and after some action subsided to the ground again. The taupou occupied the middle position in the front row. The old women remained standing, and by exaggerated gestures continued their humorous role.

After the massed siva, individual posture dancing in time to the beating on the mat was indulged in by two or three relays. An individual dance by the taupou usually concluded the performance.

The talo pa'ia is a form of ta'alolo, in which a whole district takes part in presenting food. In olden times, they were difficult to arrange owing to quarrels that arose between villages through questions of precedence. Nowadays, they are sometimes arranged for government officials.

Districts where precedence has been sharply defined and maintained do, on occasion, give a talo pa'ia. Such occur in the southern district of Savaii, where the village of Safotu-lefai has the acknowledged pule (rule). In Safotulefai there is a hereditary heraldic title of Tangaloa-tea. Four chiefs who have tulafale ali'i positions, combining high rank (ali'i) and the powers of talking chiefs (tulafale), exercise the pule over the district. They meet and decide as to whether the ceremony shall be performed for a specific occasion. They then call a meeting of chiefs and orators, who ratify the decision. The herald is sent to the different divisions of the district to notify them and to announce the number of tuinga expected from each division. The tuinga is the head-dress worn by the village maids and chiefs' sons. Only certain chiefs' families page 146are allowed the right of wearing the tuinga. In some villages, there may be more than one family so entitled.

The divisions or villages proceed to make preparation. The talo is always the basis, but arrangements have to be made about the meat, mea, ina'i or 'i'i, to go with it. The village talking chief rules that there must be talo 'u'u, that all must contribute talo. He rules 'i'i le pua'a (the meat must be pork). He allocates the providing of a pig to certain sections within the village. The matai (lesser chiefs) of that section decide whose turn it is to contribute the pig. They take turns to supply the various calls made. The term 'i'i le pua'a literally means to make the pig squeal.

The official herald goes through the village proclaiming, "Sao le ta'alolo" (Collect the food for the ta'alolo). The food is gathered together and the shell trumpets sound "Tatou tu'u" (Let us go). When the collecting village of Safotu-lefai is neared, the food bearers form up in line with all the wearers of tuinga headdresses in front. The tuinga, are thus in line in the advance to the collecting place for depositing the food. They are all equal and no trouble occurs. If they advanced in column of sections with a tuinga heading each section, there would be trouble as to which tuinga should lead the first section.

The open line advances on the assembly house, each person carrying some food, the wearers of the tuinga in front, going through appropriate actions as in the women's ta'alolo. The main body as they advance, indulge in the songs and dances which have been previously rehearsed.

The food is placed before the assembly house and the bearers retire to the sides or to a neighboring house. The official talking chief of the party makes a speech in the open termed fa'afiti le mu'a. No matter how large the contribution, he apologizes for the small supply brought.

The receiving talking chief steps out in front of the assembly house, and in ceremonial language thanks the visiting village for their contribution. The food is now termed folafola le ta'alolo. The talking chief of the malanga (visitors) now has pule (power) over the food of the ta'alolo. He distributes it in the usual way. Each share is here called a tu'unga.