Samoan Material Culture
Status of kava
Status of kava
Kava was the only beverage the pre-European Samoans had besides water and coconut water. It is cooling, refreshing, and stimulating without being intoxicating. Its medicinal properties are recognized by the medical profession and some of the well-known drug firms make up preparations of kava used in moderation, it is probably the best drink for a tropical climate. Continued use creates a habit, and drunk to excess it may affect locomotion but does not cause intoxication like alcohol. Continued use of large quantities results in a scaly skin affection and chronic conjunctivitis (mafuna), to be sometimes seen in old talking chiefs, who by reason of their office drink more kava than others. (See Churchill's account of the kava ceremony .)
To the Samoan, kava was far more than an ordinary beverage for quench-page 164ing the thirst. It is the first medium by which hospitality can be extended to guests and by which all consultations, agreements, and conferences can be commenced. Election to the title even of matai carried the right to sit amongst the gathering of chiefs and have one's title called out as the kava was served. By the order of serving, the precedence of the various chiefs was demonstrated. In the special kava ceremonies attention was further directed to the rank and status of the title being honored and its importance thus accentuated. It is doubtful whether any other culture has elaborated a more thorough method of advertising rank and station by such a simple medium. The tungase dried root also formed the official medium of paying respect to visitors and titles. Some of the large tungase were never meant to be pounded but passed from one recipient to another as each in turn paid his respects at subsequent ceremonies. Kava thus ranks as perhaps the most important material element in ceremonial and has become an integral part in the social fabric. If the ceremonial calling of kava were dropped, the value of titles would depreciate considerably as they would lose the most active factor that keeps them prominently before the eyes of the Samoan people.