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Samoan Material Culture


The Samoan name for bark cloth is siapo. The term tapa used in Tahiti (Hawaiian form, kapa), is not used as a general name for the material. Pratt (23, p. 310), however gives tapa as "One of the white borders of a siapo.? In Maori, tapa means the border of a garment. The Samoan use of the word is applied to the border rather than to the material.

Stair (33, p. 115) states:

Before the contact with Europeans, and indeed for some time after, the use of siapo as an article of dress was confined to a few unmarried females of the highest rank, O Tausala, titled ladies; all others being prohibited from wearing it upon pain of heavy chastisement. The privileged few only wore it in the house. For a long time past the rule has been broken through, and siapo is now worn by all persons of either sex.

Figure 165.—Fine mat, triangular ornamentation:

Figure 165.—Fine mat, triangular ornamentation:

a, and ?b, a strip of weft material, 1.25 inches wide, is folded into a triangle 1.5 inches wide across the base (9) and cut off below the base. A sufficient number are prepared to stretch across the width of the garment. c, The first triangle (1) is laid on the upper surface of the mat with its base level with the upper edge of the plaiting and on the right. The thread consists of a narrow piece of weft material with one end knotted while a pointed stick was used before the steel needle to pierce holes. Stitches to attach the triangles to the garment are made through the base part about 0.25 inches from their edge. The first hole is made through the outer part (1') and the thread drawn through to the knot. The thread passing to the left on the under surface of the garment is brought through to the front at the point (2') well in from the left edge of the triangle. The second triangle (2) is placed in position with its right edge against the thread. The thread is passed through the overlapping part of both triangles and similar stitches made as each triangle is added on the left. The last triangle has a short stitch made over its left edge and the thread is tied at the back. d, The row of triangles is doubled over so that their apices are directed towards the fringe. e, In more modern methods, two strips of material about 1.5 inches wide, with their dull surfaces together, are cut off into 2.5 inch lengths and one end cut to a point. The strips are placed with their points towards the fringes and the square ends stitched to the plaited material with a sewing machine. The change from the folded triangles to pointed strips has been influenced by the introduction of scissors and sewing machines. f, A double row of longer (1) and shorter (2) pointed strips is sometimes used.

page 283

Brigham (4, p. 36), in 1911, stated that "Samoa is a group where the manufacture is still carried on, but merely for the supply of curiosity dealers and it may be supposed the work is not improving." The supposition as regards the work not improving is probably correct but it is inexact to state that even now, in 1928, siapo is manufactured merely to supply curio dealers. No doubt the outside demand by tourists and dealers leads to extra material being made. The continuance of manufacture is also due to the persistence of certain social customs and needs. During the Bishop Museum tour around Tutuila we were struck by the chiefs and talking chiefs appearing at the village welcomes dressed in siapo. The same applied to women during the ta'alolo food ceremonies. At a wedding ceremony in Manua, a considerable number of pieces of siapo figured among the wedding presents. For ordinary presents to visitors, siapo has taken the place of fine mats. In western Samoa, the Government prohibition against the giving! of fine mats has led to the substitution of large numbers of siapo pieces at feasts, weddings and funerals. The giving of siapo with ceremonial kava drinking and the high chief's sua portion of food still persist in custom. A talking chief is not properly dressed unless he has a kilt of siapo as well as his orator's fly switch. Sheets are still used as partitions in guest houses and as bedding, while foreign influence is to be seen in their use as table covers in the various Samoan homes.

Though discontinued in most parts of Polynesia, bark cloth making is still an active craft in Samoa. Though there is evidence that some of the dyes have been forgotten and the wooden tablet (upeti) is displacing the original article made of pandanus leaves, the technical process remains the same. There are no lost secrets of the craft and the lack of exact detail in the Report of the Wilkes Expedition, that was deplored by Brigham (4, p. 38). can be supplied even now. The marked differences in some parts of the Samoan technique compared with that of Hawaii, the Society, and neighboring groups, justify a detailed description of Samoan manufacture. The outstanding features in Samoan technique are the absence of felting and the use of the upeti tablet for rubbing instead of printing.