Samoan Material Culture
Significance of Clothing, Customs, and Usages
Significance of Clothing, Customs, and Usages
The articles grouped under clothing were made by braiding, looping, plaiting, and beating out bast. In none of the technical processes was twining or weaving, either downward or upward, used. The primary use of clothing is protection from the weather and concealment of the person. The secondary use, which may become more important, is decorative. On distinguishing individuals decoration leads on to distinguishing social classes. From use as indicating rank and status, they became valuable property and certain articles have intertwined with social customs, finally becoming a medium of exchange and an economic standard of value in themselves.
Clothing. The primary need for clothing dwindled down in the tropical climate of Samoa to one causative factor, concealment. Modesty, however, demanded little. The exposure of the upper body in both sexes was not considered immodest, or rather, was not considered at all. Hence the titi kilt of Cordyline leaves fulfilled all the actual requirements of clothing. A few titled women and sons of chiefs used bark cloth lavalava as a change garment. All other articles, therefore, listed under clothing were created by other needs.
Decoration. Festivals with accompanying dances demanded something beyond the ordinary ti leaf kilt. The demand was easily met by using the brighter colored ti leaves and change was also secured by making kilts of bast, first by simple looping to waist cords and later by plaiting.
Rank and property. The desire to further decorate and distinguish the daughters and sons of high chiefs, as in the persons of the village taupou and manaia, gave a stimulus to textile development that the need for ordinary apparel would never have supplied owing to that need being of so little importance. The short 'ie tutu pupu'u with wide wefts but highly decorative effect was the natural outcome. The present form of these kilts with their many free tails may be later chronologically, but coarse plaiting in bast certainly preceded the finer forms with their more elaborate tag attachments.
With decoration heading in the direction of finer plaiting, the 'ie fau and 'ie sina garments were evolved and became a still more material expression of rank. They were not needed and could not be worn as everyday clothing. They were purely an expression of rank to be worn during ceremonial and discarded as soon as possible afterwards for the sake of comfort. Fine plaiting also proceeded with pandanus material and reached its culmination in the page 317fine mat decorated with red feathers. Here again the fine mat marked rank and was only worn on ceremonial occasions. A person wearing a fine mat on ordinary occasions would be regarded in much the same way as a person of a higher culture appearing at breakfast in a dinner suit with his breast emblazoned with orders and decorations. The rank and status of people was well known within the village but on state occasions and especially when visitors from other villages were present, it was fitting that rank should be decorated in accordance with its station. The 'ie fau, 'ie sina, and fine mat discharged that duty.
As these mats distinguished rank, they became valuable property. Rank besides its social significance was distinguished by the possession of material property or, in other words, wealth. The wealth of a family was demonstrated by the numbers of ta'ui bundles of fine mats stored on the cross beams of the guest house.
Customs. The 'ie sina and fine mat became the necessary equipment of the village maid. Through association with the village maid, the 'ie sina also became the garment on which her virginity was officially proved before marriage. The 'ie sina thus became a highly specialized garment necessary to the particular custom of testing the virginity of the taupou.
The hue mat, however, gained a wider sphere of influence. It supplied the dowry of the village maid and chieftainesses of rank. The husband's family supplied the food, including pigs for the wedding feast, which, with other presents such as weapons, noraments, canoes, or houses, were grouped together under the name of oloa. The bride's family supplied an equivalent value in line mats distinguished by the term tonga. Hence the derivation of the name of the fine mat, 'ie tonga, and we get the fine mat constituting tonga (valuable property).
From association with marriage, the fine mat became associated with birth. It formed such an absolute necessity at marriage that after the birth of a daughter, mothers commenced plaiting a special fine mat termed an 'ie fa'atupu to form the nucleus of her daughter's dowry. These were carefully plaited in spare moments between the completion of other fine mats and were often finished just before the marriage of the grownup daughter took place. Some of them thus took over sixteen years to complete. Appropriate presents on the birth of a chief's daughter were fine mats to mark the occasion.
At death, fine mats again figured importantly. The ceremonial connected with the death of a high chief was termed langi. The blood relations of the deceased contributed fine mats for the langi. Amongst them had to be one of special note, either from the extra fineness of the plait or from its historical associations. The mat was called 'ie e fai a'i tonga (the mat which gives distinction to the property), or 'ie c fai a'i le langi (the mat which gives distinc-page 318tion to the funeral ceremony). Without it, the subsequent distribution of fine mats lost distinction and the family consequently suffered in prestige. When the family did not own such a mat, they begged or borrowed one from without and thus placed themselves under heavy obligation. The special mat, however, never passed outside the village but usually went to the highest ranking talking chief of the village, who acted for the family of the deceased during the funeral ceremonies. The talking chiefs of the various visiting parties, which were called auala on account of their ala or blood relationship with the deceased, recited the langi ritual as they sat before the house of death with palm leaves laid on the ground before them. If their ala was proved or well known they were allowed to proceed. If they acquitted themselves with scrupulous correctness they received fine mats at the distribution in accordance with their status. Apart from the special fine mat of note, the tama sa or son of the sister of the deceased had the first pick of fine mats.
Thus in birth, death, and marriage customs, fine mats played the most important part from both an economic and ceremonial point of view. The Samoans attached the greatest value to them and neglected no chance of acquiring them. They themselves admit that a talking chief will enter into negotiations for the marriage of his chief influenced solely by the bundles of fine mats he has seen hanging up in the guest house of a girl's father. He knows that in the subsequent distribution of the marriage dowry among the husband's family, he, by virtue of his official position, will get the most important share. Similarly, at funerals a high chief will often refrain from attending because his talking chief has to recite the langi and will thus get the fine mat that is given to his party. Talking chiefs on the other hand will never neglect attending a funeral if he can prove an ala pathway to the genealogical tree of the deceased chief.
An unscrupulous yet humorous talking chief attended a funeral near Apia when he had no true ala but hoped to bluff his way through to a fine mat. Seated with his palm leaf before him, he began to recite the langi. The astute talking chief of the family of the deceased interrupted calling, "Never mind the langi, tell us the ala by which you find yourself here." Having no genealogical pathway, the impostor kept on reciting the langi. When he had recited five out of the customary ten langi, the interruption became so marked that he realized his scheme had failed. Now, the term ala, besides being a genealogical pathway between blood kinsmen, is also the ordinary material pathway between villages and houses. Before vacating an untenable position he replied to the aggressive defender of the family fine mats. "The ala by which I came here?" he cried pointing at the road, "There it is, the ala which leads from Apia to this village." "Kill him," yelled the infuriated official to the family henchmen. The visitor sprang to his feet. "Quick," he cried as a parting shot, "Show me the ala to the missionary's house." At the missionary's house, he found refuge until the storm subsided. Then without a mat, he returned along the empty ala to Apia.
The above incident shows that while the desire to acquire fine mats was great, the desire to keep them was equally strong.page 319
It may be truly said that in their present elaborate form, marriage and death customs could not be correctly observed without fine mats.
Standard of value. Through their value as property, the fine mat became the Samoan standard of value. We have seen that in the building of a house, a fine mat ratified the agreement between the prospective owner and the head builder. It paid a fine and pacified the builder's guild into overlooking a serious breach of etiquette. It formed the principal medium in paying for the building of a house at the umu sa ceremony. Canoes, tatooing, and various services were paid for in fine mats. High chiefs rewarded their talking chiefs with fine mats. No important function or activity in olden times could take place without the passing of fine mats. In Samoa, fine mats became the equivalent of the coin of higher cultures and the shell money of the western Pacific. Everything was valued in terms of fine mats and all objects of any value, even pigs, had their relative value based on the value unit of the fine mat.