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Samoan Material Culture

General Features

page 418

General Features

The waters within the bounding reefs provided the main source of fish so all important in furnishing the chief flesh food supply of the Samoans. These waters were combed over and over again and day after day in every conceivable fashion, from simple groping between the rocks with bare hands to skilled devices with traps, nets, and hooks. The habits and movements of various kinds of fish had been practically studied by generations of fishermen and the knowledge influenced invention and method. Method varied from the efforts of individuals to the organised cooperation of the community. The sphere of women was restricted as they were denied the use of the fishing canoe. The canoe took men outside the reef to seek the deep sea fish that came within the possibilities of their attainment. The deep sea fish pursued were the bonito, dolphin, shark, flying fish, and some that frequented the outer side of the reef. Of the migrating fish which entered the lagoons, the most important were the mullett and the mackerel. In fresh waters, the eel and fresh-water crayfish were obtained and the migrating fry of the ingana in two rivers of Savaii. Within the lagoon, marine foods such as seaweed, shell fish and the marine worm known as palolo added to the supply.

Groping. Both men and women are expert at groping (naonao) in the crevices between rocks for the rock-frequenting fish which rest there. The men often use the short spear but women use the bare hands, or nowadays a piece of cloth. The narrow clefts from which there is no escape are naturally productive of the best results. The constant search that commences in childhood naturally leads to the villagers coming to know every suitable cleft and crevice in the lagoon that adjoins the village. They submerge and with open eyes swim around the rocks peering and feeling in the crevices. When a fish is caught, it is brought up, the head bitten to kill it and the catch deposited in a basket of the ola malu type tied around the wrist or slung over the back. The groping method also accompanies the community fishing with nets as the people assisting in a drive simply cannot pass suitable looking rocks without diving down and groping amongst them.

Rock heaps. To furnish extra resting places to attract fish, rocks are piled up in heaps (ma'a) in suitable places within the lagoon. In Savaii, the lagoon is dotted with these piled heaps which are simply called nia'a (rock), or fatuati. Piles of branching coal ('amu) are also used and called fatu'amu. These form suitable places for simple groping. An improvement is the use by women of the ola tu fish basket. The basket is held open against a suitable part of the pile while women remove the stones gradually from the other side and by taking away the cover of the fish, drive them into the basket, The page 419basket is thus often referred to as a fanga (trap) from its use. At high tide men form a wide circle around the pile in their paopao canoes. They then paddle slowly in towards the pile, beating the sides of the canoes with their paddles or with the bailers to drive the fish into the pile of rocks. Each canoe has a light stone anchor which is thrown overboard as it nears the rocks. The men, armed with short spears, jump overboard and surround the rocks. The fish are speared as the rocks are removed. The method employs the largest number with the least results, as many of the fish escape. A better method is to surround the pile with a meshed net, throw the rocks outside, and leave the fish enclosed. After disarranging the pile of rocks in these operations, the stones are always heaped up again before leaving. The rocks used are the waterworn blocks of coral which are not very heavy. The manini fish which come in shoals in November are caught in piles of stones that are heaped up (ma'a fa'aputu). Sina brought the manini to Auala near Asau in Savaii. When the shoals come, the people drive them towards the stone heaps by throwing stones behind them. A net is then drawn round the heap of stones and the fish speared or caught in the net meshes as they try to escape. The lo are also chased into the stone heaps by throwing stones at them, which process is called tilo lo.

Sticks. Battering sticks are used in another form of fishing with the ma'a piles of rocks. People surround the rocks and work in towards them, poking and pounding the branched coral amongst which the smaller fish lurk. The process of pounding the rocks is termed tu'itu'i, and being associated with the ma'a piles is termed tu'itu'i ma'a. From the general process, the sticks are called la'au tu'itu'i ma'a, and for short the word ma'a is dropped. By this means the fish are driven into the ma'a piles and caught by groping, spearing, the ola tu basket, or the net. The method may also be used without the ma'a piles in parts where a plentiful growth of the small branched coral affords cover for fish. The ola tu basket is set across a convenient small channel and the coral pounded with the sticks by women usually, who work in a decreasing oval formation with the fixed small end of the oval at the basket. The branching coral is termed 'amu and the method tu'itu'i'amu. The water is never above waist high during these operations. Both sexes are expert in floating over the sharp coral by paddling with their hands while the face is under water watching for fish. They rest on the stick or put a foot down here and there and by keeping their full weight off the sharp coral, progress quickly without needing sandals. To a foreigner progress even in boots is slow and fraught, with danger from cuts about the ankles and legs which inflame and are slow to heal. Cuts from live coral take months to heal as they break down again and again, yet the Samoan constantly explores the sharp 'amu patches with impunity even after sustaining cuts. His culture trains him from infancy to cope with the watery element. He paddles over sharp coral groves, swims page 420over deep holes and channels, and dives round rocks and crevices. A strong wave that would dash a stranger against jagged rocks is avoided by falling forward over it when the place is shallow and submerging quickly under it when the depth permits. Even a novice under water would be swept against a sharp rock but the native fishers of either sex give a turn of the hand or foot and head into recesses and under projecting points with an ease that defies wave and current. The success that attends methods that another culture would regard as primitive depends on the high standard of skill attained in progression, both through and under the water, and in dealing with the various changes within the lagoon. People without this skill would starve amidst plenty. Their futile attempts to secure food without the mechanical appliances of their own culture would be regarded from the Samoan stand-point as very primitive indeed.

The octopus stick (sao fai fe'e) about 3 to 4 feet long, and as thick as the finger, is used by women for drawing the octopus out of holes in the coral within the reef. At low tide, women may be seen prowling about the shallow parts of the lagoon looking into pools for likely holes. The sao stick for obtaining octopus (fai fe'e) is thrust down into the hole and twirled about. The irritation drives the octopus out, when it is quickly seized by the body and bitten between the eyes to kill it before it can get a grip with its tentacles. They are, too small, however, to do much damage. I heard of a woman getting into trouble with a larger octopus than usual. When she attempted to bite it the octopus got its tentacles around her head and neck. The woman's screams brought assistance. The rescuer said she presented a ludicrous sight with the writhing tentacles waving from her head like hair. Had the "Medusa's head" myth occurred in Polynesia, the moving tentacles of an octopus would offer a more rational explanation than writhing snakes. A second short slender stick about 18 inches long is often carried in addition to poke into awkward holes with a bend. The octopus, after being killed, is placed in the ola malu slung on the back. The octopus is a great delicacy much sought after. The sao method is used by women alone.