A tiny island territory -- 200 square kilometers of mountain, forest and beach in the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean -- is home to about 58,000 American nationals. American Samoa has been a part of the United States since 1900. It is the only U.S. territory south of the equator. Its Polynesian neighbors include the independent nation of Western Samoa, the French territory of Wallis and Futuna and New Zealand's self-governing protectorates: Niue and the Cook Islands. Despite their ties with the U.S. mainland, the people of American Samoa cherish their Polynesian heritage...and as Al Hulsen tells us, they are trying -- not always successfully -- to keep their Samoan values intact:
Fa'a Samoa, or the traditional Samoan way, remains strong here in the tropics, even though there has been an American presence for more than 100 years. Use of the land, divided into independent, manicured villages, and the local matai system -- governance by chiefs -- continue to have major impacts on everyday life.
Virginia Samuelu, who manages the territory's tourist office, says the Samoan culture is unique. "We've preserved our culture for years," she says, ticking off the ways it survives. "Our extended families, we have a chief, we have extended talking chiefs, from the high chiefs and so on, and we've passed that through the generations. That has not changed for many years. And very close family ties, being able to help each other when one's not doing so well, in this world where money seems to count a lot." She says in American Samoa, family is more important. "In a sense, perhaps we don't have the abundance of materialistic things that is out there in the Western world, but we have the closeness of family."
Family relationships are at the heart of all Polynesian cultures, according to Aleni Ripine, a professor at American Samoa Community College… and that sets it apart from the Western, American mainstream. "Our culture is a shame culture," he explains, "whereby everything, most of the things we do, is based on how we feel about our relationships with other people." He contrasts it with the American, "guilt culture. It's not like yours, whereby if something happens to you, then you have to bear it by yourself. Your family will feel sorry for you but they will not come to assist you, whereas the Samoans will, right or wrong, they're going to back you to the hilt." The professor says that's typical of Asian cultures. "Let's say somebody comes to rape a girl in our family. It's the job of the men in the family to go out and kill that guy, or do something, punish him. In your culture, you'd go to court. In our culture, court comes last."
But Samoan culture has been changed by outside influences. Christianity, for example, arrived with Western missionaries in the early 1800's and was eagerly embraced. Virginia Samuelu says religion has become a very important part of life in American Samoa. "On Sunday nothing is open and everybody goes to church, even the young children. And they go to Sunday school. That's still that family togetherness. And I think to us this is very important."
Christianity, for the most part, has replaced the traditional gods and spirits… just as blue jeans, t-shirts and other imported clothing are seen more often than the traditional lavalava. American Samoa Community College student Aaron Va'ai Hall says it's easy to see the U.S. impact on the islands. "When you look around we see Samoans wearing American clothing," he says, "American cars. I mean they changed like our lifestyle but not our culture. That's the influence they have on us. And it's a good thing. I think it's really developed American Samoa."
Professor Ripine, however, says a more fundamental change has come in reaction to the introduction of Western concepts of liberty and freedom. "The Samoan culture is very strict," he points out. "Because, of course, ours is based on the extended family. So you've got to respect all these other people. There's so many people to respect. We've got to pay a lot of attention to a lot more people. And therefore the freedom is very restrictive in our culture. Strict rules. Taboo, you might call it. We've got to observe or we don't belong. And you people (Americans) have brought a kind of freedom. It's an excuse for us. It gives us a chance to open up ourselves, open our hearts to everybody and do what we want. The freedom is the most important thing. The freedom of speech, freedom of religion."
For centuries, Samoan culture has been passed on from generation to generation, through legends, dances and songs. Now there are new stories, dances and songs, presented through imported television programs and the growing number of visitors from afar. Professor Ripine says a primary mission of American Samoa Community College is to preserve the traditional culture. So the curriculum gives students, particularly those who will become teachers, a solid foundation in the Samoan arts, language and way of life.