"Samoa mo Samoa, not Samoa vs Samoa"
By a rough law of averages, most Samoans still place a high priority on the following three things: 1) nuclear and extended family, 2) some form of spirituality, and 3) a principle of service to your fellow people and community. Samoans, like most human beings, are generally an affectionate, generous and loyal sort of people – provided you don’t cross a line.
And where should you not trespass? Well, that depends on who you ask.
When I first started learning Samoan, I joined a lot of online communities and was reminded of one of the reasons I had let it lie for so long.
We argue a lot with each other.
These boundaries and codes of conduct are apparent in social contexts: we insist on how we should conduct ourselves, expectations of each other’s roles and responsibilities, our values and beliefs, and what reasonably qualifies as assumed or implicit knowledge for someone who identifies as a Samoan.
All of these concerns manifest in an ongoing argument that continues to rage online, no matter how much academic literature continues rolling out to support the conversation (Cluny Macpherson and friends, I’m so glad I found you): We can’t agree on what qualifies as a Samoan these days.
Consensus on a check list of criteria is no longer possible. Any critical mass of agreement we may have once enjoyed, secured under the umbrella of church and chiefly states by oceanic isolation, was dashed when the first waves of migrants departed. They settled new communities in new environments with new lifestyles, systems of beliefs, values, and ways of functioning. Once those first migrants were settled, it opened a two-way channel of influence to and from the outside world to Samoa.
Today, Samoans are found all over the world. And we can’t stop arguing about which of us qualify for inclusion in our community; who among us are failing in our (often assumed, not self-assigned) duties as a person who calls themself a Samoan. We accuse others of complicity in cultural appropriation or dilution while justifying ourselves with our backs to pillars engraved “Samoa mo Samoa”, hashtag #KnowYourRoots.
This is not a phenomenon limited to our culture, but the pressure and criticism has gotten so bad that youth are apparently walking away in droves from “faaSamoa” and disavowing any association with their heritage. The pressure from their own community is too much. For many, it is unfeasible to fulfil the requirements of being a “proper”, “real” or “traditional Samoan” without the traditional structures in place to support that learning and development -- on top of all the new demands that didn't exist when those customs were first developed.
When you’re already an ethnic minority, can we afford to be haemorrhaging community members from within? Are we justified continuing this nature of argument if it means thinning our ranks to a future with few or none of us to celebrate it?
What will our future generations look like if we stand in our corners of unresolved disagreement? Will we even recognise each other if or when those parties finally bridge the silence of resentment and try to find each other again? If we can't identify each other as Samoan, are either of us right? Both of us? Or neither of us?
The image offered by the most vocal of our online community suggests a rising sentiment of live and let live -- in our separate corners, rather than in harmony. But I don't think that is our only option.
In a notorious online exchange between Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and opera tenor Darren Pene Pati of Sol3 Mio, the subjects of representation and duty to Samoa arose.
We were all born with different environments, different families, within different societies and sets of expectations. Even were all of these to be the same, what is unique is the individual. I have an inkling that we used to understand this a little better, but in the clamber to emphasise the communal aspects of our culture, all we can see are collective responsibilities. We forget that each of us was born with different strengths and talents. Should you decide to be an active member contributing to your society, or to Samoa, you can and will do so in a way that is unique to you.
From the above exchange, what I see in common is a duty born of love for a country --- specifically through the prosperity and wellbeing of its people. What I see in common are two men blessed with gifts to excel in different ways.
We need these differences. We need our doctors, our builders, our rugby players, our musicians, and every other role that is required to build and thrive as a community. Old Samoa knew this – it relegated everyone into roles based on age, ability and lineage; nobody was left amiss. But now our worlds have become so much bigger, and so the roles we need to fulfil must also diversify.
This won’t happen while we’re spending energy policing instead of supporting each other.
We need all the different faces of Samoa -- because the sum of us, what we do and do not share in common, is the truth of modern day Samoa.
As Pene said, “Samoa mo Samoa, not Samoa vs Samoa”.