A traditional canoe by Tutuila’s main road. April 17th is Flag Day for American Samoa. Each village will have a canoe in an island-wide boat race in the main harbor.
We just got back from a four-day trip to the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, where we stayed with host students and their families. The students were members of the community college’s Phi Theta Kappa honors society, and were eager to get to know us, welcoming us as friends and new members of their families.
I was excited from the moment we touched down. Like many of the students in my group, I knew the least about American Samoa going into my study abroad, and was curious about what it would be like—more so than Fiji or Savai’i. We started by driving past chains like McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr…places I would not usually frequent in the US, but which sparkled with new fascination as we drove past. A lot of the world’s American stereotypes felt true here: things seemed glittery, plastic, diverse, plentiful. Or perhaps I was just in culture shock.
The situation got even better when I met my host. We had similar personalities, and as she told me about what she had planned for our stay, I couldn’t help smiling. She wanted to take us to ice cream spots, the best ocean views, and her aunt’s function center (set on top of a hill that overlooked the island). “My dad’s an artist,” she said, “but he also loves to cook…really intricate things. He’s starting to put tattoo patterns on his cakes, and he’s going to make lasagna on Thursday for you.” Oh gosh. The L word. We went back to her house, and I was enveloped in air conditioning, basking in the feeling of cool air on my skin as I delved into Arizona iced tea and potato chips. None of us had felt like life in Samoa was particularly hard, but I was not expecting this reaction to all the food choices on my arrival in American Samoa—an island only half an hour’s plane ride away, yet a world apart.
I could go on for pages with the food, but suffice it to say that I ate my fill and more. And between eating, hikes, lectures, and late-night talks with my host family, the stay was over before we knew it.
My family was the biggest highlight of my trip, as every night they sat up for hours talking about life in American Samoa, their past, and what they hoped to do in the future. Our group advisor wants us to analyze whether culture is “blended well” there, and we’ve all found that is impossible to do so. My family called themselves weird, since they were a small nuclear family with healthy portions of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Australian, Solomon, and Samoan in their family tree. They didn’t go to church or bingo, though most of the island did. My host father created artwork based on Samoan traditional tattooing, but wasn’t widely known, since those in the community “didn’t understand his art,” and felt they could make it themselves. My host brother, who was sixteen, was a product of all this “blending,” but was closest to the Tongan population on the island, since his best friend was Tongan and they would often go to church and other events together.
flower leis find a new twist in American Samoa, where grocery stores sell leis with candy, chips, and 5-hour energy bottles
So what exactly is cultural blending, and how does one do it well? And why should we assume that American Samoans do it less well than Americans or Samoans? To me, culture just is. A group might lose traditions, but it cannot lose culture…it can only adapt it, as we have been seeing in American Samoa.
One aspect of Samoan tradition and culture that is still very much alive is the legend of the turtle and shark in the village of Vaitogi. According to one version of the story, a man and woman fell in love, and ran away from their island so that the man would not have to fight a war. They were taken in by the villagers in Vaitogi, but their leaders, angry at the man’s desertion, eventually found them out, chasing them to the cliffs. The pair refused to surrender, and jumped into the ocean, where they turned into a turtle and shark. Another version claims that the pair are a mother and daughter fleeing famine. You can watch the first version in more detail here:
The pair can still be seen today, but only if the villagers come to sing their special song. Our hosts had called the village before our visit, and a woman came out to meet us when we arrived. After five minutes of singing, they both appeared, the turtle surfacing on the right, and the shark swimming in the crest of a large wave that came crashing down on the cliff. It’s easy to be cynical of legends, but much harder when they come true right in front of you.
Searching for the turtle and shark at the cliffs of Vaitogi
Other aspects of American Samoan culture are not as Samoan…perhaps more like what many like to call a “melting pot.” There is little food waste, as is common in independent Samoa, but when this is combined with easy access to American fast food chains and junk food, health risk and obesity rates go through the roof. Add to this the inability to access fruits and vegetables, due to the lack of home gardening and mainland ships that never seem to arrive, and you end up with a difficult situation. Similar instances of blending can be seen elsewhere in the culture: strong Samoan family values are played on by recruiters to coax students with few options (the US government has prevented universities from being established on the island) to join the army. Tuna canneries employ large numbers, and enable proprietors to label their products as “made in the USA” without paying their workers national minimum wage…since American Samoa is not officially part of the nation. And the list goes on…
It may come as a surprise to some readers that American Samoa exists and is part of the US. We certainly aren’t told much about it where I’m from. Well, it’s an “unorganized, unincorporated territory,” the last US holding in which people are not citizens, and thus cannot vote or have a voting representative in Congress. They also do not pay taxes, and maintain their land without risk of eminent domain, even receiving payments from the government to rent their land as a national park. There are pros and there are cons, as there would be any place in which different cultures are coming together and attempting to successfully coexist.
I hope that one day in the future I will be able to host members of my American Samoan family at my house in Massachusetts, so that we can continue are conversations, and that I can begin to see my world through their eyes, as they tried to see their world through mine.
Sunset from my host family’s hilltop retreat