Pacific Islander: Current traditions aren’t my ancestor’s traditions…unlearning the past or present?

Pintail Foundation, LynnAlaimalo, AigaSeries, SamoanWriters, traditions and culture

I’ve read several links about dialogues focusing on the topic of unlearning the past. It helped me to analog with current issues that we are undertaking as Pacific islanders.

I’ve found one topic to be true of the nature of a Pacific islander, this is the fact that we have self-woven the traditions that have inhibited our freedoms to be who we are, as indigenous people. Our world, as many believe, is an evolving one that many have chosen to live with what was inserted in their studies about our history, while others may have laid it on the back burner, doing little or nothing at all with. 

As a writer, it was suggested, that it is better to focus on the issues that brought dilemmas to our shores. However, I do feel that focusing on these issues could defeat the purpose as the real message are issues within that require more careful reiteration. Like colonization— a resistance for quite some time that my ancestors experienced through various changes in both Western and Eastern islands of Samoa. Furthermore, change and the overpowering of rights became the key reason among their hopes to rescind past conventions and treaties. However, as the looming theory of changes and rights faded, granted stability procured freedom and cultural structures hence, the original agreements. The question that comes to mind when I think of unlearning the past is: Was this the actual intention of our ancestors or the idealistic gesture of generations that followed?

Let us look at United States Territory of American Samoa, if we reawaken the dialogues of our ancestors, we can understand their thoughts and synthesize from any barriers on their first encounter with Naval commands. Gathered from researches in the Tuaua v United States of America cases; it is believed that the notion of chiefs tendered over the Deed of Cession was that the Samoan people had and would become automatic citizens, and a few agreed that this was the hope of our ancestors. Some say that our Eastern Island chiefs wanted to be independent while expecting zero interference with cultural practices – however, other records indicate further beliefs that according to the chiefs who signed the Deed of Cession, the American Samoan people are automatic citizens. To this day, this continues to be a rather interesting topic for newer generations. The question is, was this a common dialogue passed on by word of mouth or was it a newer approach to eliminate any distraction to the current chief system in place?

For those who believed that our forefathers thought we were automatic citizens after signing the Deed of Cession, the actual signing of the treaty was only the beginning, as they came to realize that this seemed to have been only to replace the original name of the archipelago from Tutuila to American Samoa, leaving the American Samoan people’s status as a United States frontier to remain the same. This meant that those who were born in American Samoa were automatic United States Nationals and not United States Citizens, as they were lead to believe.

If the 14th Amendment is precisely read, it renders a solid understanding that doesn’t include ownership of lands and resources. Natural citizens under a United States soil comprehend that The United States Territory is categorized under “other uninhabited United States soils”, which means American Samoa had been the only country or territory to sit in the same category along with other atolls – these consists of trees, rocks and coral reefs and no human beings on soil – to this present day.  Perhaps, this is just another unlearning needed with regard to the agreement in the 1900’s. However, it’s going to require a great deal of reformation in the systems, as well as the original laws. Whether it was agreed upon by chiefs for American Samoans to become automatic citizens, or the fact that agreement was misunderstood.

Whatever the case, learning about what this Deed of Cession really means perhaps that it could help us unlearn some of the imbalances and discrimination that is now being faced over it.  For Samoan Elders, the future of their children meant more to them than anything, for example in the words of my father: “Do well in school and when you grow up, pursue a great future for yourself. Obtain knowledge, light candles along the way and share your knowledge with the world, as not many of us were fortunate to receive education when we were young.” This is what became my light source and basis of my desire to learn, since leaving American Samoa.

Systems may change all around us, every day, but our practices and culture remain the constant part of us no matter where we migrate to. As Mahatna Gandi once said, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and soul of its people.” No matter where we are in this world, our culture goes with us and we are the Samoan culture.

If there would be anything I want to unlearn as a Samoan woman, it would be to unlearn the contemporary practices and habits inserted into our way of life as a people. Unlearn that our daughters are to be tamed in duties appropriately good for them in the eyes of another, but sustain the fact that we have to steer cognitively and positively to promote equality where our daughters can become anything they choose to be in work environments and among cultural responsibilities. Steering away from the practice of degrading young women with taboo threats, can build equilibrium among our Samoan people evenly.

I fathom out building bridges and learning about different cultures. Not just our own cultures; or that of our neighbor’s, but every culture as a whole, and on the condition to be able to infuse and share values in building these bridges and equality with anyone in the world, as it would be simply insignificant if I was not allowed the same privilege. I want to unlearn the fact that no one is perfect, keen, holy or beyond anyone, because once we transfer this energy and practice into our children, it becomes a cult and plank in the eye that continues to malinger their paths and approaches in life when they grow. They’ll lose creativity to grow and empower, because the imperfections and labels forced onto them hindered their abilities to grow and be themselves.

Although I am an ocean of my own kind, an ocean of my own genes and upbringing, I know that we are all oceans that’ll in due course need to balance our waves of togetherness. Together, we can make a difference as Samoan people, divided will not define others but ourselves. I always witness how we grasp echoing the wrongdoings going on in the world forgetting about how we’re treating each other as a family. As a people. As a brother and sister. As a Samoan to a Samoan. A wave’s current will always go separate ways, as long as oceans destroys oceans. Together we can accomplish many things, divided we fall and our metaphysical yearnings for just leads nowhere.

My interest in building bridges has always been about equality, empowering and always knowing who I am, while taking on responsibilities elsewhere with an open mind. Personally, I feel that it’s good to be knowledgeable about the inequalities that my people are undergoing, yet, if I choose, to let these inequalities consume and define me, then I’m none other but another person opening up a door to my own intolerant ways of ignorance.

I want to unlearn the fact that while our compass of focus is magnetized on the outer issues, perhaps we must look within at issues of child molestation and sexual assault compounding among neighborly villages. The issues of moetolo’s (night creepers), the neighbor that winks at your 5-year-old daughter on her way to school, the issue that when a young girl has been sexually molested, she is demeaned in every way by her family, while the guilty are free to walk away. We need to unmask the label of disgrace forced upon women. From what I had seen growing up, the greater disgrace does not come from a man getting a woman pregnant, but the woman who gets pregnant from the man. The dose of treatment for the two is completely different. We hear people mutter about it over conversations: She’s pregnant! A sin! Disgrace! That is a greater dysfunction for us, than what the world actually perceive of it.

I want to unlearn about our trending practices of consumption and the overly insinuation of how to splurge the love in fa’alavelave’s or huge life event. We complain about global warming, but we’re so caught up with buying consumption brands that we forget why our nature suffers. Loving our very own does not have to be reflected in who has the biggest contributions of herring cases. These were not the practices of our ancestors, our elders rationed and celebrated with only a few things such as fine mats, and organics- not in bulks of wholesale goods. They believed that sacred covenants among families came from unparalleled relationships and presence. Seeing loved ones there to support them with hands and legs is more suiting than anything one could ever buy, a fine mat and livestock may seem small now, but hearts were content with the practices passed down by our ancestors before our time. All of these practices have yielded over and are quickly being replaced, which is why I ask again: Was this the actual intention of our ancestors or the idealistic gesture of generations that followed?

We are all a combination of chiefly families with vast acclaimed roots – any chief name makes any family high and most especially noble. There were no competitions as to whose chief title was bigger in the past, because at the end of the day, roots became widespread across the islands, and everyone was, in some way or another, related. Since we’re right on this certain part of the discussion, another question comes to mind: Would our ancestors agree with Matai (Chief) Titles being given freely to visitors as gifts or even anyone in our islands under the age of 14 or 15 years of age?

It sometimes feel unusual having my hair hanging over my shoulders. Curled and sprayed to battle the breeze from my car window. I wish I was able to smell that apple fragrance from my Prell shampoo I used growing up, and even better yet, the Lux soap and its beautiful fragranced lather. There’s always this soothing line that ladies hovered sacredly about the Samoan lady with the fine hair being tied back into a bun as a tradition. Yet, upon seeing the circa captures of Samoan belles back in the day in museums when settlers first arrived in the Samoan islands, I began to wonder over their pictures whether these pictures of Samoan women with their hairs down was a tradition back then – needless to mention that cotton fabrics and combs were imported into the islands during colonization as well.

Clothing was woven out of dried Pandanus leaves and Paper Mulberry or U’a, that was also used in making Tapa so very long ago. No cottons. No fabrics. Only later were cottons imported, and thus began the sewing of blouses and skirts, also known as the Puletasi used to wear for a variety of community functions and family events. The basic necessities were provided by visitors, that were welcomed then and have been very much embraced over the years. So, the question I ask again: Can our current traditions and practices even be compared to the older traditions practiced by our ancestors back then?

Lastly, our Samoan Tattoos, or Tatau, one practice of many that is held as a link to our original ways as applied and practiced by our forebears. Most structures as we see now also connect us to demigods in the past.  The old story of Taema and Tilafaiga exhibits a renowned history of tattooing for the Samoan people. Taema and Tilafaiga were sent to Fiji to learn the art of tattooing. Originally, their adventure back to the Samoan islands immediately changed the message of tattooing as it was preconceived by the masters of tattooing. Tattooing was only supposed to be for the women, but during an encounter at sea, the new song sang by the sisters changed from tattooing the women to tattooing the men. To this day, women, men and non-Samoans are all getting the Tatau or Malofie (Samoan Tattoo for Chiefs and their daughters only).

A great deal of disagreements among our Samoan people have questioned a threshold whether Samoan tattoos were ever limited to just Samoan people. However, I am reminded of our practices and also ask, would we rather inspire the world and share our traditions, or the other way around?

It’s interesting how people are curious to learn of the Samoan culture, and the only satisfactory way of explaining this is, the heart of our ancestors shared the love with the simplicity of what was practiced with an open mind for others to learn from us. After all, I like to think of my sacred traditions as a reflection of that shared love, not defined as tight oppression, which would demean who we truly are as a people. To be mindful of the evolving world, while not allowing the world to permeate our practices in any way that would isolate our values which could later be viewed as an abomination.

Our sole purpose as a people should be to focus on the issues and dilemmas within our own circles. As novelist Paulo Coelho once said, “Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.” We are all oceans that will, in due course, form waves of success together.

My father shared a Samoan fishing proverb which relates to our Samoan culture. “Toe timata le upega,” is a facilitated call to protect the catch from falling out of the upega (net). This relates to our Samoan culture in every way from dangers of influence or extinction. This world is an evolving world, but when we take hold of our traditions and not add in to it, we can save our culture and pass it on to our children the way it was left by our ancestors.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey