You Can Take the Islander off the Island:
can you take the island out of the islander?



When the Romans conquered the barbarians in North and Western Europe, when Europeans went on to conquer such islands as the Maoris’, they found the vanquished shared a common linguistic trait. Without a point of comparison, the tribes’ names were simply their versions of ‘man’ (Campbell 1997). Once the tribes were exposed to an entirely new way of life, they could never return to their previous mindsets, thinking they were the only men in existence. Immigration and emigration pulled the islanders’ eyes forever open to the outside world.

On the mainland United States and Hawai’i. Pacific Islanders’ traditional ways of life have been forced to change. Seperated from the ancestral land and isolated from the all-important community, immigrants in the United States diverged from their native culture. Power structures that had before been sacrosanct became moot, or forbidden in some cases.

Such was the case in Hawai’i. Across the ocean and up the coast, in Seattle, another new community evolved from an influx of Samoans, cut off from their civilization by 5226 miles of ocean. We will first examine why and how such changes occurred, and then explore the present and future of Pacific Islanders caught in the mainland.

Historical Background

Missionaries arrived in Hawai’i in 1820, sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. They arrived too late. As was often the case, traders (in this case, whalers) had been visiting the islands and already affected the people. An observer in 1810 found Hawai’i to be home to carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, and coopers every bit as good as Europeans, except these were native Hawai’ians (Campbell 1997). This was largely the result of King Kamehameha I, who steadily imported both the skills and the goods of the visiting sailors. Given these new, previously unheard-of occupations, Hawai’i’s economy began focusing on the Europeans in the harbor.

Unfortunately for the Hawai’ians, King Kamehameha died in 1819. His widow wasted no time in grabbing power, outlawing the traditional kupas and gods just months after his death (Campbells 1997). The islands’ vision was cut short, and the people were left to their own devices. There was a limited demand for blacksmiths or tailors, and many found their new skills unneeded. Prostitution ran high, and while the islanders’ bodies were put up for sale, so was their land. Before, when Hawai’ians were allowed to worship freely, they saw the land as a loan from their gods, themselves only trustees (Ritchie 1977). Now, that borrowed godliness was offered to the traders as the chiefs overstepped their traditional boundaries. Sandalwood was in high demand and the chiefs ran up debts using the wood, usually fictional wood, as collateral. The workers were left to pay the debts.

These conditions led to a huge population drop. Between 1823 and 1849, Hawa’I’s population decreased one-third. This was partially the result of disease, but also emigration. Able workers left for lands with jobs in them, and most of them were men (Campbell 1997). The lowered birth rate and added exit migration contributed to the already-shrinking population.

One popular choice for those in need of jobs was the United States. It was certainly a natural choice for residents of American Samoa. In American possession since 1898, American Samoans were encouraged to enlist in the United States’ military in World War II. After the war, the Fita Fita and Malini, or Army and Navy, offered a free trip to the States to any veteran who could pass the entrance exams. American Samoa had experienced a population boom at that time- from 6,000 in 1900 to 19,000 in 1950- as well as a shift from edible agriculture to the growing of cash crops. Any way off the island was welcome. The last envoy, taking the family of military men stationed in Hawai’I, left with 1,000 in 1952 (Jones 2002).

Even those that didn’t qualify for the free ride were allowed to enter the United States. Many veterans were given a glimpse of life off the island and were eager for a better view. They left behind a world where one’s existence revolved around the nu’un village). Within the nu’un were individual ‘aiga (families). Each family had a ‘head of household’, a matai, who spoke for the family in councils and made decisions necessary to the everyday functioning of the group, like land usage, job distribution, and punishment of the immoral. It was also their honor to publicly speak at great family gatherings, ‘aiga potopoto, when the entire ‘aiga would collect. It was then, also, that new matai were appointed to fill an empty position. This only happened at huge, transitional events like funerals or weddings (Jones 2002).

The public eye is a major part of traditional Samoan moral code. The nu’un is not a private place- punishments were publicly proclaimed, and it suffers the same megaphone of gossip as any other close-knit community. The morals of the nu’un are so sociocentric, an action’s effect on the group is usually considered far before the personal motivation or emotion involved, if those are considered at all. The shift from these moral standards to the American style is often a shock- Leilani, a widow immigrant, remarked that in Samoa, one would never consider not appearing at a public function; one would immediately throw themselves into the preparations. In the United States, however, one first decides if attending will be personally rewarding (Burn McGrath 2002).

A Shift to Present

New immigrants are often shocked at how private the living situation in America is, particularly the sectioning-off of families into individual houses. More established immigrants were, in turn, shocked at the new breed of Samoan migrant. Left by the young, many parents followed their children to the United States to reap the benefits old age carries in traditional Samoan culture. Others, following close or distant relatives, made their new American hosts to say

In the last ten years or more Samoans coming over here are going right on welfare. When I first came, nobody did that.
- A “Well-Established Immigrant” (Jones 2002)

A rift began to appear between the immigrants who championed the ‘American frontier’ and the new arrivals.

A similar shift occurred in New Zealand. In the early 1970’s, a faction split from the Ekalesia Fa’apotuga Kerosiono Samoa (Congregational Christian Church of Samoa). Those leaving claimed the English-language church group was not ‘Samoan enough’. When they first arrived in New Zealand, the parents were told speaking Samoan around their children would hold them back. Years later, the children mourned the loss of their culture, like one New Zealand-born, who said he will push his children into the Fa’a Samoa (Samoan Way) because his father never taught him. When asked what was the most important part of Fa’a Samoa, 55% of New Zealanders polled said ‘language’, even though only 36% spoke Samoan (Melani 2002).
We see these new nationals reaching out to make their present land their home. The children of the original migrants fought the church in New Zealand, trying to reclaim their abandoned heritage. In America, the churches did not only save Samoans’ souls, but they saved Samoan culture.

When the freshly-immigrated Malosi established a church in California to ease her loneliness, she found it was only then she felt people “started acting like Samoans again” (Jones 2002). The church acts as an ‘aiga, gathering for spiritual ritual as well as social celebration. They begin sprouting up everywhere there was a Samoan population.

After being shipped to Hawai’I and California, Samoan enlistments in the Navy were sent to Seattle. The city now plays host to a large Samoan community. The size of the new nu-un is not only due to the military men and their families. Traditionally, Samoans will go on a malaga, or long trip. The entire community prepares the travelers, who have also themselves prepared entertainment for their hosts. Malaga often leads to migration when hosts ask their guests to stay or take them back home. Seattle was also the setting, along with many cities around the world, to a new sort of nu’un- one that requires no expensive or arduous travel.
MyNu’, the website, that allows users to build their own pages and share them with their friends, has become a venue for Samoan-Americans to continue to express the values they have been given by their diasporic ‘aiga. Although the way of life had obviously changed, Samoans still hold true to their family and modern-‘aiga, the church, values. gives the user a section called “About Me”, which introduces the visitor to the page’s owner. Out of twenty Samoan Seattlians, seven spoke about their devotion to god, compared to one white Seattle native. Similarly, seven listed a religious figure as a personal hero, compared to another single white blogger. In the virtual world of repetitious jokes and binge drinking, Seattle’s Samoans take the opportunity to express their devotion to the community’s moral values.

More than religion, the Samoans posted about their love of family. That basic unit of Samoan society is still strong- fifteen wrote about their family in the “About Me” section (one white Seattlian) and twelve listed family members as heroes (nine). Many pages were plastered with hundreds of family photos.

One family built its own electronic ‘aiga. The Leoniti family is scattered across the United States and around the world. That didn’t stop seventeen-year-old Coconut-Thrower, who started the family Mspace group. In the forums, the family exchanges years of previously unshared news, as well as meeting members they never knew existed. The fifty-five familial users participated in a forum named “WHO ARE U?” (The Leomiti Family).

Some families on Myspace live together outside the computer, and live through one member on Myspace. On two pages, we see two very different views on Fa’a Samoa. “Aunty Pretty” wrote in her “About Me” section that her father was, in addition to other things, the most honest, loving, and strict man in the world. She also writes that “all the hard lessons in life were taught by you [him].” (“Aunty Pretty”) Here is an advocate for the traditional Samoan disciplinary system, which has been categorized by Children’s Services as abusive. There are child-rearing classes that teach Samoan parents how to avoid legal trouble disciplining their child (Fitismanu 2002).

In opposition to Samoan tradition is TROPICAL ♥. After the death of her sister’s husband’s brother, she is “encouraged” to help with money and material goods for the grieving family. She wrote that she resented being “encouraged, more like forced/pressured” by the Fa’a Samoa. Her entry for that day ends with “I HATE IT. Period.” (TROPICAL ♥) Lucky for TROPICAL ♥, her parents agree with her and they did not participate in that tradition. TROPICAL ♥’s inclusion of her family as her heroes only further encapsulate the contradicting dilemma of the Samoan, or most Pacific Islanders, in the United States. The revolution of medium did not resolve the issue.

Analysis and Conclusion

Samoans in Seattle merely exemplify the status of the Pacific Islander in America. Coming from a close-knit, family-based village, the Pacific Islander is thrown into a country that bills itself as the melting pot. Islanders still cling to traditional values- communal morals and family- but struggle against knowledge of how big the world is. Fa’a Samoa relied heavily on believing the nu-un to be the world- on not needing another word for man. We can see from the internet that, although they are exposed to many different communities today, and despite the fact that new morals are creeping into their standards, the Pacific Islander community can weather the American storm. The islands have been the victim of hundreds of years of callous imperialism, but the culture remains today.

Burns McGrath, Barbara.  2002.  “Seattle Fa’a Samoa”. The Contemporary Pacific
Campbell, I.  1997.  “Culture Contact and Polynesian Identity in the European Age”. 
Journal of World History.  8.1:29-66
Diana Fitismanu, Kerna Kahananui Green, David Hall, Debbie Hippolite Wright, Bruette
McKenzie, Dorri Nautu, Paul Spickard.  “Family Dynamics Among Pacific Islander
American”, in Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific, ed. Paul Spickard, Joanne L. Rondilla, Debbie Hippolite Wright.  Honolulu: University of   Hawai’I Press
Jones, Craig.  2002.  “From Village to City: Samoan Migration to California”, in Pacific
Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific, ed. Paul
Spickard, Joanne L. Rondilla, Debbie Hippolite Wright.  Honolulu: University of
Hawai’I Press
Melani, Anae.  2002.  “Papalagi Redefined: Toward a New Zealand-Born Samoan
Identity” , in Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific, ed. Paul Spickard, Joanne L. Rondilla, Debbie Hippolite Wright.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press
Ritchie, James.  1977.  Ethos. Websites (Samoan):
“…JeaLous Aye...”.
“Aunty Pretty”.
BRuDDah LeX.
Coconut Thrower.
D@ l@nd 0N133 T@ИM!N!L@H.
Pimpin Aint Easy But Somebody Gotta Do It.
“The Leomiti Family”, m. Coconut Thrower.
tRiEd – 2 – gEt U oUt MaH mInD… .
WHAt A GOod GURl LIke U WANt Wit a THUg LIKE ME???.

Myspace Websites (white):