The Spirit of Fa’a Samoa: Traditions at the Heart of Samoan Culture

April 29, 2020  - by 

Fa’a Samoa, in the beautiful Samoan language, literally means “The Samoan Way.” The phrase refers to the Samoan culture and traditions that color the everyday lives of many Samoan people.

At the heart of fa’a Samoa is ‘aiga, the Samoan word for family. The definition of ‘aiga includes one’s wider family group, such as extended family and community. Reflected all throughout Samoan culture and tradition is the importance of maintaining close family and community ties.

As you read through our list of Samoan traditions, see if you can spot the spirit of fa’a Samoa—the spirit of family.

1. Fa’amatai

Much of Samoan culture is reflected in a collectivist system of governance called fa’amatai. In this system, both family and village leaders are expected to show qualities of selflessness, putting the best interests of the community and family members above their own interests. In turn, these village leaders, who are known as matais, are highly respected by those they serve.

Although this traditional structure has begun to change over time, the principles of service and community remain. Samoan people are known for their warm smiles and friendly personalities. They have a gift for welcoming and accepting just about anyone they meet. So it’s no surprise that qualities such as hospitality, cooperation, respect, and consensus are highly valued in Samoan culture.

2. Samoan Cuisine

Samoan cuisine, a prominent part of Samoan culture

Many cultural events and even daily life are centered around food and feasts. Local cuisine includes a lot of coconut milk and cream. On Sunday mornings, many families cook on a Samoan umu, an above-ground stone oven. Staples such as breadfruit, taro, coconuts, bananas, fish, chicken, and pork all play a leading role in Samoan meals, the everyday and celebratory meals alike.

3. Samoan Tattooing

Samoan culture is rich with traditions. One well known tradition is the tatau, or Samoan tattooing. In Western culture, tattoos are often considered a form of adornment or self-expression, rather like clothing styles. In Samoa, the tatau has a deeper, historical significance.

Samoan tattoos are unique symbols representing an individual’s faith and family ties. They also communicate status or respect within a community. The process of getting a tatau is long and painful, making the act of getting one a deeper reflection of an individual’s devotion to the community.

4. Weddings

Samoan wedding. At the heart of fa'a samoa is family.

Weddings are another beautiful Samoan tradition. In true, friendly, selfless fashion, Samoan couples do not expect gifts from their guests. Instead, they are the ones that give out the gifts, based on the social status of their guests. In Samoan culture, this gift giving helps the couple instantly begin to establish themselves as a new family in their community.

5. Entertainment

Entertainment in Samoa includes a lot of singing, dancing, food, and enjoying the beautiful landscape. Depending on the weather, you are likely to see a lot of deep-sea diving, surfing, fishing, volleyball, and rugby happening on the islands. Below are a few additional uniquely Samoan forms of entertainment.

Kilikiti—Samoa’s Version of Cricket

The national sport of Samoa is kilikiti, a uniquely Samoan version of cricket that was created after English missionaries introduced cricket to the islands in the 19th century. The sport’s bat, called “pate,” is often made from the hibiscus or breadfruit tree, and the rubber ball is made from tightly-wrapped latex fiber of the pulu vao tree or rubber tree.

Coconut Husking

Three friends participate in Samoan coconut husking, a Samoan tradition

Another traditional form of entertainment is coconut husking. In this tradition, Samoans break open coconuts with large stick—they may even use their teeth for husking. Communities often hold coconut husking competitions.

Siva Afi—Fire Knife Dancing

Siva Afi refers to fire knife dancing, a traditional dance that includes the twirling of a flaming knife while performing impressive acrobatic stunts. Anciently, the dance was performed by Samoan warriors as a way to demonstrate strength and battle prowess.

Fire knife dancer. Fire knife dancing is an important part of "fa'a Samoa," or Samoan culture.
Photo Credit by Arguien, licensed under Creative Commons.

Samoan heritage is beautiful and full of rich, human connection. Its influence has spread to benefit communities well outside of the islands. Do you and your family come from Samoa or American Samoa? Share what fa’a Samoa means to you in your Memories. Discover the stories of your Samoan ancestors at FamilySearch.org, and continue the legacy.

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