"The Samoan cultural scene is one of family," says Penu Pauu, who is National City's acting police chief when I talk to him in October.
"There is a hierarchy within Samoan families that we somewhat adhere to. It's born out of respect for elders and respect for people that are in position within the families. I'm speaking of the elders, the church reverends, the matai, or family chief. That's the fabric of our culture."
A matai is a family leader who oversees the extended family, the aiga. Pauu says, "Matais bring the family together when there is an emergency. They reach out to all of the members and notify them as to what's going on. If there's a donation needed to take care of bills, then he or she coordinates it. There are family matais who are women."
One reason Samoans come to the United States, Pauu says, is to seek a better life for their families. His family left Tutuila when he was eight. "My dad was in the military so we were all over the globe. I went to school in Hawaii, Germany, Washington State, finally in National City, where I graduated from high school at Sweetwater High. I went into the military right after high school." He later received a bachelor's degree while working on the police force.
"My family is up in Oceanside," he says. "We get together quite often as a family, my brothers and my mom and my cousins. We get together as often as we can so that we maintain a good community and communication. We get together for all family emergencies. When I say 'emergencies,' I mean maybe a family member will pass away or a family member is getting married. The family comes together and helps each other get through these situations. I guess, to sum it up, the family is really tight-knit. And it's not just our immediate family; it's our extended family also."
Samoan extended families are large. Salani Faiivae relates that at a recent Las Vegas reunion of one branch of her family, "only a few people showed up, and there were over 500." She adds, "Names mean a lot in Samoan culture." American Samoa is small, totally 77.3 square miles. With a family name comes a well-known family history.
Traditionally in American Samoa, the family and community leaders are men, while women are expected to exist behind the scenes. "My mother was a homemaker," says Pauu. "That was the traditional culture. I don't think that's necessarily true anymore. The Samoan mother nowadays is a working mother. My two sisters, they have families, but they also work. I guess that's the difference from the old days."
Fagalima Savaiinaea, who goes by Lima, works for the city of San Diego's Office of Risk Management. She was born in the village of Fagatogo on Tutuila. Her father, a sailor, was transferred to Pearl Harbor when she was six months old. "The woman back then, she was, I won't use the word subservient, but she knew her place in the family. You know, as it says in the Bible, man is the head of the household and the woman is there to support her husband and children. I think of my mom. She was almost like a maverick. Samoan women didn't cut their hair, and my mom was one of the first Samoan women to cut her hair short. I remember it was so scandalous. Now you see a lot of Samoans with short hair. And they didn't wear pants either. My mom was one of the first to wear pants. She was a trendsetter."
"You know, in our culture the men do the cooking," Tevesi Fa'apouli says. "We do the cooking and we tend to the bills. All they do is, what's the word for it? I don't want to be politically incorrect. They take care of the kids, make babies, are housewives. That's different now. One income is not enough, so it's different."
Rosey Delaney's parents lived in Western Samoa, now the independent nation of Samoa. But every time her mother was about to give birth, she would fly to her parents' home in American Samoa. Rosey and her siblings are all nationals of the United States. Delaney offers a different perspective of the woman's role. "It's one of those cultures where the women rule at home, but the men, outwardly, publicly, were the figures that everybody followed and adhered to."
Weddings and Funerals
"When someone gets married in a Samoan family, it's not just the immediate family, and it's not just the extended family, but it's the village from where that bride comes and the village from where the groom comes," the Reverend Faafouina Solomona says. "The villages mobilize to support that wedding. It's far-reaching. For example, we had a wedding here in September where family support came from Hawaii and Alaska, and that was because those were people of extended family and the village connections. When weddings happen, people offer their support to the family who is responsible for the wedding or whose child is getting married. They offer physical support, financial support, to help make the day as pleasant and celebrative as possible. Everybody gets involved."
Funerals are treated in much the same manner.
"Funerals that we've experienced here in the church are also a very family-oriented event," Solomona says. "The extended family contributes financially. The funerals are usually over a two- or three-day period. There are typically three services. First, a family service with just the family and the deceased, followed by a service where choirs will come and sing for the family, and then the main service, the burial service. Gifts are offered as a mark of respect. The big thing about the community in regard to weddings and funerals is that people never undertake those occasions or have to go through those experiences alone. There is never a family that does it on its own."
But, Tevesi Fa'apouli explains, "A lot of times when you have these events happening back- to-back, it puts a strain on the family. There's a clash. The old people, they want to keep our togetherness, our unity as a family. The young people are trying to make it today. You have to think about your kids going to school, money, and clothes."