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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 2, 2009

Samoan culture tight-knit in Hawaii

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cindy Tommy of Pago Pago, American Sämoa, and her child, Timali Tommy, 5, receive supplies from Hawaiian Airlines volunteers in Utulei.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Those trying to locate relatives and friends in the Samoas can go to http://samoahelpcenter.honadvblogs.com and post messages in a special section set up to connect people affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

You can post your message to one of four regional groupings:

  • Western end of American Samoa

  • Eastern end of American Samoa

  • Pago Pago

  • Independent Samoa￿

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    Hawaiian Airlines volunteers who accompanied relief supplies to American Samoa prayed together yesterday at the airport in Pago Pago.

    REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    At American Samoa's liaison office in Kalihi, administrative assistant Lila Livingston, right, yesterday gave travel document information to people planning to fly to those islands.

    DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    At the liaison office, Toetaua Gago helped carry in donations for victims of the tsunami. Gago, who said he has relatives affected by the disaster, is among about 40,000 people of Samoan descent living in Hawai'i.

    DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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    Like other Samoan clergy across Hawai'i, the Rev. Lauloa Fereti of the First Samoan Church of the Nazarene in 'Ewa Beach plans to lead his congregation in prayer Sunday for those who died in this week's earthquake and tsunami — and for those who lost loved ones.

    But his message of how to cope will be brief.

    "God has a plan for everyone," Fereti will tell his church members. "We cannot control what he has planned."

    Despite the expected somber tone at the first Sunday service following the tsunami, Veronica Annesley of Waikiki said that Samoan families are already looking ahead to the second Sunday in October, known as White Sunday.

    "Everyone dresses in white, as if you're cleansing a part of yourself," said Annesley, whose family runs American Samoa's major newspaper, the Samoa News.

    In her village of Nu'uuli, children on White Sunday are also served first at meal time, a break from the usual patriarchal order.

    Annesley expects that White Sunday also will serve as a symbol of hope as children dressed in white dance and perform skits.

    "Samoans take their religion very seriously," Annesley said. "I don't doubt that we'll have lots of festivities as well."

    White Sunday is one of several Samoan cultural practices that persist even at this distance from their homeland and amid the pace of urban life in Honolulu.

    Many of Hawai'i's nearly 40,000 people of Samoan descent still honor a village chief structure in Hawai'i, said Rowena Reid, who teaches Samoan language at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i in La'ie.

    "If there's an event — a funeral, a wedding or a coronation of a chief's title — the senior member, or chief, will call everyone together to meet with the high chief," she said.

    Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially in Reid's community of La'ie, also adhere to the bishop and ward system of their church, as members do around the world.

    Other Samoan traditions have been modified for a busier lifestyle in Hawai'i.

    In Samoa, Reid said, bells go off in each village announcing the day's curfew, or village "sa," when Samoans are expected to be off the streets and back home for family time and spiritual learning.

    In Hawai'i, Reid said, the sa is usually only held on Mondays and there is no village bell to toll.

    "The bell goes off in your head," she said.


    The original 30 Samoans who immigrated to Hawai'i sailed across 2,600 miles of open ocean in the early 1920s, drawn to the first Mormon temple built outside of the United States, Reid said.

    "It was a testimony to their faith," she said. "It cost a lot of money to come to Hawai'i but the draw was the temple. The church had a big impact for the migration of Samoans."

    The temple in La'ie was built primarily by Hawaiians, Reid said, and opened in 1919.

    The next large immigration, of hundreds of Samoans, occurred after World War II, when military recruiters found a willing work force from Samoa, Reid said.

    Tiva Aga was just 3 years old in 1951 when her family sailed from Pago Pago to the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Kalaeloa aboard the USS Jackson.

    "It was after the war, and the Navy came to Samoa to recruit," Aga said. "They called it 'fita fita' — the barefoot Navy — and my father was one of the first fita fita in American Samoa."

    All of the sailors from Samoa and their families made the trip aboard the Navy warship, including Aga, her mother, two sisters and a brother.

    Today in American Samoa, Aga said, Hawai'i is still considered "the land of opportunity, as they say, the land of milk and honey."

    So those who live in Hawai'i are obligated to regularly send money and goods back home in a practice called "alofa."

    "It means caring for our families," Aga said.

    For the most part, Samoans in Hawai'i remain blue-collar workers, said Jonathon Okamura, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai'i.

    "They're clearly among the working class, like Filipinos, like Hawaiians," Okamura said. "But they're even more disadvantaged in terms of occupational status and low levels of income and college completion."


    Of course, there are many examples of successful Island people of Samoan descent, including Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the head of Hawai'i's police union, a police commissioner, a former Circuit Court judge and a state senator.

    Max Sword, who became Honolulu's first police commissioner of Samoan ancestry this year, comes from the prominent Haleck family that owns several businesses in Pago Pago and traces its roots to Independent Samoa, which is still referred to by many Samoans as Western Samoa.

    Sword left behind his family and came to Honolulu in the 1960s to attend Punahou School.

    He now works for Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, but retains his Samoan cultural roots and has the title of high chief.

    "It's the matai system, which basically means to support everybody else," Sword said. "If a family needs help, I jump in. If someone is destitute or loses a job or needs help, we all pitch in to help."

    It's those kinds of cultural values that will be at work Sunday, as Samoans grieve for the dead.

    "We'll pray for the situation in Samoa," said the Rev. Faulalo Leti of Samoan Wesleyan Methodist Church in Wai'anae. "But White Sunday is about our children. It's about our youth and our future."