The path to service is through authority

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Dear Editor,

O le alagaupu masani “O le Alai le Pule o le Tautua” o lo’o tumau pea ona laulauviviluai Samoa aemaise i lana aganu’u o le tu’u faasoloina o le pule e ala i suafa matai. Aepeita’iona o suiga o nisi o faigauaiaineii lea agaifanua, ua foliga mai ua ala ga tatau ona faaopoopo iai, pe suia fo’i, i le faaupuga faafeagai “O le Alai le Tautua o le Pule.”  E iaini pine faamau e lagolagoina ai lea manatu ma suiga.

Note: To avoid the apparent ambiguities from the use of the word “tautua ” in the article, here’s a guide on its different traditional connotations:

a. (n.) service/s rendered by the non-titleholder to the titleholder (pre-title/authority) or titleholder to the family (post-title/authority).

b. (n.) the person rendering the service/s.

c. (v.) the act of rendering the service/s.

The connotations will be noted parenthetically using the above (a,b,c) designations.

In the traditional succession to become a matai (chief/titleholder) in the Samoan culture, the process is best summed up by the maxim “O le alai le pule o le tautua,” (The path to authority/leadership is through service.)  In other words, for one to become a matai, he/she needs to have tautua (c) (served) the incumbent matai for an unspecified amount of time. Only then will the tautua (b) be bequeathed a title or the title of the incumbent or previous matai. The system is closely akin to the vassal-lord relationship of the feudal system during the Middle Ages.  For the Samoans, however, their validation is often drawn from the Bible’s “...and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant,” (Matt. 20:27; 23:11 - KJV).  The verses are actually misinterpreted by the Samoans, but more on that later.

And so I now submit that the idea and belief in the traditional tautua (a), as the bona fide prerequisite for the bestowment of the pule (authority) by becoming a matai, is fading and eroding. Instead it’s the pule that is now prior, and which entitles and empowers one to tautua (c); hence the proposed maxim: “The path to service is through authority,”(O le alai le tautua o le pule). One only needs to observe and study the current trend of matai title bestowals to confirm this hypothesis. Though the principle in the new maxim has a universal nuance, the concept is treated, here, mostly within the context of Samoa’s matai system.

The proposed contravening version/maxim may be considered radical by some, deemed controversial, if not offensive by others or heretical and blasphemous by traditionalists.  Proponents, on the other hand, if any, may understand the dichotomy but reluctant to agree for one reason or another. Still others understand and agree but maybe through a conditional or relative approach only. Notwithstanding, the newer maxim has its merits.  It is a reflection of the evolution and changes within Samoa’s socio-political culture driven mainly by economic and other forces. The tautua (a/c) is now considered and valued more in the post-title/authority context and not the traditional pre-title/authority one.


The Traditional Tautua

During the pre-contact times, as well as the early post-contact years, matai succession - through the bequeathment of titles - was granted to the individual who was rendering the tautua (a). More often than not, it was a designated taule’ale’a (non-titleholder).  If more than one individual played a role in rendering the tautua (a), usually the most worthy and deserving was to become the next matai.  The primogeniture factor was an exception, not necessarily the rule.

The traditional tautua (a) involved primarily the taking care of the matai. This meant that the tautua (b), had to make sure that the matai is well-fed, met his obligations to the village administration, as well as his dues to the church.  The tautua (b) therefore is a person of agility, skill, hard work, dexterity, etc.  In other words he should have the skills of a farmer, a fisherman, a craftsman and a cook.  Incidentally, food preparation and culinary skills have become the standard metaphor for assessing one’s traditional worthiness and fitness to become a matai.  The main query - lighthearted yet oftentimes serious - used in the assessment was/is “Uapusasauumu?”(Have you cooked using the “umu” method?) It basically means, “Have you performed the required traditional tautua?”

The umu is the traditional earth oven method that uses heated rocks to cook the food.  It is a daily chore and considered an arduous and strenuous task, especially because of the intense heat and smoke involved.  Hence another companion expression and query used in the same evaluation, “Ua mu oumata?” (Have you had bloodshot eyes?) is an expression with direct reference to the effects of the heat and smoke from cooking using an open fire. Other responsibilities of an effective tautua (c) include fishing, planting, weaving, building and orating. Although a taule’ale’a does not give chiefly speeches, he still orates the folafolaga (announcing) of any sua (food gifts) presented to the matai, as well as specific announcements during an ‘ava ceremony. Most of these responsibilities of the taule’ale’a are learned as an understudy and member of the ‘aumaga (guild of untitled men in a village).  The ‘aumaga is an important phase of the taule’ale’a’s traditional progression to becoming a matai and it’s where he observes the chiefly protocols, listens and learns the art of traditional oratory.

In the eventual and successful completion of the traditional tautua (a), the taule’ale’a/tautua (b) awaits his reward of being the rightful successor to the matai title.  He has dutifully earned it and endorsed by the consensus of the aiga (extended family). Once he ascends to the position of being the matai, he assumes the role of a presider and administrator, or captain.  The expression “uasaoimatau” (he’s made it to the starboard side) is used to describe the saofa’i (title installation).  In canoeing/boating, the starboard side is the “right” side of the canoe. It is the steering side. So when one becomes the matai, he’s actually at the place where he becomes the one who “steers” his aiga. “Faafotu o va’aali’i” (launching of the chiefs’ boat) often shortened to just “fa’afotu” is another idiom that describes the saofa’i, and also based on the nautical and seafaring traditions of the Samoans. It refers to the new matai who is about to be initiated and join the ranks of the ali’i (chiefs) or captains.

In some instances, a taule’ale’a, having circumvented the traditional tautua, may still end up as the titleholder because of the so-called proxy tautua (c) claim by the members of his side of the aiga. These members - including parents, grandparents and others - will put forth a claim during title discussions and deliberations that their candidate’s tautua (c) has been rendered by them for years on his behalf and they want to cede the title to their son, daughter or other family member. Sometimes if not done civilly and mutually, some do it aggressively if not audaciously.  Some such cases usually end up in the Land and Titles Court for settlement and resolution.

The New Trend

Within the last few decades, the newer and more popular trend has been the conferring of titles on those who have not, or even get close to having “made a umu” or had “bloodshot eyes” from the umu.  Instead, these “new” or modern matai have largely been those wielding, as qualifications, a good education, hence a good-paying job and, naturally, a well-off socioeconomic status. These individuals have avoided and circumvented the traditional tautua - including the ‘aumaga phase - either by having been raised outside the village (usually in town or abroad) or having spent most of their lives pursuing their educational and career goals. The common qualification for these nouveau matai, again, is relative wealth and thus being better off socioeconomically. It is therefore not uncommon for a lawyer, a CEO, or other professional to become the primary choice in an aiga’smatai line of succession. Sometimes, the aiga would just petition or invite such a well-off individual to accept a title, or the main family title, even without any prior traditional tautua (a) or other form of it.  He then becomes a non-traditional matai who lacks oratorical skills as well as the common traditional and social etiquette and upbringing.

For the aiga part in this new design, it basically looks to someone who can - according to the traditional motto - “tausi ma tautua (c) le aiga” (take care of, and serve, the family) but in the more modern context. The new matai who has the means and resources would then be expected to help during faalavelave (hardships) and other aiga or village obligations.  For example, when the aiga takes a si’i (traditional gift usually in the form of monies and fine mats) to a faalavelave, the aiga expects their new matai to shoulder much of the necessities for the si’i, especially the monetary part. The aiga therefore seems to prefer the conferring of the pule first and thereafter let the new matai start rendering the tautua (a).  In other words, it’s pule first, and tautua (c) after.

In another instance, I have heard of an aiga whose paramount title succession has been delayed and stalled because the aiga was still waiting and looking for an heir who has the means to rebuild the crumbling and dilapidated faletalimalo (guest house) at the matai’s main/official residence. By today’s standards such a project can easily be in the thousands of dollars. Again it’s cases like these that the pule is given to one who is able to tautua (c).  The path to tautua is through the pule.  Simply put, once you have the authority, your duty is to serve. This is the more correct interpretation/meaning of the scripture: “...and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant,” (Matt. 20:27; 23:11 - KJV).  The context of the verses describes Christ as being the ideal - he was the greatest, the master and chief (The Matai), and yet he “descended” to the level of being a servant, serving others.  The new trend therefore is more in line with the scriptures.


Motive and Incentive

What has engendered and inspired the so-called new trend?  Modern economics, basically, is the obvious answer. The units and measure of wealth have shifted from being agrarian-based to strictly being capital/money-based; which in turn, ironically, have also shifted the role of the modern matai from being served to serving.

But perhaps the more obvious question now is, what is the motive and incentive for these new/modern matai in desiring - sometimes coveting - and holding these titles?  The answer, of course, is to tautua (c) and “tausi le aiga” - to serve, essentially, though with suspect.  This motive and mandate is often sanctioned and voiced by church ministers when they pronounce blessings on the new matai on the day of their saofa’i.  Part of the prayer is an admonition and reminder to the new matai that the title gives him a mandate to, verbatimly, “tausi le aiga”.  But to some observers, however, this enthusiasm and desire by the new matai to hold the family title may be honorable at best but surreptitious and opportunistic at worst. Some of these new matais see the opportunity - especially as holders of higher-ranking titles - more as a means to an end, mostly as a stepping stone to political ambitions starting with being a Member of Parliament (MP) whose main eligibility requirement is a matai title. It is the law. Certainly the attractive comprehensive compensation, perks and fringe benefits for government officials as well as the accompanied status of being one are also major lures and incentives for the new/modern matai.

For the rank and file titleholders, on the other hand, the motive is almost exclusively status and prestige. The tautua (c) gets to be their assigned lot, whether at home in the islands or from abroad (tautuaaitaumalele) hence supporting the proposed notion and concept. They’ve been given the authority, now go forth to serve.  These rank and file titleholders have increased in numbers as a result of mass title installations - mainly through title splitting - which have become the norm for many families.  This practice of title splitting, for appeasement purposes, is quite common today apparently because of the proverbial family tree having become bigger and branchy.  Again, their main assignment is not so much to preside or administer, but to tautua (c) the aiga.

Matai titles are also viewed as badges of honor and respect.  This is true of both high ranking titles and the rank and file ones.  For the former, especially those in administrative and managerial positions in the public and private sectors, matai titles are necessary within the overall cultural establishment. It is not unusual therefore for CEO’s, lawyers, doctors, etc. to hold one or multiple titles. Today, generally speaking, a CEO without a matai title is almost like a police officer without a badge. Indirectly the new/modern matai can also raise the aiga reputation, status and good name from their achievements, employment and status.

Another part of the overall new trend and its motives is that those with capital and wealth, from town or abroad, seek for these or any matai title in their village aiga just so that they can have rights and access to the aiga land, especially oceanfront property.  These lands, mostly in the rural villages, are quite attractive and valuable assets to the new wealthy matai as a direct result of the rise of tourism. Hotels, beach fales and other ventures now dot the beachfront and coastal areas built by these new modern matai who are equipped with deep pockets, and now have access to customary land for commercial use through their titles.  The aiga (especially in the village) view these ventures in a more positive, constructive and profitable light, if not as an altruistic and intrinsic part of the post-authority tautua of their wealthy matai.


Foreign Merchants Matai

Perhaps nowhere is the new proposition “o le alai le tautua o le pule” more evident than with perhaps yet another group of new matais. These are foreign merchants like some Chinese business people who have come to Samoa, set up their stores, supermarkets and other business ventures and then recompensed with matai titles.  Without any prior traditional or other forms of tautua (a/c), these foreign matai enjoy an easy path to the titles which are conferred by the aiga or village (custodians of the titles) with hopes of being direct recipients and beneficiaries of their “foreign” matais’ wealth and as demonstration and implementation of the post-title/authority tautua (a).

There may be families who still adhere and conform to the traditional method of awarding and conferring their title/s to whomever has/have rendered the traditional tautua (a), hence to the motto: “O le Alai le Pule o le Tautua”. But the notion is becoming an exception not the rule. Today, “O le Alai le Tautua o le Pule” is more the norm, if not an irreversible trend.  For the Samoans, who are reputed as being naturally Christians - albeit in name only, according to many - the new proposed maxim is now more in harmony with their Biblical endorsing references, correctly interpreted.  More correctly applied now, as well, are those who hold the pule in both church and government and are aptly called tautua (b) or servants, namely God’s servants and public servants respectively.  And the matai now also follow suit with their  tautua (c) by virtue of their pule.  Effectively, for the present-day matai, again, “O le Alai le Tautua o le Pule.”


LV Letalu

Utah and Lalomanu

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