Saui’a Louise M. Mataia-Milo, a history lecturer at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S) graduated last week from Victoria University, New Zealand, with a Doctor of Philosophy in History.
Her thesis is titled: Subtle Invasions: Samoan Women’s Wartime Experiences.
Saui’a’s research is based on the oral histories of women and a few men she conducted in Manu’a, Tutuila, Manono, Upolu and Savai’i and in Auckland and Wellington in 2014.
Saui’a posits that during World War Two the peaceful “occupation” of the Samoa Islands by US Forces combined with existing colonial conditions to transform the lives of Samoans in important yet also subtle ways.
Drawing on thirty oral history interviews and the papers of the colonial administrations Saui’a’s thesis examines the wartime lives of Samoan women.
Their accounts of their experiences reveal how they understood the war at the time and after years of life experience.
Using approaches from social history and women’s history her thesis illustrates women’s agency in finding ways to manage the new social contexts and situations created by the war.
Saui’a’s central argument is that it was the ordinary business of negotiating daily life during the war that engaged and normalised social changes.
These mundane everyday acts were significant historical moments that wove new and unique motifs into the tapestry of Samoan women’s history.
The war brought to Samoa a multitude of American servicemen who saw Samoa through a ‘romantic’ lens as an arcadia of unrestrained social mores. In contrast, through this research Samoan women reveal their wartime experiences in their own words.
The women’s narratives indicate that the war interrupted lives in many ways causing them to rethink their roles in response to the changes.
The four areas of Samoan women’s lives that Saui’a examined are their roles in their families and communities, their involvement with the churches, their engagement with wartime popular culture and lastly their wartime sexual encounters.
She gave a portrait of Samoan society during the 1920s and 1930s, depicting the social and political forces that shaped women’s lives and influenced their understandings of their wartime experiences.
She highlights how colonial entanglements had a bearing on the different trajectories that women’s lives took during the war.
Her thesis then turns to explore the arrival of the war, examining the women’s initial experiences and reactions with a particular focus on what they learnt from their experiences and how they adapted to change in the context of their communities and families.
Saui’a’ study finds that social transformation was a response to the war’s disruption of physical and cultural space and the critical structures and ideologies that are central to Samoans’ way of life.
The second part of Saui’a’s research examines how wartime circumstances affected Samoan women’s sometimes tense relations with the Christian churches.
The churches occupied a central place in Samoan society as a provider of both spiritual nurture and secular education for women during the war years, so they deserve specific attention. Wartime conditions created opportunities that expanded and rejuvenated the scope of Samoan women’s agency which had been marginalised and narrowed by Christian influence before the war.
At the same time, the war heightened the pre-war tensions between Samoan women’s agency and the power of the churches. She pointed out that despite the clergy’s reluctance, the churches provided spaces in which American troops socialised with the Samoan population, creating social situations that were difficult to control.
The third area of Saui’a’s reseach analyses Samoan women’s engagement with wartime popular culture and how the consumption of introduced material culture galvanised their autonomy and enabled them to tailor social transformation to suit their personal perceptions.
Wartime popular culture in its many forms, such as music, dance, reading material, chocolate and other foodstuff, contributed to the rapid absorption of new ideas and the adaptation of cultural practices.
Women’s engagement with this popular culture resulted in ‘on the ground changes’ that stimulated social transformation and which should be appreciated as significant historical moments in their own right.
The final area of Saui’a’s research closely investigates Samoan women’s wartime sexual encounters.
The perception that Samoan women’s sexual encounters with American servicemen were characterised by an unrestrained morality on their part ignores other factors that shaped these encounters, including sexual violence and their own bodily knowledge and preparedness.
Saui’a’s study shows that Samoan women had a variety of sexual encounters during the war and their narratives speak volumes about the pains of such life-changing moments.
From Saui’a’s research we find that there was no single or archetypal wartime experience.
The thirty interviewees experienced the war in different parts of the Samoa islands and their social and political alignment has influenced their perceptions and understanding of their wartime lives.
The social transformation brought by the war involved considered responses from the women who sought to balance personal and family interests and Samoan values.
Exploring the women’s wartime lives reveals their resilience and their ability to overcome difficulties and effect change for the better of their community.
Saui’a acknowledges her family’s support, the scholarship award under the Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U) between the National University of Samoa and Victoria University that enabled her to pursue this important research.
She is from Lepea and she lives with her husband at Gataiala, Solosolo. She has ancestry connections in the villages of Leauva’a, Lefagaoali’i and Sato’olepai.