Culture of American Samoans

Anthropology: Culture & Lifestyle of the American Samoans

Introduction to the American Samoan

Louis de Bougainville discovered the existence of Samoan islands during the age of exploration. He referred to these islands as Navigator’s islands. The early documents about these islands sometimes refer to these islands as “Eastern Samoa” as well. Later on, the “Samoan islands” became the common name of this region. Their symbolism features a blend of their customs, lifestyle, and beliefs. It is known as Fa’aSamoa or “the Samoan way”.


Do you know about the greater Samoan archipelago, situated between New Zealand and Hawaii? American Samoa comes under the greater Samoan archipelago region. Four relatively small islands together constitute an independent nation called Samoa. American Samoa is stretched on an area of 197 square kilometers or 76.1 square miles. The center of administrative affairs in the region is located at Tutuila. It is also the biggest island in its territory.

Most of the villages have sandy beaches and reefs. The major islands were formed due to volcanic eruptions. The highest elevation rises to 3000 feet from sea level. It’s an area of highly packed vegetation, featuring a tropical climate.


The Samoan language is the mother tongue of the residents. Despite that, most residents are known to be proficient in English as well. It is a result of early English education in schools.


The election of the Lieutenant governor and the governor is based on the popular vote. The terms of governance are four years long. The government is further divided into two legislative bodies.

One is the House of Representatives and the other is the Senate. The Senate is comprised of 18 people, who are selected for each county by the paramount chiefs of the respective county. The House of representatives consists of various people who choose from all the districts.

History of the American Samoans

History of American Samoans
by Wikipedia

The experts claim that the ancestors of the Samoans migrated during 1500 BCE from Southeast Asia. Their earliest settlement agreement is said to be some islands near present-day Samoa. The first people used sailing crafts with double hulls.

These were loaded with plants to be cultivated and farm animals. Lapita ware was the most commonly used potter by the first people. Spreading to Samoa and Tonga islands occurred during the first century AD.

The Samoan people were reclusive, as most early civilizations used to be. They remained undiscovered up until 1722. The European explorers made contact with the natives of the land during this time. Many more explorers came into contact with them in the following years.

The US and the American Samoans

Boatmen in Pago Pago, 1907
Boatmen in Pago Pago, 1907 II Wikipedia

The commander of the United States Exploring Expedition got in touch with the locals. He managed to secure a lasting relationship with them. It happened around 1839 and he was called Charles Wilkes. Moreover, this helped in securing a port for the whaling ships of America at Pago Pago.

The US Navy extended an offer to build a coaling station at Pago Pago harbor. The project was completed in 1899. In 1900, the Naval Commander B.F. Tilley signed a contract of the deed of cession with the Chiefs of Tutuila. In 1904, a similar treaty was signed by negotiating with the King of the Manu’s group.

Historians claim that the administration of the US Navy wasn’t oppressive. As long as the local traditions and customs weren’t against US law, they were allowed to be preserved. The micro-government was in the hands of tribal chiefs. Naval officers acted as governors. This went through n until 1951. The US government started choosing the responsible governors on its own in 1951. However, after 1978, the local populace of Samoans was offered the responsibility of electing their own governor.

The American Samoans, who are considered native-born, are US citizens. They have free reign to travel between either nation. While the number of Americans in the Samoan islands can’t be considered much, they usually occupy positions of significance. Many Samoans choose to migrate to the US as well. They tend to preserve the Samoan way of life by building their own churches.

The traditional and modern architecture of the American Samoan community

The lifestyle of the locals was mostly rural in the previous century. In modern times, the rural lifestyle can be observed in areas outside of coastal regions. Most of the settlements nearby the harbor regions are small towns. While there has been development in lifestyle, it has been cantered around the harbor region.

Traditional Houses of the American Samoans
Traditional Houses of the American Samoans II by

Traditionally, the housing architecture designs of the locals offered minimal to no privacy. The houses were made considering the tropical temperature in mind. “Tale” the customary housing structures of the locals were shaped in an oval design. The floor used to be beaten down pebbles acquired from corals and wooden beams to support the roof. The roof was created in a beehive-like design, comprising sugarcane thatch. While there was space for sleeping and entertaining visitors in some houses, most were open spaces. Despite the American government’s efforts for better housing, many rural areas still have the same housing designs.

The structures promoted by the US government featured the use of concrete and metal roofs. These were designed to minimize any harm done by storms. These were more enclosed to ward off the effects of storms. Some structures can even be found with television, phone, and complete furnishings. However, the luxurious structures are few and far from the locals.

The government buildings are constructed in oval designs. This includes schools, airports, and similar structures. A few structures have deviated from the traditional oval design to follow American designs.

The economy of the American Samoans

Agriculture in Samoa
by World Bank Group

Agriculture has been a major part of the Samoan way for most of their history. They import materials used in construction, mechanical tools, fuel, and food. Most of the imports are from the United States.

Land sales of Samoan property have been outlawed to outsiders. Only a person with a minimum of 50 percent Samoan ancestry can purchase land in the province. The commerce of the nation revolves majorly around the reselling of products imported from the United States. Grocery stores and small eateries are the most common business among American Samoans.

If you are curious about the industries in the nation, you’ll find them to revolve around fish processing. The canning and fish process also forms pet foods which are then sold separately. Almost 94% of all exports to the United States constitute Canned Tuna. The clothing industry comprises 4% of the rest of the exports.

Culture of the American Samoan

Culture of the American Samoans
by South Pacific Tourism Organization

Before diving into the art and customs of the locals, let me tell you about the food culture of American Samoans.

The local diet is quite varied. It contains fruits such as bananas, papayas, mangoes. It also has meat products like chicken, canned beef, pork, and seafood. Vegetables also show their appearance in the local diet from time to time. Supermarkets offer the locals almost all the varieties of options usually available in the United States.

Traditionally, people stay on mats and eat with the family for a mid-morning meal as well as an early evening supper. Presently, three meals a day is the regular norm.

Ceremonial occasions call for feasts. A great amount of food is served, not only for people to eat on the spot, but also to take a portion home with them. The feasts feature traditional delicacies like chop sue, whole pig, puddings as well as potato salads. But if you want to know a ceremonial specialty, it has to be Palusami. It is a wrapping of budding taro leaves which contains delicious coconut cream inside of it.


Traditional art has been supported and promoted by the Arts Council of the government. Since ancient times, oratory has been a major way of passing down legends and customs. Elders and chiefs pass down their knowledge of mythology through ceremonial speeches.

On special ceremonial occasions, Siapo, which are tapestries made of bark-cloth, can be displayed as family symbolism. The creation of Siapo is a rapidly losing tradition. Back in time, ritual tattoos were a requirement that a person must meet to have a chance at the position of chief.

Folk dancing and singing are some of the more easily seen forms of traditional art forms that you can observe in American Samoan ceremonies. The folk dance is usually done by a big group of people. Claps and body slaps are done in unison to produce a rhythmic effect. On special occasions, village ceremonial princesses display their dances. They are called taupou. Sometimes they are joined by a group of people as support.

Religion of the American Samoans

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoans
National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa – NOAA Fa`a Samoa | National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

Before contact with European and outside people, the locals had their own beliefs and religious views. It was believed that Tagaloa their spiritual deity, had created the islands. Around 1830, missionaries arrived in the islands to spread their faith. London missionary societies sent their representatives to societies that influenced the locals about the Christian religion.

At present, about 50% of the population believes in the religious views dictated by the congregational Christian Church of American Samoa. About 20% of the rest of the population is seen by the Catholic Church. The rest 30% of the believers are claimed by Pentecostal churches, Methodists, and Mormons.

The locals of some regions are known to be highly religious. They visit churches regularly and the family supports their pastors as well as village churches. The rituals are religious practices following western customs. You can find at least one charge in most of the villages in Samoa. As new churches are established on the island, competitions and festivities are held. These are known to be occasions of incredible importance for the locals. Visitors from the United States, as well as nearby regions, visit the area on such occasions.

Religious views

Traditionally, the American Samoans refer to death as “God’s will”. It is believed that the final moments of any person should be in their own homes. Dying far from home is seen as a possibility of the formation of malevolent spirits. The burial of the departed is usually done on each of the respective family lands.

Marriage has followed the ancient tradition of alliance between two families. In ancient times, marriage with a blood relative was not allowed. Almost everyone gets married at some point in their early to late 20s. At present, youngsters can choose their own partners. However, the traditions remain.

The family structure of the American Samoan

There are gifts a change between the families of bride and groom. Divorce is a phenomenon rarely seen in these societies. However, it is not uncommon for young people to remarry. Infant care is usually done by the grandmothers of the babies. The oral system as well as females of any household take care of younger children. young children are taught to respect their elders.

If you get a chance to get invited into a Samoan household, you should know the basic etiquette in their society. The people who hold the title of cheeks are highly respected and seen as figures of great authority in these societies. The elderly are to be respected in Samoan households. If others are sitting in a room and you enter it, then you are supposed to bow or bend slightly and say “Tulouna”. It is a form of respect which means excuse me while referring to chiefs or elderly.

Class system

American Samoa is known to have no class system. While the title of chiefs can be ranked based on ancient customs, it does not denote the presence of castes or classes. These titles are passed down from generation to generation. it has been seen that some titles of chiefs are respected more. A seat in the village council and the title of matai can be acquired through the democratic process. While elders and chiefs are usually offered more respect than others, all people have an equal opportunity to speak their minds.

Organizations in American Samoan Communities

Samoan Community gathering

Many of the American Samoan villages have been observed to have these women’s committees. These are non-governmental organizations run by wives of the chiefs. This committee usually oversees funding for medical clinics as well as church schools. The man who does not possess any special titles is from different word groups referred to as Aumaga.

These workgroups handle most of the responsibilities related to the labor of the village. Secondly, members of these groups also handle the responsibilities of ceremonies. Furthermore, the leader of these groups is usually the son of a high-ranking person. These are usually referred to as village friends or manaia. Unmarried women, as well as widows, have their own organizations. It should be noted, that they take care of entertaining visitors as well as serve as supporters to the village ceremonial Princess, tapou.

American Samoan communities are known to be quite closely knit. If you get a chance to visit the Samoan islands, hopefully, the knowledge I mentioned in this article about their culture might help you. It is time for us to part ways. I hope you keep respecting the ancient traditions and customs of the places you visit.

Happy travels!


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