The people of the Independent State of Samoa are known as the ‘happy people’ for their celebrations for nature and fun. Samoans will tell you their informal name ‘happy people’ comes from ‘aiga’, which means family; family is the general source of their happiness. Another source of happiness is playing a traditional game. There are many games the ‘happy people’ play. However, a very lively one that everyone should take note of is Tāgāti’a. Tāgāti’a is a spear-throwing competitive game that can last for a week and brings all the neighbouring villages together to compete.
The social standing of the game to a Samoan goes beyond entertainment. Tāgāti’a is played when a Samoan man needs to defend or prove his honor if it is called into question. The victory is remembered as holding societal prominence within the various villages that still exist. The game, as light-hearted as many have taken it for, has also held a dangerous reputation, which is why various areas of Samoa have banned the tāgāti’a. The numerous eye injuries caused from flying spears/arrows/darts have been the major cause.
China’s national sport is table tennis and football is Spain’s. Western Samoa played āgāti’a and it is time to hear why Samoans loved this sport. See how many parallels you can draw to modern sports.
The game required two teams with an unlimited number of players for each side. 100 players were considered a small number of players. The players of each team were traditionally men. The teams could be composed of various relatives from the same or different villages. Extended families that were bound by marriage were even free to join a team to increase the numbers. Should a competition take place between two villages, it would be called tavasaga, which would involve village leaders (the matai) coming to the hosting village with their team, much like a national soccer tournament, but there is no strict rule that states the game must be between two villages. However, the likelihood that villages competed for honor was very likely.
Each team assigns itself a leader as well as a fa’atau ti’a who is tasked with keeping their team up to date with the scores and any game developments, as well as marking specific arrows used in the game for scoring purposes.
Among those that came with the teams were the women and children. While they could not play, they acted as support. Support includes dancing, singing and chanting for their teams.
Credit: The Journal of the Polynesian Society
A large cleared space ranging from 100 to 150 feet was used for the tāgāti’a, but it was noted that the best throws recorded often went beyond this range.
At both ends (lengthwise) there were sloped ramps called pāga that were built either by pounding hard-sand down or a constructed piece, which was always the preference. This structure made use of earth, small rocks and ash mixed with water. These elements were made into a smooth and hard ramp by the Samoan people. The pāga had a range of 6 feet in length with sloping heights ranging to 24 inches. The preciseness of these measurements depended on the village that hosted the game.
As mentioned before, the pāga was needed at both ends of the playing area and this was where the arrow (short spear) called the ti’a was thrown.
The ti’a was fashioned from one piece of wood and could have different lengths and can be made from specific types of wood such as Hibiscus (fau), Grewia (fauui), Erythrina (aloalo), Homalanthus (mamala) and Alsophila (paopaoga). The straighter the stick, the more favourable the win. However, differing lengths were important to note as the sizes dictated where the player had to stand in relation to the pāga when throwing the ti’a. This would go to the difficulty of the throw.
The sizes of the ti’a can be seen below:
- Tafau – 20 inches long
- Tafua – 4 feet long
- Tapu’u – 20 inches long
- Tasali – 30 inches long
- Velo – 4-5 feet long
- Ulutoa – five feet long
The importance of this will be explained in the ‘Method of throwing the ti’a.’
How to play Tāgāti’a
Before the game began, waggish speeches were exchanged from the leaders of both competing teams. Following speeches was the choosing of the first throwers (generally visitors). The first throw of the visiting team must start from the weakest thrower/competitor and this first throw is generally called a tāua. This is because the last player’s strength would be able to win more points. The fa’atau ti’a would also play last and during his turn his place as score keeper would be taken up by a player that had already done their turn.
The objective is to throw the ti’a and have it bounce off/touch the pāga for the throw to be considered a proper throw. If the head of the ti’a touches the pāga it is called “fa’amasau”.
Meaning ‘to make swift’, whereas if the end of the ti’a touched the pāga it was called fa’apa’i’u, meaning ‘to explode from the end’. Judges stood on the side of the pāga to ensure the arrow touched. If it failed to do so, the judges would inform the fa’atau ti’a to disregard the point. This was called a misthrow or a tā pē” which means ‘dead throw’.
The scores accumulate over each player’s throw. The ti’a must bounce of the ramp or glance off it and the furthest throw generates the most points. The first team to reach 100 points were declared winners. The difficulty of the game and amount of points justified the game’s length.
How the teams will win in Tāgāti’a
Credit: Samoa history, wordpress.com
After the first team (generally the visiting team) has finished throwing their darts/arrows, the fa’atau ti’a are to mark off the best throws for scoring using sticks and stones. The darts were then collected and given back to their owners. The owners would usually find burn or scratch marks on the shafts for identification purposes. When all darts had been given back to their respective owners, the second team (the hosting team) would begin to throw to outscore the previous team and this was called matāti’a. It was generally found that the second team’s leader to encourage his team would throw out statements like “Tā pona, ausi, ausi matāti’a” which meant “Thrash the poorest thrower and beat the furthest thrower”, which can only be taken is Samoan trash-talk.
Should the second team have a thrower that had distance greater than the first team’s best, their fa’atau ti’a would sing the victory phrase “Ua mua fo’i le ti’a na sau nei!” which translated to ‘The javelin that came now is in front!’ The team would reply with “Fa’ita fo’i e muli; Ma le si’usi’u o le mea uli; Mua outou, mua o!” This reply meant that the team thought they were going to lose but now they see they are in the lead. If we equate this to modern-day songs, it would be Queen’s ‘We are the Champions!’
Method of throwing the ti’a
As was mentioned before, the size of the ti’a was very important as it prescribed where one was to be in relation to the ramp when it was their turn to throw.
A tapu’u player, whose ti’a was 20 inches long, had to stand next to the pāga, but all the others required a run up; the velo (4-5 feet) needed to be thrown five feet behind the pāga and all the shorter types had ranges in between the two extremities given.
Beyond the positions of standing, there was a specific method of throwing the ti’a to ensure fairness and effectiveness simultaneously.
The tasali, tafua, ulutoa and velo all shared the same throwing method, which was the thinner end of the ti’a with the thumb and middle finger and placing the forefinger on the other end of the ti’a. A player made a short run , holding the ti’a in a specific way, and had to to turn sideways and release the ti’a on a slanted course that would lead to the surface of the ground which would have an incline due to the pāga. This is the only way to make a proper throw (ta)
The tapu’u and tafau had an overhand knot on one end of the ti’a to create a throwing strip which would extend the length of the throwing motion. While it has been said that any dart could bear this strip, it was the tapu’u which needed more care as it also required a coconut leaf to furnish its end, to allow the dart to fly ‘truer’. The other style that made use of the throwing strip was called ‘jerking’ (se’e), in which the throwing strip was wound around the dart and was used to jerk the dart upwards away from the ground.
What did the supporters do?
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With every sports team or competition comes an audience that offers their support for the respective team and Samoan tāgāti’a was not an exception to this. While the men made up the teams for the tāgāti’a, the women and children stood to the sides and offered their support by singing traditional songs and by dancing. In today’s time, the action of using song and dance to support your team is called lape. While this emotes positive thoughts and feelings, the original meaning of lape has been explained. As a noun, lape means that in tāgāti’a it is a Samoan man who wishes bad luck and, as a verb, lape means to sit and wish bad luck upon the opposition in a game of tāgāti’a.
The opposition’s typical ‘booing’ is still seen and can generally escalate. There is also the famous singing of national anthems or team songs to motivate supporters to motivate their teams.
One thing that you often do not see is supporters trying to distract the opposition. The supporters at the tāgāti’a, because they could sit so close to the pāga, were able to use random movements during the times of throwing to phase the opposition and distract them throughout the game.
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Where every game has its supporters, its rules and its team-mates, swindlers are another common feature of games. When the second team throws in an attempt to outdo the first team (matāti’a), there will be the need to see where the first team’s best throw was, so when the team is unable to see this mark, they say “Fa’atū le matāti’a” which means “stand upright the furthest marker” which is an instruction for the fa’atau ti’a to place an evident mark on the spot or sometimes remained next to the spot for physical guide. However, this assistant allowed opportunities for cheating. The fa’atau ti’a, like all players, cheated to help their team but not consistently. If their team benefited, they never saw any harm.
When a fa’atau ti’a’s team had a winning throw, the fa’atau ti’a would jump up in an expression of delight and slowly slip the ti’a a few paces ahead. Was the cheating ever dealt with? Did it have its penalties? Were the penalties as simple as they are now?
Songs Sung in Jest and Support
- The Journal of Polynesian Society
While tāgāti’a is recognised throughout Samoan history, not all of the songs are the same. They differ from village to village, but most of these songs involve a bird. For instance, a team with the winning throw would sing:
|Seu le manu va’ai le galu ma le ti’a||Catch the bird, look out for the waves|
|Lon amavae atu, mua o! (sic)||And the javelin is departing.|
Another song (taunt) that involved a bird is from the Safa’i village on Savai’i Island was:
|Seu le manu||Catch the bird,|
|Taga’i i le galu||Watch the breakers|
|Le ti’a ua mavae atu,||The javelin is departing,|
|Mua o!||First o!|
Do Samoan’s still play Tāgāti’a?
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It is evident through today’s Samoan sayings and proverbs that tāgāti’a will always hold a historical and social significance in Samoa. However, the game’s dangers and craze led to it being discontinued. Tāgāti’a is the last discontinued traditional Samoan game, which is unfortunate. Yet, Tāgāti’a is rather often brought up in legends and stories or spoken of in passing. Samoan cricket is considered a derivative of tāgāti’a as it involves lape, a player’s individual role, the game’s long time periods and rules used to keep score. Unfortunately, cricket’s origins (being more gentlemanly) means there are no associated songs for the sport meant in support or jest. More’s the pity.