One Samoan Identity to Rule Them All?
By Patrick Thomsen
Identity is of grave importance for all who are thrust into the mystifying space of diaspora existence. As a child of a very Samoan family, much like others in our community who made their way to New Zealand during the late 70s and 80s in search of economic prosperity, the question of what it means to be a ‘real’ Samoan has haunted me my entire existence.
Judging from the repetitive, voracious arguments on social media around cultural authenticity, it’s a question that haunts many of my fellow Samoans too. And finding the answer to this question has proven harder than finding a needle in a tatau themed haystack.
On Samoa’s treasured islands, passage into adulthood has been marked for centuries through the bestowing of a pe’a or malu onto an individual. It is said, that the process itself - the use of traditional tools, suffering through the days of pain, the pre- and post- tattooing session rituals, as opposed to the end product – is what elevates the mana of a person who receives one, and in modern times, it is this which creates the meaningful connection to one’s culture.
Hence, the revelation that there are now tattoo artists who are using modern tools such as needle guns, (in order to lessen the pain experienced by using traditional methods presumably, but it also lessens the risk of infection), to create these works of art has rubbed many up the coconut tree in a very awkward way.
Does it *really* count if you didn’t feel the same pain as your forbearers?
Let’s get one thing straight now, I am completely sympathetic to what everyone’s tweeting, I don’t “stan” for either camp, both sides bring up very valid points, but the truth is, once you’ve seen one authenticity-of-the-tatau debate, you’ve kind of seen them all.
This isn’t going to be a piece that debates the validity of anyone’s claims to authenticity of process, nor validity regarding the ‘correct’ practice of the tatau. I am certainly not wading into the conversation about who has the authority to judge what is Samoan, and what is not. I tend to think that the way a person chooses to receive their pe’a or malu is a deeply personal one that none of us looking from the outside can truly understand, thus, I respectfully decline the role of cultural adjudicator.
But I do want to talk about framing and essentialisation. Something that we as members of the Samoan diaspora need to think more broadly about, before digging our toes in the sand, all in the name of a culture and identity that I’m not so sure we fully understand in its contemporary sense.
Preserving our culture is of primary importance for every Samoan no matter which side of twitter or the Pacific Ocean you find yourself on. As a people, who have much like other indigenous peoples globally, suffered through colonisation, continue to suffer through neo-colonialism and the effects of imperialism, the threat that global influences present in sullying our traditions and way of life loom large in our balance of payments deficit and our national debt to Bretton Woods Institutions.
Defining culture is never clear-cut, and we often essentialise ourselves through single-minded discussions as to what’s traditional versus what’s not, when the reality is, this isn’t exactly a zero-sum game.
To essentialise is to boil away the diversity in the human experience and to cherry pick specific generalizing traits that you believe represents all who carry a certain label. But in essentializing our narratives, our interpretation of history becomes one-dimensional too. We invoke tradition as natural, when there’s nothing natural about tradition at all.
Last semester I taught a graduate class on critical theory and one quote that was highly discussed among my students was by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:
“What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying [...] the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition.”
The power of tradition is that its establishment as a tradition takes away any room for even the whisper of dissent.
So, when we look back into the crevices of our rich historical tapestry, it’s tempting to see the practice of things like the tatau through essentialised and romanticised eyes. There is something unavoidably seductive with this noble narrative of showing one’s loyalty in service to their family and village through enduring days of pain and suffering, to be permanently marked with the artistic depiction of one’s genealogy.
But this one interpretation of historical narrative and cultural practice obscures other realities, not least the fact that the practice of tatau came about in a time when the technology we have at our fingertips today, was not available to our ancestors.
It also masks the ugly reality of exclusion experienced by entire generations of families who would live in shame, be the subject of vicious village gossip if their father or grandfather, or even great-grandfather started but never completed their pe’a. Also, we often forget those who suffered disfiguration and even joined our ancestors in pulotu due to infections contracted during the process of using our traditional instruments.
I’m not trying to disparage our traditional way of performing the tatau, I think the ‘au and the tapping sound itself is ethereal, hypnotic, enticing, beautiful. But contemporary Samoa is a modern country and by default is culturally malleable, and she too has a right to grow, develop, and evolve to incorporate the multiple realities that we are immersed in today.
It can be easy for us who grew up in Samoa’s growing unofficial outposts to lean on the motherland for a sense of cultural identity. And we’re protective of our traditions with good reason. But what I’m sensing is that for a lot of diaspora Samoans, our image of the homeland is frozen in time, and this is problematic.
These unnuanced expectations erase the agency of our people who live on-island, who grapple with the testing realities of modern day Samoa, while we enjoy our high-speed, low-cost (high-cost if you’re in NZ) WIFI, in our palagi-style houses.
I know that attempts in the first wave of decolonisation have focused heavily on regaining an appreciation for our “traditions”, reinvigorating our language and allowing us to have festivals and outlets to demonstrate our sense of cultural pride, but whilst we’ve all been trying to desperately navigate the rough waters of our diaspora identity, Samoa has not been waiting for us to arrive at that book’s final stanza, and it’s simply arrogant of us to expect her to do so.
We must be very careful to not just take from Samoa the means to resolve our “identity” issues through the mining of cultural artifacts and traditions, whilst not acknowledging the changing face of our islands. If we continue to do this, it makes us no better than our former colonial oppressors as we reproduce the orientalisation of our own people.
I’m not advocating for our culture to simply “modernize” in response to global trends. The term “modernisation” bears a distinctively colonial stench that the annals of history will struggle to erase. What I am advocating for is a new way in framing this discussion that doesn’t reproduce our essentialisation. That allows us all to participate in an inclusive way that doesn’t leave any Samoan behind.
Samoa may indeed be our ancestral homeland, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be and look exactly the way our ancestors left it. Samoa can and is moving with the times, but the question is, can or will our socialized-into-colonised-education-systems minds move too?
An inability to do so will only result in we, alienating ourselves from a culture, land and society that our hearts care and feel so deeply about.