Samoans are the original inhabitants of the Samoa Islands, which lie north of New Zealand between latitude 13° and 15° south. The two large islands are Upolu and Savai‘i, and the only other inhabited islands are Manono and Apolima. About 80 km south-east is Tutuila, the principal island of the smaller territory of American Samoa.
There are many explanations for the name Samoa. One is that when the earth’s centre – known as ‘moa’ – was born, Salevao, the god of the cliffs, brought water to wash the new child. He made water ‘sa’ (holy) to the child and all that grew on the earth.
Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga may be the original homelands of the Polynesians. It was from these islands that, some 2,000 years ago, Polynesians settled the rest of the South Pacific, eventually reaching New Zealand.
Over the centuries Samoans exchanged news, trade and marriage partners with neighbouring Pacific peoples (mainly Fijians and Tongans). The first European to sight the islands was a Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1722. Later, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville called Samoa’s islands ‘the Navigator Islands’.
In 1830 the Reverend John Williams landed in Savai‘i, bringing the Christian gospel. This was the beginning of the change from the ‘time of darkness’ to the ‘time of light’, as most of the population converted to Congregationalism. A ‘Samoanised’ form of Christianity now exists in the EFKS (Ekalesia Fa‘apotopotoga Kerisiano o Samoa), also known as the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, or CCCS. This form of Christianity is also found in the Samoan components of the Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church. For many Samoans, Christianity and fa‘asamoa (Samoan culture) are inextricably interwoven.
In 1899 possession of Samoa was divided between Germany (Western Samoa) and the United States (Eastern Samoa). At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, New Zealand occupied Western Samoa and administered the islands until 1962, under a mandate from the League of Nations. In 1918 the New Zealand trading ship Talune docked in Apia, carrying people infected with Spanish influenza. This led to a devastating and avoidable outbreak of the disease which killed about 8,500 Samoans – over 20% of the population. Many more died during a famine caused by the resulting disruption to agriculture.
During the first part of the 20th century, growing Samoan discontent with the New Zealand administration led to an independence movement called the Mau, which was non-violent. However, on 28 December 1929 at least nine Samoans, including the high-ranking chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, were shot dead by New Zealand military police during a peaceful demonstration.
In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific nation to regain independence, and a Treaty of Friendship was signed with New Zealand.
In June 2002 New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to Samoa for three actions taken by the New Zealand administration between 1918 and 1929: allowing the ship Talune, carrying passengers with influenza, to dock in Apia, which resulted in the deaths of more than one in five Samoans; shooting non-violent protesters in December 1929; and banishing Samoan leaders and stripping them of their chiefly titles.
Although Samoans have travelled to New Zealand since the early 1900s, it was not until the 1950s that they migrated in large numbers. As New Zealand’s industry and the service sector expanded over the next 30 years, the search for labour was extended to territories and former territories in the Pacific. Many Samoans moved to New Zealand for greater opportunities and a better education for their children.
Entry was not unrestricted. From 1964, the government issued three-month visas, and from 1967 it set annual quotas for immigrants. As long as the demand for labour was strong, the regulations were not enforced. But when the New Zealand economy declined after 1973, this flexibility ended. Dawn raids on the homes of alleged overstayers began in 1974. Politicians blamed Pacific Islanders for overloading social services, and they shaped a negative stereotype of Pacific Islanders.
Although many Samoans and Tongans were guilty of overstaying their visas, the focus on these two ethnic groups was unacceptable to many. They pointed out that the greatest influx of temporary migrants in these years was from the United Kingdom and Australia. For older Pacific Islanders, the traumatic dawn raids remain bitter memories.
The Polynesian Panthers emerged in the 1970s to support Pacific peoples in New Zealand. They informed people of their legal rights, ran homework centres for school children, visited inmates at Auckland’s Pāremoremo prison, put on concerts, and supported Māori protests.
Despite the tough immigration laws, Samoans continued to enter New Zealand. Between 1971 and 1981 the number of Samoan-born residents doubled, reaching 24,141. In 1982 the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act granted citizenship to Samoan-born New Zealanders. After that, new quotas for entry were set. Since 2002 the quota has allowed 1,100 Samoans to be granted residence each year.
In 2013, 144,138 people of Samoan ethnicity were living in New Zealand – about half of all those with Pacific ethnicity. A clear majority of Samoans were now born in New Zealand; those born in Samoa numbered 50,658.
The demand for Samoan labour came principally from New Zealand’s cities. By the 1960s, well-established migration chains linked migrants from the rural villages of Samoa to the suburbs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Most arrived without much capital, and were initially dependent on rental housing. Later, as they took advantage of the many state-provided incentives to home ownership, communities grew on the fringes of the cities.
In 2013, two in three Samoan New Zealanders lived in the Auckland region; the next largest population was in Wellington, with Christchurch following. One in three lived in the Manukau ward, south of Auckland. Auckland was the Polynesian capital of the world and the showplace of Pacific culture.
Samoan churches proliferated in New Zealand cities. They took on the role of villages, and provided a platform for strong Samoan identity. In the early 2000s, many Samoans belonged to the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches (Samoa’s mainstream religions), and considerable numbers were Roman Catholics. Others belonged to the Mormon Church, and there was a growing membership of charismatic denominations.
Newton Pacific Islanders Congregational Church in Edinburgh St, Auckland, was the first Pacific church in New Zealand. It was founded in 1947, attracting Cook Islanders, Niueans and Samoans. In the 1970s and 1980s it expanded, eventually becoming the largest Congregational church in New Zealand, with about 30 branches.
A 1999 report by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, The social and economic status of Pacific peoples in New Zealand, painted a depressing picture. Pacific peoples’ relatively low position has been attributed to economic restructuring policies. These resulted in job losses in industries such as agriculture, forestry and manufacturing, where most Pacific Islanders worked. In 2013 the median annual income for Samoans aged 15 or over was only NZ$20,800, compared with NZ$28,500 among New Zealanders as a whole; and 15.3% of the Samoan labour force were unemployed, compared with 7.1% of New Zealanders generally.
However, statistical data can obscure the social and cultural structures which make such a difference to Pacific Island peoples. Although some were filling the prisons, hospitals and dole queues at an increasing rate, others were still going to church in large numbers, sending millions of dollars in remittances to their families back home, graduating in increasing numbers from New Zealand universities (in 2013, 8% of Samoans aged 15 and over had a tertiary qualification, compared to 5.7% in 2006), featuring among the country's top sportspeople, and participating increasingly in the entertainment, education and business sectors. It was also clear that success did not necessarily come at the price of losing island culture.
The concept of fa‘asamoa is essential to Samoan identity, and consists of a number of values and traditions:
There are also the associated values of alofa (love), tautua (service), fa‘aaloalo (respect), feagaiga (a covenant between sibilings and others) and usita‘i (discipline).
The fa‘asamoa practised in Samoa may differ from that in New Zealand. Not every Samoan has the same understanding of the concept. What remains constant is maintaining the family and links with the homeland. Money, prayers, support, food, material goods, and even relatives themselves, circulate within families around the world – wherever Samoan people live and work.
In 1998 one New Zealand-born Samoan described what it means to follow fa‘asamoa:
‘The fa‘asamoa is: go to church, be a good Samoan, and that means to try your best at education, and looking after family, and go to family functions, plus that we've got to look after them when they're old.’ 1
Most Samoan-born migrants speak the Samoan language fluently. For them, proficiency in the language distinguishes those who are truly Samoan. However, a number of the children born or raised in New Zealand do not speak Samoan, although they can understand it. For New Zealand-born Samoans, fluency is not important to identity; it is enough that they understand the language, communicate with their island-born family, and adopt their parents’ fa‘asamoa beliefs.
Because their parents do not understand English, those New Zealand-born Samoans who speak Samoan fluently are often obliged to speak Samoan in the home. Some have learnt it through their jobs, or by helping their elders deal with schools and government authorities. Others pick up Samoan through membership in the autalavou (church youth group). In 2013, 56% of people of Samoan ethnicity could speak Samoan (down from 64% in 2001), although only about 40% were born in Samoa.
The central element in Samoan culture is the aiga (family). Within the family, giving and receiving tautua (service), fa‘aaloalo (respect) and alofa (love) are crucial in Samoan social relations. Young people are expected to serve and show respect to elders, and can expect to receive love, protection, honour, a name to be proud of, and defence by the family when it is needed.
Many younger Samoans have difficulty accepting tautua and fa‘aaloalo, and the unquestioning obedience required of children. On the other hand, older members appreciate these concepts because they are now receiving tautua and fa‘aaloalo from their children and extended family.
I am a Samoan – but not a Samoan
To my aiga in Samoa, I am a palagi [foreigner]
I am a New Zealander – but not a New Zealander
To New Zealanders, I am a bloody coconut, at worst,
A Pacific Islander, at best,
To my Samoan parents, I am their child. 1
This verse encapsulates the paradox of identity for many New Zealand-born Samoans. In Samoan communities they are not ‘Samoan enough’; they are ‘fiapalagi’ (wanting to be like a European). In the wider New Zealand community Samoans have been taunted as ‘not New Zealanders’, ‘coconuts’, or ‘FOBs’ (fresh off the boat). These see-sawing perceptions may end for some in a secure self-identity, but for others in a state of confusion.
Many young Samoans talk about having time out as a reaction to the dilemma of identity. This usually involves leaving the church and rejecting parental authority. It can include experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and marginal lifestyles. For those ready to return to some form of stability, the church often provides the anchor.
Many New Zealand-born Samoans exploring alternatives take on the PI (Pacific Island) identity. Combining elements of their parents’ customs and society with urban influences, this is a new culture with a distinctive patois, music, fashion and customs.
In the 1960s and 1970s, this decidedly Polynesian identity included young Māori. However, strengthening Māori identity led to a separation of Māori from the Polynesian group. The PI culture emerged as the focus of identity for non-Māori Polynesians. As separate Pacific ethnicities begin to demand their own recognition, the all-inclusive Pacific Island framework may be replaced by separate Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island and Niuean identities.
The PI identity has been adopted mainly by younger, New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders, who feel a greater bond with one another than do their island-born elders. Bolstered by inclusive PI groupings in schools and institutions, it provides a broader identity than ‘Samoan’. It also offers a larger peer group, more easily adopted by those not comfortable in their parents’ languages or cultures.
However, Samoans in New Zealand have distinctive experiences and values which they do not share with other Pacific Islanders. Differences of culture and language outweigh the commonality of the New Zealand experience. In the end, New Zealand-born Samoans are bound more strongly to their family than to their transient cosmopolitan acquaintances.
PI identity is a phenomenon of young people. When they mature and have their own children, Samoans tend to return to their ethnic identity. For those of mixed ethnicity, Samoan identity is passed on to younger generations by the stories and instructions of their mothers or grandmothers, or by fathers who have been influenced markedly by their mothers.
The community forged by the migrant settlers of the 1950s has evolved into a Pacific Island middle class. The so-called ‘browning’ of Auckland is unparalleled in any other city in the world. In sport, the arts, fashion, academia, business and the corporate world, politics, music, and performing arts, Samoans have brought a unique Pacific influence.
Samoans have provided New Zealand’s first Pacific university professor (Albert Wendt), first Pacific Rhodes scholar (Damon Salesa), and first Pacific court judges (Aeau Semikueiva Epati and Ida Malosi). In politics all Pacific MPs except for one have been Samoan – Anae Arthur Anae, Taito Phillip Field, Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, Mark Gosche, Peseta Sam Lotu-liga, Carmel Sepuloni and Su'a William Sio.
Perhaps the most pervasive theme in the arts of New Zealand’s Pacific peoples is that of identity. Questions such as ‘Who are we?’, ‘How do we represent ourselves?’, ‘How are we represented by others?’ feature prominently and involve a range of media. Samoans have made major contributions to these debates.
Talented Samoan artists such as Fatu Feu‘u, Michel Tuffery, Andy Leleisi‘uao, John Ioane and Lily Laita have played a role in shaping New Zealand art.
In literature, the writers Albert Wendt and Sia Figiel have made their mark. Samoans have made a major contribution to music – from early pop and jazz exponents such as Mavis Rivers, the Yandall Sisters and Freddy Keil, to the opera singers Daphne Collins and Iosefa Enari, to a younger generation who are communicating their urban experience and redefining what it means to be Samoan in New Zealand. Among these are Igelese Ete, Lole, Jamoa Jam, Ma-V-Elle, King Kapisi and Scribe.
Samoan playwrights, producers and actors include Lani Tupu senior, Maiava Eteuati Ete, Nathaniel Lees, Jay Laga‘aia, David Fane, Erolia Ifopo, Makerita Urale, Oscar Kightley, John Kneubuhl, The Brownies, Naked Samoans, Toa Fraser, Victor Rodger and Pacific Underground. The works that these artists have produced are groundbreaking portrayals of the Samoan migrant experience.
The journalist Gilbert Wong sums up Pacific Islanders’ achievements in New Zealand:
‘All that first-generational migrant drive for children to make the most of education has resulted in the police officers, nurses, teachers, bank managers, lawyers and doctors …Some have attained the higher reaches of society … professional associations have sprung up … a critical mass of Pacific people forming a new identity a few hours by 747 from their home islands. New Zealand is close enough to the springs of Pacific culture for those living here to be refreshed and constantly renewed, whatever they choose to call themselves. And wherever, in terms of class, they end up.’ 1
The sporting achievements of Samoan people are impressive. There have been many members of the All Blacks rugby team: Bryan Williams, Joe Stanley, Va‘aiga Tuigamala, Michael Jones, Olo Brown, Frank Bunce and Tana Umaga. Netballers in the national women’s Silver Ferns team include Rita Fatialofa, Bernice Mene and Leilani Read. Boxers such as Jimmy Peau and David Tua have appeared on the international scene (Tua contested the heavyweight championship of the world). Among the Tall Blacks basketball players were Byron Vaetoe and Pero Cameron, and rugby league players include Dwayne Mann, and cousins Joe and Nigel Vagana.
In athletics, the discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina was twice a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and became world champion in 1997. In individual sports, New Zealand has been represented by Claudine Toleafoa in tennis, Murphy Sua in cricket, and Ray Sefo in kickboxing.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Samoa.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
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Lal, B. ‘Perspectives on ethnicity: old wine in new bottles.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 6, no. 2 (1983): 154–173.
Macpherson, Cluny, Paul Spoonley, and Melani Anae, eds. Tangata o te moana nui: the evolving identities of Pacific peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2001.
Mallon, Sean, and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira, eds. Pacific art Niu Sila: the Pacific dimension of New Zealand contemporary arts. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2002.
New Zealand, an immigrant nation. Searching for paradise [videorecording]. Producer, Jennifer Bush. Wellington: Top Shelf Productions, 1994.
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