Samoan Culture

Core Concepts

  • Fa’a Samoa
  • Matai
  • Tatau
  • Friendliness
  • Modesty
  • Respect
  • Reciprocity

Samoa is a group of islands located in the heart of Polynesia within the southern Pacific Ocean. Previously known as Western Samoa up until 1997, Samoa gained independence from New Zealand in 1962 after more than a century of foreign influence. Although aspects of the traditional culture have changed due to interactions with the West, many aspects of the Samoan way of life (fa’a Samoa) thrive today. Contemporary Samoan culture, music, dance and art continue to gain popularity throughout the Pacific Islands and around the world more broadly. Modern-day Samoans are often friendly and respectful people who are proud of their heritage.


Ethnicity and Language

The vast majority of Samoans possess Polynesian heritage, with approximately 96% identifying as ethnically Samoan as of 2011.1 Another 2% identify with a mix of Samoan and New Zealand ancestry, while 1.9% identify with some other .2 Samoan society is generally free of tension, largely as a result of and a history of intermarriage that has blurred distinctive boundaries.

Most of the population speak Samoan, a language that is believed to be among the oldest of the Polynesian dialects. Samoan is closely related to Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian and Tongan languages. While it is not necessarily mutually intelligible with the other dialects, many words are identical or similar. Samoan also has a polite variant used in formal communication and a colloquial form used in daily communication. The Samoan language is a cherished symbol of cultural identity for many Samoans.

Fa’a Samoa

The term ‘fa’a Samoa’ translates into English as ‘the Samoan Way’. Fa’a Samoa refers to a complex cultural code that guides and teaches individuals on how to lead their life. Samoan culture is governed by various protocols and etiquette (see the Etiquette section), all in accordance with core values within fa’a Samoa such as family, language, the environment, , the arts (including tattooing) and political and social structures. Although some Samoan values and customs have changed since the country came into contact with Europe, Samoans continue to strive to preserve fa’a Samoa. For example, Christian values and beliefs that were brought to the island in the 19th century have been integrated into fa’a Samoa. Adhering to fa’a Samoa brings a sense of pride and respect as well as social cohesion within the Samoan community.

Fa’a Samoa is holistic, meaning that Samoan culture is often understood as encompassing nearly all facets of life. For many, adhering to fa’a Samoa is closely associated with honouring one’s family. and legends are often passed down and elaborated through the generations. The sharing of one’s ancestry is important to many, as Samoans often perceive their identity through their family and . The way in which one honours their family varies depending on their relationship and status with others. For example, Samoans abroad will often send to family members in Samoa as a way to maintain family connections and respect for one another.

Social Structure and Matai

Samoan society is based on a system of governance known as ‘fa’a Matai’. In this system, society is organised by extended families (aiga), with each family having its own ‘Matai’ (‘chief’ or ‘leader’) titles that are connected to certain districts, villages and plots of family land. Individuals in the aiga are expected to be generous with their possessions and prioritise the interests of the group or community over their own. For example, people tend to be communal and share their goods rather than prizing their individual ownership. Matai are responsible for administrative duties and maintaining traditions and customs of the village. Matai are also seen as spiritual caretakers of all those who fall under their authority. The status of Matai is highly respected among the community.

Generally, there are two types of Matai, each with different duties. The first is the high chief of the country, village or family – known as the Ali’i. The Ali’i are often understood as ‘sitting chiefs’ because they are typically responsible for the most important aspects of Samoan culture and are generally the decision-makers. The second type of matai are the Tulafale, the talking chiefs, who usually fulfil the many oral traditions and duties within fa’a Samoa. The Tulafale are often known as the mouthpieces of the Ali’i and are expected to be skilled in the art of lauga (oration).


A Samoan becomes the Matai of a village through the complex and sophisticated hierarchical Matai system, which includes an election by consensus. While the nuances of the Matai system are difficult to articulate, the title of Matai is generally passed down from parent to child or given based on the view that the recipient will best serve the family or village. The Matai was traditionally male, but nowadays women can gain leadership status. Closely related to the role of the Ali’i is the Taupou. To be a Taupou, the woman is generally connected to the family or village by blood and is the daughter of an Ali’i.

The role of a Matai is based on one’s ability to serve those around them rather than seek prestige. Matai are expected to ensure the family or village is self-sufficient and well-nourished, as well as maintaining social order among all members. Indeed, Samoan society tends to be , whereby those with a recognised ability are often elected to the leadership of families and villages. Matai tend to gain status and influence through accumulating resources as well as their ability to mobilise and redistribute them. Since the introduction of a cash economy following contact with Europeans, the power of Matai has been reduced. Nonetheless, the fa’a Matai system persists as an integral part of fa’a Samoa.

Tatau (Tattoo)

Tatau’ refers to tattoos or the art of tattooing. Christian missionaries in the 19th century attempted to eliminate the practice of tattooing from many Polynesian islands. However, Samoans maintained the tradition. Once a part of traditional Samoan culture, the tatau is undergoing a strong revival in contemporary Samoa. Traditionally, a tatau was a symbol of one’s status and social rank as well as a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Typically, it was only Matai who would possess a tatau. While these meanings continue today, tattooing is also often seen in contemporary Samoan society as a sign of dedication and pride towards one’s family, regardless of their status in society.


Most people will visit a local tufuga (tattoo artist) in their early adult years to gain their tatau. The individual will tell the tufuga about themselves, their family and their ancestry. From there, the artist will design a tatau. The process of creating a tatau is often prolonged and painful, sometimes taking a few months to complete. Each tatau is unique, containing geometrical patterns and embedded symbols as well as carrying special meanings for the wearer of the tatau.

For Matai, there are two kinds of gender-specific tatau for male and female. For men, the tatau is referred to as pe’a, which contains intricate geometrical patterns covering areas from the waist to the knees. For women, the tatau is called malu and it covers the legs from the upper thighs to the knees. For people who aren’t Matai, the position of the tatau can vary, with common places being on the arm. Nearly all tatau relate to an individual’s ancestry; thus, it is believed that by wearing the tatau, one is respecting and upholding their family and heritage.

Geography and Lifestyle

There tends to be a distinction between the urban and village areas in Samoa. Most Samoans have lived in coastal villages and continue to do so, with about four-fifths of the population located in rural areas. In the village area, local law prevails, which can vary from village to village. Conversely, Apia (the capital city) contains approximately one-fifth of Samoa’s population. Most of those who live in the cities like Apia often move to earn more money for their families and communities. For many, living in the city is temporary as they often intend to return to their village later. While village and city life differ in terms of work and lifestyle, there are general similarities across both settings. For example, many Samoan families wake up early and begin the day with a prayer, followed by preparation for their work or school day.

Daily Interactions and Respect

Samoans are typically friendly and warm people who offer smiles to those they meet. Various values that underpin daily interactions are considered to be a part of fa’a Samoa. For example, being hospitable to friends, family and new acquaintances is very common and valued. Cooperation and consensus are also common principles that influence interactions with others. Many will socialise with their family and friends on a regular basis, particularly on Sundays after attending church services.

Respect, known in Samoan as ‘fa’aaloalo is highly valued. The importance of fa’aaloalo is evident in a number of ways. For example, youth are expected to defer to elders and those of higher status. Another example is gagana fa’aaloalo, which refers to special vocabulary that is used when speaking respectfully, particularly when addressing a Matai. While most Samoans uphold rules and traditions underpinning fa’a Samoa, Samoan families living abroad may have a more relaxed approach towards cultural protocols.

Central Intelligence Agency, 2016

2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2016

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