The Mark of the Jandal

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Unified Theory of Human Interaction in Samoa Part 2

_Feudin' and Fightin'_

Consider the Hatfields and the McCoys. Those beautifully independent-minded American families playing dueling banjos along the Appalachian. Sure, occasionally little Bobby Hatfield would talk some shit about how thin Sam McCoys pigs are. Sam, wanting to save face and not deal with the fact that his pigs really are scrawny, gets his uncle's gun and shoots Bobby. Pretty soon you have revenge killings, and it's like the tribalism in Arab culture. The nice thing about living in Appalachian mountains is, if you get tired of people killing each other over a rude comment about the spots on someones cow, you can move to Arkansas.

Now jump back 2000 years ago. Somewhere on one side of the planet a carpenter is being nailed to a piece of wood. On the other side of the planet, Polynesians have constructed huge canoes and are staking their claims on every chunk of coral high enough to support coconut trees. Eventually, a few people settle on two volcanic islands, call it Samoa, and start to build houses with thatched roofs. At some point one Samoan looks at another and says 'O ou pua'a o laititi'. One response to such denigration of ones pigs might be to take a wooden ax and crush the offending parties skull in.

However, starting a good old feud like we had in the Appalachian mountains could realistically involve the entire island. Heck, this may have happened a few times in the past -- Samoa could have been settled several times before we finally ended up with the current inhabitants. In order for a group of people to live closely together, conflicts need to be dealt with constructively. Of course, one civilized way would be sunrise, machettes at 30 paces. Still, killing someones family member -- regardless of how honorable -- still has a tendency to breed a little animosity with the dead individuals relatives.

So how does this relate to getting course material from a fellow lecturer? Here's my bit of speculation on my part: I believe the passive-aggressive nature of the Samoan culture is a direct result of the need to avoid conflicts which could spiral out of control when confined to an island. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this, but I think the key lies in their social structure. To understand this, consider the different traditional classes or roles in Samoan society.

_John's Brief Introduction to Samoan Society_

Disclaimer: Any inaccuracies are of my own creation based on my limited experiences here. Being more a glorified plumber than a cultural anthropologist, it's possible that I've made many errors and false conclusions.

The social order here is very rigorous. Centered primarily around the family and secondarily around villages, peoples roles are fairly well defined. At the bottom of the social pyramid we have the untitled men and women who do most of the work. Traditionally, people who work hard and do well for the family are selected to be Matais or chiefs. The chiefs, representing the different families, meet to make decisions concerning the village. There is a special type of chief called talking chiefs or orators, who simply represent villages or families in discussions with other villages or families. The talking chiefs speak the orator language which is different from common Samoan. I've listened to it, and I don't understand it at all. Of course this doesn't mean much because I don't really understand Samoan very well either. I'm told the dialog in the orator language occurs in metaphors and deliberations can become quite extensive.

So discussing issues is important, but the same could be said for digging purple tubers out of the ground for dinner. Consider the social status of those tasked with communication versus those who work in the plantations. The untitled men, generally responsible for the planting and harvesting, occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder. However, the talking chiefs stand on that part of the ladder with the sticker warning you to use the lower rung. I think the high social status of orators is linked to the importance of the service they provide in the society here.

In some ways, Samoans had the diplomacy thing down before the French decided to make their cheese smell like their feet.

Next I'm going to try to tackle the implications of this in relation to a modern state that is a confluence of tradition, advancement, and the desire for amenities -- not just issues Peace Corps volunteers might find painful.

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