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Speak Warmly: Working Under Your Elders in American Samoa


We sat there in an air-conditioned room. The sun was unrelenting in its match against machine. It was a boxing match between heat wave and cool air, and us humans were on the same side. Sweat dripped from metallic panels, showing its exhaustion against the Pacific’s natural stride. While rooting for the A/C to last another day, we waited for other staff members. As each person entered, eyes flicked towards the door to make sure it closed immediately. Cold air is gold here. It comforts us in our present state. With snacks on the table and smiles on our faces, we finally proceeded to meet on time in island time.


Among the attendees, I had two cousins, an aunt, a classmate of an uncle, and spiritual siblings—this was not just a professional meeting, it was a family meeting of sorts. A simple change of scenery could transform our gathering into toʻonaʻi. Diving into the professional realm here as a young Samoan calls for patience, servitude, and the “r” word, faʻaʻaloalo. It is a lot like stopping by a barbeque on your one day off, and being voluntold to marinate, grill, and serve the chicken. Voluntold: a request that may appear to be voluntary, but offers no choice otherwise. In other words, “you gonʻ do what I’m telling you to do” or simply: “do it.” It could be likened to attending one’s family church, and being voluntold to be the president of the autalavou. Yes or yes, but please do it voluntarily.


There is great beauty here.This servitude brings blessings, builds unity, and is supported by blood. In very few places can an absent granddaughter return to a community after seventeen years and be remembered by name. Not just by name, either, but by village, genealogy, and personal history. However, this may be the last generation to fully enjoy this type of raw sweetness as a unified body of descendants if we don’t actively create bridges to outer-Polynesian communities. With more Samoans living off island, and a great exodus of talented young people who seek better lives overseas—close blood relations will soon be lost in translation.


If this seems extreme, consider my story amongst thousands, and then multiply that by tens of thousands to represent our children, nephews, and nieces. Soon the population of those outside traditional trains of thought far outweighs those who have the gift or time to return home. Or, even, the stark lack of language on island. The shift is already here, but thanks to bonds sustained throughout generations, there is still time to preserve much. This is the current glue to many of our strengths as Samoans: we have a personal connection to history that is undeniable, ensuring a collective sense of identity regardless of our future paths. This grows a sense of loyalty that is alive and well, thick and strong with years of fortification. This is current glue, but without further maintenance, extended family knowledge will pull apart.


We sat in the cool room, pleased to hide from the brightness of day too revealing for our liking. As the presentation went on, I munched on my favorite type of Bongos and sipped on some satirical soda. The meeting was filled with jokes and chuckles, eye and lip smiles. Though most of the discussion was filled with irrelevant content, we gleefully continued. After an eternity of grins, a time for feedback came and the room chilled quiet.


The machine whirring grew louder and our space suddenly felt like ice. There are moments in life where the air literally changes because of the lack of honesty in speech. My memory was thrown back to family sittings where things are left unsaid, but still need to be talked about. Systems within American Samoa—whether educational, political, or religious—feels a lot like family dinners, simply because they often are. Each family has its own struggles, and our systems have secrets that need to be said…honestly.


In my experience, not looking to claim realities for anyone else, with trying to advocate for progress, whether that be in public education or the traditional Christian church, it is this dear sense of loyalty that we love which cuts us off from much needed adaptations to improve. This familial beauty is so magnificent that one normally settles for facades, rather than digging to find an honest solution for all. This is strongly seen in our methods of discipleship and mentoring. Those who choose otherwise are immediately deemed as rebels, and out casted as selfish. “You are doing too much, chill. Onosaʻi mai. Faʻamalosi.” But what if, at the very least, being patiently strong calls for stark speaking? My eyes flicked passed the door and goose bumped skin longed for sunrays.


Traditions have already merged, and will continue to adapt past any of our days. The issue is not whether we as a community will remain the same or not. We simply cannot. The question is to what degrees of integrity will we carry out our love for one another to usher in unavoidable change. Whether the change is progressive or self-destructive is a direct outcome of how we decide. If we choose to passively allow deep pains to protect shallow peace, the young will eventually become unsatisfied with surface truths and seek answers elsewhere. Indeed, many have already left, and counting.


Part of my voice was found in the cold. Being the younger and less experienced, I learned that once you speak light, the room gets a lot warmer. When doing so, it may appear as if you are switching teams, but in actuality, you are returning to a natural state that we were created for in the first place.



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