Clutter in indigenous knowledge, research and history: a Samoan perspective.

AuthorEfi, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taisi
PositionResearch Papers


The transfer of traditional knowledge in the Pacific is often governed by tapu, and sometimes the full meaning of certain knowledge may be lost to the new generation. This is particularly a problem for expatriate communities. Centres of indigenous research and restoration play an important role in preserving traditional knowledge. However, retrieving some knowledge may not be possible without the lifting of tapu.


My brother, who was a beautiful person, died last year. He lived in Samoa, and during his latter years became quite reclusive and very spiritual. During these years I would often say to him: "Ae a pea e alu ese ma lena pumoo, ae alu e manava seisi ea fou?--Get out of your cubby hole and get some fresh air!--Ta o i Niu Sila!--Let's go to New Zealand!" In one of our last discussions, after repeating my usual request he responded: "Ou te le mana'o e seu lau vaai ma mea taua o le olaga nei, ma o mea taua lea lalo le isu--I don't want to be distracted, I want to focus on the most beautiful things in my life and for me they're right under my nose!"

This comment has given me much cause for reflection and sets the tone for this paper.

This paper is about clutter, about the negative consequences of clutter and why we should avoid it. It is about how we as Pacific peoples might identify and sift through the clutter in order to gain appropriate focus, perspective and direction in terms of making sense of our indigenous knowledges and history for the contemporary present.

I want to start by beginning with the assertion that traditional rituals are authentic tools for recording history.


For oral cultures like the traditional Samoan culture, rituals, dances, chants, songs, honorifics, family genealogies and names of places, peoples and events were tools for recording indigenous history.

Samoan history is the story of tulaga vae, or turangawaewae, footprints in the sands of time. For oral Samoa, the languaging and recording of these footprints were done by way of rituals, dances and chants. This is something not fully realised by many scholars, past and present, engaged in writing Samoan history. There are a number of reasons for this, some to do with imperial arrogance, others to do with a lack of indigenous language competency.

I have written now a number of pieces on Samoan rituals and chants that detail their significance as records of Samoan history--in particular, rituals associated with death and dying, house-building and marriage (Tamasese 2004a, 2004b, 2005). In 1994, I also published a piece making the same point about genealogy, honorifics and place names (Tamasese 1994). To avoid repeating myself, I want to make the point here by reference to dance.

The significance of the dance rituals and how dance was in itself a language or communication medium transferring knowledge and history between generations is underestimated. For example, the mauluulu or dance ritual of Solosolo celebrates the heroic achievements of their ancestors. And as well, the tu'ie of Manono, which is a lament performed through song and dance about their assassinated Tamafaiga and the glory that he had brought to the Manono confederation. To this day, the mauluulu and the tu'ie have not been explored for their full historical potential.

These traditional Samoan dance forms recorded events of importance to the family, the village, the province and the country. We have to capture the meanings associated with these dance forms or else the dance rituals become empty theatre, shallow and bereft of substance. Our traditional chants and dance forms, once explored via their historical significance, are powerful tools for preserving history and maintaining ethnic pride--both important to personal development.

Today we draw more on Christian hymns or European ballads and melodies for our ethnic inspiration than on our traditional chants and dances. When the living legacies of indigenous dance and song are no longer part of contemporary dance and song forms, the depths of our indigenous cultures are lost. Similarly, the fundamentals of Pacific traditional theatre are no less powerful than European theatre and so no less profound. If you want to research indigenous knowledges and histories you have to research these chants and dances, for these cultural institutions are the history books of our ancestors. If we are going to recapture and keep these legacies then we need to have access to that depth.

The teaching of traditional Samoan dance was by way of role learning. The full significance of meaning associated with dance forms, styles, movements, etc., was rarely known to the performer. This knowledge was only available to family knowledge custodians...

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