American Samoa's evolving culture gets a push from modern technology

October 21, 1990|By Dallas Morning News

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa -- Most days before sunrise, Malo Niumata puts on his "lavalava," the traditional Samoan sarong, and leaves his "fale," the traditional Samoan house, to walk on a deserted Pacific beach. He listens to the roar of the waves and watches the dawn, as Samoans have done since settling here in 600 B.C.

This lasts until 6 a.m., when Mr. Niumata, a 59-year-old ex-Marine, hustles home and settles into his Barcalounger, which is not a traditional Samoan chair. "Six o'clock, I turn on the TV," he said. "Watch CNN."

It's a typical scene in this land of mountains, jungles, rain and omnipresent color television. Like its name, American Samoa is a cultural hybrid -- a rapidly evolving one.

American Samoa is a place where the radio station broadcasts in the Samoan language but plays records by the hillbilly duo of Homer and Jethro.

"It's more Samoan than American," said Gov. Peter Coleman, whose father was American and mother Samoan.

"But down the line," said John Enright, a folklorist in Pago Pago, "it's going to become more mainstream American."

Samoa has been in transition ever since French explorers came ashore in 1787 and killed 39 Samoans. But the change has accelerated exponentially within the past few years with the arrival of those gifts of technology, the satellite dish and the videocassette recorder.

"The television has changed us a lot," Mr. Coleman said. "Our job hereis to blend these changes."

American Samoa, settled by seafaring Polynesians, is the only piece of the United States south of the equator. Attracted by the deep harbor at Pago Pago, the United States scared away some colony-minded Germans in 1900 and made Samoa an unincorporated territory.

It has kept that political status ever since.

Like other U.S. possessions, American Samoa is highly dependent on federal subsidies -- a Third World economy with a rich uncle.

But unlike its fellow protectorates, it has not been rent by upheaval over its relationship with Washington. There is no Samoan separatist movement. The phrase "American Samoan terrorists" does not crop up in newspapers.

Vice President Dan Quayle's pronouncement last year that Samoans are "happy campers," although ridiculed on the mainland, was at least partly correct.

"I don't mind being called 'happy campers,' " Mr. Coleman said, "because naturally we are a happy people."

That may be because the territory has been without many of the stresses that have torn at other U.S. possessions.

World War II bypassed American Samoa, except for one Japanese shell, which hit the house of a Japanese expatriate.

Presence of the U.S. military has been minimal since the 1950s. Mostly, U.S. forces use the airport as a trans-Pacific way station.

Outsiders cannot own land on American Samoa, and no tourist boom has brought investors trying to control real estate.

Only about 10,000 tourists came to American Samoa in 1988, and that figure is not expected to grow much. Air service is balky. The only hotel, the government-owned Rainmaker, is a down-at-the-heels lodging run by feuding bureaucrats.

Hawaiian Air Lines flight attendants call it "the Ratmaker" for its uninvited guests.

The beaches are rocky, anyway, and the restaurants poor. Sometimes it rains more than 200 inches a year. As a character exclaimed in "Rain," a W. Somerset Maugham short story set in Pago Pago, "Doesn't it ever stop in this confounded place?"

Although the sun-worshipers and good-timers who make up the normal tourist trade would encounter little to entice them, the anthropologists and sociologists would find plenty to study.

In 1928, Margaret Mead published her landmark and much-debated examination of Samoan sexual mores, "Coming of Age in Samoa." Ms. Mead observed a civilization in almost pure isolation, which would be impossible now.

Today's American Samoa is a place of high school football teams and devout Christianity, both imports.

Many of the older men on Samoa have hip-to-knee tattoos, made with boar tusks and incorporating intricate designs passed down through generations.

Samoan police say the biggest crime problems arise from young people drinking beer. These are the young people who stay in Samoa. Many do not.

As many as four of five American Samoans leave to live in the United States.

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