The Samoan culture is one of the oldest in the South Pacific: Experts think the first settlers arrived on these islands more than 3,000 years ago. Throughout their history, Samoans have been trading with, marrying, and sometimes battling the people from the nearby islands of Fiji and Tonga. Today storytelling is still an important part of the Samoan culture: According to oral history and legend, the first Tui Manu'a, or ruler, descended from the supreme god, Tagaloa.
The first European explorers arrived in the early 1700s. Beginning in the 1800s, British missionaries—people who traveled to foreign countries to spread their religion—started coming to the islands. Today, many American Samoans are deeply religious, combining Samoan beliefs including worshipping ancestor spirits with Christian beliefs.
In the late 1800s, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States fought for control of the Samoan islands. In 1899, after years of civil war, the island chain was divided: Nine islands became a German colony called Western Samoa (today it’s the independent country of Samoa), and the eastern islands became a United States colony and naval base.
The last Tui Manu'a was Christopher Taliutafa Young, who briefly held the title in 1924 before the U.S. government stripped him of the role to maintain power. For years, American Samoans pushed for more control of their islands, and in 1977, they elected their first Samoan governor.
American Samoa is made up of five volcanic islands (Tutuila, Tau, Olosega, Ofu, and Aunuu) and two coral atolls, or rings of coral (Rose and Swains). The islands contain rainforests that are home to tropical birds, including honeyeaters, Samoan starlings, and tropical doves, as well as indigenous species of fruit bats, including the Samoan flying fox. (Bats are part of Samoan folklore: Legend says that the goddess Nafanua was rescued by flying foxes when she was stranded on an island.)
The surrounding waters include eight species of whales, including the humpback and orca, as well as the banded sea krait. Although this sea snake lives mainly in the ocean, it nests on the shore, similar to a sea turtle.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Indigenous Samoans are part of the Polynesian culture, which is a group that also includes Indigenous people from the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand. Over 90 percent of the population of American Samoa is Pacific Islander, mostly Samoan.
The Samoan culture is called fa'asamoa, and it includes the matai (chiefs), aiga (extended family), and the Christian church. In Samoan society, matai are the head of their extended family, and they also have leadership roles in the nu'u (village).
Both men and women often get large tattoos from the waist to the knee that symbolize courage, honor, community, power, pride, and adulthood. While being tattooed, family members sit with that person to help them through the process, which can take months to complete.
Samoan cuisine features tropical fruits and vegetables such as coconut, papayas, taro, and breadfruit. People use an umu, an oven made with hot volcanic stones, to cook things like fish, pork, chicken, and vegetables covered in banana leaves.
American Samoa officially became a U.S. territory in 1900, and it was controlled by the U.S. Navy until 1951. Today, it’s governed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The people of American Samoa have their own constitution and elected governor, but they can’t vote in federal U.S. elections.
Unlike people living in other U.S. territories who are U.S. citizens, American Samoans are U.S. nationals. That means that certain rights are denied to them. For example, if a person born in American Samoa moved to a U.S. state, they still can’t vote in elections or run for office.
• The National Park of American Samoa is the only U.S. national park located in the Southern Hemisphere.
• Hot lava underwater creates a series of geysers in the village of Taga.
• The movie Moana draws inspiration from the Samoan culture and language. For example, the film's houses are similar to a traditional Samoan fale.
• The gravesites of five Tui Manu'a are part of the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.