The Faa-Matai and Democracy: An Analysis

The Faa-Matai (Chiefly System) is a unique and profound ideology. It is still a strong resilient and vibrant force within Samoan society today. The faa-matai has been the system under which Samoa was governed for years; possibly centuries. Despite disputes, wars and battles - most of which were caused by title ownership - among factions (tribes, clans, villages, islands and families), the faa-matai has served Samoa well in terms of socio-political order and control, especially on the local level (village/district). National unity and harmony were problems and challenges in the past. Conversely, villages were autonomous units which perhaps attributed - more often than not - to Samoa’s cultural stability and ethnic perpetuity.

The faa-matai is at the core of the faa-Samoa; it encompasses most - if not all - things Samoan. Lose it and the Samoan identity is lost and/or severely hampered. Social relationships, roles and protocols of the traditional nature are based on the faa-matai. In other words Samoan traditional society revolves around the matai (chief), or faa-matai.

However, change - anticipated or not - is inevitable in every aspect of life. Socio-political life in Samoa is therefore no different considering the wave of modern and democratic influences flooding the country.

(Note: The following synopsis represents a snapshot of the requested issue(s) and is by no means or intention a comprehensive and/or conclusive treatment. It is also derived completely from intuition, personal knowledge, recollections, experiences and my observations of the faa-Samoa/faa-matai, therefore I had not consulted any secondary/outside sources for this information.)

Democracy vs. Faa-Matai:
(I’m going to use the “faa-matai” synonymously, hence interchangeably, with “faa-Samoa”.  The two , after all, are mutually inclusive and/or intelligible.)

Generally speaking, the faa-matai clashes and contradicts with democratic ideology. The closest at which the two share a commonality is they both are representative in their own respective delineations, otherwise the divergence increases and grows further apart from there.

Democracy: The Individual
Faa-Matai:  The Community/collective.
Again, the faa-matai is anchored to the community while democracy’s linchpin is the individual. The faa-matai esteems the group (aiga, nu’u, itumalo, atunu’u). It looks at the individual not as a single/separate person, per se, but as a member of a group. Therefore, the collective trumps the individual within the faa-matai system and context.

Naturally, it follows that individual rights - as we understand them in the modern democratic context - are foreign to the faa-matai. In the faa-Samoa system of justice accountability often rests with the group/family, even when a single member of the family is found to be the wrongdoer and culprit. This is in stark contrast with the present modern legal system adopted and espoused by the more democratic central government and constitution in which individual accountability is probed and tried.

Land Use/Tenure
Democracy:  Private ownership
Faa-Matai:   Communally owned (aiga or village), and intrinsically attached to chiefly titles (matai).
Here’s a question that may not have been specifically answered as far as land ownership is concerned. Who owns family land in the village - the village or the aiga? The Lands & Titles Court, handles and resolves cases involving land disputes among families, hence land virtually belongs to the aiga. Yet, when a family is banished, the expression goes, “ua faasa ma ele’ele o le nu’u” (“they’re banned from village lands”). Of course there’s village land that will be off-limits to the culprits, BUT the land they live on is theirs, and I’m sure there are banished families that can subsist and sustain their everyday lives on their land (and government roads) without ever setting foot on the rest of “village” lands. Banishment is cruel and deprive families of their rights to their land. Where does the village council get its authority to ban an aiga from its legal and rightful property? It may come from the communal mandate on which village administration is based, if not some frivolous eminent domain regulations or confiscating powers of the village council. Or it could be based on the village’s claim and control on matai titles which are inseparable from customary/traditional land ownership.

Democracy: Voting. One person, one vote.
Faa-Matai: Consensus.
Again the community/group is prior.  Consensus can be good, but the individual’s right to his own opinion and voice is infringed upon when consensus is the norm.
Party politics also is a deviation from the old and traditional consensus-based system of the village fono. But ironically, with no official and established opposition in Parliament at the present, it (Fono), in a sense, operates on a consensus-based standard.  Some electoral districts and/or villages still choose their candidates by consensus although universal suffrage (21 and older) is the law.

Social Equality
Democracy:  Classless open society
Faa-Matai:   Status hierarchy and social stratification.
The village and country are heavily stratified (re: “O Samoa ua uma ona tofi”). Village and national faalupega (salutations) attest to this. Social hierarchy and stratification are pervasive elements in society. For example, according to the faa-Samoa, a village comprises of several “villages” (nu’u) - nu’u o matai, nu’u o fafine, nu’u o tane, etc., I understand that many of these groupings are classified based on social roles, but these roles also affect and influence - if not assigned based on - social status which are often designated relative to the matai - the kingpins. According to the faa-Samoa, the matai are the rulers and landowners, while women, children and others are second class citizens. Samoa is not a completely open society as a result; instead, it’s like a fledgling caste system. It’s reminiscent of the lords, vassals and peasants in the feudal system of the Middle Ages.

Democracy:  Freedom of religion. No preference or established national/state religion.
Faa-Matai:   Christianity ("traditional" religion)
I know this sounds like an anomaly but Christianity - despite its foreign origin and character - is and has been heavily localized and Samoanized that it might as well be given the “traditional” label. As part of their localizing effrontery, some churches are incorporating some cultural practices into their regular worship and church services. The bigger irony here, is that basic and fundamental Christianity is individual-oriented/based, at least in its finality and accountability.

Rule of Law
Democracy: All equal before the law. Individual accountability and responsibility
Faa-Matai:  All not equal. Group/communal accountability.
The village fono is an all-powerful body which still gives the village its autonomy. It has executive, legislative and judicial authority and power. The Village Fono Act is seen as an empowering dictum for the village matai; it grants explicit powers to the village fono though the interpretation of some of its provisions and terms is often vague and ambiguous.

In the faa-Samoa, when an individual commits a crime against another individual, the family (aiga) - and sometimes the village - is the real offender. Resolution and reconciliation become the group’s (or village’s) responsibility - not the individual’s. Vindication and pardon are sought through the ifoga (traditional apology) during which the family (or village) performs the ritual on behalf of the individual. Most of the time, when a member of an aiga violates village rules, the matai, along with the family are punished. The whole aiga can be banished and punished even if a son or daughter is the wrongdoer.

Today, with a modern court system, individual accountability is the norm. However, the courts still, in some cases, do yield, concede and even acquiesce to the traditional jurisdiction of the faa-Samoa.

All in all, Samoa is at a crossroad and is not exactly sure how and where it’s headed. It’s got one foot on land and another at sea. It is trying to adapt to the democratic ideals while at the same time holding onto its traditional faa-matai. It is trying to experiment and hopefully carve its own niche within the democratic paradigm. The hard truth is that democracy has already been received, adopted, accepted and cherished by most, if not all. And no matter how hard Samoa tries to create its own cultural democracy, it still has to be at the expense of its faa-matai - eventually, one way or another. The more the individual is revered and venerated - as opposed to the community - the more the faa-matai becomes wither worthy and anachronistic.

Lastly, the matai system has advantages and virtues especially if the titleholders rule and lead with alofa (love), faaaloalo (respect) and faamaoni (integrity) - pillars of Samoan society. However, most matai have become selfish, greedy and self-serving in most of their decisions and choices and those give the faa-matai a bad repute.

...just my thoughts, hence my opinion.


PS: FeshyNZ - I’ll try to post my responses to the post whose link you sent at another time.

1 comment:

  1. adhered onto a democratic political point to appoint a matai within the village leadership, should not appoint youth females to be matai...Wheter you married to a matai should confirm on a marriage certificate a original husband surname...

    In this case, for those who do not understand Matai duties or responsibilies, should not use the matais surnamein vain or abusive the legal systems in Samoan culture.

    Legislatve; that's goes to siblings as well, must use original family surname e.g.

    Vaotuua but the surname is Luteru / alterations to names topic: Luteru for siblings and wifes...

    Unless you from a kings and queens family.. Mata'afa, Malietoa..