Honorary Matai Titles

Chinese businessman receiving honorary matai title in
the village of Salea'aumua, Aleipata (photo: Samoa Observer)
Honorary matai (chiefly) titles, to some extent, are like honorary degrees awarded by universities and other higher institutions of learning.  These matai titles are awarded “in honor” of the recipients in recognition for something of significant and notable value like a monetary or in-kind donation/gift, or service that they have given to the village, district or the country.  More often than not, these honorary titles are given to non-Samoans.  The practice has been trending lately with a couple of noteworthy ones bestowed during the recent Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Conference. One of the recipients, interestingly, was the Secretary General of the United Nations; and the other was a wealthy Chinese businessman.

Since matai titles are ideally “owned” and administered at the village level, honorary titles are therefore associated with particular villages.  Though the connection between the villages and titleholders in the above two cases have not been publicly disclosed, it seems that  they were arranged through certain Members of Parliament and their villages and districts.  The two titles were conferred at the Prime Minister’s district (for the Secretary General) and the second one (for the businessman) at the village of the Associate Minister of Tourism who, interestingly, is also Assoc. Minister for the Prime Minister.  According to the press, the Associate Minister felt impressed to reward the wealthy Chinese businessman with an honorary matai title because of his help in funding some of the events during the Teuila Festival and the SIDS Conference.

These honorary titles are considered ceremonial and pro forma with no legal standing or weight. Therefore they are void of any legal rights, obligations or responsibilities as prescribed by social norms, traditions and the laws governing lands and titles in Samoa.  It seems however that all the usual protocols of the traditional bonafide saofa’i (title installation) were done in the Secretary General and businessman’s cases - sans the registration with the Land and Titles Court.  Honorary title recipients are apparently registered separately, as evidenced by certificates issued by the Department of Lands and Titles when an honorary title is conferred.  Despite the pro forma status of these honorary titles, the holders are still treated with utmost respect and given de jure recognition by the village.  This is especially true if the holder is an active benefactor to the welfare and good name of the village through service and other contributions.

Honorary Matai Title Certificate
Conversely, there’s the issue of revocation and rescission of title if/when the titleholder brings shame - through criminal or nefarious behavior - to the title; hence to the village, district and country.  Consider also that high profile recipients - as in the case of most honorary matai titleholders - can be quite vulnerable, therefore publicly conspicuous.

But most Samoans are not aware of another group of people - besides foreigners/non-Samoans - who are also recipients of honorary titles, at least within a loose interpretation of the honor.  This group consists of Samoans who reside outside Samoa (e.g. in New Zealand) who are “conferred” matai titles by a visiting matai (from Samoa), and who is also the “pule” (guardian/custodian) of the title(s).  These titles are conferred outside Samoa (in the absence of a traditional village configuration) and are usually done through deliberations and consensus among family members and the custodial chief.  These such titles will remain “honorary” - and/or unofficial - until the holders will have traveled to Samoa and fulfill the required traditional village protocols and registration with the Land and Titles Court.

Perhaps the main difference between the honorary title of a Samoan sojourner and that of the Secretary General, for example, is that the former can change his/her title status to a bonafide registered title later, and can thereafter bequeath the title to his descendants.  The latter cannot do either one - at least to date.

It can be argued, notwithstanding, that the practice of giving honorary matai titles to foreign dignitaries and the like, devalues the overall matai system - not necessarily from the quantity but quality.  Though, overall, still relatively few in numbers, the bestowed honorary titles have been those that are considered stately, honorable and distinguished within the context of the history of villages, districts and/or country.  A few examples of these honorable titles are Nafanua, Tupua and Leulua’itumua*.  All denote important and noble individuals and events in the socio-political history of Samoa.
* “Le-ulua’i-tumua” literally “The first Tumua”.
Tumua is referred to particular native titleholders (individually and/or collectively) with exclusive traditional political authority especially on the national level.

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