Those Damn Palagi ("white man"). Huh?

I was reading this column in the Samoa Observer (excerpts below), to which some have responded in support of it.  It was written as a "tribute" to the Human Rights Day celebration.  There is definitely an underlying anti-foreigners/papalagi and somewhat extreme tone to the article - the typical colonial mentality that natives and indigenous people have been exploited and corrupted by the “white man”.  I grew up in Samoa at the time this viewpoint was prevalent.  I was somewhat enticed by it though not completely converted to the idea. Not that I’m fia-palagi (wannabe white), or anything, but the broad issue needs to be examined, analyzed and weighed within its totality.  An open-minded, educated and balanced perspective, I’m convinced, is always the better approach.

Human Rights Day ...presents us, tagata Samoa, with an opportunity to reflect on the state of our own human rights as indigenous people and host culture.
To understand our present, as an indigenous people and as a sovereign indigenous nation, we have to look into our past in terms of our relationship with foreign interests.
 ... the papalagi did more than co-exist with our ancestors,... they wanted our ancestors, (tagata Samoa) to be like them (papalagi). In spite of the alofa and much hospitality extended to them, papalagi still maintained, our ancestors were less of human beings, uncivilized, “noble savages” and to a large extent a burden upon which they, only they, (the white man) have the divine and moral obligation to transform and civilize. This was the primary purpose of Christian missionary work since the arrival of Christianity in 1830.
Foreign interests and his twin brother foreign investors are direct descendants of Christianity.  [Our ancestors’] resilience and dignity had persevered in the face of lies of assimilation by Christian churches.
 ...maintaining the va fealoa’i in our Samoan cultural heritage offers us genuine peace and joy in love (alofa), forgiveness (faamagalo) and humility (agamalu/loto maualalo), integrity (tausi mamalu) and reciprocity (osi aiga). These are divine indigenous Samoan values inherent in our indigenous rights as indigenous people.
My Comments:

Interesting column/opinion and responses.  There’s one word that is conspicuously, hence surprisingly, missing from the discussion, much to the chagrin of any political, religious and human rights apologist.  The word is “democracy”. Democracy is the umbrella under which  issues like state, church and human rights/freedoms merge especially when discussed within the context of their collective inter-relationships.

The opinion by Mr. Ale seems to be underpinned by anti-imperialism sentiments of the past - and of the present, albeit more subdued and suppressed.

Societies, in general, go through phases and stages of development. They all start with some type of primitive stage (tribe, clan, village, etc) often living under natural laws.  Status-based societies often emerge and social and political classes/ hierarchies are naturally formed, and sometimes along gender lines. Soon a social contract brings people together and form governments mainly for protection and preservation. This is the evolution pattern into which we can fit Samoa.

Democracy, in one of its ideal roles and functions, is to quash the hierarchical and status-based groups.  And this is where we find the dilemma and conundrum that Samoa faces today. Samoa is still heavily stratified and status-based, and that makes her somewhat antagonistic toward democratic reforms. Sometimes we get indecisive and ambivalent and so we togi le moa ae u’u le ‘afa (let go of the chicken but still hold onto the string).  We embrace new democratic ideals, but still yearn for our “divine indigenous values and rights”. We even become like the Israelites of old in believing that they were better off in Egypt than in the wilderness.  Sometimes, as a country, we are meant to be in a “wilderness” - a metaphor for reform, renewal and recommitment.  Some have even proposed a cultural democracy as a solution and compromise.  Effectively, cultural democracy may very well be the phase where Samoa is presently.

But we also need to remember that things have not always been “divine” and dandy in bygone times, as posited.  There wasn’t always a “va fealoa’i” and/or “paradisal” utopian living before the papalagi.  We had our own culture of inter/intra violence.  Headhunting, warfare among tribes and families (as noble savages) were common. Indeed, I firmly believe that some of the lofty and virtuous aspects of our “culture” that we’re touting were also heavily influenced by foreign forces, especially Christianity.  In fact many of the "indigenous values" listed in the last paragraph are universal, if not patently Christian, and not exclusively Samoan either. Moreover, we Samoans often refer to pre-missionary years as “aso o le pogisa” (“dark days”- our own version of the “dark ages”) and “faapaupau” (savagery).  And so we need to have some contextual time references when referring and talking about culture, otherwise we fall into the trap of mistakenly painting the whole pre-papalagi times with a broad brush of bliss and blessedness.  The column seems to have this nuance and overtone.

Democracy, as we all know, is not perfect, but it’s “perfect” for us today.  Winston Churchill puts it best when he said that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those that have been tried. So let’s not bully the modern state and church and incriminate the papalagi in a close-minded fashion. I’m sure the institutions, in and of themselves, are good with honorable objectives and goals but maybe the people running them are the real “noble savages” (pun strongly intended).  That’s where our real focus should be.

Lastly, the main difference between “indigenous human rights” and modern human rights is that the former are more about the rights of the group/community while the latter have more to do with rights of the individual.  Ponder that for whatever it is worth in the context of the column, since there seems to be a conflation of the two in there.


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