Samoan-Americans are the second largest group of Pacific Islanders in the US, after Hawaiians. In fact, there are more Samoans living in the US than in the Samoan Islands. The largest population on the US mainland live in Los Angeles, home as of 2010 to 54,000. Nearby San Diego is home to 31,000. In neither are there official Samoan enclaves but there is evidence of their presence reflected in the existence of Samoan churches, restaurants, cultural expressions, and organizations.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAMOA
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Samoan Islands were first colonized by Polynesians perhaps as many as 3,500 years ago or as recently as 800 years ago. Polynesians are an ethnic subset of the Austronesians, who originated in Taiwan. Whereas the leaders of most Polynesian societies were appointed based upon heredity, Samoan leaders were chosen in part based on demonstrable skills in a system known as Fa’amatai.
In 1722, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to site the islands and they were renamed the Navigator Islands by French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. However, since there were none of the spices, silks, or precious metals which European explorers sought, the islands remained relatively unmolested by Europeans until the 1830s, when missionaries and traders began arriving and establishing rubber, coconut, and cocoa plantations.
In the late 1800s, England, Germany, and the US all struggled to colonize Samoa and the islands were divided into two territories, one a German colony known as German Samoa, and the other an American territory known as American Samoa. Rule of German Samoa was transferred to New Zealand and independence was finally granted in 1962. American Samoa, on the other hand, remains an unincorporated and unorganized territory, ruled by America but whose citizens are afforded few of the same rights. As nationals, rather than citizens, Samoans serve in the US military and are free to seek employment in the US but cannot vote in US elections or hold political office unless they relocate to the US and become citizens.
The largest population of Samoans outside of Samoa live in Honolulu. The second largest community live in Long Beach, where as of 2010 there were 4,513. There are also substantial populations of Samoans in the neighboring Harbor communities of Carson and Wilmington, the South Los Angeles Eastside community of Compton, and the Southeast Los Angeles community of Hawaiian Gardens. Elsewhere in Southern California, there are Samoan communities in Garden Grove and Oceanside. There is also a town called Samoa in Humboldt County, featured in the 1986 film, My Chauffeur… although it’s not home to any Samoans.
Many came to Los Angeles in the early 1900s, finding work on farms or in factories. As American nationals, Samoans didn’t face the same restrictions and national quotas as other Asians and Pacific Islanders. Many more Samoans immigrated to California after 1951, when the US Navy closed its base in Pago Pago and afterward recruited 1,000 Samoans to come to the US to fill military-related jobs. Many settled in the Harbor town of Carson and the Los Angeles neighborhood of San Pedro.
Although rugby, cricket, netball, volleyball, and football are all more popular in Samoa, the islands are known amongst American football spectators for producing athletes in that sport. In 2015 there were 200 on the American Samoans on the rosters of Division I college American football teams and quite a few play for NFL teams. One such player is Troy Aumua Polamalu, who was born in Garden Grove in 1981. He played for USC, reportedly claiming that he believed that the Almighty had influenced his parents to name him “Troy” because the Lord desired that he play for the Trojans (although at least ten universities have Trojans as mascots). After college he played for the NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Religion plays a big part in the lives of most Samoans. The Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (CCCS) was established by missionaries of the London Missionary Society who arrived in 1830. By 1839, Samoans were already sending their own missionaries to other islands of the Pacific to spread the gospel. The Congregational Christian Church of Samoa became an independent denomination in 1963. In 1980, the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa split from the Christian Church of Samoa.
Samoan congregations in Southern California include Compton Samoan SDA Church (Compton), Congregational Christian of New Hope (Santa Ana), Dominguez Congregational Christian Church (Compton), Fale Ole Faipu Omea Samoan Congregational (San Bernardino), First Samoan Congregational (Carson), First Samoan Congregational Christian (Harbor City), First Samoan Congregational Christian (Huntington Beach), First Samoan Congregational Christian Church (Oxnard), First Samoan Congregational Christian Church of San Luis Rey (Oceanside), First Samoan Congregational Church of Mesa Margarita (Oceanside), Fourth Samoan Church (Long Beach), Garden Grove Samoan Assembly (Garden Grove), Los Angeles First Samoan Church (West Athens), Malamalama Community Church (Long Beach), Methodist Church of Samoa (Long Beach), Ola Fou United Samoan Church of America (Lomita), Ola Mo Keriso (San Diego), Samoan Church of Long Beach (Long Beach), Samoan Community Christian (Pico-Union) Samoan Congregational Christian Church of South LA (Carson), Samoan Congregational Church, Second Samoan Church (Long Beach), Taeao Ole Talalelei (Carson), The Congregational Christian UCC in Hacienda Heights (Hacienda Heights), United Samoan Congregational, Vai Ole Ola Congregational (Lakewood), and Wilmington Peteli Christian Church (Long Beach).
Traditional Samoan musical instruments include the fala, a rolled up mat beaten with sticks, blown conch shells, jaw harps, nose flutes, and panpipes. The traditional Samoan dance is the siva. The pātē, a type of drum, was introduced for the Cook Islands by missionaries. Missionaries later introduced the guitar and the ‘ukulele, which are also popular. In the 20th century, pop, rock, and rap became popular with Samoans although it should be noted that Van Nuys punk band Angry Samoans do not include any Samoans amongst their members.
The best known Samoan-American music group Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., from Carson and comprised of brothers Paul, Ted, Donald, Roscoe, Danny, David, and Vincent Devoux. All were or are members of either the West Side Pirus or Samoan Warrior Bounty Hunter gangs. After their brother Robert DeVoux was shot to death in a San Pedro gang fight, the surviving brothers moved to Japan, where they originally amassed a following as The Blue City Crew.
In Southern California, gangs have been an issue for Samoan immigrants since the 1970s. As with many immigrant populations, the Sons of Samoa formed in 1976 to protect Samoans from black and Latino gangs in the Harbor and South Los Angeles. As with most protectionist gangs, the Sons of Samoa themselves eventually became involved in methamphetamine trafficking, extortion, and murder, often of fellow Pacific Islanders in other gangs, such as the Scott Park Pirus, West Side Pirus, and Park Village Compton Crips. In 1992, Jean-Pierre Gorin released the documentary, My Crasy Life, now part of the Criterion Collection, about Samoan gangs in the Harbor area.
In 2004, a Samoan gang members Frankie “Dirt” Pule and Walley Tuuamalemalo killed rival gang member Tasene Tauanuu at the annual Los Angeles Samoan Flag Day festivities, something which Dirt bragged about in a rap, which helped earn him a 40 year sentence for second degree murder. Another fatal gang fight disrupted the weeklong festival in 2008.
Los Angeles Samoan Flag Day has been the biggest locally observed Samoan festivity since it was implemented in 1985. Although the holiday commemorates the first time the US raised the American flag in their country, it’s been tweaked into a celebration of Samoan heritage and culture. It’s held for a week in August every years in Carson’s Victoria Park. Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific also hosts the Pacific Islander Festival – Tafesilafa’i Festival, which brings together not just Samoans but all Pacific Islanders and showcases crafts, food, music, and dance.
Samoan dance is an important aspect of Samoan culture and traditional Samoan dances include maulu’ulu moa’ (“to sprinkle”), manu siva tau (a war dance), siva afi (fire knife dancing), taualuga (“jumping”), sa’asa’a, fa’ataupati (“slap dance”) and sasa (“clap dance”). Dance group Samoa Matalasi performed somewhere.
The Tama’ita’i Dance Group was founded in 2009 by choreographer and costume designer Kuegi Toilolo in Long Beach. Leaso Tufuga and Unica Luna formed Tausala Polynesia in Carson in 2010. Tui Letuli founded the Pacific Talent Academy of the Arts in Torrance in 2012.
Samoan Cuisine is, like all Polynesian cuisine, based primarily on the animals and plants found on the islands. Plant ingredients include bananas, coconut, rice, taro, and various sea vegetables such as sea grapes. Commonly eaten animals include crayfish, pigs, octopus, snapper, and tuna. A popular and emblematic dish is palusami, coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves baked in an earth oven called an umu.
The second most popular variety of Girl Scout Cookie, the Samoa (also marketed as Caremel deLites) — caramel coated vanilla cookies sprinkled with toasted coconut and laced with chocolate stripes — are not Samoan in origin.Spam, whilst not Samoan in origin, is also popular in Samoa. Health officials believe the heavily processed, super caloric tinned meat, part of England’s lasting colonial legacy, is largely to account for the fact that over 80% of Samoans are obese and suffer from obesity-related illnesses.
Local restaurants serving Samoan dishes in Southern California include and Island’s Best (Long Beach), and Poly Grill & Bakery (Carson). As far as Samoan markets go, Samoana Market & Bakery, formerly in Long Beach, seems to have recently closed but Boutique Samoa remains open in Anaheim.
Other organizations representing Samoans include Samoan National Nurses Association, Samoan Affairs Central Region, and the Samoan American Federation.
Adele Salamasina Satele’s An Emerging Samoan-American Community in Los Angeles, California (1977)
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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