First, I would like to thank God for this golden opportunity and for His many blessings on us in American Samoa.
In the past 40-50 years, while I lived in Tutuila and served our people, I observed and experienced several changes in Tutuila since my younger days. I would like to bring to your attention a local observation and some thoughts, especially during this time. This has to do with our local form of governance in the local villages. Before Europeans and the United States came to our shores in Tutuila, Aunu’u and Manu’a, our Chiefs governed our islands effectively with the purpose of good governance.
In the villages, districts and each island, the chiefs had a system in place that they lived by. The foundation continues today but it has changed in many ways. Through its structure of the hierarchy of chiefs, that has been documented for every village on every island, —its systems and through the chiefs personal qualities of putting God first, servant leadership, wisdom and character— the Chiefs regulated and carried out their responsibilities and held each other accountable to achieve their purpose. Yes, so important, they held each other accountable. They produced a harmonious and well regulated society where everyone from the oldest to the youngest knew their roles and all the people were content; no one was hungry or poor.
I had the honor to experience that village life growing up in Tutuila in the 1950’s-1970’s. Traditions and rules, which were many, covered relationships and conduct. All had their purpose and significance and were passed down through different means from our elders. One rule that I learned about chief titles, revealed to me many important and unique qualities of our Samoan culture. It also shows one of the important responsibilities of a chief is to keep and maintain the security and autonomy of his village.
Every village has a hierarchy of ranking chiefs and those do not change. The ranking chiefs in the families are free to add younger chiefs. If lower ranking chiefs travel to live or marry some one in another village, that person’s chief title usually cannot be publicly acknowledged in the new village. Instead, to be a chief in another village, you must serve the family and get a new chief title from the family you serve, before you are publicly recognized as a chief in the village, district and the island of Tutuila.
I believe God is sovereign and as a result, it was not an accident that our ancestral leaders ceded our islands to the U.S.A. It introduced us to a new form of government and a written Constitution that our leaders modeled for the first American Samoa Constitution on April 27th, 1960. Our national motto to “Put God First” and the ideals of “service” and a “free government” we proudly sing in our national anthem, are our ancestral chiefs legacy for us; in order to successfully pursue our destiny. So why do we have so many problems in American Samoa that have continued over decades?
We all have our own opinions. Here are some of mine, that you may agree with or disagree with. First, the United States Government and its concepts are instinctively foreign for most of us Samoans. As a people, we say we put God first, service, respect, communal lands and our village, whereas the United States Government’s founders believed in God, liberty, individual rights, private land and the pursuit of happiness. When we vote in American Samoa, many of us know that family or authority figures have a great influence. It has been said that our current government is an “experiment”, there is none like it anywhere.
Therefore, we must be students and familiarize ourselves with the U.S. Government so that we understand and can choose to become masters of our own destiny by combining the best of the Samoan and the United States forms of governance to not cause harm to ourselves or our future generations.
We need the best policies and laws to establish good governance for our people. Regular evaluations of current systems of governance is important, in order to know what is working and what is not working, so that proper adjustments can be made, always keeping in mind our American Samoa motto and national anthem that our ancestors lived by and wisely put in place to guide us.
Second, there have been so many changes in life since the 1970s and people have changed also. Therefore, we need to adjust our Samoan cultural governance to have accountability to the people and transparency to all. It’s true that it is important to adjust or one is left behind, but we must maintain right living and truth by being true followers of God’s Word and not using God’s name to appease people or for money and power.
Thirdly, we have allowed more and more people of different countries here for different reasons. There needs to be better planning and opportunities for non-natives to voluntarily be involved in the village governance. It is important to consider ways to foster understanding and respect among each other and this can be improved, by offering opportunities to work together in our local government inside the villages.
Lastly, the focus in life has increasingly become centered on money and material gains for self; not service in our villages or truth and character as a people. It was my experience that the majority of the leaders in my young days were humble, focused on doing what was right, and their priority was to provide leadership and to take care of the problems in the village without monetary compensation. Today, there are more and more discontented and oppressed individuals in American Samoa. More families with children are living in stressful and unhealthy environments than ever before. More people are struggling with every day life and addictions and abuse that ended lives.
To illustrate a type of local government with accountability and transparency, I would like to share with you my experiences living in Carson, California. The City was led by a Mayor and the City Councilmembers and a City Clerk that were elected by the people. They had several groups that advised and served the City. Some of these groups included the Planning Commission, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Humanities, City Events and the Commission of Aging. They had a City Hall for Administration with an office that kept the minutes of all the meetings for the public to review. All the residents were able to learn the schedule for each Commission Meeting that met at regular intervals.
The agendas for each meeting were available to the public to enable the residents to attend the Meetings that they wanted. At the City Council Meetings, the residents were given time to speak at the end. The advantages to such a governance system were many. Most importantly, it allowed for the people to understand their roles and responsibilities and they actively impacted their local government throughout the year, every year. Transparency and accountability were important parts of the system. The elected officials, the City employees or public servants, the residents and the volunteers of the city of Carson all worked together to make a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” a reality.
If our Leaders would be willing, to explore and identify a governance system that will incorporate our local village culture and new ways to enlarge it, to allow for good governance, I believe it will improve and strengthen the true values of our Samoan culture by sharing it and not limiting it. The people in the villages can work together to identify the best solutions to the problems in their village or smaller villages, together, can.
Changes are never easy and I humbly request for our Leaders to have a far vision (“tofa mamao”), wisdom and servant leadership to elevate and achieve good governance in the villages. To paraphrase, “God said to ask and He will reveal it to you.” There is a provision in the American Samoa Constitution that allows the Department of Interior (DOI) to assist if they are requested. I believe that the core purpose of our native and indigenous Samoan Culture was good governance, not fa’alavelaves, songs, and dances, although those have a place.
The assistance of the DOI would be to enhance and enlarge and further the development of our native Samoan culture through needed resources and expertise; recommendations and appropriate models of village/local governance that can be considered by our Traditional Leaders, the American Samoa Government Leaders, and our people in order to achieve the purpose of good governance in the villages, strong districts, and strong islands.
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.
With humility and respect,
Sailitafā Sione Samoa, RN