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The word matai means chief, and is an honour that is bestowed upon someone. The role of the matais is very complex and interwoven deep into the fabric of Samoan culture and history. Matais have family, civic, political and prior to the arrival of the European, religious duties to perform.
A matai title can be given to either men or women, although you will find far more men with titles than women. It is usually given to someone in acknowledgment for services that have been rendered. A family might give a title to a relation who has been able to support them through hard times or village might give a title to someone that has done something that has been of benefit to the village as a whole. However currently there appears to be a tendency to give a matai title to someone in order to receive favours in return, be they of a financial or other nature.
Until recently it was only possible for matais to vote in parliamentary elections. It used to be a relatively common practice that prospective parliamentary candidates would ensure that members of their constituency would receive titles to ensure that they could increase their share of the vote. Even today only matais are elegible to seek parliamentary office.
Within each village every family has a matai that is a member of the fono (council) and represents the interests of the family. The fono is responsible for administering justice within the village and can pass down a wide range of judgements upon a miscreant. The leader of the fono is called the ali'i, and is assisted by a pulenu'u. The ali'i was considered to be far too important to be bothered with actually discussing peoples problems and so the position tulafale (talking chief) arose.
The tulafale acts on behalf of the ali'i at social occaisions, ceremonies and in discussions with other villages and external bodies. He is usually chosen because he will have an imposing figure and an excellent voice and command of the language. Samoans love oratory, and there is even a form of the language used only for the purposes of oratory and little understood by the majority of Samoans. It makes use of word forms that are not used elsewhere in the Samoan language and makes constant use of Samoan proverbs, meaning of most being quite cryptic unless you are familiar with the story behind the proverb.
A tulafale can be easily identified because he holds a long staff in one hand, has the orators fly whisk over his other shoulder, and was traditionally clothed in a skirt made of matting or tapa.
In Tonga and Fiji the chiefs possesed an almost god-like position within the community. Whilst it was not so extreme in Samoa, it was almost impossible for someone of common descent to scale the ranks of nobility since marriage always had to be to someone of an equal standing in the caste system. This led to an unusal trade system developing between the islands of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. It was quite possible for chief or title holder (since Tonga operates matrilineally) to be unable to find anyone of suitable breeding to marry. When this occured it would be necessary for them to look to the other islands as a source for a suitable spouse.
The Samoan system of titles of nobility is very complicated, but ocasionally one chief, through alliances and ward, can acquire the title of Tupu-o-Samoa, or king of all the islands. When the last king died in 1841, rivals for his title began a series of wars that lasted for years. These continual contests played into the hands of the growing European community.
Simoans began selling more and more of their land to the Europeans and Americans to get oney to finance their wars Europeans always preferred to have one paramount island leader to deal with, and different European factions began supporting different chiefs.
Ironically, the Tupa-o-Samoa was mostly a title of ceremony and prestige, and not one that could exercise political or administrative control over the villages. Eventually, the white community began pressuring their different home countries to take charge and bring stability to Samoa.
Britain, the United States, and Germany all became involved. The islands became a colony of Germany in 1899. Because Samoans did not like the German administration of their islands, they began the Mau Movement, which sought independence for Samoa.
After World War II, control passed to New Zealand. The New Zealand administrators looked down on the Samoan traditional leaders. This led to a continuation of the Mau Movement.
Western Samoa became a United Nations Trust Territory after World War II, administered by new Zealand, which by then was preparing Samoa for self-rule. In 1962, Samoa became independent.