The demand for Samoan labour came principally from New Zealand’s cities. By the 1960s, well-established migration chains linked migrants from the rural villages of Samoa to the suburbs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Most arrived without much capital and were initially dependent on rental housing. Later, as they took advantage of the many state-provided incentives for home ownership, communities grew on the fringes of the cities.
In 2013, two in three Samoan New Zealanders lived in the Auckland region; the next largest population was in Wellington, with Christchurch following. One in three lived in the Manukau ward in south Auckland. Auckland was the Polynesian capital of the world and the showplace of Pacific culture.
The Samoan church in New Zealand
Samoan churches proliferated in New Zealand cities. They took on the role of villages, and provided a platform for strong Samoan identity. In the early 2000s, many Samoans belonged to the Presbyterian and Congregational churches (Samoa’s mainstream denominations), while considerable numbers were Roman Catholics. Others belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and there was a growing membership of charismatic denominations. In 2018, almost 75% of Samoan people living in New Zealand professed a religious affiliation.
First and largest Samoan church
Newton Pacific Islanders Congregational Church in Edinburgh St, Auckland, was the first Pacific church in New Zealand. It was founded in 1947, attracting Cook Islanders, Niueans and Samoans. In the 1970s and 1980s it expanded, eventually becoming the largest Congregational church in New Zealand, with about 30 branches.
How did Samoan people fare?
A 1999 report by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, The social and economic status of Pacific peoples in New Zealand, painted a depressing picture. Pacific peoples’ relatively low position was attributed to economic restructuring policies that caused job losses in industries such as agriculture, forestry and manufacturing, where most Pacific Islanders worked. In 2013 the median annual income for Samoans aged 15 or over was $20,800, compared with $28,500 among New Zealanders as a whole.
However, statistical data can obscure the social and cultural structures which make such a difference to Pacific Island peoples. For example, in 2018 almost 20% of Samoans in New Zealand reported doing unpaid ‘helping and voluntary work’ for community groups and other organisations, in addition to the many involved in caring for family members. Although some were in prisons, hospitals or unemployed, others were going to church in large numbers, sending millions of dollars in remittances to their families back home, and graduating in increasing numbers from New Zealand universities. In 2018, 7.9% of Samoans aged 15 and over had a tertiary qualification or equivalent, compared to 5.7% in 2006. Samoans also featured among the country’s top sportspeople, and participated increasingly in the entertainment, education and business sectors. It was also clear that success did not necessarily come at the price of losing island culture.
The ‘va’ between Samoans and tangata whenua
Māori and Pacific peoples share a special relationship, which can be expressed by the Samoan word va (social and sacred/spiritual spaces of relationships). Kinships and relationships can be traced through similarities of history and culture. This kinship connection is shown in the banter of Māori kaumatua (elders) on marae, when visitors from the Pacific are sometimes recognised as tuakana (older siblings), which acknowledges this ancient connection, or as teina (younger siblings), which acknowledges that Māori are tangata whenua of Aotearoa and those from the Pacific are manuhiri (visitors).
Many Samoans worked alongside Māori activist groups to promote Māori rights, fight racial discrimination, and confront injustices. In the 1970s, the Polynesian Panthers stood alongside Ngā Tamatoa in the fight to establish te reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa, on the Māori Land March, and at the Bastion Point protest. In 2019–2020, Pacific people were involved in the Ihumātao land dispute in Māngere, Auckland.
Frequent travel between Samoa and New Zealand has kept the connections between families alive, although travel between the two countries was severally restricted during most of 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Millions of dollars in remittances sent by New Zealand-based Samoans to their families at home, support their villages and the wider Samoan economy. In 2019, just before the pandemic, the equivalent of 16% of the Samoan economy was sent home to Samoa by overseas family members, much of it from New Zealand families.
New Zealand-born and -resident Samoans often take on matai (chiefly) titles and play a part in the fa‘amatai (chiefly system) of Samoa. It has been estimated that of the 70,000 registered matai, more than 2,000 were born overseas, 80% of them in New Zealand. There is a push by some for expatriate Samoans to be allowed to vote in Samoan elections and have more say in Samoan affairs.