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Samoans

by  Lupematasila Melani Anae

After troubled beginnings, including early conflict in Samoa and the infamous Dawn Raids of the mid-1970s, the New Zealand–Samoa story has been one of proud achievement. New Zealand Samoans star on the stage, in concert halls and art galleries, and on the sports field. And like other Pacific Islanders, young Samoans are forging a vibrant new identity through music, language and fashion.


History and migration

Who are the Samoans?

Samoans are the original inhabitants of the Samoa Islands, which lie north of New Zealand between latitude 13° and 15° south. The two large islands are Upolu and Savai‘i, and the only other inhabited islands are Manono and Apolima. About 80 km south-east is Tutuila, the principal island of the smaller territory of American Samoa.

The birth of a nation

There are many explanations for the name Samoa. One is that when the earth’s centre – known as ‘moa’ – was born, Salevao, the god of the cliffs, brought water to wash the new child. He made water ‘sa’ (holy) to the child and all that grew on the earth.

Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga were the early homelands of the Polynesians. It was from these islands that, beginning some 1,000 years ago, Polynesians settled the rest of the South Pacific, eventually reaching New Zealand.

Contact with outsiders

Over the centuries Samoans exchanged news, trade and marriage partners with neighbouring Pacific peoples (mainly Fijians and Tongans). The first European to sight the islands was a Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1722. Later, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville called Samoa’s islands ‘the Navigator Islands’.

In 1830 the Reverend John Williams landed in Savai‘i, bringing the Christian gospel. This was the beginning of the change from the ‘time of darkness’ to the ‘time of light’, as most of the population converted to Congregationalism. A ‘Samoanised’ form of Christianity now exists in the EFKS (Ekalesia Fa‘apotopotoga Kerisiano o Samoa), also known as the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, or CCCS. This form of Christianity is also found in the Samoan components of the Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church. For many Samoans, Christianity and fa‘asamoa (Samoan culture) are inextricably interwoven.

New Zealand occupation

In 1899 possession of Samoa was divided between Germany (Western Samoa) and the United States (Eastern Samoa). New Zealand occupied Western Samoa on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and administered the islands until 1962 under mandates from the League of Nations and later the United Nations. In 1918 the New Zealand trading ship Talune docked in Apia, carrying people infected with influenza. This led to a devastating and avoidable outbreak of the disease which killed about 8,500 Samoans – over 20% of the population. Many more died during a famine caused by the resulting disruption to agriculture.

Samoan independence

During the 1920s, growing Samoan discontent with the New Zealand administration led to an independence movement called the Mau, which was non-violent. However, on 28 December 1929 at least nine Samoans, including the high-ranking chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, were shot dead by New Zealand military police during a peaceful demonstration.

In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific nation to regain independence, and a Treaty of Friendship was signed with New Zealand.

New Zealand’s apology to Samoa

In June 2002 New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to Samoa for three actions taken by the New Zealand administration between 1918 and 1929: allowing the ship Talune, carrying passengers with influenza, to dock in Apia, which resulted in the deaths of more than one in five Samoans; shooting non-violent protesters in December 1929; and banishing Samoan leaders and stripping them of their chiefly titles.

Migration to New Zealand

Although Samoans travelled to New Zealand from the early 1900s, it was not until the 1950s that they migrated in large numbers. As New Zealand’s industries and service sector expanded over the next 30 years, the search for labour was extended to territories and former territories in the Pacific. Many Samoans moved to New Zealand for greater opportunities and a better education for their children.

Overstayers

Entry was not unrestricted. From 1964, the government issued three-month visas, and from 1967 it set annual quotas for immigrants. As long as the demand for labour was strong, the regulations were not enforced. But when the New Zealand economy declined after 1973, this flexibility ended. Politicians blamed Pacific Islanders for overloading social services, and they shaped a negative stereotype of these communities. State-sanctioned racism in the form of police raids in the early hours of the morning on the homes of alleged overstayers began in 1974, and eventually the policy and its enforcement became known by the name ‘Dawn Raids’. Many Pacific and Māori people were also stopped in the street or in their workplaces and asked to prove their right to be in the country through so-called random checks. Some, particularly Samoans and Tongans, were deported to their home countries.  

Dawn Raids apology

In August 2021, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologised to Pacific communities which were impacted by the way in which immigration laws were enforced in New Zealand in the 1970s in the so-called ‘Dawn Raids’, almost 50 years after these began. She said, ‘The Dawn Raids period cast a shadow over our shared history … Expressing our sorrow, regret and remorse for past actions is the right thing to do and provides an opportunity for closure and reconciliation’.

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said it was clear that the immigration laws had been discriminatory during the Dawn Raids era. ‘Pacific peoples, Māori and other ethnic communities were specifically targeted and racially profiled, which was wrong and should have never happened … Racially targeting Pacific communities created a decades long false impression of the status of Pacific New Zealanders’.1

The focus on these two ethnic groups was unacceptable to many. It was pointed out that the greatest influx of temporary migrants in these years was from the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. For older Pacific Islanders, the Dawn Raids remain bitter memories.

Polynesian Panther Party

The Polynesian Panthers emerged in the early 1970s to support Pacific people in New Zealand through community survival programmes. They informed people of their legal rights and published a Legal rights booklet, ran homework centres for schoolchildren, assisted Pacific and Māori tenants who were being evicted unlawfully from sub-standard rental accommodation, visited inmates at Auckland’s Pāremoremo prison and put on concerts. In the 2020s, after decades of continuing to fight for social justice and human rights for Pacific people, some of the original members of the Polynesian Panthers lobbied for a government apology for the Dawn Raids. 

Continuing migration

Despite the tough immigration laws, Samoans continued to enter New Zealand. Between 1971 and 1981 the number of Samoan-born residents doubled, reaching 24,141. In 1982, as the result of a case taken by Falema‘i Lesa, a Samoan woman living in New Zealand, the Privy Council ruled that all Western Samoans born between 1924 and 1948, and their descendants, were British subjects (and therefore, from 1949, New Zealand citizens). However, with the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982, the New Zealand government rapidly overruled this decision, removing citizenship from more than 100,000 people. The legislation stated that only Samoans who were living in New Zealand on 14 September 1982, or those who subsequently obtained permanent residence, could become New Zealand citizens. New quotas for Samoans seeking entry into New Zealand were set. Since 2002 the quota has allowed 1,100 Samoans to be granted residence each year, enabling them to live, work and study in New Zealand.

In addition, from 2007 the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSE) allowed Samoan workers to come to New Zealand to work in the viticulture (grapegrowing) and horticulture industries, for up to seven months during any 11-month period. Although the scheme was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in June 2022 there were 3,528 Samoan RSE workers in New Zealand, the majority employed in Hawke’s Bay, Bay of Plenty and Marlborough. The workers in the scheme often form tight-knit communities in the accommodation provided by their employers.

In 2018, 182,721 people of Samoan ethnicity were living in New Zealand – almost half of all those with Pacific ethnicity. Two-thirds of these people were born in New Zealand, reflecting the multigenerational nature of the community. 

Footnotes

Life in New Zealand

Urban settlement

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.

Continued connections 

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.


Culture and identity

Fa‘asamoa – Samoan culture

The concept of fa‘asamoa is essential to Samoan identity, and consists of a number of values and traditions:

  • aiga (family)
  • tautala Samoa (Samoan language)
  • gafa (genealogies)
  • matai (chiefly system)
  • lotu (church)
  • fa‘alavelave (ceremonial and other family obligations).

There are also the associated values of alofa (love), tautua (service), fa‘aaloalo (respect), feagaiga (a covenant between sibilings and others) and usita‘i (discipline).

The fa‘asamoa practised in Samoa may differ from that in New Zealand. Not every Samoan has the same understanding of the concept. What remains constant is maintaining the family and links with the homeland. Money, prayers, support, food, material goods, and even relatives themselves, circulate within families around the world – wherever Samoan people live and work.

Fa‘asamoa in New Zealand

In 1998 one New Zealand-born Samoan described what it means to follow fa‘asamoa:

‘The fa‘asamoa is: go to church, be a good Samoan, and that means to try your best at education, and looking after family, and go to family functions, plus that we've got to look after them when they're old.’ 1

Language

Most Samoan-born migrants speak Gagana Sāmoa, the Samoan language, fluently. For them, proficiency in the language distinguishes those who are truly Samoan. However, many children born or raised in New Zealand do not speak Samoan, although they can understand it. For New Zealand-born Samoans, fluency is not crucial to identity; it is enough that they understand the language, can communicate with island-born family members, and adopt their parents’ fa‘asamoa beliefs. Some learn the language through their jobs, or by helping their elders communicate with schools and officials. Others pick up Samoan through membership of an autalavou (church youth group). 

In 2018, 50% of people of Samoan ethnicity could speak Samoan (down from 64% in 2001). It was the third most-spoken language in New Zealand. 

Aiga – family

The central element in Samoan culture is the aiga (family). Within the family, giving and receiving tautua (service), fa‘aaloalo (respect) and alofa (love) are crucial in social relations. Young people are expected to serve and show respect to elders, and can expect in return to receive love, protection, honour, a name to be proud of, and support when this is needed.

Many younger Samoans have difficulty accepting tautua and fa‘aaloalo, and the unquestioning obedience required of children. Older members appreciate these concepts because they are now receiving tautua and fa‘aaloalo from their children and extended family members.

Honouring continued ties

The continuing connections between Samoa and New Zealand inspire New Zealand-born Samoans to become involved in Samoan education programmes or enrol their children in them, so that they can learn Samoan culture, history, language and identities.

In 2020 there were 41 Samoan aoga amata (early learning language nests) in New Zealand. A number of primary and high schools had special language units in which Samoan was the main language of instruction, and Samoan models of collective decision-making and shared leadership were employed. Students could be assessed in Samoan language unit standards for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. Samoan language and wider Pacific Studies undergraduate and postgraduate courses were offered at a number of New Zealand universities.

Footnotes
    • Quoted in M. Anae, ‘Fofoaivaoese: identity journeys of New Zealand-born Samoans.’ PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 1998. › Back

New Zealand-born identity

I am a Samoan – but not a Samoan
To my aiga in Samoa, I am a palagi [foreigner]
I am a New Zealander – but not a New Zealander
To New Zealanders, I am a bloody coconut, at worst,
A Pacific Islander, at best,
To my Samoan parents, I am their child. 1

This verse encapsulates the paradox of identity for many New Zealand-born Samoans. In Samoan communities they are not ‘Samoan enough’; they are ‘fiapalagi’ (wanting to be like a European). In the wider New Zealand community, Samoans have been taunted as ‘not New Zealanders’, ‘coconuts’. These see-sawing perceptions may lead some to a secure self-identity, but leave others in a state of confusion.

Time out

Many young Samoans take time out as a reaction to the dilemma of identity. This usually involves leaving the church and rejecting parental authority. It can include experimentation with drugs, alcohol and marginal lifestyles. For those ready to return to some form of stability, the church often provides the anchor.

PI identity

Many New Zealand-born Samoans exploring alternatives take on the PI (Pacific Island) identity. Combining elements of their parents’ customs and social mores with urban influences, this is a culture with a distinctive patois, music, fashions and customs.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this new identity included young Māori. However, strengthening Māori identity led to a separation of Māori from the Polynesian group. The PI culture emerged as the focus of identity for non-Māori Polynesians. As separate Pacific ethnicities begin to demand their own recognition, an all-inclusive Pacific Island framework may be replaced by separate Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island and Niuean identities.

The PI identity has been adopted mainly by younger, New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders, who feel a greater bond with one another than do their island-born elders. Bolstered by inclusive PI groupings in schools and institutions, it provides a broader identity than ‘Samoan’. It also offers a larger peer group more easily adopted by those not comfortable in their parents’ languages or cultures.

However, Samoans in New Zealand have distinctive experiences and values which they do not share with other Pacific Islanders. Differences of culture and language outweigh the commonality of the New Zealand experience. In the end, the bedrock of fa‘asamoa (Samoan culture) is aiga (family); friends and acquaintances come and go, but the aiga remains as a permanent fixture. PI identity is a phenomenon of young people. When they mature and have their own children, Samoans tend to return to their ethnic identity. For those of mixed ethnicity, Samoan identity is passed on to younger generations by the stories and instructions of their mothers or grandmothers, or by fathers who have been influenced markedly by their mothers.

Footnotes
    • M. Anae, ‘O a‘u/I: my identity journey.’ In Making our place: growing up PI in New Zealand, edited by Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2003, pp. 89–101. › Back

Contributions to New Zealand

Pacific identity

In sport, the arts, fashion, academia, business and the corporate world, politics, music, and performing arts, Samoans have brought a unique Pacific influence. The community forged by the migrant settlers of the 1950s has evolved into a Pacific Island middle class. 

Academic and political achievement

Samoans have provided New Zealand’s first Pacific university professor (Albert Wendt), first Pacific Rhodes Scholar (Damon Salesa), and first Pacific court judges (Aeau Semikueiva Epati and Ida Malosi). Many of the Pacific MPs who have served in the New Zealand Parliament have been Samoan – including Anae Arthur Anae, Taito Phillip Field, Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, Mark Gosche, Peseta Sam Lotu-liga, Carmel Sepuloni, Aupito Su‘a William Sio, Terisa Ngobi, Dr Anae Neru Leavasa and Lemauga Lydia Sosene.

Creative arts

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in the arts of New Zealand’s Pacific peoples is that of identity. Questions such as ‘Who are we?’, ‘How do we represent ourselves?’, and ‘How are we represented by others?’ feature prominently in a range of media. Samoans have made major contributions to these debates.

Talented Samoan artists such as Fatu Feu‘u, Michel Tuffery, Andy Leleisi‘uao, John Ioane and Lily Laita have played a role in shaping New Zealand art. Joseph Churchward became internationally renowned as a font designer. 

In literature, the writers Albert Wendt and Sia Figiel have made their mark. Samoans have made a major contribution to music – from early pop and jazz exponents such as Mavis Rivers, the Yandall Sisters and Freddie Keil to the opera singers Daphne Collins and Iosefa Enari, and to a younger generation who are communicating their urban experience and redefining what it means to be Samoan in New Zealand. Among the latter are Igelese Ete, Lole, Jamoa Jam, Ma-V-Elle, King Kapisi, Scribe and Ladi6. Jonathan Lemalu is a noted international opera singer. 

Samoan playwrights, producers, comedians and actors include Lani Tupu Jr, Maiava Eteuati Ete, Nathaniel Lees, Jay Laga‘aia, David Fane, Erolia Ifopo, Makerita Urale, Oscar Kightley, The Brownies, Naked Samoans, Toa Fraser, Victor Rodger, Pacific Underground and Rose Matafeo. Some of the works that these artists have produced are ground-breaking portrayals of the Samoan migrant experience.

High achievers

The journalist Gilbert Wong sums up Pacific Islanders’ achievements in New Zealand:

‘All that first-generational migrant drive for children to make the most of education has resulted in the police officers, nurses, teachers, bank managers, lawyers and doctors … Some have attained the higher reaches of society … professional associations have sprung up … a critical mass of Pacific people forming a new identity a few hours by 747 from their home islands. New Zealand is close enough to the springs of Pacific culture for those living here to be refreshed and constantly renewed, whatever they choose to call themselves. And wherever, in terms of class, they end up.’ 1

Sport

The sporting achievements of Samoan people are impressive. Jerry Collins, Keven Mealamu, Mils Muliaina, Ardie Savea, Rodney So‘oailo and Tana Umaga all captained the All Blacks, and winger Bryan Williams was a legendary player. Silver Ferns netballers have included Rita Fatialofa, Cathrine Latu, Bernice Mene, Leilani Read, Maria Tutaia and Linda Vagana. Boxers Jimmy Peau, David Tua and Joseph Parker have fought on the world stage (Tua contested the heavyweight championship, and Parker held the WBO heavyweight title from 2016 to 2018). Prominent basketball players have included Tall Blacks captain Byron Vaetoe. Among many rugby league stars are Monty Betham, Olsen Filipaina, cousins Joe and Nigel Vagana, Ruben Wiki, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Sonny Bill Williams (the last two were also All Blacks). Bill Tuiloma has played regularly for football’s All Whites.

Discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina was twice a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and world champion in 1997. Other prominent Samoan sportspeople are tennis player Claudine Toleafoa, BlackCaps cricketers Murphy Su‘a and Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor (Ross Taylor), and kickboxers/mixed martial arts exponents Mark Hunt and Ray Sefo.

Footnotes
    • Gilbert Wong, ‘Pride of the Pacific’, Metro no. 256 (October 2002): 106–107. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Samoa.

Samoa

  • 1874 census: 6
  • 1936 census: 279
  • 1951 census: 1,336
  • 1976 census: 19,711
  • 2001 census: 47,118
  • 2006 census: 50,649
  • 2013 census: 50,658
  • 2018 census: 55,512

American Samoa

  • 2001 census: 399
  • 2006 census: 489
  • 2013 census: 636
  • 2018 census: 861

Ethnic identity

In the 2006, 2013 and 2018 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Samoan: 131,103 (2006); 144,138 (2013); 182,721 (2018)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Lupematasila Melani Anae, 'Samoans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/samoans/print (accessed 19 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Lupematasila Melani Anae, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, reviewed & revised 7 o Hepetema 2022