Samoan Indigenous Religion and Christianity

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The tiny islands of Samoa were at a time home to an indigenous religion before the arrival of Christianity. Of the 200 000 population today, an overwhelming majority (98%) identify as Christian. As one commentator writes,

“Christianity is almost seamlessly incorporated in the fa’asamoa, the Samoan way of life, making it hard to imagine a Samoa devoid of the Christian Church, but such a time did exist” (1).

But what was this Samoan indigenous religion (SIR) before the early 19th century and the arrival of Christianity? It is clear that SIR has influenced how Samoans perceive their place within the world even today, and in particular their view of the environment and relationship with it.

Concept of God and Creation

SIR recognized two main categories of gods. The Atua was believed to be original, non-human gods who dwell in Pulotu, the otherworld, or in Lagi (heaven). Tagaloa, sometimes referred to as Tagaloaalelagi (Tagaloa of the heavens), was viewed as the supreme atua.

The other category of gods is the Aitu. They are of human origin and often portrayed in the form of animals, birds, plants, and other natural objects. In their creation story, God, Tagaloa, is believed to be an ancestor of all living things on Earth. He was the creator of the cosmos, the sea, human beings, animals, and plants. Tagaloa separated the Lagi (heaven) and Papa (rock), and then sent his messenger Tulito to populate the Earth. All living things were then born.

Human Beings and the Environment

The human is not believed to be merely an individual, but an integrated part of the cosmos. According to Grace Wildermuth,

“This is evidenced in the language used to describe the natural world. Many words used to describe the environment are also used to represent parts of the human being most associated with life. For example, eleele, meaning blood, is also used to describe earth or dirt. Similarly, palapala, which also means blood, can be used to describe mud. These examples both serve as linguistic evidence to support the Samoan indigenous concept of land and creation as a part of the human being” (2).

Humans are viewed as connected and equal to nature rather than feeling a sense of dominion over it. They do not have authority over or ownership of anything within the universe and their relationship with the natural world is based on va tapuia, a sacred relationship between humans and all things.

Tapu

The phrase va tapuia includes the word tapu, which translates to mean both sacred and taboo. It refers to specific prohibitions and includes many rituals concerning the natural world. It is why practitioners of SIR believed in seeking pardon when breaking or killing a plant or tree. It was an act that recognized the existence of tapu between plant/tree life and human life,

“In the indigenous Samoan religion it was crucial that before a tree was cut that fa’alanu or a prayer chant was performed. The chant sought from the god of the forest pardon for taking the life of the tree or any of its member parts” (3).

Tapu encompassed all aspects of life. It reflected in practices such as agricultural and fishing methods, house structures, human interactions, and societal organizations. It was predicated on the inherent desire to maintain, not exploit, the environment in which one lived.

Christianity Arrives in Samoa

Before the 1820s Samoa had little interaction with the outside world. They soon, however, began to notice changes in the inhabitants of neighboring islands after Wesleyan missionaries brought Christianity to Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai’i, and Rarotonga.

Samoa was visited on the 16th of July, 1830, by Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society. The missionary ship called the Messenger of Peace arrived at Savai’i, just after having brought Christianity to the Cook Islands in the 1820s. Williams docked on Samoa for less than a week and left Christian teachers to spread the Gospel. He returned two years later to find that Christianity had spread throughout the small island and by 1841 the London Missionary Society had reached most villages in Samoa. Following this were missionaries from other Christian churches landing on Samoa: “Within a few decades of its introduction into Samoa in the early nineteenth century, Christianity was generally accepted as the religion of the people” (4).

Acceptance of Christianity was mostly a smooth process despite it replacing SIR and impacting important parts of traditional Samoan culture. Many Samoan traditions were discouraged by the missionaries such as tattooing and malaga (a ceremonial visit between villages). Yet many SIR practices still remain in the modern age. Traditional healing is still practiced and uses indigenous plants, such as nonu, for medicine. There is a strong religious element to this healing process not found in the methods used by modern Western doctors or nurses. Traditional healers, or taulasea, act as mediators between the gods and the sick.

Samoa Becomes a Christian State

In 2017 Samoa declared itself a Christian state (5). The amendment is “to insert in the Constitution that Samoa is a Christian nation to declare the dominance of Christianity in Samoa.” The Samoan government will conduct itself “within the limits prescribed by God’s commandments” because Samoan society is “based on Christian principles” founded upon God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There is a possibility that this might cause denominational rivalry for influence over the state. Although 98% of the country’s population identify as Christian, there is a range of doctrinal views across Christians groups. There are Roman Catholics (19.4%), Mormons (15.2%), Methodists (13.7%), Assemblies of God (8%), and much more. This could lead to possible religious tension should Christian denominations fail to agree on theological interpretations of the governmental legislative agenda.

Although Christianity is the most followed religion, many Samoans still “encourage the use of Samoan indigenous religious values in order to combat environmental degradation”. This is helpful given that “Climate change, severe weather events, and accelerated sea­‐level rise” threaten island nations. There is hope that together, SIR principles and Christianity can,

“combine modern and traditional knowledge systems to create a stronger, holistic view of man, religion, and nature in hopes of protecting the rich and diverse ecosystem which sustains the Samoan people.”

References

1. Wildermuth, G. 2012. “Heaven and Earth” Samoan Indigenous Religion, Christianity, and the Relationship Between the Samoan People and the Environment. Independent Study Project (ISP). p. 1. Available.

2. Wildermuth, G. 2012. Ibid. p. 8.

3. Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi. 2008. Su’esu’e Manogi: In Search of Fragrance. p. 107.

4. Kamu. 2003: 1

5. Wyreth, G. 2017. Samoa Officially Becomes a Christian State. Available.

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