The tiny islands of Samoa was at a time home to an indigenous religion prior to 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 (hereafter SIR) prior to the early 19th and before the arrival of Christianity? It is clear that SIR has influenced how Samoans perceive their place within creation even today, and in particular their view of the environment, their relationship with it, and how to understand their position within the natural world.
Concept of God and Creation
SIR recognized two main categories of gods. Atua were 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 were the Aitu. They were 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 populate the lands on earth. All living things were then born.
Human Being and the Environment
The human being was not believed to be merely an individual, but an integrated part of the cosmos, as well as the land, seas, and the skies. 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).
Human beings were viewed as connected and equal to nature as opposed to feeling a sense of dominion over it. People did not have authority over or ownership of anything within the universe, and their relationship with the natural world was based on va tapuia, a sacred relationship between humans and all things.
The phrase va tapuia includes the word tapu, which translates to mean both sacred and taboo. It referred to specific prohibitions, and included many rituals concerning the natural world. It is why practitioners of SIR believed in seeking pardon when breaking or killing a plant or a 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 was 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
Prior to the 1820s Samoa had little interaction with the outside world. However, they soon begun to notice changes in the inhabitants of neighbouring islands after Wesleyan missionaries brought Christianity to Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai’i, and Rarotonga. Samoa was visited on the 16th, July, 1830 by Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society. The missionary ship Messenger of Peace had 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 before leaving the island with 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. This was followed by missionaries from other Christian churches who landed on Samoa and found followings as well,
“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 by most part a smooth process, despite it replacing SIR, as well as altering important aspects of traditional Samoan culture. Many Samoan traditions were discouraged by the missionaries, such as tattooing and malaga (a ceremonial visit between villages paid according to Samoan custom). However, many SIR practices still remain. Traditional healing is still practiced and uses indigenous plants, such as nonu, for medicine. There is a religious component to this healing process not found in the methods used by modern doctors or nurses, as traditional healers, or taulasea, act as mediators between the gods and those who are 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 result in a denominational rivalry for influence over the state because although 98% of Samoa’s population identify as Christian, there is a range of views of doctrine across Christians groups. There are Roman Catholics (19.4%), Mormons (15.2%), Methodists (13.7%), Assemblies of God (8%), and more. This could lead to possible religious tensions should Christian denominations fail to agree on the theological interpretations of governmental legislative agenda.
Although Christianity is the most followed religion many Samoans still yet “encourage the use of Samoan indigenous religious values in order to combat environmental degradation,” a particularly helpful effort given that “Climate change, severe weather events, and accelerated sea‐level rise” threaten island nations such as Samoa. 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.”
1. Wildermuth, G. 2012. “Heaven and Earth” Samoan Indigenous Religion, Christianity, and the Relationship Between theSamoan 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.