Samoan Fale Lali

While growing up, being a half cast Samoan-Caucasian, I faced many challenges pertaining to my dual heritage. To some extent, I was taught fundamentals of both cultures as I lived most of my life in American Samoa where there was influence from both Samoans and Americans.

Through a series of interviews that totaled eight hours, I searched for answers to explain how the Samoan culture is organized and what stands as the basis of its organization. To get these answers, I found a consultant who speaks the language very well and has practiced and is still practicing the Samoan culture.

My consultant was born in Samoa and raised in the faasamoa (Samoan way). He was taught in every aspect of the culture, and still lives it today while he continues to teach it to his children. He is very steeped in the culture and knowledgeable of the topic, mainly because he is a Samoan chief who is expected to uphold his culture with honor.

The Samoan culture is very complex and unique. There are many facets of the faasamoa (Samoan way) and they are hard to comprehend even when one can speak and understand the language. One part of the culture that is always heard of when mentioning faasamoa is the word faaaloalo which means respect. Faaaloalo is huge in the faasamoa because the cultre is built upon it. Faaaloalo is involved somehow in everything the Samoan people do. Faaaloalo begins in the home and expands into the inbred values and standards that Samoan’s live by.

I chose faaaloalo as my topic because it is an aspect of the culture that can be found wherever Samoans are gathered. Most Samoans teach faaaloalo because it keeps their children disciplined and polite. They also teach it because in the culture they believe that what the child does reflects what the parents teach in the home. If a child does something disrespectful then his or her parents are to blame, and the name is shamed. Samoans uphold a high standard of honor in the family, and children are taught very early on to take care of the family name and not to tarnish it in any way. Faaaloalao is an important part of keeping this honor. Therefore it remains with the people no matter where they travel or wherever they live.

Faaaloalo is a principle that governs every Samoan’s behavior in the culture. My consultant compared it to a code of conduct that dictates what you are supposed to do in terms of relationships with other people. He also said that it is showing respect to others, but respect alone does not define it’s profoundness. Faaaloalo is best described through examples of it’s practice.

The family faaaloalo

Faaaloalo is something that is learned in early childhood. It is learned through example but it is mostly taught through practice. My consultant said that it is like the pecking order of chicks.

“Children are taught when they are young to respect their older siblings. At the same time their older siblings are being taught to respect their elders. There is always someone older than you to give respect to.”

 The structure of a Samoan family follows a hierarchy. The father is the patriarch of the family and next to him is the mother. From there it is the children from oldest to youngest. This structure becomes very important as the children learn faaaloalo because the siblings are very much involved with each other’s learning. My consultant says that,

“When old enough to do chores, the youngest is supposed to listen to the older ones without talking back. If the parents are away, the oldest child will assume the responsibility of the parents. He or she will then be the presiding person of authority in the household at the time and all the young ones will listen to that person. It is understood that if you’re younger than your brother then you listen to him, and if you’re younger than your sister then you listen to her. That’s faaaloalo. If you are younger you don’t try to impose your views on discussions or decisions that are made. Instructions come from the older person.”

If the child who is left in charge (the oldest) tells the younger siblings to do something counter to the teachings of the parents, the younger child(ren), having no choice, will obey. The child who is left in charge will be held responsible when the parents return. By the same token, if a younger child refuses to follow the oldest child’s instructions, both the oldest child and the parents will likely discipline the younger child for disobeying. The whole family including the extended family is involved in teaching faaaloalo. Faaaloalo in this case is building the foundation of the family.

Another example is the expectd conduct at mealtimes. My consultant explained how in the family the father eats first and then everyone else follows in their learned order of hierarchy. He recalled being taught that there is a certain time when everyone eats. My consultant being in the middle of the family got to eat before his younger siblings but had to wait until his parents and older siblings had been served.

The whole family is involved in practicing faaaloalo. “It is an unwritten law that is enforced and taught through it’s practice in the home” says my consultant. Faaaloalo brings order through respect. Families are organized this way, and the society in turn carries on this order.

Faaaloalo in the village (society)

Whatever is taught in the home is reinforced in the village, and whaterver has not been taught in the home will be taught in the village. The village, in essence, is an extension of the family. As each child knows his/her own responsibilities in the home, each family in the village knows its position in the village hierarchy. Whenever there is a faalavelave (village function such as a wedding, funerals, bestowals of titles, etc.), the entire village gathers like a family and awaits the instructions from the matai (the high chief of the village). Each family accepts the dictates of the chief just as each child in the family accepts the dictates of the parents. There is a hierarchy or ranking of chiefs by age and authority just as there is a ranking of children in the family.

Mealtime at the village function is the best example of everyone knowing the proper role in the village faaaloalo. In my consultant’s village, his family presides and leads all village activities because he is the matai (high chief of the village). When mealtime comes around, his family eats first. Following the matai’s family would be the next ranked chief and his family. The goes just as the order that siblings would follow in a family. Likewise, everyone knows his/her positions, benefits, and responsibilities.

On a lower level in the village, the same principle is followed. In a meeting of young men, the matai’s son will preside. He will in this case act as a father would in the home or as his father, the matai, would in the village. The matai’s son gives instructions and because of his position in the village hierarchy, he is respected and obeyed by all the other young men.

Many may question how all villagers know their roles not only in the home but in the village. The Samoan hierarchy is taught at a young age.

“While children are young, they are taught that there are certain ways to do certain things. There are different ways to look at people. There are different ways to talk around people. Everthing is done with faaaloalo. If faaaloalo is part of the whole Samoan way, then why does it remain in practice outside of Samoa? Because it is the bulding block of the culture, faaaloalo is the first thing taught.  Wherever the culture is found, faaaloalo is found too.”

Faaaloalo is taught and then practiced in the society as a whole. It starts, as my consultant said, at a very young age and then it is practiced as the children grow up with it at home and out of the home. The village teaches faaaloalo as well.

My consultant told a story of a little boy named Misi who is his cousin. One day Misi was on the village field when an older man told him to leave the field because there was a village function for the older men to be held there. Misi talked back to the man and disobeyed his instructions. The older man then spanked him and sent him home. Misi got home and told his parents that a man had spanked him. When his parents heard the whole story, Misi got spanked again for not showing respect to his elders. This is how faaaloalo, which is taught in the home, is reinforced in the village. It is expected of all no matter where they are from no matter who their family is. If faaaloalo is not observed, then it is the responsibility of the elders in the village to teach it.

Another example of faaaloalo in the village and larger societal gatherings is the humility factor. Considering and acknowledging people show respect through humility, this is an important part of the faasamoa. “It is a way of thinking about others and not oneself,” my consultant says. That’s what the faasamoa is all about. It’s like living in a big family.

Being taught faaaloalo and the American culture both at the same time has helped me to understand this topic a little better. I realize that many times the two cultures are in conflict with each other and sometimes you have to choose one over the other. An example of this that I remember happened when my sisters got up after a meal at the home of my parent’s friends and started to wash dishes. My Samoan grandmother had taught them that doing so shows gratitude. The palagi (Caucasian) friends of my parents were sort of shocked because the wife was used to having her kitchen to herself. My sisters were forced to decide whether to do as they had been taught or to be respectful to the palagi way by not offending the lady.

Faaaloalo is more than respect. It is a way of living in a community with harmony. Without faaaloalo in Samoa there is chaos. Most of the problems in the communities are caused by someone showing a lack of respect for another. Faaaloalo is culture and its what keeps the Samoans together.

The ifoga or demonstration of remorse for an offense by the family and/or village of the offender is probably the greatest example of faaaloalo as it pertains to community and harmony. Discussion of an occurrence several years ago in American Samoa will illustrate the ifoga. As my consultant remembers the incident, an altercation occurred between high school boys from one village and high school boys from another village.

One morning in one of the high schools in Samoa, a student was killed. The student had been mistaken for another young man who had been involved in a conflict between boys of two different villages and he was hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. The boy swinging the bat was acting in retaliation to the other boys picking on him the day before. The student that was killed was from a different village than that of the kid swinging the bat. The tragedy spread sadness through out the villages of both the victim and the perpetrator not to mention the entire Samoan community. Things like this just don’t happen in Samoa.

In a situation like this it would be easy for riots between villages to start. Fortunately, faaaloalo comes into play in these situations and keeps the people together. In this particular situation the family of the offender practiced faaaloalo through ifoga and their entire village participated. The purpose of this ifoga was for one village to literally beg for the forgiveness of the other village. This was done by the whole village going into the village of the victim and bowing on hands and knees with fine mats over their heads in front of the victim’s home. There they remained until they were forgiven (this is customary to wait, no matter how long it takes). When forgiven, the villages gave their fine mats to the victim’s family and left the victim’s village in peace. (Fine mats are considered of the highest value in the faasamoa).

In the case of the two high school students, the village did their ifoga in the rain and mud and remained there until the victim’s family and their village matai decided that the perpetrator’s family and village had shown the height of their remorse and respect thus demonstrating faaaloalo at its best. It must be noted here that the perpetrator of the crime was duly tried in a court of law and sentenced to a prison term. Nonetheless, the ifoga was performed and village riots and retaliation were prevented. It is good to know that the ifoga can be practiced on a family level, a village level, and even in the districts to prevent disharmony and unnecessary bloodshed.

Faaaloalo in the District

Districts in Samoa are determined by area and number of villages under jurisdiction of paramount chiefs. On the district level, faaaloalo is most frequently observed in land disputes, inter-village conflicts, and faalavelave such as the death of a paramount chief. As in the family, rank and authority play a very important role at this age. My consultant said that:

  • If men from two neighboring villages within the same district lay claim to the same piece of land and a dispute ensues, the chiefs of the two villagers will meet and try to resolve the matter. If the village chiefs cannot agree, the case goes to the district chiefs. Once the district chiefs make a decision, the matter is settled. No questions are asked and no complaints are made.
  • If two different villages get involved in an argument or conflict, the village chiefs can put a stop to it. The high chief from either village can declare a truce and call a meeting of all the chiefs of he two villages. The villagers will await their decision. If the village chiefs cannot resolve the conflict, they will go to the district council of chiefs for a final decision. The decision of the district chiefs will be obeyed.
  • IF a paramount chief of any village dies the entire district becomes involved in the elaborate funeral proceedings including the traditional leo (a wake which can last up to three days in which a group from every village will come dressed in uniform and sing to the family of the deceased and present gifts of money, flowers, and shrouds for the coffin). The district roads are adorned with coconut leaves and flowers; no automobiles are allowed on the road during the funeral procession that covers the entire distance of the district, and great amounts of food are prepared by the village for all those who support the family on the day of the funeral by bringing fine mats, and kegs of cured beef.

In a faalavelave everybody seems to know exactly what to do, when to do it and how it is to be done. Yet, seldom does one hear instructions being given. When I attended a funeral in Samoa for a high chief of a village, I was astonished at how things were done with such order and efficiency despite the fact that the chief who usually keeps things under control was no longer there to preside. I wondered how people knew what to do without receiving instructions. Then I realized that the chief doesn’t always give the instructions. As I have mentioned earlier, the people grow up being taught and practicing their roles and the importance of their position in the family, village, and district.

My consultant also discussed some very common everyday expressions of faaaloalao that are expected and automatic that have not yet been mentioned. These are not exclusive to the family village or district. They are:

  • Taking off shoes when entering the home of a host. This shows faaaloalo because it is treating a person’s home like holy ground that can’t be walked on with shoes.
  • Sitting down when eating. If a Samoan is seen walking and eating food at the same time, s/he is labeled as disrespectful and uncouth. They may hear other Samoans say “Le a’oa ia” which means you have not been trained well.
  • Taking a gift known as a faaoso when visiting a family. One should never go empty handed when invited to someone’s home. In return, the hosting family gives the guest the best of what they have.
  • Lowering oneself and saying tulou (pardon me) when passing in front of or near a person.
  • Helping elderly people. Giving up your seat for an elder, or stopping to assist an elderly person with a heavy load or chore is not uncommon in Samoa.
  • Lowering ones body to less elevation when addressing a person of higher authority or position. If the person being addressed is standing, you sit. If the person is sitting, you stoop or kneel. If the person is kneeling, you sit on the floor. If the person is sitting on the floor, you lie down on the floor.
  • Not raising your voice after dark. Once the sun sets at about 6:00 p.m. in Samoa, each person is expected to be in his/her home with family. Anyone who is not inside must show respect for the family by their peaceful silence.

As a general idea I have heard faaaloalo discussed often and have given it my own definition. Faaaloalo is a governing attitude or behavior that determines ones Samoanness.  To know the faasamoa one must understand faaaloalo because it is the faasamoa in a sense that the culture revolves around the faaaloalo.

According to my consultant, “faaaloalo has much to do with respect and to do with how we live in our Samoan societies. It’s the Samoan world view. Samoans look at everything through the eyes of faaaloalo: How activities are arranged, how we speak to one another, and even the way we group our people as to who says what comes through this world view of respect. When we look at each other and when we interact with one another we look for that and if we don’t see it, it automatically affects how we interpret what is going on and it affects how we feel towards the other person.”

Seeing the faaaloalo take place is an interesting experience. Through my own experience I know that it is much broader than typical respect. The interviewee says that the people look at everything through the eyes of faaaloalo. He personifies it and says that it is the scale by which everything is done and measured. He also feels that faaaloalo is not just a simple concept. I get the impression that to him faaaloalo is the driving force that makes the Samoan culture so different from any other culture that he has experienced.

I have learned through my interviews that the older generations of Samoa fear that the children are losing the faasamoa. They especially fear that the younger generations are losing the faaaloalo and the fundamental respect for their elders. My informant expressed that the American lifestyle coming into the homes of all Samoan families in Samoa and in America has caused the children to gear their lives on a more individual level. This means that they no longer care what the communities think about them or their parents or their family name or the village. The society doesn’t seem to matter to them. They have their own lives to live and are individuals. They do not consider themselves as an integral part of a Samoan community.


Faaaloalo is part of the culture in many different ways. There is almost a different language in itself for faaaloalo. Not only is it used in language but in body gestures as well. The entire Samoan form of government is developed on showing faaaloalo to people. It is learned from square one and builds it’s way up until everyone in the culture lives by it. Even the government officials practice faaaloalo in their daily official duties. If you are Samoan living in Samoa faaaloalo becomes second nature. It is part of your daily living.

Even though the older people of Samoa feel that the culture is being diminished, I feel that the faasamoa is alive and well because faaaloalo continues to be taught. It is still being taught because it is the foundation of the Samoan culture. As long as the culture exists, faaaloalo will be practiced. Faaaloalo has universal value and although other societies may not reinforce it, it can be taught, practiced, and perpetuated.