Table of contents
Podcast S6 E5 | 24 min

Into the Light

14 Nov 2023
Christianity and colonization deeply reshaped Samoan culture starting in the 1830s, complicating how anthropologists Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman saw the Pacific Islands.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Samoa in 1830, almost a century before Margaret Mead set out to study the culture of the islands. By the time she arrived, the church had been a central part of Samoan life for generations.

In this episode, co-host Doris Tulifau explores how Christianity and colonization complicate Mead’s—and her critic anthropologist Derek Freeman’s—conclusions and continue to shape Samoan identity today.

In a simple church, a pastor in a suit stands at the alter.

The podcast team recorded a Sunday service at CCCAS Petesa Tai in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Ari Daniel

A church service with many people in colorful clothing sitting in pews,

Today Christianity is profoundly important across the Samoan islands.

Ari Daniel

See the companion teaching units “Colonialism and Christianity in the South Pacific” and “Legacies of Colonialism in Samoa.”

This episode is included in Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast, which was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Read a transcript of this episode .

Into the Light

[introductory music]

Voice 1: What makes us human?

Voice 2: Who you are.

Voice 3: History.

Voice 4: Your function in community. That’s where we find our purpose.

Voice 5: We are profoundly connected as human beings.

Voice 6: What makes us human?

Voice 7: Let’s find out.

Voice 8: SAPIENS.

Voice 9: A Podcast for Everything Human.

Sia Figiel: It was a school of prestige that only the daughters of high chiefs attended. It wasn’t a democracy, that anyone can go here. No. It was specific young women who could go here, and these were the young women whose sexuality was guarded.

Doris Tulifau: We’re standing outside Atauloma Girls School with Sia Figiel, a Samoan novelist, poet, and playwright … and my friend. Atauloma is the school anthropologist Margaret Mead first visited when she came to American Samoa as a Ph.D. student. The London Missionary Society founded the school in 1900, and it remained open until 1970. It was once a stately, well-manicured, two-story building. Today it’s crumbling apart. The jungle is reclaiming it, vines and vegetation twisting among its skeleton.

To Sia, the school represents a shift in Samoan identity. When she thinks back to the young Samoan women who lived on these islands before Atauloma, before the missionaries arrived—

Sia: I think they had such a freedom that was tampered with by the Christians. They tampered it, and they gave sexuality a meaning that we didn’t have before. They gave it something ugly. They made sex ugly, and it ruined generations of women; I’m sure men as well.


Doris: Samoans have a complex relationship with the Christian faith. Some of us feel like Sia does, that Christianity permanently altered some of the most beautiful aspects of the Samoan customs and traditions. Others say it put Samoans on a path of faith and light. Almost everyone would agree that Christianity is such an integral part of Samoan culture today that any outsider needs to account for it.

This is The Problems With Coming of Age. Today’s episode: “Into the Light.” I’m Doris Tulifau.

This week, we explore Christianity’s impact on Samoan society. We start with the first missionaries. We then look at how the presence of Christianity shaped the fieldwork of Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman. And finally, we ask: How is the church still relevant to, and resonant for, Samoan young people today?

[church music and voices]

The Samoan landscape is bursting with churches. On Sundays, they become a kind of heartbeat within our communities.

At the Efks Church in Petesa Tai, Sunday mass has just started.

[church bell and singing]

This church is the same denomination as the one my grandfather helped set up in San Francisco. So coming here felt familiar and close to home. Mass was part of how I grew up, too, and it’s hard for me to imagine Samoa without its churches. They’ve been part of our story for almost 200 years. Most accounts say Christianity showed up in Samoa in 1830 with the arrival of John Williams of the London Missionary Society. He’s generally understood to be the first missionary here.

Albert Pati Siliga: Well, my grandma’s also from Savaai—where the Good Book landed, where the John Williams brought the good news to turn the Samoans into Christianity. And it was my family, the Salima family, that actually were the ones that accepted the whole thing.


Doris: This is Albert Pati Siliga. He’s a cousin of Sia Figiel’s. And his family wasn’t alone in embracing Christianity. John Williams managed to convert people through the help of other Samoans. And he got the support of one of the most important people on the archipelago: Malietoa Vainu’upo.

The Malietoa title was a Tama-o-aiga title, known to be one of the highest in the land. Malietoa welcomed the missionaries, particularly Williams. Partly this may have been strategic. At this point in Samoan history, Malietoa had only recently managed to defeat his chief rival for power over Samoa. Working with the missionaries gave him an edge. He could exert some influence over their presence in the islands. And he could get access to European goods, including arms.

A few years after their arrival, these missionaries founded what would become the largest Christian denomination of Samoa: the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa.

Afalupetua Utai: My name is Afalupetua Utai, a pastor for the Congregational Christian Church here in Vatia.

Doris: Vatia is a small village in American Samoa. I met Pastor Utai at the Voice of Christ Full Gospel Church. We entered a beautiful, warm, yellow stucco building with double wooden doors that open to the ocean, steps away from the lapping shore.

Afalupetua: My signature on the construction of church buildings is an arc.

Doris: Utai designed aspects of the church to reflect both traditional Samoan customs and Christian beliefs. There are ʻie tōga, fine mats, laid out at the center. An intricate rainbow mosaic on the wall greets congregants as they enter the church. As you settle into the dark wooden pews, you see an ornate pulpit with the orator’s staff standing right beside it.

Afalupetua: It represents the blending of the Samoan cultural tradition that’s now bowed to Jesus Christ.

Doris: This weaving together of Samoan and Christian elements in the church in Vatia mirrors how Christianity infused itself into Samoan society. Missionaries converted people by taking Samoan traditions and grafting Christianity upon them, and in turn Samoans welcomed the elements of Christianity that anchored them in their community and the divine. It’s a phenomenon that’s happened the world over, across many faiths. Anthropologists sometimes refer to it as cultural entanglement.

Here’s one way it happened in Samoa.


There are certain concepts embedded in our language and culture that were absorbed into how the Church and Christianity operate here. For instance, take how Utai works alongside village chiefs in Vatia.

Afalupetua: The high chiefs and the orators, they are the ones responsible to support and take care of the church and especially faifeʻau, the pastor, because they hold that covenantal relationship with the pastor.

Doris: There’s a term for this covenantal relationship in Samoan …

Afalupetua: The feagaiga. That means between the village and the pastor or between the church and the village and the pastor. So it’s really, really sacred, and it’s really, really very important.

Doris: But feagaiga didn’t originally refer to the covenant between a pastor and his people.

Sina Gabbard: It’s actually a sacred covenant that connects these two expressions of divine energy.

Doris: Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard is an American Samoan academic, writer, and poet. She’s a retired professor of literature at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

In Samoa, feagaiga traditionally refers to the relationship between brother and sister. The concept contains a notion of duality, with brothers representing one aspect and sisters another.

Sina: Those two are often described as pule and mana, and mana would be the sacred embodiment of power, of sacred power, and pule would be the kinetic, or the expression physically, of that power.

Doris: A phrase I heard a lot growing up to describe feagaiga was that a sister is the apple or pupil of her brother’s eye. She’s right at the center of his world. For Samoan women, the concept of feagaiga traditionally gave them power and protection.

Sina: So then suddenly, Christianity introduced, through the institution of Christian marriage, another powerful female figure in the person of the wife of the minister. It really was an imposition, to put it mildly, onto this ancient system, and it introduced this new kind of framework of the husband and wife. So the minister and his wife suddenly became central in the political leadership of the society.

Doris: While Pastor Utai finds beauty in the weaving together of Samoan traditions and Christian faith … to Gabbard, it’s a painful example of a traumatic past.

Sina: It was a kind of a rupture. And in a way, we’ve been dealing with that ever since.

Doris: It wasn’t just the Church that brought that rupture. The establishment of Christianity came alongside colonization. In the late 19th century, the United States, Great Britain, and Germany battled for control of the islands in what was called the Samoan crisis.


Doris: Within Samoa, a struggle broke out between existing colonial powers and the native people. At the end of it, in 1899, the archipelago was partitioned into a German colony and a U.S. territory. Then during World War I, German Samoa was taken over by New Zealand. Whereas American Samoa, where Gabbard was born, stayed under U.S. control. The islands were strategically important during World War II as well.

Sina: This is a period in history, after the first World War, when newly colonized, newly conquered, countries were reeling from the effects of suddenly being flooded and controlled by force, by outside forces. And this was certainly the case in American Samoa.

Doris: Since 1899, American Samoa has been under U.S. control.

Sina: It’s not often thought of. I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone else actually refer to it as a colony of the United States, but it is in fact a colony of the United States. And one reason for that is that the United States, instead of using the word “colony,” prefers to use different terms. So the term in American, Amerika, Samoa, for example—the legal term—is an “unorganized territory of the United States.” Quote, unquote.

Doris: When Mead set out to do her fieldwork in Samoa in 1925, she was heading to a place that had already been touched by outsiders, a mix of Christian and colonial influence. In fact, this was partly why Mead’s adviser Franz Boas encouraged her to go there. She’d have American contacts.

But Mead yearned for the opportunity to study a traditional community, a population she problematically called “primitive.” When she arrived at Atauloma and came face to face with a post-missionary Samoa, she decided to head to the eastern edge of the island group: Manu’a.


What she found there was different yet not entirely free from Christian influence, and that influence has only become more significant in the years since. That’s after the break.


Doris: Welcome back to the Problems with Coming of Age. We left off with Margaret Mead on her way to Manu’a in the hope it would be the ideal cultural laboratory. Growing up, I used to hear ghost stories about those islands; they hold a special place in Samoan mythology. They’re said to be the first to have emerged from the sea.

Eleasaro Faataa: My father is from Fitiuta. That’s one of the islands that she visited later on. My mother is from Ta’u.

Doris: This is Pastor Eleasaro Faata. I met him in his church office with my friend Sia Figiel and the SAPIENS team on a sweltering afternoon. The mass we heard at the start of the episode was held in his church in Tafuna. Faata’s family is from American Samoa, from the very islands Mead visited during her fieldwork. It’s very possible that some of his family members were people she interviewed. And he thinks Mead probably found some of what she was looking for in Manu’a: a place relatively untouched by Christianity and colonization.

Eleasaro: These three villages in Manu’a, they were isolated. They did not have that interchange.

Doris: For example, Faata says even the creation myth there is different than the one widely known in other parts of Samoa.

Eleasaro: It’s more original; it’s not been impacted by Christianity. The Samoan version is impacted by Christianity.

Doris: But even in Manu’a, Mead acknowledged the Church’s reach. In Coming of Age in Samoa, she noted that Christianity introduced a “moral premium on chastity.” This idea was familiar to Samoans, since they already regarded virginity with reverence, especially for the taupou, the daughters of the high chiefs. But Mead emphasized that, despite these norms, Samoans were accepting of young people’s promiscuous behavior. She wrote:

Voice Actor: “So the attitude of the Church, in respect to chastity, held only the germs of a conflict, which was seldom realized because of the flexibility with which it adapted itself to the nearly inevitable.”

Doris: Faata first read Mead when he was an undergrad. His parents had wanted him to pursue a career in law, but he chose to be a student of theology.

Eleasaro: I wrote a thesis on the schism of the Church. And somebody told me to read Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman. And I think both of them were right in the sense that Margaret Mead was writing from a more closed community rather than Freeman writing from more of an island experience.


Doris: That “island experience” came with a bigger church presence. In Freeman’s depiction of Samoa, which was based on Western Samoa, teens weren’t freewheeling and free-loving. Rather, they were bound by the rules of faith and everyday constraints on their social and sexual behavior. Freeman argued that the church’s influence was all-pervasive and focused on chastity. And that Samoan pastors closely supervised adolescents and sought to ensure their chastity. Moreover, he said the children were so closely watched between their school, family, and church that they simply wouldn’t have had the freedom to indulge in free love.

Although Faata has been a pastor for 34 years and knows how the church is deeply woven into Samoan life, he says Freeman’s depiction of a regimented, hierarchical Samoa doesn’t track with his experience.

Eleasaro: I argue otherwise. Hierarchy is more of what was introduced into the Samoan culture not only by Christianity but from outside.

Doris: This outside influence played out differently in different parts of Samoa. So when Mead and Freeman set out to study Samoa, they did so in places shaped by different histories despite sharing a language and a people. That’s still true now. But today, Christianity’s entrenched across the archipelago—something that even for Faata, a committed pastor, isn’t necessarily the best thing.

Eleasaro: The main impact is Christianity. And how they typically destroyed our culture and changed it all around.

Doris: There are numerous ways our culture’s been misrepresented or forced to change over and over because of the outsiders, the palagis. Pastor Utai sees beauty in the gospel and the Church, but much like Faata, he thinks Samoan culture was distorted by outside influence.

Afalupetua: The dangerous thing about outsiders that come and write about Samoa is the interpretation. For example, when the missionaries came, they see the other culture of Samoa as really, really, really bad. And they don’t want to accept it.


Doris: From the clothes we wear to the language we use, so much of what we think of as Samoa today is a response to the presence of the outsiders. That’s why today, Utai is looking for ways to preserve Samoan culture within the church.

Afalupetua: I teach my youth and also the congregation about the nusa. The nusa means the “sacred village.”

Doris: Utai encourages young people to place their community and traditional Samoan ideals first. Pastor Faata’s doing something similar.

Eleasaro: Just lately in our church, we have a “cultural Sunday.” So nobody wears any suits, even the deacons. They wear their aloha.

Doris: Faata finds small reformations like wearing Island-style shirts and dresses to be particularly helpful in reaching young people.

Eleasaro: I always talk about this in our conferences. I told everybody that we have to look at our children. Maybe in 10 years, nobody will come to church. Because we are going the other way. Our youth is going the other way. We have to make an identity for them so that they can become something, rather than being lost.

Doris: Pastor Faata spent time in the Bay Area where I grew up. And he found young people there hit particularly hard by the turbulence of adolescence. For Samoans who are part of the diaspora like me, navigating these two cultures—Samoan and Palagi—can be tough.

Eleasaro: We are not Samoans. We are not Palagis. We are lost somewhere over here. And that’s the meaning of the Cross. You see, Christ died and he came on Earth because he wants to take us seriously—who we are. Now we are stuck somewhere. The parents do not understand their kids. The kids do not go in line with their parents. As I told the kids, “You are not even welcome in that society.”

Doris: You can find these churning questions of belonging and identity across Samoa. Who knows? Maybe they’re just part of coming of age everywhere. Challenging that idea was a driving force in Mead’s research. But her search for isolated communities didn’t give her a full picture of what Samoa was like. So Freeman argued that she cherry-picked her evidence to support the conclusion she’d already formed, that it was possible for adolescence to be less stressful.

It’s a nice idea. But for lots of Samoans today, the kind of paradise Mead depicted in her research is hardly recognizable. And that’s perhaps another reason why Mead’s depiction seems, to many of us, closer to fantasy than fact, a misrepresentation.

So who got it right? Mead or Freeman? Or neither? And how bloody did the fight between the two academics get? That’s next time on The Problems with Coming of Age.

[theme music]

Kate Ellis: The Problems With Coming of Age is a co-production of SAPIENS and PRX Productions.

Be sure to check out the season’s college curriculum, historic photographs, and so much more on our website:

Doris: This episode was written and produced by Rithu Jagannath, Ashraya Gupta, and Ari Daniel. This season was hosted by Kate Ellis and me, Doris Tulifau.

Kate: From SAPIENS, we were supported by Chip Colwell, Tanya Volentras, Esteban Gomez, Sia Figiel, Salamasina Figiel, Sophie Muro, and Christine Weeber. The season’s humanities advisers were Danilyn Rutherford, Lisa Uperesa, Nancy Kates, David M. Lipset, Nancy Lutkehaus, Agustín Fuentes, Don Kulick, and Paul Shankman.

Doris: And fa’afetai to the more than three dozen people we interviewed in American Samoa and Samoa for helping to shape our understanding of this story.

Kate: The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. The project manager of PRX Productions is Edwin Ochoa. The business manager is Morgan Church.

Doris: Dan Taulapapa McMullin created the season’s cover art. Celina T. Zhao was the fact checker. Nancy Madden was our voice actor playing Margaret Mead.

Kate: Audio mastering by Terence Bernardo.

Doris: Music by APM with additional tracks by Malō Fa’amausili recorded at Apaula Studio as well as songs kindly provided by Bobby Alu.

Kate: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Doris: And SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to the foundation’s entire staff, board, and advisory council. Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I’m Doris Tulifau.

Kate: And I’m Kate Ellis.


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