Podcast S6 E3 | 28 min

We Need to Tell Our Own Stories

31 Oct 2023
In the controversies swirling around Margaret Mead’s work in American Samoa, one set of voices has too often been left out: that of Samoans.

Sparked by a provocative encounter in American Samoa, Doris Tulifau explores modern-day Samoan attitudes toward Margaret Mead. With a mix of voices and opinions, we encounter three loud ideas around Mead’s work, ultimately dropping us at the doorstep of Derek Freeman’s central critique about Samoan culture and society.

A heavy set man sits in a recliner being interviewed by two women.

Co-host Doris Tulifau (right) and producer Rithu Jagannath (center) interview Albert “Pati” Saliga.

Ari Daniel

At night, a large two story building looms over a parking lot, with the glow of yellow lights reflected off the rain-soaked streets.

At the Sadie Thompson Inn, where Margaret Mead stayed in 1925, the production team met locals who have strong feelings about the anthropologist.

Chip Colwell

See the companion teaching units,“Samoan Voices” and “Positioning the Anthropologist.”

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 .

We Need to Tell Our Own Stories

[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.

Chip Colwell: Margaret Mead arrived here. Her ship would have pulled up, she would have disembarked, and then made her way to Sadie Thompson’s hotel. So let’s go on in and continue in Mead’s footsteps.

Doris Tulifau: Déjà vu? Yes, this is how we started our last episode. But we didn’t tell you the whole story about what happened next after Chip Colwell, editor-in-chief of SAPIENS Magazine, went inside the Sadie Thompson Inn.

Chip: Bit of a backstory there.

Doris: Chip was about to share the name of the short story by William Somerset Maugham that featured the character Sadie Thompson, when a patron of the hotel bar passing by called it out, “Rain.”

Patron: “Rain.”

Chip: Thank you. “Rain”! You know it!

Doris: And we wondered what else might that guy know.

Chip: Could be interesting to wander and see if people want to talk.

[sound of opening bar door]

Doris: So Chip went up to him, got his name.

Fini Aitaoto: Fini Aitaoto, and my chief title is Fuimaono.

Doris: And asked him about Margaret Mead.

Aitaoto: She did research asking the young Samoan women on how they feel about sex. The data was full of shit.

Chip: I can imagine, but in what way do you think she’s full of shit?

Aitaoto: The chiefs at that time told the young girls, “Please, give her nice replies. OK? If she, if she wants good answers, please say yes.” So, that’s how the data is screwed up.

Doris: This is a pretty prevalent view about Mead across the islands. And there’s a reason for it. In the 1980s, another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, came out with a biting critique of Mead’s work. He even said she’d been hoaxed. And things got heated. We’ll get into that later this season.

But here’s the thing about Mead’s 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, it was all about Samoans and their lives, their personal lives.

But it was filtered, interpreted, and described to an American audience by an American woman in her 20s.

Aitaoto: You would feel very bad about somebody coming in and saying something bad and wrong about your country and your people. It portrays a bad mirror of what Samoans are really like.

Doris: We’re devoting this episode to what Samoans have to say about Margaret Mead, and what she said about them in her book that helped catapult her to international fame. We’ll hear disgust, amusement, and opinions about not just what she got wrong, but why.

Voice 1: She interpreted the things that she saw, her own way. But she did the best she could.

Voice 2: You don’t want that type of information that’s misleading and just not appropriate. Like, you had no business writing the way you wrote, lady.

Voice 3: It was unacceptable during that time, so I think it conflicted with what she was saying. What I was seeing and what she was saying.

Doris: Samoan perspectives—not everyone, naturally—but a few voices that we hope will give a sense of the strong flavors of opinions about Margaret Mead that still course through the Samoan archipelago in 2023.

Today on The Problems With Coming of Age: “We Need to Tell Our Own Stories.”


Doris: Full of shit or not, Mead’s research has left its mark here in Samoa. For many, it stands as one of the most important documents of record about this place.

That’s actually how I had my first encounter with Mead—through her book in the public library. I was desperately trying to find my identity, my Samoan identity. Especially growing up in San Francisco.   

I shared some memories with my producers about what it was like growing up Samoan:

I don’t know what made me finally realize I was Samoan other than I was 6 feet tall, and everybody was little [laughing] because I was the only Samoan in the school I went to. I was looking for a book, and that’s the only book I found in the index at that age in South San Francisco.

Deep in the stacks, I thought I found it: Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization by Margaret Mead. Flipping through the pages, I didn’t pay much attention to the words. I was too busy trying to look for pictures.

Then, when I was 15, I revisited good old Margaret again. I was about the same age as those young girls who had informed Mead’s ethnography. I remember just laughing and thinking about our people as these sex monsters. I didn’t realize at the time just how much of an effect the words of a pālagi woman—that is, a White woman from outside Samoa—had had on my people.

Peta Si’ulepa: She came in with a particular perspective about studying us.

Doris: People like Pulotu Peta Si’ulepa.

Si’ulepa is the founder, producer, and director of the Samoana Jazz & Arts Festival of 2Samoas. Si’ulepa grew up in New Zealand as an anti-racist and anti-colonialist.

No wonder when I mentioned Coming of Age and the name Margaret Mead, and she recalled her first encounter with the book, those same powerful feelings erupted to the surface.

Peta: I was furious. I was absolutely furious.

Doris: As an undergrad at Victoria University, she first came across Margaret Mead and Coming of Age for an assignment for her anthropology course.

Peta: As I looked more into the book, her Coming of Age in Samoa, and I was absolutely disgusted and, you know, just the notion of promiscuity of our young women growing up in a Samoan family.

Doris: Despite Si’ulepa’s strong reaction, her tutor pushed her to reference Mead in her paper. Peta wouldn’t have it. She searched for alternatives, but since there weren’t many published Pacific Island anthropologists, she decided to write about her own lived experience instead. She failed that assignment.

Peta: But I didn’t mind. I didn’t actually mind. I was not going to use a work written by a young woman who was about the same age as me back then, who was writing about my people purely from her cultural perspective.

She didn’t have any awareness of us as a people. And then, so she’s applying her view of the world and making some very, very, what I felt, were quite insulting statements about Samoan youth, Samoan women.

Doris: This experience with Mead further soured her feelings for the field of anthropology. Eventually, Si’ulepa left the discipline altogether.

Coming of Age in Samoa had left Si’ulepa with a particularly bitter taste.

Peta: I was affronted by the use of the word “primitive.”

Doris: In Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead used it 32 times.

Peta: Even the word “primitive” to me is racist from my perspective. And that’s my opinion.

Let me qualify it when I say the word racist, it’s when a particular culture uses its understanding and its notions of what is “normal” to interpret somebody else’s culture from the outside. Cuz essentially, they’re observers, and they position it as if it is true, and then the rest of the world jumps on and goes, “Yes!”

Doris: Si’ulepa’s not alone. We spoke to numerous Samoans who took issue with Mead using the word “primitive.” But I should note that Mead wasn’t alone in using language considered offensive and harmful today.

These racist ideas weren’t new. And they were pretty baked into academia in the early 20th century. The field of anthropology was no exception.

Franz Boas, the father of modern American anthropology and Mead’s mentor, studied the idea of cultural relativism, which means that cultures can’t be ranked. One isn’t better than another. Rather, he believed that cultures should be analyzed according to their own set of ideals.

But despite their efforts to counter prevailing racist ideologies through this work, both Mead and Boas were still using the language and social hierarchies of their time. The words they used held unconscious bias and created a sense of hierarchy by ranking the races. The West and everyone else.

And it’s hard to read that language today. Si’ulepa’s one of many who’ve left the field of anthropology due to a history of institutionalized racism in academic circles.

Peta: ​​Yeah, I take great exception to it because I know that we were one of the greatest, greatest navigators in history. We navigated the Pacific Ocean by the stars. You know, the ocean is two-thirds of the world’s surface for goodness sakes.

And so “primitive”? By whose perspective? So, I throw that word back.

Yeah. We were highly sophisticated. We had our own notions of spirituality. We had our own culture. And she didn’t even understand any of that.

And so she’s making, she’s following a particular pathway in her research that’s already predetermined by her own value system.

Doris: Have you ever wanted to reread the book or … ?

Peta: I’m not interested in reading her book. I mean, who elevated her?

It wasn’t us.

I’m interested more in a Samoan writing about us. We need to tell our own stories. We need to articulate our reality from our own experience. And, you know, I’ve grown up in mainstream society, where there are lots of commentaries about us, and it happens all over the world. So, I have arrived at a position in my life where I don’t necessarily have to participate, adhere to, and I’m more interested in what’s coming out from our own people.

Doris: After the break, we hear from our own people.


Doris: Welcome back to the Problems With Coming of Age.

A few months back, the production team went to Alega, a small village along the south coast of American Samoa.

Tisa Faamuli: I have a problem with the foreigners telling our story. Big problem with that because they’re not telling it from our eyes and our heart. Nobody ever interviews us and ask us our opinion of ourselves, our history, who we are.

Doris: Tisa Faamuli lives in Alega, a small village along the south coast of American Samoa. For her, Mead was never even on her radar. Nor Coming of Age in Samoa.

Tisa: We didn’t know then when the story is written, it’s going to be a permanent history that’s gonna define who we are forever and ever in the eyes of the scholars and all the people learning about culture. So this is why I can’t I, if I told, I really want us to tell our story because when we tell our story, we talk about things that are real.

Doris: Faamuli owns an oceanfront bar and eco-lodge where she serves a traditional Samoan feast cooked in an umu, a ground oven. Food is heated on volcanic rock and covered with banana leaves to trap the heat.

Tisa: I want nature to win, and that means I build my life around nature and not the other way around.

And if the time comes when nature wants me out of here, I’ll gladly leave.

Doris: Faamuli was born and raised in Alega. When her grandfather cut himself off from the village, it isolated Faamuli’s family from the larger community. She grew up working the land, removed from the rest of the village.

Then, after many years of living fairly isolated from everyday Samoan society, at age 45, she traveled to Savai’i, the largest island in the Samoan archipelago to visit with a friend of hers.

One night after dinner, she had an experience now seared into her memory.

Tisa: So, now we’re going for a walk in the evening, right? And I could not believe the kind of things that I was experiencing walking through the village.

Tisa + Tanya Catcalling in Samoan:

I mean, I’m walking with the girls and, “Hey, come on.” And they’re calling us. “Hey, come here, I want to do you. Hey, sweetheart. Let’s have sex. Come and kiss me. I love you.”

I mean, these were all thrown at me, and I was shocked. Because I never heard that before. So this fascinated me. Immediately it was like, whoa. So, I wonder, immediately I thought about Margaret Mead, I thought, I mean, that’s what happened. I started questioning all this controversy behind Margaret Mead because of what I was experiencing in the village. It was dark, and it felt really, it felt. I don’t know. It felt exciting because what other mischief is under there is the way I saw it, it’s like, Who is that? Where are they calling from? Oh, they’re under the bush. Oh my God. OK. I wonder what they look like?

You see? See, I mean all these things are going on in your mind when you’re a young person, and that was the moment I kept thinking about Margaret Mead, and I still think about it because that is a mystery I want to solve.

Is it really true? Did that really happen, or didn’t it happen? Who’s telling the truth here?

Doris: Faamuli says that in the West, this catcalling might seem like inappropriate harassment. But in that moment, for her, it cracked open an understanding of the cultural norms within her own community.

Tisa: And I didn’t feel offended by it. I was just fascinated with it. Because of Margaret Mead. And I’m trying to verify, is this what she meant? Did she feel this way? And she was there by herself!

Doris: Mead’s family wasn’t there, and her friends didn’t join her either.

Tisa: She had no one to go and run and hide. Oh my God. She had no one.


Doris: As someone who’s spent my life split between living inside and outside of Samoa, I can say that this type of playfulness among Samoans is common.

Of course, men in many places can act like fools in certain situations around their friends, catcalling pretty women on the street.

But Samoans view sex differently than Americans. Culturally, they don’t discuss matters of sex out in the open. And suffice to say, the musings of Mead didn’t capture or emphasize the importance of these ideals within Samoan society.

This is yet another reason why Mead’s interpretation of adolescence could have been deeply misunderstood.

Pati Saliga: She explained how Samoan girls were treated like that back then.

Doris: I had the chance to speak with Albert “Pati” Saliga, a cousin of the novelist Sia Figiel. His family opened their beautiful, warm home, and the pleasant aroma of his wife’s cooking floated through the air.

Pati: You know, right or wrong, I mean, Samoan girls, they just had fun. I mean, you know what it’s like when you guys talk about a boy and stuff like that. Yeah. “He’s so beautiful. He’s got a nice ass.” [laughing] Yeah, isn’t he cute? You know, that kind of thing. You know, it’s the same thing as what the Samoans went through, except it’s a different language. And people are people all over.

Doris: Saliga had his first encounter with Mead much like myself, outside of Samoa when he was in high school in Carson, California.

One day, upon receiving an anthropology assignment, he flipped through the pages of Coming of Age in Samoa from his family library for the very first time. And Saliga came to his own conclusion.

Pati: Nobody’s correct all the time, so we just gotta take the historical part of what it is because it’s history. I mean, how can you destroy history? Something that, you know, somebody has written about Samoa, let’s go with it. Let’s go with the history that’s been written. Right or wrong, you know, I didn’t find Margaret Mead very offensive, but my grandma did. [laughs]

Doris: Why is that? Why do you think your grandma found it offensive?

Pati: Well, my grandma was uh, she was a pastor’s daughter, and they were pastors in Olosega. And they traveled from Olosega to Ta’u most of the time, and, you know, when they hear about what Margaret Mead was asking about—mostly sexual stuff like that—you know, and they go, you know, that girl, [speaking in Samoan] “that girl, that lady’s so stupid asking those types of questions, you know, you’re not supposed to say those types of things. We’re young girls, young ladies,” but that’s how she seemed to address the whole issue of Margaret Mead.

I think that’s how she looked at it, but I didn’t have any qualms about that. It was like, God, this lady talks about asking sexual questions about this. This is really fun. [laughs] This is interesting. So that’s how I took it.

Doris: Do you remember being happy, mad? Like, what was your memory of it? And did you have conversations?

Pati: Yes, because it was me, me and my sister were in the same grade because we were introduced in the same school at the same time. So, when the teacher gave us the assignments, we went home, and we looked all over my dad’s books, you know, and we found it, and we talked about it, and we read a little bit about it, and we started laughing. We weren’t even mad about it. It was a funny, funny reaction to it because, I mean, to think about it, Samoans are weird people [laughs], especially when a pālagi person comes from the U.S. or comes to study Samoan’s way of life, you know, of course they’re gonna say something truthful, but then they’ll always make fun of, that’s, say [in Samoan], you know, “Let’s tell ’em a little, a little lie” or something like that to spice in the whole conversation.


Doris: I think I felt the same way when I read Coming of Age in Samoa at 15. I know our Samoan sense of humor. It’s one of the ways we deal with awkward or uncomfortable topics.

And I, too, wonder if that’s what the informants in Mead’s book were doing: “Oh, let’s trick this pālagi lady that’s coming and give her some kind of craziness!”

To Samoans, these kinds of jokes about sex are ridiculous because they’re so outrageous and far from reality. What happened behind closed doors was your own business, and if it violated any cultural norms, it wasn’t appropriate to talk about in public.

So, for an anthropologist like Mead stepping in from the outside, she may have been blind to the playful dynamics that exist within Samoan society.

Pati: Oh sure, I remember when I was young living in this village, I mean this is a new house, but we had an older house. So, we had a pālagi kid that lived the next corner down there, his name was Ralph. And Ralph was, his dad was pālagi. Mom was Samoan. But he found out or he learned how to speak Samoan a little bit.

Of course, he learned Samoan, but, you know, us Samoan kids, we still made fun of poor Ralph and talked behind his back and stuff like that. So, when Ralph always come around, me and my brothers, we’d make stories up and tell Ralph stuff like that.

Doris: Saliga and his friends would make up little lies to mess around with him. Not an uncommon joke among Samoans too. In this instance, “Ralph, there’s a girl that likes you, and she wants your number!”

What Ralph, Mead, and other pālagis didn’t fully grasp is that context is key.

It’s not that Mead was the butt of the joke, but rather in the mix of regular teasing and joking. And all those jokes may have flown over her head.

But, understanding and settling into a new place or culture, even to this day, requires nuanced communication and cross-cultural engagement.

Pati: And Ralph would go look, he’d come back, he’d go [in Samoan], “See, you guys lie all the time!” And we’d go, “No, we didn’t lie to you, Ralph.” But that’s how I perceived the conversation that Margaret got to hear from some of the girls, you know, it wasn’t everything truthful. It was a little bit, “Oh yeah, I met my boyfriend last night. We had great sex.” [laughs] That kind of thing, you know. I think old Margaret got taken a little bit. Yeah, poor lady. [laughs]


Doris: Peta Si’ulepa, Tisa Faamuli, and Albert “Pati” Siliga—they all swirl in my head.

Maybe there’s something deeply offensive in Mead’s writings about the notion that young women here indulged in promiscuous behavior—all without the comprehensive understanding of Samoan culture at that time.

This culture I grew up in, where crude comments are commonplace, sarcasm is a kind of endearment, and jokes are made to cover up awkwardness, makes me wonder:

Did any of those young women from Ta’u feel uncomfortable with Mead’s poking and prodding? How did that affect the accuracy of her research?

Did those girls respond the way they did because they were on edge?

Did they make jokes at the pālagi woman’s expense?

We may never know. But Mead’s ethnography of the young girls here informed the research in her book Coming of Age in Samoa and much of the world’s understanding of Samoan culture. An understanding that became the cornerstone of a loud academic critique championed by an anthropologist born in New Zealand named Derek Freeman. A brazen critique intended to undercut Margaret Mead and destroy her legacy.

That’s next time on The Problems With Coming of Age.

[theme music]

Doris: We dedicate this episode to “Pati” Saliga, who recently passed. We interviewed him in Fagaitua, and his infectious laugh and kindness will be greatly missed.

Kate: 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: SAPIENS.org/podcast.

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.

From SAPIENS, we were supported by Chip Colwell, Tanya Volentras, Esteban Gómez, 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.

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.

Doris: I’m Doris Tulifau.

Kate: And I’m Kate Ellis.


You may republish this article, either online and/or in print, under the Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 license. We ask that you follow these simple guidelines to comply with the requirements of the license.

In short, you may not make edits beyond minor stylistic changes, and you must credit the author and note that the article was originally published on SAPIENS.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.


We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?

This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.