Matai is the Samoan word for leader, or chief, or even (in the poetic sense) father. Samoan society is organized by family, and each family has its own matai titles, which are connected to certain districts, villages and plots of family land.
And that was the short version of this story.
In reality, Samoa’s matai system is intricate and complicated, and I’m taking on the highly ambitious endeavour of breaking it down for you here. Let’s start with the big picture.
Where did Matai come from?
In the beginning, Samoa was populated by only a few families – today we count 16 of them and we call them ‘Aiga Tupu’, or royal families. Each of these families were named after their leader and inhabited different parts of Samoa. For example, a person named Alaiasa was the head of one of these founding families, which populated areas in the eastern region of Upolu. We now call this extended family Sa’alaiasa, that is:
‘Sa’ (meaning ‘sacred’ or ‘royal’) + ‘Alaiasa’
Over time, areas of Samoa separated into districts and villages, and leaders of these divisions were honored with their own matai titles, many of which were named after significant events in history, or to acknowledge a service rendered, or to pass on a morsel of Samoan wisdom. For example, a prominent title from the Upolu village Manono is Lei’ataua.
Ok, I confess. I don’t really know the story behind that title (even though it’s in my family, shame on me), but its literal translation is:
Le = The + I’a = fish + Taua = War
(as in ‘The fish of war’ not ‘The war of fish‘)
… AND Manono is known for its prominent involvement in several vicious wars in the old days, so you can see how this title most likely commemorates an event in this village’s history.
Roles and Responsibilities
Matai titles were further classified by their roles in relationship to other titles in a family.
Ali’i is the name we give to the highest title in a family. Those who hold an Ali’i title are known as ‘sitting chiefs’, because they usually don’t say much at council meetings. They will oversee proceedings, make the final, important decisions (after consulting with other matai) and pass their instructions along in whispers to lower ranking, talking chiefs.
Tulafale is what we call these mouthpieces of the Ali’i. They are expected to be skilled in the art of lauga (oration), and for their eloquence at village and family gatherings, they are often highly rewarded in terms of money, fine mats and perishable goods.
Traditionally, matai are men, but women are not without a voice. A title with almost the same clout as the Ali’i is the Taupou. To be a Taupou, this lady must be connected to the family or village by blood (not marriage) and must be a daughter of an Ali’i. To be the official Taupou of the village, and therefore the head of its Nu’u o Tama’ita’i (all the women born into this village) she must be the daughter of the highest ranking Ali’i in that village.
On top of helping to make decisions for the family (and village), those who hold these titles are seen as spiritual and temporal caretakers of all who fall under their authority. In other words, a GOOD matai will run a self-sufficient, well-nourished, happy family / village, but all matai better have extra padding in their pockets to feed people. And donate to weddings and funerals. And buy gifts for other villages when they go to visit. So much more.
Ranking of the Matai
So. Every Ali’i title is connected to a specific Tulafale title and a specific Taupou title. For example, the Ali’i title Ilimatogafau ‘owns’ the Tulafale title Fa’ifa’imea and the Taupou title Taimalietane… as in, these are the governing titles of one extended family.
Whether or not this family and its trio of titles gets to govern an entire village will depend on how this family ranks against the other families in the village, or the answers to all of the following questions:
Which family arrived in the village first?
Which family can trace its bloodlines to more royal forefathers?
Which family is connected to more high ranking titles?
Which family has a better Tulafale? (As in, you want to control the village? You better have a quick thinking orator who can convince everybody your family is the chosen one.)
How much of the village land is connected to your family’s titles?
What does the Land & Titles court think about all this?
As you can see, village politics can get pretty… messy. And hurtful. And sometimes a little dangerous, especially when more than one family has decided – and don’t try to tell them otherwise – that they rank the highest.
Naming a Matai Successor
Wanna see something even MORE complicated? Watch an extended family try to decide whose turn it is to carry their own governing titles. For example, let’s say your grandfather held the Ali’i title and your father was his Tulafale. Then, sadly, your grandfather passes away. Who’s going to carry that Ali’i title now?
Well let’s look at all the people who are entitled to put their names forward for that title – we call them ‘suli’. Every single man (and these days, woman) who is connected by blood to your grandfather – and we’re talking second and third cousins even – is a suli. Now it becomes a matter of campaign.
Your grandfather’s second cousin might want to be the next Ali’i, so he’ll gather all the elders and matai of his family to put forward his name. Then what if your father thinks, ‘No. I want my son to carry the title mostly because his grandfather loved him best, and just a little bit so that we can keep control of all the family land’.
This triggers a series of highly charged, often tearful exchanges amongst the extended family – preferably in organized meetings – to decide who is more deserving of the Ali’i title, and I’m getting a little exhausted just thinking about all the possible drama. We’d be here all week if I started telling you the stories I’ve heard.
But remember. Every individual is connected to at least 4 extended families. So you are potentially the suli to at least 4 different sets of titles in usually 4 different villages.
In addition to main titles – the Ali’i, Tulafale and Taupou – many families have lots of other matai titles. Where do they come from? Well, history mostly.
Say for example a family’s Ali’i title is ‘Superman’. Superman’s great grandfather may have married into the family and brought with him the title ‘Batman’ from another village. Batman is also an Ali’i title, but because it didn’t originate in Superman’s family, generations later it is considered to be a lot lower in rank than the title Superman. Batman will still be bestowed on someone in the Superman family, though, along with as many other titles they can prove their right to, of course, because the more titles a family has, the higher they rank against other families.
And I think I’ll leave my slightly cynical description of the Samoan matai system there. The only point I really wanted to make is that most people hear the word ‘chief’ and think ‘the boss’ or ‘royalty’. It’s not quite like that in the Fa’asamoa.
While it is very honorable to become a matai, the role is based more on service than it is on prestige. It’s more about representing your family in village affairs than it is about ordering people around. It’s about fitting into a communal governance system rather than being ‘the boss’.
Despite its complexities and all the potential drama, in the right spirit of love and nurture, our complicated matai system really is a beautiful thing. Honestly.