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Samoan Americans at a Crossroads

Culture: Young descendants of islanders say they want to achieve the American dream but stay true to their past.

April 14, 2000|JESSICA GARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tuni Simi hesitates only a bit before asserting that, no, he is not afraid to leave his tightknit Samoan community in Carson and go off to San Diego State on a full football scholarship next fall.

Part of the reason he wants to leave, he said, is to shatter the stereotypes about Samoans that constrain many friends and relatives.

"A lot of people think we're just big dumb guys who aren't that smart and only know how to play sports and be in gangs," said Simi, 17, a senior at Carson High School. "But to be Samoan means being strong. And being intelligent. And it means celebrating your culture and your family and church."

That kind of talk is exactly what leaders of the Samoan population in Southern California--the largest such community in the nation--want to hear. For too long, they lament, too many of their children failed to graduate from high school and grab a solid piece of the American dream, and instead were drawn into low-paying jobs and gangs.

Today, Samoan chiefs and pastors want to show the world the positive side of Samoan culture represented by young people like Simi, who not only gets good grades and plays football, but also speaks Samoan and leads the school's Samoan club.

From across the South Bay and Long Beach, more than a thousand Samoan American young people are expected to converge at Los Angeles Harbor College this morning for an advance celebration of Samoan Flag Day. The event will have a special emphasis on education and civic involvement.

Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the day U.S. Navy officials raised the flag above the harbor in Pago Pago and declared Eastern Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific, a United States colony.

Unlike most South Pacific peoples colonized by European and American powers, many Samoans in California say, their ancestors did not strongly resent the presence of the United States government. Americans brought money, technology and education to what has since become a U.S. territory, and kept the native system of local chiefs, community leaders say.

Ever since, Flag Day has been a time for Samoans in their homeland and in California to celebrate allegiance to both the U.S. government and Samoan culture.

There are more than 50,000 Samoans in Los Angeles County--about equal to the entire population of American Samoa, said June Pouesi, director of the National Office of Samoan Affairs, a social service agency in Carson.

But if more Somoan young people are to become successful in America, the meaning of Flag Day--and by extension, what it means to be Samoan American--has to change, cultural leaders insist.

"We want to move from Flag Day as a day of Samoan culture into teaching our teenagers how to better their communities and themselves," said the Rev. Malaki Tauiliili, who was raised in Carson and attended Harvard Divinity School. Following in his father's footsteps, he now heads one of the largest Samoan Christian churches in Carson.

That's why, in addition to traditional dances, organizers of this year's Flag Day celebration for the first time will stress the importance of education and the need to register to vote. And that's why they are holding the Flag Day celebration on the campus of a local community college, said organizer Christopher Tiuli Ma'alona, a student at Harbor College.

Though they may speak Samoan, clean their houses with traditional brooms called salus and spend their Sundays serving their matais, or chiefs, traditional drinks, many California-born Samoan Americans have never been to the islands.

"These kids are Californians, and they need to be fully involved and indoctrinated in an American lifestyle," Tauiliili said.

It's been almost 50 years since the "Great Migration," when the Navy closed its base in Pago Pago harbor and invited 1,000 Samoans with military-related jobs to come to the United States and continue to work with the Navy. After stopping for a time in Hawaii, many Samoans settled in what was then unincorporated Carson because land was cheaper than in nearby Long Beach or San Pedro.

In the years since, pulled by the promise of a better life, thousands more have followed. To a remarkable degree, Samoans have held onto their 4,000-year-old traditions, anthropologists say.

"This is a culture that is very committed to the preservation of their language and traditions at all costs," said Robert Franco, an anthropologist at Kapi'Olani Community College in Honolulu. "There's tremendous struggles in that adaptation."

Some signs of that struggle can be seen in the relatively high dropout rates at local schools, in the number of young people who join gangs, and in the low income among some Samoan families, said Pouesi of the National Office of Samoan Affairs.

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