It turns out that receiving a chief title, becoming a matai, is a much bigger deal than I thought. If you do not inherit your title, it takes years of community service before they even consider bestowing one on you. In fact, many Samoans are angry that Prince Charles received a title on a recent visit because he hadn’t really done anything for the country.
Well, luckily, the village council unanimously agreed to make me a chief. Actually, they decided on “high chief,” which puts me abovemost of them, and just below only two or three others in the village. My name, Tupua Tanu Samoa (“Tupua”), is one of the most revered in all of Samoa.
The ceremony itself is like graduation, prom, and bar mitzvah all in one—but without the commemorative yarmulkes. There are different stages throughout the afternoon, many traditions and rituals (yes, including drinking ava—“kava”), and three costume changes, speeches, eating, dancing, and gifts—from them to me, and from me to them.
It was a little frenetic getting ready—putting on the garb, getting oiled, and entering the fale—because we had had the canoe dedication earlier in the morning. Here’s what it was like:
Tuilagi helps me put on the special undergarments, which include my surf trunks and a “seat belt,” because he says that, during the dancing, the women might try to rip off my lavalava.
He hustles me from my room into the preparation hall and the first thing that happens is I am slathered in coconut oil by some young women.
Then, the matrons of the village—wives of the other matai—dress me in a fine-matt skirt, flowing lavalava, flower ula (necklace) and headdress.
All the women seem to be enjoying the spectacle of me in the garb.
When I arrive at the community fale with my entourage, everyone is already seated: high chiefs, retired reverends, honored guests, ava servers—and behind them, “untitled” people.
There are many speeches directed at me, and formal monologues directed at no one in particular.
An attendant collects ava sticks from the other high chiefs and presents them to me, then we all drink ava.
After some more speeches comes the food. You guessed it: taro, palusami, and breadfruit for me, but chicken, fish, pork, and other meaty specialties for the others.
Next, I am downloaded of the major regalia—made a little more comfortable—and the presentation of gifts begins.
Ulas, lavalavas, carved miniature canoes (one from an actual tree we cut down), hand-sewn “aloha” shirts, and other offerings from the villagers. Most gifts are for me, but some are for my parents—who, it is assumed in this culture, are responsible for all my actions. (How ‘bout in ours?)
As I am receiving the gifts, one of the other chiefs—someone I don’t really know that well—gets up and goes outside and starts shouting at the top of his lungs out over the bay. It’s almost like Tourettes. No one pays any attention, though. I think, Maybe this guy really doesn’t want me to be a matai and he is expressing his displeasure. Later, Tuilagi explains that it is part of the ceremony and that he was announcing to the other villages, the world, and the universe that there is a new matai in Matafa’a: Tupua Tanu Samoa!
Finally, the music starts and the dancing begins. First the women, who get me up and moving, then some of the younger “untitled” men. Although no one rips off my lavalava, or throws me in the bay, things get fun and everyone has a great time with me… Or everyone has a great time making fun of me.
The next day at the to’onai (the chiefs’ lunch), my seating assignment has changed—now, instead of sitting along the side with the other regular chiefs, I sit at the foot of the fale—directly across from Rev. Fepai—with the two other high chiefs. I really understand my new status when I am third to be served food.
Most people in the village now call me Tupua, and, in kind of sad twist, the younger men are more deferential—no longer the “Hey, Jon, where you go?” of the previous six weeks. But the little kids still gather around to say hi and hold my hand, and even call me plain old “palagi” when they get overly excited.