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Taulasea And Cultural Continuity In Samoa


Nineteen ninety-nine was undoubtedly a year of great upheaval for Samoa. The political assassination of the Minister of Public Works, Luagalau Levaula Kamu, in a country that prides itself on its Christian heritage caused much pain, sorrow and confusion. While many Samoans cope with such confusion by relying on their deeply held Christian beliefs, negative emotions are also dealt with in traditional ways not so often reported by the press.

In every Samoan village a traditional healer quietly goes about her (and occasionally his) business of healing not only the physical, but also the psychological ailments inflicted by a society in transition. Taulasea, traditional healers who deal with psychological ailments, have a long history of activity in Samoa. Prior to the arrival of Christianity Samoan priests and priestesses communicated with the ancient deities and ancestors, healing both social and physical disease through advice and ministrations. Christianity demonized their function and offered men a leadership position in the new church. Women were not offered such leadership roles and continued their traditional healing outside the sphere of the church. It is quite likely that these women worked in secret. Since independence in the 1960's, however, there has been a resurgence of pride in things Samoan and this includes a new openness about ongoing traditional religious practices.

Samoans believe that people become possessed by either a spirit or an ancestor when some social convention has been violated. Samoa is in a state of transition now and more of the traditional social conventions are being violated every day. Changing dress codes, changing attitudes of the young, and challenges to the role of the elders and chiefs and diminishing adherence to family duties can all result in frustration and confusion, and, at times, possession.

The state of possession in Samoa is called mai aitu, or ghost sickness. If the country's transition from one of the most traditional societies in the Pacific to a `modern' nation state continues to be painful, increasing numbers of Samoans may seek the services of the taulasea. The key role of the taulasea is to establish both physical and mental harmony in their patients. Richard Goodman stated in "The Journal of the Polynesian Society" as far back as 1971 that "they explain the seemingly unexplainable, heal social rifts, facilitate confession of sins, rid people of antisocial feelings by allowing their expression, increase status temporarily and buttress conventional morality."

What is particularly interesting at present is the changing attitude of the Samoan churches. Although the last century and the first half of this one have seen missionary influence suppress traditional religious beliefs, today Samoa is both politically and religiously independent. This has meant that the traditional Congregational and Methodist churches are more inclined to be sympathetic towards traditional pre-Christian views and practices than in the past. Samoans who are active members of the various churches are now openly acknowledging that they visit traditional spirit healers. Taulasea themselves are quite likely to be active church members while simultaneously acting as mediums for pre-Christian deities and family ancestors.

It is difficult to envisage what will come from this recent accommodation of the Samoan pre-Christian and Christian heritages. One feature seems to be emerging, however; the improved status that traditional healing gives to women in the community, as they fill the vacuum created by the movement of men into leadership roles in the church, is undeniable. Unfortunately, Samoa has also experienced a backlash from the more fundamentalist churches. The Assembly of God, for example, state quite clearly that any form of pre-Christian religious practice is demonic and that the aitu are in fact demons. If the influence of these fundamentalist churches grows, the role of Samoan women as traditional healers of `spirit possession' will diminish and the healing from `demons' will move into the hands of male fundamentalist pastors.

Other growing religious groups such as the Mormons and the Baha'is tend to treat ghost sickness, and its related practices, as superstition rather than demonic and are therefore not actively working against the traditional practitioners.

If Samoa's cultural transition continues to be turbulent, the traditional healers may be the midwives who assist Samoans with the social birth pangs of life in the 21st Century.

Bibliography: Goodman Richard: 1971: Some Aitu Beliefs of Modern Samoans: The Journal of the Polynesian Society, No. 80.

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