Samoan Community (Seattle)

  • By Kathleen Kemezis
  • Posted 11/29/2010
  • Essay 9646
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The first wave of Samoan immigrants arrived in Seattle after World War II. Many new arrivals had worked on the naval base in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, which closed with the end of the war. Later immigrants joined established family members for better educational and occupational opportunities. The early immigrants to the region set up churches, often along family lines, which provided support and maintained cultural traditions for the growing community. Samoan activists and leaders created programs and community centers both to honor and preserve Samoan culture and to fight ongoing issues of unemployment, poverty, crime, and high dropout rates among Samoan youth, in part due to lack of English-language training for Samoan speakers. The Seattle Samoan Center and the Samoan Educational Task Force were both founded in the 1970s, and the first Parent Teacher Student Association chapter for Samoans and Pacific Islanders was formed in 2000. The community prizes its athletes and comes out in force to support the Samoan Cricket League.  In 1993 the first "Aso Mo Samoa" or Samoan Community Day celebrated Samoan culture with folk dances, singing, island food, traditional costumes and ceremonies, and a cricket tournament. This resilient and passionate community survived neglect from the municipal government and internal disunity to emerge as a vibrant ethnic community in southeast Seattle and West Seattle. By the year 2000 some 8,000 Samoan Americans lived in Washington state, with 80 percent residing in King and Pierce counties.



National Background  

Starting in the 1870s, the Samoan Islands, a cluster of 15 islands about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, garnered attention from the colonial forces of Britian, Germany, and America.  With the death of the king of Samoa in 1889, the different countries backed their candidates for leadership over the islands and instigated military bombardments to install their candidate. By 1899, the American and English candidate for Samoan leadership, Malietoa Tanu, received the surrender of the German candidate, Mataafa.  Finally, an international commission gave America the title to the six easternmost islands in exchange for military protection.  Germany received the western islands; however, they lost possession during World War I, and these islands finally became the independent country of Samoa in 1997.

By 1900 the United States Navy had taken over governance of the islands, and Pago Pago on the island of Tutiula became the capital of the territory and the center of coaling operations. Over time the naval base supplemented the local mining and fishing industries, and eventually its operations became integral to the economy of American Samoa, especially during World War II. As the war broke out in the Pacific arena, the base swelled in operations and transformed the city of Pago Pago with new infrastructure. 

On July 1, 1951, the Department of the Interior took over governance of American Samoa, and it remains an American territory today with 65,500 people. Territorial status gives American Samoans the freedom to live and work as nationals in any state, but they cannot vote in presidential elections.

The decommissioning of the naval base at Pago Pago in 1951 brought Samoan servicemen and administrative workers to the Pacific Northwest to work at Fort Lewis. After their tour of duty, many of these servicemen and their families moved to Seattle to settle down. During the early 1950s, 15 households of Samoans lived in the Seattle area; these families settled near Brighton Beach, in Columbia City, and in West Seattle.

Family and Hospitality

The Samoan culture centers on the family; this family focus has contributed significantly to the niche Samoans have created in the city, their internal organization, and their relationship with other populations.  Households include the aiga, a family including more than one generation and any family members or friends temporarily in need of support; a chief, or matai, acted as the head of the family and the traditional leader of the village in Samoa.  The matai gathered resources for the family, handled family business, and acted as a model for younger generations. These communal living arrangements and traditions of gracious hospitality to community members mark the Samoan culture and reflect traditional beliefs.  These practices extend from a legend of the Samoan people developing from one family, a man and his wife who populated the Samoan Islands with their children. This legend has enshrined the concept of family and hospitality into the Samoan culture.

A Seattle couple experienced this hospitality first hand. In 1961, the couple adopted a young Samoan girl, and in return, the Samoan community of Seattle felt the need to reach out to the new arrival and “adopted” the couple (“Nationality Groups are Vital Segments...").  Community members prepared a large feast, fia fia, to celebrate this “family” event.  The fia fia and other ceremonies also celebrated the designation of new leaders in the Samoan community.

Pulling Together as a Community 

In American Samoa, the London Missionary Society (Congregational Christian Church) evangelized the islands during the 1830s, and other missionaries including Catholic, Methodist, and Mormon soon followed. The Samoan people developed a strong Christian faith and loyalty to their church, and in at least one case, nearly a whole congregation, all of whom were from the same family, moved to Seattle to join relatives in the area. In 1964 the Seattle Samoan Congregational Church opened near Brighton southeast of the city. Reverend Folasa Titialii and his wife Ave established the church and pioneered its move in the late 1970s.  By 1975, cultural institutions, including three more Protestant churches and two civic organizations,  emerged and helped to build a stronger network for the Samoan community.  

Due to the tendency for one or more families to make up early Seattle congregations, attending services and events reinforced the focus on family and traditional values.  In Seattle, loyalty to a church complemented the traditional matai system of the islands, and church events became family events, pulling everyone together.  The church created a new form for the traditional hierarchy of elders of Samoan villages, and this translation helped to reinforce loyalty and support to the community.  The early churches also held events such as dances and concerts, to raise money for distribution as loans or gifts to members of the congregation in need. 

One civic organization, the Samoan Community of Puget Sound sponsored annual dances during the 1960s and 1970s to raise money for its scholarship fund as well as for any other cause that needed support. In 1974, the club raised money for the survivors of a fire at the Samoan Benevolent Catholic Society in San Francisco.  In addition to raising money, press coverage of these events gave the Seattle population some insight into Samoan culture.  This insight however did not provide much depth.  Genuine focus by city and its press on the many issues and different faces of the Samoan population did not occur until the 1970s. 

Setbacks and Difficulties


By 1975, the 10-15 Seattle-area households had grown to 595 people, according to researcher Lydia Kotchek.  Despite the growing Samoan population, new arrivals faced ignorance and neglect from the city government.  Not until the end of the 1970s did the city government take into account the unique cultural make up (and therefore needs) of the Samoan people.  Prior to this realization, the city government simply lumped Samoan Americans with the larger Asian community.  

For adults, city-sponsored English language courses, even those targeted at Asian populations, did not provide a Samoan-speaking teacher and thus proved useless to the immigrants.  In an article focusing on the condition of Samoans in Seattle, Lynn Kruse, a young Samoan American, pointed to the language barrier as the main reason half the Samoan population at the time lived in public housing and enrolled in welfare in 1973. She argued that it was not lack of skill or knowledge that held back Samoan workers from skilled work but rather the inability to fill out applications and to succeed in interviews. Despite coming from an American territory, Samoans often spoke little to no English, and bilingual classrooms did not exist during the 1950s and 1960s.  This meant many Samoan children sat in a classroom day after day but did not understand the lessons. Children lacked resources in school and many came home to parents who spoke only Samoan and who insisted on maintaining their cultural identity.

Samoans lived in separated groups that centered on separate congregations and evolved into a less connected community. In 1980 David Berrian conducted a needs assessment for the city of Seattle and reported that community leaders lamented the lack of unity of the Samoan population. They thought the disunity and lack of strong leadership fed the poverty and unemployment that plagued the migrant community. Although some Samoan families became prosperous, many lived in public housing.  In the late 1970s, 55 Samoan American families lived in High Point (West Seattle), Rainier Vista, and Holly Park. At the time, the city of Seattle was only beginning to recognize the failure of social services to improve the lives of Samoan migrants.  The study in itself represented a lack of knowledge about the needs of a community.

Samoan Americans had difficulty entering the American work force for cultural reasons as well.  The traditional focus on family and community, where there is more honor in personal sacrifice and hospitality, could conflict with the American tradition of individualism and high valuation of personal success. In a workshop sponsored by the Employment Opportunities Center (EOC) of Seattle, the Samoan presenters emphasized the “traditionalism” of the Samoan population to representatives of local companies; Puaseiesi Mika noted that this traditionalism could inhibit job-hunting since “’selling oneself’ is culturally-inappropriate” (Hai-Jew, 6). The presenters recognized the need for Samoans to compromise their values at times to fit into the mainstream of Seattle.

Despite these barriers, the newly arriving migrants could rely on the malaga tradition and support system to help settle in Seattle.  Through these family connections, Samoan adults who lacked translatable skills found work in the steel mills, lumber mills, or as maids or janitors.  

During the 1970s, organizations and groups like the Seattle Samoan Center emerged to energize and help the community overcome cultural barriers. Esteemed educator Betty Patu and Peter Talaga opened the center in 1973. They rented space at the El Centro de La Raza on Beacon Hill and gained the support of Roberto Maestas (1938-2010). The center provided programs for the elderly, job training, and lunch for low-income individuals.  In the late 1970s it moved to its own space in southeast Seattle.  Programs included homework assistance, Samoan volleyball, daycare, a food bank, and a drivers' license training program for high school students. It also  provided classes in Polynesian culture and languages.  

Language, Culture, and Education

As the Samoan population has grown in Seattle, a constant concern for the education of migrant children and high schoolers has reverberated through the community.  Due to the difference in curricula in Samoa as well as the language barrier, Samoan students faced a severe disadvantage.  High drop-out rates, poor performance, and neglect from educators and school administrators have resulted in the Samoan population viewing education as a top concern. According to community member Lydia Kruse, few occasions elicit more pride among Samoans than a student’s graduation from high school or college. Over the years, this priority has resulted in a number of community-organized initiatives, programs, and events to help Samoans assimilate into the school system.

During the first decades, Samoan churches provided tutoring and language programs for struggling students, but in 1972, the Samoan Intervention Services Program garnered money from the city of Seattle. Within in a few years, this program had become part of the Seattle Public Schools’ administration, at a time when the number of Samoan students in the system totaled 258. Through the mid 1970s, community activists formed after school programs to fight high numbers of dropouts and as well as a successful Samoan Bilingual program formed by Betty Patu.  

In addition to helping the students, some of these programs, like the Samoan Educational Task Force, worked to educate teachers on the particular needs of the children. At the time of its establishment in 1977, this group of concern citizens conveyed to educators the communal focus of Samoan culture and successful styles for teaching Samoan students. The Samoan Educational Task Force garnered advocates in the Seattle Public School system, which resulted in the hiring of Samoan tutors.  

In 2000, the first Parent Teacher Student Association chapter for Samoans and Pacific Islanders formed from a group of parents; the high number of dropouts and the low mean grade-point average spurred these parents to fight back with organization, which helps bring awareness to the issues of these students. In addition, these groups and initiatives present Samoans as a community having a unique culture with particular needs and strengths.  

Another set of issues developed among teenagers who became disillusioned with the traditional culture. As new arrivals and those born here adapted to American culture, the traditional social system of the Samoan Islands lost potency. Younger generations' respect for the system of their elders waned under the appeal of the American way, which included more independence from the decisions of elders. Instances of corruption and financial mismanagement by chiefs further damaged the younger generation’s faith in the traditional system.  In addition, according to anthropologist Beth McGrath, some older Samoans spoke poorly of young Samoans' seeming lack of respect or even knowledge of traditional ceremonies and ways.  

The dilemma of young Samoan Americans in Seattle reached its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the emergence and more awareness of gangs. Although  Samoans seemed to form more social gangs, a few individuals became members of the violent interethnic gangs of Seattle. The adult community split over the correct intervention for getting young dropouts off the streets and back into school.  Many chiefs at the time thought more rigorous teaching in the traditional Samoan values and culture could combat the issues; other members of the community  favored a more flexible approach that tackled the unique issues of young adults straddling two different cultures. 

As the Seattle school system became more attune to the Samoan population, groups like the South Pacific Islander Dropout Program worked to curtail the high dropout rate.  Formed in 1988 by community leader Betty Patu and others with a $38,000 federal grant, this program originally focused on the students on Rainier Beach High School but has grown to serve at least 300 graduates a year of Seattle high schools.  According to Patu, this program worked because it helps the students through a family style approach where “everyone supports one another” (Tabafunda).   

Another program, Leo O Tupulaga Samoa (LOTS) sees institutionalized prejudice in the school system and fights to reduce the high dropout rate for all ethnic groups.  Originally started by parents in 1999, the program encourages students and parents to affirm their cultural identity and works in partnership with other organizations to reinforce social networks. Samoans students remain a population in need of help with a mean grade point average of 2.36 across the Seattle school system in 2004. The support system created by LOTS helps to keep students engaged and in school. 

Pride in the Samoan Way


The 1990 census counted more than 2,000 Samoan Americans living in Seattle. By 2000, 8,049 Samoan Americans lived in Washington state with 80 percent living in King and Pierce counties. Despite the challenges, the Samoan population remains devoted to its heritage. Samoan churches in Seattle, now over dozen in number, provide a space for instilling traditional Samoan values into children and reinforcing them in the scattered population. Whereas frequent family events traditionally introduced this education, the church has become an institution for pulling families together and instilling Samoan culture. As the congregations complemented the traditional matai system, churches events became the space for teaching the Samoan values of family and community to the younger generations.  

Other Samoan traditions have also found room to grow in American society. Samoan culture appreciates athletics as venues for family events and opportunities for personal growth and success.  Many Seattle Samoans have become respected athletes in boxing, football, soccer, and cricket. Some of these athletes have become community leaders and role models for Samoan and American children.  

Frank Talaga rose to the top of featherweight boxing in the 1950s and later served on the board of the Samoan Community of Puget Sound organization.  Originally from the island of Tutuili in American Samoa, Jack Thompson Jr. became a favorite of reporters while he played quarterback for Washington State University and later for the Cincinnati Bengals (1979-1982) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1982-1984).  

In 1986, the Samoan Cricket League made an institution out of a cherished pastime of the Samoan community. Originally with four teams, the league played at Genesee Field before moving to the playfield behind Asa Mercer Middle School.  Days at the pitch brought families together to cheer, dance, and catch up with each other.  Lasting all day long, four or five teams would compete playing a specifically Samoan form of the originally Western game. Additionally, as community member Fagalima Skillion points out “It’s a very, very important sport. It’s a cultural sport that makes Samoans different from all the Polynesians, what makes us stand out. And we want to keep it alive for us and our people. It’s a sport that brings us together” (Le).  These games provide another opportunity for younger Samoans to learn from the traditional Samoan value system. 

During the 1990s, increased funding and interest in community-sponsored initiatives sparked a number of community-activist organizations and groups in Southeast Seattle. The Samoan American population took the opportunity to assert their cultural presence. In 1993, the first Samoan Community Day or “Aso Mo Samoa” celebrated the Samoan culture; the annual event also commemorates American Samoa as a territory of the United States and the transfer of possession of the land in 1899.  Aso Mo Samoa includes folk dancing and singing, traditional costumes and ceremonies, island food, and a cricket tournament.

During the past decade, the area around White Center has emerged as a vibrant, growing community with an active Samoan population.  One count estimated Samoans made up 2.5 percent of the 22,000 residents, and the White Center Assembly of God especially supports social services to reach out to the community.  The PASEFIKA organization associated with the church provides a food bank, tutoring, and other programs and sponsors communitywide events to promote cultural awareness.  The organization also represents the strengthening bond between Samoan and other Pacific Islander communities and their growing cultural presence in Seattle.


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