Samoan Diaspora: Millennial Thoughts On Heritage
What Does Diaspora Mean, Anyway?
Diaspora refers to the scattered population of any ethnic group that has settled away from its ancestral, indigenous homeland. In recent years, the term, diaspora, has taken over pop culture. Netflix’s exceptional hit, She’s Gotta Have It, dedicates an entire art show and many episodes of discussion to the African diaspora. The Black Diaspora Project connects millennials with the music and current events of African descendants around the world. Even mainstream news and journalism organizations like CNN and The Economist use the term regularly in articles. People around the world are finally acknowledging and giving voice to displaced and marginalized communities everywhere.
Samoans are a Polynesian ethnic group native to the Samoan islands in the South Pacific. They speak Samoan, a language unique to the archipelago. Due to unfortunate white colonization and greed, Samoa was divided in two (Samoa and American Samoa); however, both maintain the same culture and language. Samoa is known as the Cradle of Polynesia because indigenous peoples from Samoa gradually voyaged across the islands of the South Pacific and populated Polynesia.
For at least 3000 years, the Samoan islands have been inhabited by the Pacific Islanders. They developed exceptional seafaring capabilities which led to the migration of many of their peoples. Perhaps this is the reason that the Samoan diaspora is twice as large as Samoa’s population, which is only about 190,000. These Samoans living abroad are a huge help to their families at home; it is extremely common for the members of the diaspora to send money back to their relatives to assist with household income.
The majority of the Samoan diaspora lives in metropolitan or urban areas within Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. California holds about one-third of the Samoans living in America. Long Beach holds the highest number of Samoans of all the cities on the mainland; however, this means that Samoans make only 1% of the city’s population.
Samoans are frequently called a minority within a minority. They are so few that they constitute very small numbers within positions of leadership or power. For example, there is only one Samoan-American in the U.S. Congress (and her name is Tulsi Gabbard, and she is amazing.) One of the only internationally-famous Samoans is celebrated actor Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock from his WWE days. Unfortunately, there remains an extremely limited representation of Samoans in American pop culture.
My Experience As A Millennial Samoan-American
I am the descendant of a long line of Samoan chiefs on my mother’s side, while my father and his side of the family comes from Australia as long as anyone can remember. I am also a first-generation American. This dichotomy between my Samoan self and American-self has sparked many struggles, but now, as an adult, I am endlessly thankful for the multicultural aspects of me.
I was raised predominantly by a single mother, who instilled in my brother and myself pride in our Polynesian heritage. From a young age, I recall my mother making traditional Samoan dishes and speaking to me in Samoan. It was very important to her that my brother and I were raised in the fa’a Samoan way, which means adhering to orthodox traditions. Some of these cultural customs include a deep respect for elders, reverence towards nature, and close familial ties that lead to an emphasis in collectivity.
Many of my Samoan relatives have migrated to New Zealand so my mother sent my brother and me there as often as she could afford while we were growing up. As the only Polynesian children in a predominantly white school and neighborhood, my brother and I found solace in these visits as we would be surrounded by kids who looked like us and shared our culture. We grew deep spiritual roots in New Zealand and developed ties with the people, land, and Samoan base out there.
As a teenager, I struggled with finding my identity as a mixed-race girl who turned out much lighter than her dark-skinned mother but who appreciated Samoan values that were oftentimes at odds with American ones. It was difficult to grow up in America with a mother who purposely hadn’t assimilated very well. On rare occasions, I identified more with American norms that Samoan ones and this felt like I was turning my back on my Samoan side. It felt very conflicting to occupy two worlds at once.
When you’re a member of the diaspora, there’s a certain loneliness and longing that’s attached to it. Feeling so distant – both physically and emotionally – from your culture and your people can take its toll. Luckily, I discovered that Polynesian dancing was a wonderful way to remain connected to my roots. I joined a renowned dance group, called a halau, and danced in many national competitions that brought thousands of Pacific Islanders together from across the world. In my free time, I offered free classes to little girls who wanted to learn Polynesian dancing as a way to spread awareness about my culture and give back to my community.
As an adult, I’ve come to embrace my identity as a member of the Samoan diaspora. Though I profoundly miss my family overseas, I enjoy discovering new methods to keep my culture vibrant and alive here in California. I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunities that America has afforded me, such as a world-class education and the American Dream. As I grow older, my ongoing project is finding ways to meaningfully contribute to the Samoan diaspora here in the U.S. so all Samoan-Americans experience the gratitude for twoness that I now enjoy.
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