For more than 3,000 years, members of Polynesia's oldest culture have lived on the islands of American Samoa National Park. Samoa means "sacred earth," the name reflecting the belief of the people that the islands are a special place to be cherished and protected. In 1988, believing that their own ancient culture also needed protection, Samoan chiefs agreed to lease some of their territory to create a national park. Permanent leasing arrangements are still being worked out, and visitors must obtain permission to enter this relatively new and extremely unusual park.
One of the first things visitors notice about the Samoans are the detailed tattoos that snake from their waists down to their knees. Traditionally a rite of passage for boys, the tattooing is performed by the tufuga (tattooist) with a cutting tool, mallet, and ink made from the soot of burnt candlenut shells. The process may take a month or more and is done without the benefit of anesthesia, making it extremely painful. The resulting pe'a, or traditional tattoo, is quite intricate and from a distance gives the appearance of clothing because it is so heavily filled in. Women may also be tattooed, but theirs tend to be smaller.
The inhabitants of the Samoan islands are known as cheerful, good-natured people, and they are eager to welcome visitors into their midst. Travelers planning a visit to the American Samoa National Park should consider a home stay in one of the local villages, where they will be immersed in Samoan culture. At the same time, the fee for a home stay helps support the local economy. Visitors will spend their nights under a thatched roof in a traditional hut, or fale, and the locals will share their typical fare: coconuts, taro root, bananas, fish, and pork. Hosts also teach guests about Samoan customs, crafts, and lifestyle.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that the Samoans are Christians, a result of missionary presence in the 1600s. Every Sunday, church services are performed and a day of rest is observed. Predating the arrival of the missionaries, the Samoans continue to practice traditional dance and music ceremonies. These most often take place during a fiafia (traditional Samoan meal) and may include the fire dance or knife dance.
The Samoans fish for salmon, herring, and rollmop with poles and nets. At certain times of the year, they actually catch fish between their hands in palm leaves. The fish are marinated and served raw or cooked on stones around the embers of a dying fire. The Samoans also eat octopus, which they spear as they walk along the reef, and giant clams.
The American Samoan culture delights visitors with its unique conglomoration of old ways and new. The friendly people enhance the natural splendors of the islands, making the tropical reefs more enchanting and the volcanic mountains more magnificent. A trip to American Samoa National Park is truly an unforgettable experience.
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