S a m o a

The Heart of Polynesia

Paka o Amerika Samoa

                   

A third of our planet is Pacific Ocean. Away out in that undulating blueness, 2,600 miles south west of Hawaii, and 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand appear the islands of Samoa.

Samoa itself is said to mean “sacred centre”. It is an archipelago strung along an east-west axis roughly 14 degrees south of the equator. According to geologists, the coral-fringed islands are the tops of volcanoes that rose from the sea floor, hissing and streaming lava as crustal plates shifted below. An older story is that this is where the world began as the creator, Tagaloalagi, first called forth earth, sea, and sky from rock. Then, the Samoan legend continues, he made the first human being.

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Anthropologists also view the Samoan Islands in terms of origins. Language links and artefacts suggest that the first distinctly Polynesian culture may have developed here some 3,000 years ago. Over the centuries that follow, seafarers in double-hulled sailing vessels stocked with pigs, dogs, and fruits spread that culture across much of the Pacific, colonizing points as distant as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.

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Pandanus leaves laid out to dry.

During the modern colonial era, the western end of the Samoan chain fell under German control, then New Zealand’s. In 1962, it became the Independent nation of Western Samoa now known simply as Samoa. The US took possession of the eastern half of the archipelago in 1900. Its largest island is Tutuila, where the navy maintained a base at Pago Pago Harbour until 1951. Sixty miles east rise Ofu, Olosega, and Ta’u, the islands collectively known as Manu’a, revered in legend as the birth place of Polynesia and long a powerful kingdom in its own right. Ofu, built of soaring black stone, it is robed in rainforest and further softened by summit mist from which waterfalls spill back down towards the sea.

       

Together with another small island and two coral atolls, Tutuila and the Manu’a group make up the US territory of American Samoa with a current population of about 64 thousand. Overseen by the Department of the Interior, the territory has its own legislature, an elected governor, and a nonvoting representative to the US Congress. Today, it also has a 10,500 acre national park, a quarter of which extends from the beaches out to sea. 

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Click on the above for a larger detailed map of Pago Pago harbour.

The United States only parkland in the Southern hemisphere was created to protect three kinds of communities under pressure from modern forces. First is the paleo-tropical rain forest, where the flora and fauna stem mainly from southeast Asia, forming habitats unique within the US park system. Second, is the Indo-Pacific coral reef, markedly richer in species than reefs in other ocean regions. Third, bound to both rainforest and reef, is the indigenous Polynesian culture.

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Ta’u is formed by the tallest peak in American Samoa, 3,170 foot Lata Mountain. The clouds that almost perpetually shroud the volcano’s heights may lose as much as 300 inches of rain yearly, while the sunlit lower slopes steam in green house profusion.

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The Samoan flying fox roost in profusion on these volcanoes. It is normally active during the day, soaring over the forest canopy like a hawk. Folktales cast these animals as guardians of the forest. Ecologically, they filled that role. The only land dwelling mammals other than the sheath-tailed bat to occur naturally in Samoa, they helped to maintain the woodlands by pollinating and distributing the seeds of a large proportion of the island’s vegetation.

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Although the park may be small by continental standards, its marine segments run along almost 15 per cent of American Samoa’s coastline while the land pieces add up to more than 16 per cent of the territory’s total land area of 77 square miles. Here on the island's steep slopes, the rainforest’s structure has remained largely intact – spared the logging and intensive agriculture that, in Samoa and other South Pacific Islands with more accessible terrain, have shed silt and aggro chemicals onto coral reefs offshore.

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The reef in the park along Ofu is a filigreed labyrinth of at least 64 different varieties of corals, from azure-tinged mushrooms to chartreuse vases. Boulder corals hundreds of years old bulge as big as whales. One type of staghorn coral resembles stalagmites rising from a tabletop.

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Children relaxing after church.

Thick-trunked futu, or fish poisoned trees, border the beach with sprays of big purplish, bat-pollinated flowers. Each flower blooms for a day and a night or two then drop loose. Villagers used to gather the fruits and mashed them together and cast the mixture into shallow waters to capture fish stunned by the poison. This is a place that one always dreamed of but have given up hope of ever finding. As long as this is a park, that kind of hope need never dim.

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  click here Jane's Samoa Home Page     
click here Jane's Oceania Home Page 

Jane Resture
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 16th January 2009)