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Dossier Filmer (dans) le Pacifique

Visual Anthropology and Intangible Cultural Heritage preservation in American Samoa

Anthropologie visuelle et préservation du patrimoine culturel immatériel dans les Samoa américaines
Micah Van der Ryn
p. 145-155


This article describes a pioneering initiative in applied visual anthropology which was undertaken in the 1990s in the United States Territory of American Samoa. In response to the perceived increasing Western media influence in the archipelago, filming skills were developed locally as an Indigenous intervention for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. In his role at the American Samoa Community College, the author was responsible for training Samoan students in the theory and practice of ethnography and visual anthropology. He collaborated with Samoan colleagues and students to identify and coordinate film projects and events that would contribute to the transmission of aspects of Samoan cultural heritage to the next generation. Through the description of several film projects, this work is conceptualized as an “indigenizing anthropology” effort towards the continuity of intangible cultural heritage in American Samoa.

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Author's notes

This paper expands upon a previous article entitled “Preservation through Visual Anthropology and Training: Case Study from American Samoa” (Van der Ryn, 2001) written only two years after beginning the position at ascc.

Full text


1Over the last three decades anthropology has seen the development of new efforts to decolonize and indigenize the discipline in ways that empowers Indigenous peoples and allows them to gain control over their own ethnographic representations. What gets represented, how it gets represented, for which audiences and for whose benefit are questions that have become central to anthropological research. This paper presents a study of one such pioneering effort undertaken in the United States Territory of American Samoa. This project concerned an applied program of oral history documentation and visual anthropology for the purpose of intangible cultural heritage education and preservation. I was professionally involved in this work from 1997 to 2013 while holding the position of ethnographer, anthropology instructor and media producer at the American Samoa Community College (ascc). The current paper reflects on the sixteen years of my work at ascc, during which I have been teaching, developing field schools and producing ethnographic media for classrooms, research and public broadcast. My purpose here is to share a few lessons that I learned with those interested in this effort towards the indigenization of anthropology, and particularly how these could be applied to visual anthropology. First, I will provide a brief sketch of the broader disciplinary movement towards indigenization in anthropology, then discuss the wider context in which the work was developed at ascc whose mission includes the local promotion of knowledge about Samoa and the Pacific. This context sets the stage for the description of three film projects, which were selected among more than thirty that were conducted during this period. The selected projects provide case studies which highlight the different types of use-values that local communities derive from video media, as well as from alternative research and production methodologies. They illustrate how American Samoans have made use of anthropological tools, in particular ethnographic filmmaking, as devices contributing to cultural heritage continuity and preservation. The three projects discussed are: The Oral History and Visual Anthropology Training Program, conducted in 1998, which established the ascc Ethnographic Media Laboratory; the making of the Malae: Sacred Ground documentary (1999); and finally, the documentary series Sailiiliga o Tala i Vavau o Samoa (In Search of Ancient Stories of Samoa) (2004-2008). Each project was undertaken with different ethnographic aims, calling for differentiated methodologies. They point to the original ways in which strategies for intangible cultural heritage education and preservation were devised in the early days of Indigenous filming in American Samoa, a place which, like others in Oceania and the rest of the world faces rapid sociocultural and technological change.

Decolonizing and Indigenizing Anthropology

2Anthropology primarily grew up as a Western discipline that involved people of Western cultures going out to study, document, interpret and represent “cultural others” through monographs, books and also films (and more recently videos). This paradigm was still dominant in the mid 1980s as reflected in George Marcus and Michael M. Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986), in which they summarize anthropology’s purpose as:

“to offer worthwhile and interesting critiques of our society; to enlighten us about other human possibilities, engendering an awareness that we are merely one pattern among many; to make accessible the normally unexamined assumptions by which we operate and through which we encounter members of other cultures.” (p. ix)

3Marcus and Fischer’s use of the word “society” (as opposed to the plural “societies”) as well as their use of the pronouns “our”, “us”, and “we”, all imply that they are talking about Westerners as practicing anthropologists and a singular Western society. The sentence reflects the state of anthropology at that time, as an exclusive Western intellectual enterprise invented by Westerners for Western cultural benefit. One of those benefits, as Marcus and Fischer’s book’s title (Anthropology as Cultural Critique) suggests, was anthropology’s role as a means and resource for cultural critique whereby the study of “cultural others” had become viewed as a modus operandi to bring about positive cultural developments in a singular “Western society”. Ethnographic film and visual anthropology were viewed as one of the methods for reaching and delivering this goal. Ironically, as suggested by the assumed use of the pronouns in the quoted sentence, Anthropology as Cultural Critique does not question nor critique this very paradigm of Western exclusivity of which it was a part.

  • 1 The Samoan Islands represent an emblematic case that gave rise to the famous controversy between Ma (...)

4Over the past three decades, much of the anthropological enterprise has been critiqued, evaluated and valued in new ways, as questions arose about how colonial contexts shaped the enterprise, how Western theoretical frameworks and assumptions biased resulting cultural representations, and about how the intended audiences and beneficiaries of research were almost never the cultural communities that formed the subject of study.1 Currently, in 2019, the anthropological premises reflected in Marcus and Fischer’s comments still exist, but as non-Western people increasingly became anthropologists, they together with others have assisted the processes of decolonizing and indigenizing anthropological research and cultural representations, including those in film/video form. As a result, new research paradigms and goals have emerged that are more rooted in indigenous thinking at both theoretical and methodological levels.

5Indigenizing anthropology is part and parcel of decolonizing anthropology. Both involve an ambition to illuminate as well as eliminate (or at least reduce) colonial and neo-colonial forces that shape how anthropological research gets framed (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999). Reframing anthropological research with goals and premises more closely rooted within the society under study becomes then an important element of indigenizing anthropology, which I view as composed of three independent parts: 1) Indigenous people set the agenda for anthropological work conducted in their communities; 2) Indigenous anthropologists define and develop the anthropological projects conducted there using a grounded theoretical approach; and 3) The primary audience of the final products, including film material, is the local community in which the research and documentation was conducted – they become the primary beneficiaries.

American Samoa Community College (ascc) and “The Anthropology Project”

  • 2 At the time, and in the context of previous studies in visual anthropology undertaken at the Univer (...)

6Since its establishment by the Department of Education in 1970, the American Samoa Community College (ascc)’s mission has been to promote historical knowledge, cultural heritage, environment and contemporary issues within the Territory and the broader Pacific region. In 1997, the ascc contacted me regarding a position that they were looking to fill to support the development of a newly funded program called The Anthropology Project. This project aimed at engaging and training ascc students in anthropology, so that more Samoans could conduct archaeological and ethnographic work in the Samoan Islands.2 The entire effort was included in ascc’s mission of promoting “awareness of Samoa and the Pacific” (ascc catalogue and Website​index.htm).

7The Anthropology Project was located in ascc’s sampac Program (Samoan and Pacific Studies Program, now the Samoan Studies Institute) under the directorship of High Chief Pulefa’asisina Palauni Tuiasosopo. My position consisted in training ascc students in anthropology and ethnographic research techniques through the conception and coordination of ethnographic field schools. I was also responsible for establishing an Ethnographic Media Archive and Laboratory as a resource for this course. The main objectives consisted in developing filmmaking skills, research and documentation applications in Samoa, that would help preserve aspects of intangible cultural heritage. The team would collaborate with the director, a highly knowledgeable Samoan historian and chief, to design and produce original documentary projects.

8In the late 1990s, the need to develop education and preservation of cultural heritage stemmed from the perception that this cultural heritage was both valuable and in threat of being lost. I call this grass-roots initiative in indigenizing anthropology an “applied visual anthropology for cultural heritage preservation and education,” as it focused on developing ethnographic and oral history research media materials on Samoan heritage topics for the local community in which the work was being conducted. College students were involved in many projects, receiving training and experience in ethnographic and oral history research and video documentation. Meticulous ethnographic cataloguing and archiving of this raw material was an important activity for turning footage into resources for future research. Visual materials, which recorded aspects of Samoan oral history, mythology, sacred sites, legends and customs, could be edited into final documentaries at a later stage and disseminated to the communities in classrooms and through local public television broadcast. Given the rapid changes American Samoan society was undergoing, the college and the community at large highly valued the work of ascc’s Ethnographic Media Laboratory. Importantly, the video documentation and documentaries we produced became not only a useful foil for younger Samoans to learn about these traditions, but also to reflect upon how Samoans were modifying these social practices as part of their adaptation to the increasingly globalized world in which they lived, worked and practiced their “culture”.

9The outputs of our oral history and visual anthropology work in Samoa can be divided into two categories: documentation – raw or minimally edited footage containing oral history or events and activities that we filmed; and documentaries – the media construction of an interpretation and point of view on a topic using selected sequences of the documentation together with other elements such as narration, music and titles. Both documentation and documentary have their specific uses as cultural resources for intangible cultural heritage education, transmission and continuity.

Cultural Heritage in American Samoa

10The term cultural heritage connotes valued aspects of a culture, material or immaterial, worthy of preserving and passing to future generations (Konsa, 2013: 124). What constitutes cultural heritage within a community is necessarily value laden and politically influenced. Cultural heritage is commonly divided into tangible and intangible. Tangible refers to material objects, buildings and physical landscapes that a people view as expressing their culture. Intangible cultural heritage typically is associated with the immaterial aspects of a culture, including customs, beliefs, values, knowledge, practices, and oral traditions (Fowler, 2002). Caution is needed not to view these as separate categories but rather as two dimensions of the same thing. A Samoan village malae, for example, a central open space whose name is rooted in the village’s founding history and identity, is both a tangible, physical place and an intangible set of knowledge, social values and practices.

11Increasingly, since the turn of the century, with the establishment of unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention (2003), the preservation of cultural heritage has become a major concern for many Indigenous peoples (, including in the Pacific (De Largy Healy & Glowczewski, 2014). The term preservation, however, is tricky when discussing the intangible dimensions of culture. Perhaps a more apt term is continuity or transmission since knowledge, values, practices, and so forth, as they exist within living human bearers of culture, evolve and are remolded over time as people learn, receive new information, and adapt to new circumstances. Intangible cultural properties, however, can be preserved as cultural resources when they are recorded in some form – written or audio-visual (film, analog then digital video). Disseminating this cultural resource through television or the worldwide web, in classrooms, etc. may then feed into processes of cultural transmission, education, and continuity, particularly when the more traditional cultural processes of oral traditions for this transmission have been weakened.

12Cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, occurs in the context of inhabited location(s) with particular natural environments in which people adapt and develop their culture within the context of survival, history, including contact with people of other places, and change. As reflected in the Samoan word for country – atunu’u – literally, “a collection of villages”, Samoan society is best understood as an interconnected set of independent yet interacting polities. Nu’u are aligned typically with adjacent nu’u to form itūmalo (districts), which historically held particular importance in times of war. It was, and still is to a modified extent, the village or nu’u that constitutes the governing polity in which Samoan lives unfold. Everyone belongs to at least one village through ones’ family and finds representation in the governing village council through the family head or matai (chief), who also acts as the custodian of the communally held family lands within the village. The identity of each village is also understood through its fa’apulega – an oratorical shorthand protocol used in formal welcoming speeches for declaring the constituent chiefly titles, their groupings, ranks and relationships.

13Samoan culture (aganu’u Sāmoa – literally the proper conduct as embodied in the village) is known as homogeneous throughout the archipelago as far as the basic values, practices and cultural concepts are concerned. However, it is also true that each village has its own legends (or versions of legends), special practices and beliefs that are viewed as constitutive of its autonomy and identity in the system of the Fa’a-Samoa (Samoan Way). This local singularity was consistently emphasized to me by my Samoan supervisor and colleagues, though it was far too under-represented in almost all of the Samoan ethnography written by Western anthropologists I have seen.

  • 3 Other Pacific Islanders (3.7% – primarily Tongan), Asian (3.6% – includes Filipino 2.2%, other 1.4% (...)

14The unincorporated United States Territory of American Samoa is comprised of the smaller eastern Islands of the Samoan archipelago, whose five rugged inhabited volcanic islands and two atolls make up a total land area of 77 square miles. Eighty nine percent of American Samoa’s residents are of Samoan descent, about a half of whom have close ties to Independent Samoa – either because they were born there or because they have close kinship and descent connections there.3 The largest Island, Tutuila, comprising 68% of the land area, is the seat of the territory’s government and commerce, and home to 89% of American Samoa’s 55,000 residents.

  • 4 Measina refers to heritage in Samoa. Mea means thing or stuff, and Sina can mean white, as in when (...)

15Samoans of both American Samoa and Samoa share a 3,000 years old common cultural heritage. The proto-Polynesians settled in these volcanic islands and over time developed a society centered on the village and its governing council of chiefs (matai) (Goldman, 1970: 260; Meleseā et Schoeffel Meleseā, 1987). Much of Samoa’s intangible and tangible cultural heritage – oratory arts, the traditional Samoan currency of fine mats, traditional ceremonial exchange rituals and practice, traditional tattooing, architecture, village legends, dance, and much more – are directly or indirectly linked with the matai system, of which they form an integral part even though they also possess their own singularity in Samoa’s cultural heritage frame of reference – referred to in Samoa as Measina Samoa.4

16The survival of the Samoan matai system in the face of colonialism, globalization and transnationalization can largely be attributed to the vested interest every Samoan has in it, as an “open” system with its own democratic principles, and to the strength of the Samoan family system (Anae et al., 2017; Meleseā, 1987). Each constituent family in the village is represented in the village council through their chief. The chieftain titles (names of ancestral founding chiefs) were handed down generations ambilineally (i.e. a title could move through either mother or father lines). The titleholders were selected through consensus according notably to criteria of descent and merit (i.e. service and loyalty to the descent group, knowledge of genealogy and culture, and leadership and speaking skills, etc.). Females could (and still can) become high-ranking chiefs, as is illuminated in Samoan oral tradition by such figures as Queen Salamasina, the warrior Goddess, Nafanua. Matai hold the responsibility of being the custodian of the descent group’s communally held land, collecting and distributing valuables, money and food at Samoan ceremonial events, and representing their descent group at village matai council meetings. Globalization, capitalism, and increasing influence from the outside are straining the matai system in new ways that have called for much careful discussion to discern strategies to maintain the integrity of the system (So’o, 2006).

17One important, and often overlooked, contemporary difference between matai system practice in American Samoa and Independent Samoa is that only in Independent Samoa are matai titles allowed to be subdivided to multiple people. This difference has many sociocultural implications and effects cultural heritage preservation efforts. One implication is that in Independent Samoa, people come from overseas to be bestowed a matai title in their family and village of origin through a saofa’i ceremony, which now typically involves multiple people often receiving the same title all at once. These invents require lots of resources, including the money of those from overseas. The new title holders from overseas usually return overseas home with the prestige of holding their Samoan chieftain titles, which in certain events impact their role in the overseas Samoan community. This practice, which is not possible in American Samoa, helps support cultural heritage transmission as much as it also facilitates the flow of finances from related people overseas into the villages.

18The Samoan diaspora represents a large population of Samoans living outside the archipelago in larger industrialized Pacific rim countries, particularly Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and in the usa. The high level of physical mobility between home islands and the diasporic community supports kinship ties and is an important part of Samoan cultural life. This dynamic is therefore a key element to understand Samoan sociocultural change and conservatism. It also means that the production of media resources for intangible cultural heritage education and preservation may serve Samoans in all locations, not just in the islands. Indeed, those living overseas are often most interested in these materials.

19Overall, Samoans take great pride in their culture and have a desire to preserve and continue at least parts of it, while adapting it as necessary. Due to changing lifestyles, increasing dependencies on cash and wage paid jobs (either on Samoan islands or overseas), and multiple cultural influences, Samoan society throughout the islands is undergoing rapid sociocultural change. In the 1990s, these changes were seen as a threat to intangible cultural heritage (i.e. the “living culture”) and provided impetus to take active measures to develop cultural heritage preservation and education in both independent and American Samoa. It is with this objective in mind that the ascc’s Anthropology project was established.

The Visual Anthropology/Oral History Documentation Training Field School

20As soon as I arrived in American Samoa in late May 1997 to begin my new position, the director of the sampac Program, High Chief Pulefa’asisina Palauni Tuiasosopo, tasked me with writing a grant proposal for a Cultural Resource Training Initiative funded by the National Park Service (nps), with the intent to organise an ethnographic field school the following summer. Funds were successfully secured for an inaugural three-weeks field school and the purchase of digital media equipment for training and the establishment of an Ethnographic Media Archive and Laboratory. We were able to recruit sixteen ascc Samoan students and four Micronesian paraprofessionals from the Historic Preservation Offices in Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae (Federated States of Micronesia) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

21Given the structure of Samoan society, we agreed that our best approach would be to base the field school in and on a single village. We would focus our work on collecting and documenting the village’s oral traditions, legends, social organization and cultural practices. The village of Vatia was chosen as our first fieldwork location. Nestled on a bay on the North side of Tutuila, at the end of a road that traverses two mountain passes, Vatia was one of eight villages which had signed a fifty years lease of their lands to the u.s. National Park Service in 1993. The lease agreement allowed the villages and their inhabitants to continue to live there and use the land and sea for subsistence purposes. The Park’s mission included the preservation of the tropical rainforests, coral reefs, archaeological and cultural resources of leased areas. The field school, which was funded by the u.s Park Service’s Cultural Resource Management and Training Fund, would therefore contribute to this mission.

  • 5 A further determining factor for selecting Vatia was the sampac’s director’s connection to this vil (...)

22Vatia Village was planning a major saofa’i, title investiture ceremony that would occur during the field school’s onsite work in Vatia. This was a fortuitous opportunity to document a rare and intense cultural and sociopolitical event involving the entire village. Our research and documentation study of this ceremony was approved by the village’s chiefs who also agreed to our filming of the event5.

23Vatia’s chiefs agreed to allow us to document both the preparations for the ceremony, and the event itself. They viewed the video recording of this saofa’i as being in their interest, and they provided us with crucial advice about how to do so in a manner that would not disturb or interfere with the sanctity of the event and the sacred grounds of the village’s malae on which the ceremony would be performed.

24The rule was established that all people with cameras had to film from outside the perimeter of the sacred circle of chiefs sitting on the malae. They should not change their position once the sanctity of ceremony was announced, a rule that required thorough advanced planning. The alofi sā (or sacred circle) refers to the circle formed by the chiefs when partaking in the elaborate ’ava (kava) drinking ceremony. The performance of a saofa’i on the village malae, as opposed to inside a village guesthouse, increases its significance, expressing and materializing an esteemed reverence for the ancestral origins of the polity, and its place in the historical, sociopolitical and physical landscape.

25Having twenty trainees, two trainers and only three weeks to undertake the project, we developed a systemic way to conduct the course. The field school was thus divided into two major components: ethnographic video and oral history documentation. Arrangements were made in the village for the entire field school to be hosted at one family home, including sleeping in a large open family guesthouse. This allowed us to have a central station and facilitated a collective convening of work. For the field school, we had hired the Samoan historian Muliausauali’i Aleni Ripini to conduct the oral history component, which included researching the various legends associated with Vatia, the pedigree of matai titles in the village, origins of the name of the village, specific traditions such as climbing the high Pola cliffs to catch sea birds, conducting life histories, and a host of other topics relevant to our filming project.

26The ethnographic or visual anthropology component focused on contemporary Vatia, its social organization, everyday activities and lives of village residents and their inter- relationships, traditional knowledge about healing arts and the local environment. We were also interested in the activities and role of various households and extended family in preparations for the saofa’i, including practice rehearsals and meetings, the collections of fine mats, preparations of feasts, and the day long saofa’i ceremony and exchanges which occurred on the seventh day of the field school.

27Once in the village, we divided the students into two sets of teams of three. The ethnography/visual anthropology teams had one person acting as an observer/note-taker; the second as a participant-observer; and the third as a videographer. In the oral history teams, the participant/observer would act as the interviewer (or primary interviewer). The village space was divided into sections, which were attributed to a different trainee research team. In the mornings, each team received its assignment to go to the field to focus on either an ethnographic or oral history topic for the first half of the day. At lunch, they returned to the central station where they would meet with the instructors, review what they had recorded, and receive feedback on their work. Then they would return to their field site, changing the roles of team members in the process.

Photo 1. – Participants and staff of the Ethnographic/Oral History Field School in Vatia, American Samoa, 1998

Photo 1. – Participants and staff of the Ethnographic/Oral History Field School in Vatia, American Samoa, 1998

(© M. Van der Ryn)

28When student teams met with the trainers during lunch and evening, trainees were asked to compare what they had learned and experienced, according to the role they had taken, and to assess the richness of the information obtained through team effort: how the video camera operator may have missed certain things that the observer/notetaker may have observed, or how the participant observer learned specific things unbeknown to the other two. Sessions with the oral history trainer would examine how questions were asked during interviews, whether they were too closed-ended or not, and point to areas that the team needed to explore further.

29The members of the village appeared to embrace our presence and work. Often, they would offer advice on additional people to interview or activities to film. By the time the saofa’i began, we had learned fairly well what to expect for we had watched extensively the rehearsals. I stationed each ethnographic research team at a different point surrounding the large village malae where the ceremonial assembly would occur. Each team was assigned a place, an angle, a camera focal length, and a section of space/action in the ceremony so that we could later assemble a full documentation of the event. As there wasn’t a central director to guide each camera operator, directions were given in advance without any way to know what had been recorded until the tapes were reviewed afterwards.

Photo 2. – Saofa’i (title investiture) of High Chief Gaoteote at Vatia, Tutuila, American Samoa, 1998

Photo 2. – Saofa’i (title investiture) of High Chief Gaoteote at Vatia, Tutuila, American Samoa, 1998

(© M. Van der Ryn)

30The final five days of the field school were spent back on the ascc’s premises, reviewing, transcribing and logging the footage. The students also received initial training in video editing. This work focused on the edition of the various angles filmed during the saofa’i so that important ethnographic details could appear. This lengthy process became a productive learning experience which allowed us to gain a better understanding of this complex cultural event.

31The Visual Anthropology and Oral History Documentation Field School provided the eighteen trainees an intensive applied experience in ethnographic research methods. For nine days, they fully engaged with learning about the life, culture and oral history of a local village and its inhabitants. Some of the ascc students continued to build on the knowledge and skills developed in the field school, taking related courses I taught, and/or volunteering to assist in our ethnographic media lab. The course also lit up a strong passion for one student of Tongan heritage who eventually came to work in the sampac office as assistant ethnographer and videographer.

32During the fieldwork, we produced more than thirty-five hours of raw digital tape footage, a two-hour edited video of the events on the day of the saofa’i, and many transcriptions of the oral history and ethnographic interviews. The fact that most trainees were Samoan and fairly proficient in Samoan language and cultural etiquette improved the ethnographic quality of the footage. This large amount of ethnographic documentation materials became the first set to be archived and used in the new sampac Ethnographic Media Lab and Archive.

33The two-hour edited film compiled from the footage of the five field school cameras on the day of the saofa’i constituted an important output for the community (Van der Ryn, 2001). The video was copied and distributed to all the leading matai of the village as well as to collaborators of the field school. We organized a screening of the video for the people of Vatia in their village, which was attended by about sixty people. A group of students from the field school attended the event to film the screening as well as the questions it triggered in the audience. The screening offered the opportunity for Vatians to ask questions and for the chiefs and elders to elucidate the purpose and meaning of various parts of the ritual. This screening event, which we also video taped, facilitated cultural transmission and reflection. As many younger Samoans have often explained to me:

“Our elders tell us to do this and that and we learn the actions they want us to do, but we seldom learn about what the significance of it is, what it’s value and meaning has […]”

34The public screening provided a context for the discussions to unfold; the video documentation reminded people of what had taken place and, in some cases, it revealed things that they had not seen or perceived during the event. This experience, in turn, stimulated questions and discussions about the symbolic meanings of different aspects of the ritual. After the screening, Chief Gaoteote called us to his home for a sua, a ritual presentation of gifts, including fine mats, which represents the most respectful way in Samoa to show one’s appreciation.

35Screening the video in the village helped to assert the video’s value as a cultural resource in a community’s efforts toward cultural continuity. The significance of this video as a valuable cultural resource was proved again a year later, when several of Vatia’s chiefs, while planning another ceremony, carefully watched and studied the footage. An important aspect that we did not discuss with the chiefs was the effects the video recording may have had on the ritual practice of the saofa’i. Answering the question theoretically, two points come to mind. First, when filming larger scale events such as this one, the impact of having cameras recording would be relatively minimal. Indeed, people are focused on the event and their public performance, not on the external cameras. Furthermore, strong cultural principles and prescriptions inform how the ritual should be performed. It is possible that the knowledge that the event would be filmed for posterity affected how the chiefs planned the ceremony, but we never asked them this question.

“Malae: Sacred Ground” – A Documentary and its Outcomes

36In contrast to the field school described above as a case of documentation becoming a cultural resource, the Malae: Sacred Ground (1998) film provides an example of how a documentary can become a cultural resource for heritage preservation. Malae are the open ceremonial grounds that are a key feature of every traditional Samoan village. As one interviewee stated, “Malae are the heart and soul of each village.” In recent years, many of the village malae in American Samoa have become smaller due to development and population growth, as well as a decreased public understanding of their cultural and historical significance. This research and video production project was collaboratively co-produced by the Forestry Program and the sampac program at ascc. While I acted as the production supervisor, local people trained in broadcast journalism were hired to help write, shoot, and edit the video. Malae: Sacred Ground was specifically produced with the ambition to enhance the awareness of the value of American Samoan village malae and to increase public efforts to preserve these spaces.

37The video aimed to remind and inform American Samoans about the cultural, environmental and historical value of their village malae and to promote awareness of the social and environmental issues challenging their preservation. The video incorporated and juxtaposed early historical stills of village malae, which were acquired with assistance from both the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office and American Samoa Archives, with images of those same malae today. In addition, it was decided the film would integrate interviews with village chiefs and scholars of Samoan culture, scripted narration and other relevant footage.

38American Samoa’s public television station (kvzk-tv) has broadcasted the documentary several times every year since its release in 1998, and the program was reviewed and discussed by village majors during their monthly meetings. Video copies were distributed to all relevant government departments as well as local schools. Various editorials in newspapers also referenced the film as part of an advocacy to legislate on the topic of the preservation of Samoan village malae throughout American Samoa. As a result of the repeated broadcasts and wide distribution, the community awareness about the challenges facing the preservation of both the tangible and intangible dimensions of Samoan village malae increased and helped stimulate preservation efforts. One such example was the stopping of the controversial plan to build a beachfront McDonald’s Restaurant on Utulei Beach Park, in 2006, a development project which would have destroyed the only remaining open space that might serve as Utulei village’s malae.

Photo 3a. – 1930 view of Faga’itua Village and its malae. The photo was taken during the Bingham Political Status Commission Visit to American Samoa

Photo 3a. – 1930 view of Faga’itua Village and its malae. The photo was taken during the Bingham Political Status Commission Visit to American Samoa

(© Bishop Museum)

Photo 3b. – 2005 view of Fagatua Village. The photo was taken from roughly same camera position as the 1930 view. Though village architecture has changed, the space of the culturally important malae has been largely retained

Photo 3b. – 2005 view of Fagatua Village. The photo was taken from roughly same camera position as the 1930 view. Though village architecture has changed, the space of the culturally important malae has been largely retained

(© M. Van der Ryn)

Sailiilga o Tala i Vavau o Samoa: In Search of Ancient Stories of Samoa

39An emphasized component of the sampac program’s ethnographic and oral history research and documentation concerned Samoan sacred sites and legends, and their origins in different villages of the archipelago. These legends link Samoan beliefs, proverbial expressions, physical sites, village identities and ancient village-to-village relationships. sampac Director, Pulefa’asisina, who taught ancient Samoan history, designed a series of courses which included ethnographic/oral history fieldwork visits to specific villages to investigate their associated legends. I went on most of these trips as the principle videographer and co-researcher, sometimes bringing a co-ethnographic videographer, as well as students from my cultural anthropology classes.

40An important impetus for the field research was to delve into the intricacies of history, traditions, values and meanings that local people derive from these legends. In a culture of change in which Western media has interrupted the traditional oral patterns of transmission, and as fewer and fewer people were still alive who could tell the stories, such legends appeared to be fading away together with the context for understanding them. While some legends already had published textual renditions, our goal was to research and document missing details, connections, and alternate versions current local views on the legends and how they connect to local customs, ways of relating to the environments or even politics. We also aimed to include in the research the ways in which people evaluated differences between various versions of the same legend. Our village consultants (primarily elders) would point to local evidence to substantiate or discount some versions. This type of information was generally not found in existing published accounts.

  • 6 Most of the resulting digital video documentation is conserved as raw footage at ascc’s Samoan Stud (...)
  • 7 These are also listed in ascc Samoan Studies Institute’s Media Directory ( (...)

41The purpose of using video, rather than simply audiotaping and transcribing the stories, relates to the ethnographic value of retaining all the information and meta-information recorded in the filmed interviews. By recording the telling of the legends, future researchers and generations would have an invaluable resource. Filming the sites, as well as the people of the village singing their own songs of the legends, was deemed a particularly valuable dimension of the project, as was the professional archiving and cataloguing of the material which could later be used for editing documentaries.6 During the first stage of the project, Pulefa’asisina, the sampac director, was more interested in developing as much research and filming as possible. The editing into audiovisual products that would benefit a wider audience was considered a second step. However, after several years of compiling hours and hours of footage, I suggested we develop a television series of short documentaries, each pertaining to a different legend, so that the fruits of our work could receive a broader public appreciation. With the help of my videographer assistant, I was thus able to do final edits for two of the legends and rough edits for several more.7

42Pulefa’asisina had a particularly strong interest in researching and documenting legends on Samoa’s large island of Savai’i. Some of the legends and sites investigated and documented in Savai’i include: the Safune Village and the legend of Sina and her Eel at the fresh water pool of Mataolealelo; the story of Lata, the famous Samoan navigator and his canoe paddle near the village of Taga; the Samoan concept and story of Pulotu (place of the afterlife) and the related sites of Fafā Sau Ali’i in Tufutafoe Village; the famous legend of the Turtle and Shark story as they connect to the villages of Fagafau, Savai’i, Vaitogi, Tutuila; and the story of Taemanutaeva’e (Manutaetava’e) in Sili Village. Detailing the last of these “ancient stories”, the Taemanutaeva’e legend, in the Sili Village, can help illustrate several important points about cultural transmission and representation of heritage, as well as the usefulness of applied visual anthropology in support of these processes.

43One evening in American Samoa several years before officially beginning research on Taemanutava’e, I went with my wife and others who were descendents from Sili to watch (and video tape) a visiting group from Sili Village perform a skit portraying the Taemantava’e legend. Many people of Sili revere Taemanutava’e as a village hero whose spirit is said to protect Sili’s inland region, in particular the village’s rivers, which Sili views important marker of their village identity as well as being vital to their lives. The legend tells the story of a young woman of another village of Savai’i who wishes to meet and marry the elusive hero Taemanutava’e. She asked her blind father to help her find him. The names of a number of the island’s villages, including that of Sili, derive from events that occurred during their journey. Part of the story involves following directions from the Fau (wild hibiscus tree), who tells them how to get Taemanutava’e to let out his long hair in the river. When they see his hair in the river, the Fau tree told the father and daughter, they must secure strands of it to the trees on the side of the river and then follow the hair upstream until they find Taemanutava’e.

44The performance of the legend, organized by Sili Village’s Catholic Church Congregation, was held outdoors, in an open area in front of the small village store. My wife’s relatives asked me to bring my video camera to record the skit. In this instance, different modalities of cultural representation and transmission occurred. The village elders taught the story to the younger people, as an act of cultural transmission. Through the creative process of turning and rehearsing the story of Taemanutava’e into a performed skit, the legend became more ingrained in the performers’ minds and bodies, strengthening the transmission process. The performance of the skit in front of a crowd of people, many of whom had kinship ties to Sili but did not know about this legend, represents yet another social frame for intangible cultural heritage transmission. In introducing the performance, one of the village orators explained the legend’s significance.

45The skit also involved an initial explanation from one of the village orators about the legend’s significance. He described it as “a true story” that explained the origin of the name Sili, the village’s genealogical connection to the founder of the royal Malietoa line, and the origin of various village beliefs, practices, as well as several Samoan proverbs commonly spoken in oratory. In doing so, he contextualized the legend within place, landmarks, culture, history, and genealogy in a manner that demonstrated Sili’s claim to an important piece of Samoan cultural heritage. This claim marked Sili’s specific place and identity within the larger networks of history, culture and place that collectively constitute Samoa. I knew that the resulting film series, Saiiliiliga Tala o Vavau o Samoa, would need to emphasize this Samoan way of contextualizing legends, to reveal them as a part of a lived culture and heritage in villages. Despite the poor lighting, the video footage of the skit was incorporated some years later into the final edited video produced in the Ancient Stories project.

46During my return visits, people often made further references to the veracity of the story, for example, by explaining that one could still find the hair of Taemanutava’e clinging to some trees in far inland reaches of the village. Intrigued, I decided to do a hike inland to find the hair. I was warned to be careful not to make any loud noise, as this could disturb the spirit of Taemanutava’e, which would cause the river to flood. With a family member as a guide, I managed to find some of the “hair” evidenced the veracity of the legend. This “hair” evidenced the veracity of the legend.

47A couple of years later, Pulefa’asisina decided to take the sampac research to the Sili village. Over the span of a year, we organised several research/filming trips to Savai’i with stops in Sili to conduct and film interviews. Two of these fieldtrips involved bringing students from both Pulefa’asisina’s Ancient Samoan History course and my cultural anthropology course. On the first visit we conducted and filmed an interview with my father in-law, High Chief Fa’aofonu’u Poe, about the story of how the high chieftain title of Le Tagaloa came to four different villages (including Sili) in Savai’i Island. The second visit involved an interview with the village’s high talking chief (orator) Fiu Tuipala on the legend of Taemanutava’e. Later, during the editing process, I was able to combine footage from each trip to give the most complete account of the legend.

48Reviewing the filmed sequences so far collected – the two interviews, the recording context, the skit, and the footage of myself finding Taemanutava’e’s hair – I realized that further filming was required to give the story more dramatic visual impact. I decided to get shots of scenery and daily life in the village, specific landmarks and objects discussed in the oral tradition, and to film from the waist down the legs of two people enacting the blind man and his daughter as they walked along and through the river in their journey to find Taimanutava’e. I also arranged to film two different village songs, one of which pertaining directly to the legend of Taemanutava’e.

49Using footage from all these sequences, enabled me to edit the video in a manner that creatively told the story, and also contextualized it within the framework of significance that it had for the village, for Samoan cultural heritage more generally, and for conveying the oral history research methods used for the research in the film.

  • 8 Such assignments were being given to students who otherwise did not learn village legends as had oc (...)

50The film was broadcasted on American Samoa public television as part of the Sailiiliga o Tala i Vavau o Samoa series, repeatedly screened in different ascc courses, and distributed to several chiefs of the village. The short 20–minute film on Sili Village’s legend of Taemanutava’e was mobilized several years later during an interview a high-school student conducted with my father-in-law and another village elder to fulfill a school assignment8. The two old men telling the legend were suffering some memory loss causing them to stumble as they struggled to remember some parts. Sitting cross-legged on the mat in the open sided Samoan house observing this scene, I suddenly remembered that I had my laptop with the edited film in it. I offered to assist by letting the student view the film, which he did and was very thankful, as were the two elders who were having trouble remembering parts of the story. In this manner, the video was a resource used to directly help fill the apparent gap in oral history transmission. Furthermore, the integration of visuals of the environment, objects and sites mentioned in the story, together with re-enactment of parts of the story with the sound of the elders telling the story, the songs, and shots of the actual “hair” clinging to the trees supported an enlivened interest in the video (​BZ7BPb_biHQ).


51Space does not permit discussing the many other projects that were conducted under the auspices of the ascc. The three audiovisual projects I have described in some detail show how visual anthropology methods were successfully applied in a grass roots, community engaged approach to assist intangible cultural heritage preservation, transmission and education. The value of this approach was manifest in the student and community engagement in the research, production, and post-production of each project. It was also demonstrated in the broad dissemination of the films on local television and in classrooms. Over the years, many students and other community members have used the raw catalogued video documentation in the Ethnographic Media Archive and Laboratory as a primary resource to conduct research on specific topics.

52My study also sheds light on varied outcomes, both with raw footage as documentation and completed edited films as documentary. One important point about these outcomes is the potential for these outcomes to repeat, multiply and amplify over the years from the time of their first release. Sometimes local heritage preservation or renaissance outcomes may only start long after a project was originally completed, as is the case for materials produced by outsiders when these materials are repatriated to indigenous communities many years after their original publication. A key point here is the good preservation of the media, and its wide and long lasting accessiblity and dissemninatin, which the internet, wide world web, and social media all facilitate. I have coined my subsequent work at sampac/ssi as an effort in “indigenizing anthropology.” By coming to fulfill the position at sampac, I was able to assist a perceived need from within the community, work collaboratively with the director and other program staff to research and produce films, train other local Samoans in this process, and witness the direct benefits and value of this work. It is an example of indigenization of anthropology, specifically visual anthropology, ethnography and filmmaking, because it involved making these disciplines, practices and frameworks more “native” to the community in which the anthropological research and filmmaking was being done and making its products for that community.

53At the time, there was not any kind of anthropology program in any learning institution in either of the two Samoas to provide a foundation for this development. It was only some fifteen years later that the National University of Samoa began to develop such a program under its Center for Samoan Studies under the leadership of Dr. Malama Meleisea. In the past two decades the number of Pacific Islander scholars, including anthropologists has grown, and some of these indigenous scholars make creative use of the internet and social media for disseminating cultural heritage in various forms. The internet and social media platforms such as Facebook are also making it possible in some cases to disseminate and in a sense “repatriate” media and/or early anthropological materials, including imagery or videos from long ago for assessment and interpretation by the indigenous people of the Pacific themselves, whether they are professional scholars, or from other walks of life.

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Anae Melani, Falaniko Tominiko, Vavao Fetui & Ieti Lima, 2017. Transnational Sāmoan Chiefs: Views of the Fa’amatai (Chiefly System), Journal of Samoan Studies, 7 (1), pp. 38-50

De Largy Healy Jessica and Barbara Glowczewski, 2014. Indigenous and transnational values in Oceania: heritage reappropriation, from museums to the world wide web, etropics: electronic journal of studies in tropics, James Cook University, 2014. Value, Transvaluation and Globalization 13 (2), pp. 44-55 (

Fowler Peter, 2002. World heritage cultural landscapes, 1992-2002: A review and prospect, in Cultural landscapes: the Challenges of Conservation, Paris, unesco, pp. 16-32.

Goldman Irving, 1970. Ancient Polynesian Society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Konsa Kurmo, 2013. Heritage as a Socio-Cultural Construct: Problems of Definition, Baltic Journal of Art History 6, p. 125.

Marcus George and Michael M. Fischer, 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique, Chicago/London, The University of Chicago Press.

Meleseā Malama, 1987. The Making of Modern Samoa: Traditional Authority and Colonial Administration in the History of Western Samoa, Suva, Fiji, Institute of Pacific Studies.

Meleseā Malama and Penelope Schoeffel Meleseā, 1987. Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa, Suva, Fiji, The University of the South Pacific.

So’o Lau Asofou, 2006. Culture and Governance in a Future Pacific: The case of Samoa, in M. Powles (ed.), Pacific Futures, Canberra, Pandanus Books, Australian National University, pp. 36-49.

Tcherkezoff Serge, 2001. Le mythe occidental de la sexualité polynésienne, Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman et Samoa, 1928-1999, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

Tuhiwai-Smith Linda, 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples, Dunedin, University of Otago Press.

Van der Ryn Micah, 2001. Preservation through Visual Anthropology and Training: Case Study from American Samoa, Cultural Resource Management 1, pp. 9-12.


Van der Ryn Micah, 1991. A Chief in Two Worlds, Documentary Film, usa, 52 min.

Van der Ryn Micah, 1995. Tatau: What One Must Do, Documentary Film, usa, 27 min.

Van der Ryn Micah, 1997, Malae: Sacred Ground, Documentary Film, American Samoa Community College, 20 min.

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1 The Samoan Islands represent an emblematic case that gave rise to the famous controversy between Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman (see for example Tcherkezoff, 2001).

2 At the time, and in the context of previous studies in visual anthropology undertaken at the University of Southern California, I had already produced two Samoan documentaries – A Chief in Two Worlds (1991) and Tatau: What One Must Do (1995). These films were both available in American university libraries and distributed in Samoan communities where I knew they were used as cultural resources, especially for the youth to learn more about their own culture and as a mirror to reflect on dynamics of change. The idea of facilitating the training of Samoan visual anthropologists to record their own culture and produce their own documentaries as a resource for themselves appealed to me as a significant endeavor.

3 Other Pacific Islanders (3.7% – primarily Tongan), Asian (3.6% – includes Filipino 2.2%, other 1.4%) mixed (2.7%), and other (1.2%) comprise the remaining eleven percent of American Samoa’s residents (cia World Factbook).

4 Measina refers to heritage in Samoa. Mea means thing or stuff, and Sina can mean white, as in when an aged person’s hair turn’s white, and also refers to the name of a mythical Samoan woman of great beauty and importance.

5 A further determining factor for selecting Vatia was the sampac’s director’s connection to this village. His father, an important figure in establishing American Samoa legislature in the late 1940s, was from Vatia and had held its high-ranking orator title of Tuiasosopo. This relationship facilitated the villagers’ agreement to participate in our study.

6 Most of the resulting digital video documentation is conserved as raw footage at ascc’s Samoan Studies Institute and can be sourced in their Media Directory (

7 These are also listed in ascc Samoan Studies Institute’s Media Directory (

8 Such assignments were being given to students who otherwise did not learn village legends as had occurred in earlier days, for they were spending most of their leisure time watching television or dvds of imported Hollywood action films.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. – Map of Samoan Islands
Credits (​maps/​australia/​samoa_islands_2002.gif)
File image/png, 33k
Title Photo 1. – Participants and staff of the Ethnographic/Oral History Field School in Vatia, American Samoa, 1998
Credits (© M. Van der Ryn)
File image/png, 290k
Title Photo 2. – Saofa’i (title investiture) of High Chief Gaoteote at Vatia, Tutuila, American Samoa, 1998
Credits (© M. Van der Ryn)
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Title Photo 3a. – 1930 view of Faga’itua Village and its malae. The photo was taken during the Bingham Political Status Commission Visit to American Samoa
Credits (© Bishop Museum)
File image/jpeg, 224k
Title Photo 3b. – 2005 view of Fagatua Village. The photo was taken from roughly same camera position as the 1930 view. Though village architecture has changed, the space of the culturally important malae has been largely retained
Credits (© M. Van der Ryn)
File image/jpeg, 466k
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Bibliographical reference

Micah Van der Ryn, « Visual Anthropology and Intangible Cultural Heritage preservation in American Samoa », Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 148 | 2019, 145-155.

Electronic reference

Micah Van der Ryn, « Visual Anthropology and Intangible Cultural Heritage preservation in American Samoa », Journal de la Société des Océanistes [Online], 148 | 2019, Online since 01 January 2021, connection on 18 January 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Micah Van der Ryn

Anthropologist, Researcher, Educator, Filmmaker,

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Licence Creative Commons
Journal de la société des océanistes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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