The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the Indo-Pacific region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in our region.

On this page:

  • Overview
  • People and Society
  • The Samoan Way
  • Samoan Customs and Traditions


Samoa and American Samoa are a group of islands located centrally in the Polynesian island group in the southern Pacific Ocean. The population of Samoa is 220,400 while American Samoa has 43,600 people (2024). Polynesians migrated to the islands approximately 3000 years ago (1000BC). From there, they frequently travelled to other South Pacific islands, particularly Fiji and Tonga which greatly influenced their customs and traditions.

Between the mid-1700s to 1800s, Europeans began visiting the islands and conflict with the new arrivals was not uncommon. By the mid-1800s, despite having a reputation as a hostile place, Europeans begun to settle on the islands. Due to the arrival of missionaries in the 1830s, most Samoans identified with some form of Christianity by the end of the century. 

The first Samoan civil war erupted between 1886 and 1894 centred around two of the four ‘aiga (families) of Samoa. There were, and still are, four paramount ‘aiga of Samoa: Malietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Mata’afa, and Tu’imaleali’ifano. A dispute arose between the Malietoa and the Mata’afa leader on who should be king. This divided the western islands of Samoa and the eastern islands. In turn, Samoans sold their lands to Europeans in order to acquire armaments to settle the dispute. 

Despite competing interests for the Samoan islands, Germany, the US, and Britain agreed to a treaty (Berlin Treaty of 1889) that stipulated an independent Samoa under the rule of a foreign-appointed Samoan king. As part of the agreement, all three countries were afforded considerable advisory powers. Peace was short lived, however, when the appointed king died four years later in 1889 leading to the second civil war and more arguing between the three superpowers.

In 1899 the Berlin treaty was replaced by the Tripartite Treaty which gave control of western Samoa (Samoa) to the Germans and eastern Samoa (American Samoa) to the Americans. The British stepped out of the Samoa arrangement altogether in exchange for the renunciation of German claims to Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and Niue. The Samoans were not consulted about the agreement.

Samoa. German Samoa consists of nine islands west of the meridian. Savai’i, the largest island, covers 1,707 square km and rises to 1,858 metres at Mount Silisili, a volcano at the island’s centre. Post 1899, Apia (Samoan: [a.pi.a]) is the capital and only city of Samoa located on the central north coast of Upolu. German colonial rule saw the introduction of a public education system, a hospital, and an extensive road network. German companies brought workers from Melanesia and China to work on the extensive plantations across the islands. Many Chinese people married and established families in Samoa whose descendants remain to this day.

At the outbreak of World War I, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force occupied Western Samoa while the Germans were preoccupied fighting on the frontlines of Europe. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the League of Nations allocated German Samoa to New Zealand as the mandate of Western Samoa. In 1919, a major influenza outbreak killed 7,000 people (20% of the population). The Samoan people were left feeling angry with ongoing foreign rule and began a strong resistance movement.

The country was first administered by New Zealand as a mandate and later as a trust territory until 1962. Samoa established full independence in 1962, being the first Pacific country to do so in the 20th century. In 1997 it was renamed Samoa.

For further information on Samoa, see the resources below:

American Samoa. America Samoa comprises five main islands and is an unincorporated territory of the United States. The capital is Pago Pago on the island Tutuila. American Samoa participated in WWII, when Marines trained teenage boys as young as 14 to fight against the Japanese. Most modern transportation infrastructure and medical facilities were established during this time.

Today, American Samoa’s two main employers are the government and two tuna canneries. Although citizens are American nationals who enjoy most of the same rights as mainland Americans, their ancient Samoan culture remains very much intact and sometimes overrides the constitution, especially on matters of religious displays and property ownership.

For further information on American Samoa, see the resources below:

People and Society

The majority of the population speak Samoan, which is believed to be among the oldest of the Polynesian dialects. Samoan is closely related to Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian, and Tongan languages.

Most people live in coastal villages with about 4/5 of the population located in rural areas. The capital of Samoa, Apia has a population of approximately 36,000.

Both Samoa and America Samoa share a common language and culture due to their united Polynesian heritage. While there are some differences due to colonial influences, most customs and traditions have remained the same for both island groups.

The Samoan Way

Fa’a Samoa translates to ‘The Samoan Way’ and is considered the cultural code that dictates the protocols and etiquette within Samoan society. It embraces an all-encompassing system of behaviour and of responsibilities that determine relationships to one another and to persons holding positions of authority. 

Like many Pacific Island nations, Samoan society is based on collectivism, which puts the community before the self. Excess is shared within a village rather than being kept to oneself. The societal system is called fa’a Matai. Each extended family group has its own ‘Matai’ (chief) over a particular district, village, or land title. There are two types of Matai; the first is known as the Ali’I who is the sitting chief and is seen as the decision maker; the second is the Tulafale which is the talking chief who fulfils many of the oral traditions of Samoa. Matai are expected to ensure the village maintains good social order and is sustainable and self-sufficient.

In Samoa, about 80% of the population lives on family land, on which the government has no say, right, or claim. Looking after this land is a crucial duty of a matai. This title is not inherited, rather it is awarded by the extended family, who decide which candidate would serve them best. 

Samoan Customs and Traditions

Tatua – Tatau (tattoo) is practiced as a key part of the Samoan cultural identity. It was once traditionally used as a rite of passage for young men whereby a rake and striking stick would be used to produce intricate patterns covering the whole lower body from the waist to the knee. Tatua was also used to delineate social status and rank within a tribe, particularly for chiefs. The practice is now seen as a way to display dedication and pride toward one’s family.

’Ava Ceremony - The ’ava ceremony is a unique and vital ritual in the Samoan culture. Important events, such as the conferring of matai titles, are not considered complete if ’ava has not been served. One of the main rituals in this ceremony is preparing the ’ava drink. The right to prepare the drink is a coveted honour among Samoan families. The beverage is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, the kava plant. The person who serves the beverage is called tautu’ava, and the one who makes it, the aumaga. It is prepared in a bowl called tanoa which is hosted on a number of sticks for support and served in a smaller cup made from the shell of a coconut, called ipu tau’ava.

Being polite, friendly, and respectful to others is highly valued in Samoan culture. Respect for the status of elders and chiefs is seen as especially important.

For further information on Samoan culture, see the resource below:

Media and Internet

Samoa – Samoa has four radio stations including one government funded national station – National Radio 2AP. Its television stations consist of two private and one government channel. There are also five daily and weekly newspapers and online outlets. In general, journalists can face challenges reporting in Samoa because of "the belief that freedom of expression is not part of the Samoan culture," especially in villages and districts. According to Internet world stats, there were 141,500 internet users by July 2022, comprising 67% of the population.

American Samoa – American Samoa’s internet participation rate stood at 77.4% of the total population at the start of 2024. American Samoa has three privately owned television stations and multi-channel pay TV.