Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

'Rain upon the field' - a new title with a long story attached

Moana Tapaleao, with her father Puniloa and mother Tauamafili, twice refused when her father asked her to take his enititlement. Photo / Supplied
Moana Tapaleao, with her father Puniloa and mother Tauamafili, twice refused when her father asked her to take his enititlement. Photo / Supplied

The words expectation, responsibility, family and - I can't help it - money, are on my mind as I sit waiting to be bestowed with a chiefly title.

I'm sitting among a group of about 30 people who are to be given a new status; as matai or chiefs and effectively leaders and guardians of our extended family.

We're waiting for the ceremony to begin in a huge faleo'o - a traditional Samoan meeting house - surrounded by chiefly kings from our village, Toamua i Faleata, as well as others from around Samoa.

We are dressed accordingly - bright colours, velvet, tapa cloth and shiny beaded head-pieces. Our bodies glisten with coconut oil.

But what I bet many people will be focused on is our money belts and necklaces. Whoever gets those at the end of the ceremony will leave with anything from $100 to $500.

The decision to accept a title was not easy. I twice refused when my father asked if I would take his entitlement.

It is a huge responsibility, and sometimes an expensive one.

Within each generation, chief titles are bestowed on a number of people to make sure the family is cared for. They become the "kings" of the family, who make decisions for the betterment of everyone.

Not everyone is given a title in their lifetime and it is a privilege to be a matai. You get to eat first. You can sit on a chair. You get a new name. You are seen as a different person not only within your family but also within your village, church and the wider Samoan community in the islands and overseas.

However, there are greater expectations of you. Your sole duty is to serve, rather than take - a concept that others have mixed up over time.

Among young Samoans overseas, there have been questions raised over the relevancy of the system. Some argue titles are being handed out to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

When Samoan wrestler-turned Hollywood star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson received one of Samoa's top matai titles - Seiuli - several years ago, opponents said he did not deserve a title. He could not speak Samoan and it was not right that a guy fighting in his undies was now a matai.

The same happened when Prime Minister John Key was given the title of To'osavili. It was not culturally proper to give an outsider a title, opponents said.

For most families or villages who bestow titles on people, however, they do not look at one's colour or their linguistic abilities.

During the ceremony I begin playing with the money belt my mother made for me - $10 notes are wrapped around my body and the winner of this will get $150.

A man with a terrifyingly deep voice calls out each of our new chief titles as each person is then offered a coconut shell of kava before giving a speech of thanks.

My hands get clammy as the shell nears. I suddenly remember my late grandparents and silently ask them to be with me.

My title is Timuiaipaepaetele, or "rain upon the field". It's a shock to receive it, given it has not been handed down to anyone on our side of the family for generations.

When I ask the head chief of the family, my Uncle Ulu, about the meaning of the name, he hesitates.

"It's a long story and one for me to explain later - over a cup of tea," he says.

"Just know that that's your new name and with it comes new responsibilities. Welcome to your new life as a matai."

- NZ Herald

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