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Constructing a Pacific Islander Identity

Author: Robert Jon Peterson

Robert Jon Peterson

University of St. Thomas











Constructing a Pacific Islander Ethnic Identity

The literature review I conducted broadly focused on the development of ethnic identity in Pacific Islanders.  Specific research emphasis was placed on the cultural conditions that have an impact on the identity formation of Samoans residing within the Pacific diaspora.  A review of the literature on Pacific Islanders and Samoans living within this geographic area and cultural context revealed four primary themes linking the construction of an identity unique to Pacific Islanders and, more specifically, to Samoans living within diasporic communities throughout the Pacific region.  Ancestry, family, cultural practice, and place were the primary themes appearing in the literature as having an impact on the development of ethnic identity in Pacific Islanders (Spickard, 2002).  My personal interest in helping to establish a Pacific Islander American ethnic identity forms the central purpose for my having selected this topic of research.

I utilized a variety of tools and methods to conduct the research process for this literature review.  First, I consulted with a University of St. Thomas reference librarian and began searching databases such as Academic Search Premier and CLICnet for articles, books, and essays related to the topic of ethnic identity development and Pacific Islanders.  This search resulted in approximately 50 documents semi-related to my topic.  I perused the documents generated from this initial canvassing of the documentary data in an effort to learn more about how I might refine my search criteria. 

Next, I refined my search by focusing on Samoans and Samoan Americans living in countries throughout the Pacific region.  The number of articles and books related, specifically, to the topic of Samoan Americans and the development of their ethnic identity in the United States were few.  I was, however, able to generate a variety of research materials focused on Pacific Islander groups such as Tongans, Hawaiians, and Samoans and how they have formed unique ethnic identities across the Pacific region in areas including New Zealand, Hawaii, and California. 

After this secondary review of the literature, I developed the focus question of my research; what cultural conditions have an impact on the development of ethnic identity in Pacific Islanders, particularly Samoans?  In the following section I begin my discussion of how the cultural conditions of ancestry, family, practice, and place have an impact on the development of ethnic identity for Pacific Islander groups with a specific emphasis on Samoans. 


The Importance of the Samoan Bloodline

            One of the cultural bases for developing ethnic identity in Pacific Islanders that emerged from the literature review was ancestry.  According to Spickard (2002), “One such basis is consciousness of ancestry-bloodline, as many would call it.  Samoans, especially, talk a lot about the importance of ‘blood,’ but all the Pacific Islanders interviewed stressed ancestry as an essential basis of ethnic identity” (p. 47). 

In Polynesian societies a person’s genealogy largely determines their identity (Spickard, 2002).  Individuals in Samoan culture, meeting for the first time within a formal setting, commonly introduce themselves to each other by reciting their respective genealogical connections to a particular family or clan (p. 48).  Samoans readily identify one another via these relational connections and, as a result, they are able to place other individuals they encounter within a particular social, political, and historical context.  Ancestry provides the lens through which Samoans view their specific, social situations and relationships with one another.  In the case of Pacific Islanders, the process of socialization via tracing one’s genealogical roots and comparing them with the ancestral bloodline of another person aids in the development of both a personal and community identity (Spickard, 2002).

From a sociopolitical perspective the chiefly, or matai, titles associated with a Samoan’s ancestry play an important role in that person’s identity formation. Meleisea (1987) states that, “These high titles and the orator groups of Samoa are like a fishing net, the strings of which link together all the families, villages, and districts of Samoa” (p. 32).  A particular family’s genealogical background, such as those found in the Samoan matai system of social organization and political governance, confers status in Samoa and oftentimes provides individuals with leadership opportunities within a given family or community (Tcherkezoff, 1998).  Leadership opportunities stemming from the holding of a matai title contribute to the development of personal and community identity.

Tcherkezoff (1998) claims that, “The chief – the matai – is the head of an extended family defined as a worship community, a genealogical group, with joint land ownership.  Members worship the name of a founding ancestor.  To be ‘alive,’ this name must always be the name of (at least) one family member” (p. 419).  Although not all matai titles were equitably created in terms of the authority vested in them, all Samoan families have a matai title originating from a common ancestor.  Genealogically tracing the roots of a person’s family history to a common matai thereby connects extended family members with one another and helps to maintain sociopolitical status of the individual and family within the broader community (Tcherkezoff, 1998). 

Samoan identity formation is closely linked, therefore, to the ancestry or bloodline of the individual person.  Ancestry operates within the broader culture of Pacific Islander ethnic groups as a means for activating socially based constructs for culturally relevant thought, speech, and behavior that may be transferred from one generation to another (Tcherkezoff, 1998).  At a personal level, social situations provide Samoans with opportunities to share their common ancestries with one another and construct identities that are uniquely individual to the person yet originating from a commonly held and socially constructed referent.  In the following section I describe the literature relating to individual and collective accounts of identity formation with respect to Pacific Islander conceptions of time, space, and genealogy.

Genealogical Conceptions of Time and Space

            In addition to the importance of establishing identity via a grounded

understanding of a person’s bloodline as a Samoan, a review of the literature revealed a secondary aspect in the development of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity; the conceptualization of time and space based on genealogy.  In the case of Hawaiian peoples Spickard (2002), citing the work of Beckwith states that, “Genealogy is nonetheless a very old Pacific imperative.  The Kumulipo and other ancient chants recite long genealogies that give location and substance to the Hawaiian people” (p. 48).  Hawaiians, as do other Pacific Islander ethnic groups, trace their collective history as a people through their genealogies (Spickard, 2002).  Through the ritual chanting of these genealogies Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander peoples form collective identities that are culturally relevant and situated within specific, pre-established conceptualizations of time. 

            The primary geographic space inhabited by Pacific Islander groups like Hawaiians, Tongans, and Samoans remains the Pacific region.  In the United States, for example, Pacific Islanders form a part of a larger multiethnic group composed of 25 different peoples known as Asian-Pacific Islanders (Small, 2007).  In response to this meaningless designation by the U.S. government, many Pacific Islander ethnic groups have retained their cultural roots by tracing, and then celebrating, their family genealogies across the political and historical divisions set up by local, state, and national governments.  Spickard (2002) mentions that, “This celebration of the mystic chords of memory is perhaps as important as the actual content of the genealogical account in gluing together Hawaiians as a people” (p. 49).  Through the celebration of their collective history and genealogical conception of space, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander ethnic groups effectively establish identity. 

            In the United States, the identities of Pacific Islanders are widening to include a broader cross-section of the overall U.S. population (Small, 2007).  Geographically and ethnically the lines separating one Pacific Islander ethnic group from another are becoming blurred as families are cross-fertilized through shared experiences stemming from the social institutions of marriage, work, and education.  According to Small (2007), the cross-fertilization of Pacific Islander culture is particularly apparent in the youth.  “Among young people, this sense of community has extended from a common national homeland or ethnicity to a more pan-Polynesian (or pan-Pacific Islander) purview…” (p. 539). 

Linking these new multiethnic identities together is a conceptualization of Pacific Islander peoples’ own genealogical linkages to a particular historical time period and cultural space.  The commonalities of Pacific Islander peoples, as expressed through their ancestral connections with one another, are helping to form what some consider in the United States to be a new identity: Pacific Islander American (Small, 2007).  Interwoven within this new identity are cultural conditions like ancestry, family, cultural practice, and place.  In the following section I will review the literature on the impact of family in the construction of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity.


The Extended Family or Samoan Aiga

            A second cultural condition that has an impact on the development of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity is the family (Spickard, 2002).  “The place, above all others, where Tongan or Fijian or Samoan culture is passed on is in the family” (p. 49).  Many of the activities associated with Pacific Islander ethnicity happen within the extended family or, in the case of Samoans, in the aiga.  Community ceremonies and obligations are organized and carried out on a family basis as well (Spickard, 2002).  According to Janes (2002), “Most members of an ‘aiga are close cognatic kin and affines, but there are more distant kin in temporary residence, for people are wont to exercise rights to hospitality and membership in ‘aiga to which they can trace kinship” (p. 123).  Members of a Samoan aiga cooperatively utilize resources such as land, money, and food (Janes, 2002).  The aiga can also provide individual family members with opportunities to attain leadership status within the family and community via accessing rights to land ownership and sociopolitical governance conferred on one by the holding of a matai title (Janes, 2002).  One of the primary means for transferring Pacific Islander culture and establishing ethnic identity, therefore, is through the extended family or aiga (Janes, 2002).

At the community level, aiga are associated with a particular village.  Brothers often form the core of the village unit and occupy land that historically belongs to a matai (Janes, 2002).  Janes (2002) maintains that, “The most important dimension of Samoan descent and social organization is that membership in a localized segment is maintained through active participation, and that one’s potential membership in other groups is allowed to lapse or remain latent until activated for some purpose” (p. 123).  The community is dependent upon both the active and the latent relationships existing within the aiga to provide the villagers with the support required for socioeconomic and political organization. 

Migration is one way that Samoans utilize latent kinship ties to establish strong socioeconomic and political ties to the outside world (Janes, 2002).  Ritual and social activities help to activate the latent ties connecting families and communities spread throughout the Pacific diaspora.  Rites of passage such as marriages, funerals, and other kindred events require the participation of extended family members in the form of economic and/or political support provided to the aiga and broader community (Janes, 2002).  The overall health of the aiga and the community, in many instances, depends on the migratory patterns of the extended family members and the latent kinship ties they have to the aiga.  Once activated, these latent ties oftentimes result in powerful connections resulting in the transference of authority and, in some cases, significant sums money and/or material goods. 

In the wake of the recent earthquake in Samoa, Pacific Islanders spread throughout the Pacific diaspora activated their latent kinship ties with extended family members to help in the recovery and reconstruction of the homes and villages destroyed by the tsunami.  For example, the rebuilding of Manono, a small island located between the main Samoan islands of Upolu and Savaii, will be a community-wide process involving all villagers.  The primary socioeconomic and political thrust of the reconstruction projects, however, will be led by the Leiataua matai originating from the Ala’ilima aiga.  Each villager depends on the Leiataua to form the core framework of Manono’s social, economic, and political organization.  The Leiataua will provide the resources needed to reconstruct the villages in return for use of the communally held lands.  Reconstruction projects of this nature aid in the development of a Samoan identity. 

            Familial ties, such as those found in the Samoan aiga, also help to strengthen diasporic communities of Pacific Islanders living within the Pacific region.  According to Ablon (1971), “As in Samoa, the extended family persists as the key social unit in ‘Pacific City.’  The extended family household customarily numbers from six to ten persons.  Various relatives come and go, the duration of their stays are dependent on their reasons for being in the household and in the area” (p. 389).  Kinship ties nascent to Pacific Islander communities located in areas such as New Zealand, Southern California, and the Pacific Northwest mirror, in many ways, the kinship ties in communities in Samoa (Ablon, 1971). 

Strong kinship ties contribute to the transferring of cultural values, beliefs, and mores and aid in the development of ethnic identities that are uniquely Samoan, Tongan, or Hawaiian (Ablon, 1971).  Collectively, Samoan identities emerge out of the aiga and aid in the binding together of other Pacific Islander communities dispersed throughout the Pacific region.  In the following paragraphs I will discuss the significance of adoption and marriage in the development of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity and how these social institutions contribute to the organization of community. 

Family by Adoption and Marriage

Family ties within Pacific Islander communities do not necessarily have to be genetic.  It is possible to gain acceptance into, or develop a connection with, an aiga through adoption and/or marriage (Spickard, 2002).  “One’s adoption into a particular Pacific Islander ethnic group seems to entitle one to a more complete membership in that group than is the case with other American groups” (Spickard, 2002).  Children commonly adopted into Samoan families oftentimes take on the cultural characteristics of the adopting family, despite pre-existing racial or ethnic differences.  It is not uncommon for these interethnically adopted children to grow into an identity that is uniquely Samoan, despite their non-Samoan genetic make-up (Spickard, 2002).  Non-Samoan children adopted into Samoan families often consider themselves to be Samoan and have a tendency to raise their own children as Samoans (Spickard, 2002). 

Additionally, individuals can marry into the aiga although it appears that the connection to identity development is less prominent in this scenario than is that case with adoption (Spickard, 2002).  Spickard mentions that, “…experiences suggest that perhaps identity acquired through marriage is less strong than identity that comes from the home of your childhood” (p. 50).  Irrespective of the marital or familial circumstances, it is clear that family networks, such as the Samoan aiga, play an integral role in helping individuals form ethnic identities and communities that are uniquely Pacific Islander in nature.  Together, the cultural sensibilities and tendencies of a particular ethnic group’s family structure help to form Pacific Islander communities at home and abroad (Spickard, 2002).  In the subsequent section of the literature review, I will examine cultural practice as the third condition for developing a Pacific Islander ethnic identity. 

Cultural Practice

Language, Values, and Social Institutions

            An equally important aspect of determining Pacific Islander ethnicity is cultural practice (Spickard, 2002).  Cultural practice includes the language, values, and social institutions making up a particular ethnic groups culture or society (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).  A person is Tongan because he or she behaves like a Tongan, speaks the Tongan language, and maintains the values, beliefs, and mores that make up Tongan culture and society (Spickard, 2002).  In the case of Samoans, Spickard states, “One is Samoan because one speaks Samoan and one understands and lives fa’a samoa” (p. 51). 

Loosely translated, fa’a samoa is an all encompassing way of being and living that permeates all of Samoan culture and society.  To be fa’a samoa a person must be committed to living the Samoan way.  Language plays a critical role within the social construct provided by the fa’a samoa.  According to Spickard (2002), “Many Pacific Islander Americans would argue, indeed, that language is the sine qua non, of ethnicity, the essential variety of cultural practice, because so much that is powerful is shared through language” (p. 51).  Language, for Samoans and other Pacific Islander ethnic groups, allows individuals to communicate the critical aspects of the culture and society with others in ways that cannot be expressed in a non-native tongue.

            In the case of Samoan migrants living in the Pacific diaspora, it appears that language, values, and social institutions play an important role in transmitting cultural knowledge as well as for those living in Samoa.  Macpherson and Macpherson (2000) found that Samoans who had migrated to New Zealand, “…exhibited a strong sense of ethnic identity and pride, a commitment to the community of origin typical of sojourners, and a sense of being an extension of the community rather than a separate entity” (p. 71).  Samoan migrants, living in New Zealand, demonstrated little proclivity for setting aside their own language, values, and institutions in favor of their host country’s (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000). 

The Samoan migrants living in New Zealand frequently were in touch with communities located in Samoa as a result of the guiding principles emerging from the fa’a samoa (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).  For example, many families had been selected to migrate to New Zealand, specifically, for the purpose of obtaining higher wage earning occupations.  Family members were then obligated to send money to Samoa to support the expenses incurred from day-to-day living within the Samoan aiga.  According to Macpherson and Macpherson (2000), it was the fa’a samoa that tied migrant Samoan communities together in New Zealand and abroad.  “They retained their language, values, and social institutions, that is, to the fa’a samoa, a word that can refer to any one or a combination of these three elements” (p. 71). 

            Structural factors also played a role in the Samoan migrants’ retention of their culture in New Zealand (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).  Chain migration, which characterized the Samoan migrants’ movement into New Zealand during the 1960’s and 1970’s, resulted in, “residential and occupational concentrations” (p. 71).  Residential and occupational concentrations of Samoans contributed to the retention of the values, language, and institutions of the fa’a samoa, helped migrant families to pool their social resources and, ultimately, aided in their survival within a marginally stable economic environment in New Zealand (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000). 

In New Zealand, Samoans retained the institutions commensurate with the aiga, the Kalupa (savings and credit associations), church-based welfare associations, village-based associations, and sporting and recreational associations in these concentrated migrant communities in order to preserve their cultural identity (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).  It was not that Samoan migrants had an antipathy for New Zealander culture but rather they chose to develop identities centered on the familiar values, language, and institutions of the fa’a samoa.  Extended kin groups provided insurance for Samoan migrants in an effort to provide greater economic security for individual Samoan families living at or near the margins of New Zealander society, furthering the development of a Samoan ethnic identity (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).

Another aspect of the fa’a Samoa relates to the opportunities for children to acquire the core values, language, and institutions of the culture.  In the case of the Samoan migrants in New Zealand, Macpherson and Macpherson (2000) found that Samoan children were provided, both formally and informally, with multiple opportunities to develop their individual identities as Samoan youth via parental modeling. 


The most influential force in this process was the attitudes and conduct of parents and other adults.  Parents and other adults evaluated the relevance of Samoan identity and then represented this to their children quite formally and quite explicitly.  But they also spoke informally about things Samoan in ways that reflected their attitudes.  Both explicit and implicit representation influenced younger Samoans especially, who seemed to have a clear idea of how positively or negatively their parents viewed the fa’a samoa (p. 72).


With respect to the New Zealander case, the children of migrant Samoans developed positive attitudes toward the fa’a samoa.  Children living in homes where the operating culture was Samoan, or organized around cultural principles aligned with the fa’a samoa and in which the Samoan language was heavily used, tended to have more positive evaluations of the fa’a samoa than did their New Zealand-born Samoan counterparts who were not explicitly engaged in the language, values, and institutions of the culture (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000).  In the homes where several cultures were operating, including the fa’a samoa, children expressed mixed evaluations with respect to Samoan culture.  In some instances the availability of the language, values, and institutions of the fa’a samoa were seen as a benefit.  In other instances, families described the fa’a samoa as “worse” or less “useful” than other culturally based

alternatives (Macpherson and Macpherson, 2000). 

            In each of these examples, children experienced the relevance of the fa’a samoa as situational and viewed the distinctions between it and other cultural alternatives as opportunities to express the multifaceted aspects of their ethnic identities.  According to Macpherson and Macpherson (2000), “Language use is a case in point.  Languages are presented as alternatives: parents are likely to use and encourage the use of Samoan in situations in which Samoans are present, and English in situations in which non-Samoans are present” (pp. 73-74).  Language, as is true with cultural knowledge, is situational and dependent upon the individual and the context within which the words and knowledge are being applied.  The cultural basis for developing a Pacific Islander ethnic identity is, therefore, multidimensional and contextually driven by the values, beliefs, and institutions comprising the individual’s social environment. 

            Immigrant families within the Pacific diaspora initially enter the United States, New Zealand, and other geographic locales within the Pacific region with the hope of seeking greater economic freedom, safety, or the dream of providing increased opportunities for their offspring (Mau, 1994).  Oftentimes acculturation and the development of ethnic identity is a difficult process for adults and children to engage in.  Pacific Islander adolescents, especially, seem to struggle with maintaining the cultural language, values, and institutions of their parents due to the onslaught of western, cultural alternatives (Mau, 1994).  In the following paragraphs I will look at the literature on how place has an impact on the development of Pacific Islander ethnic identity and examine the multiple ways in which people of Pacific Islander descent are using place as a means for carving out unique identities throughout the Pacific region. 


Ties to the Land

            A fourth basis for the development of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity is a person’s relationship to place.  In Hawaiian culture the word for place is synonymous with the name for the land which is aina (Spickard, 2002).  Hawaiians deeply value their connection to place or aina.  Spickard (2002) states, “The caring is reciprocal, for the land also cares for the people, and the relationship is a deep, family bond” (p. 51).  Above almost all else, the Hawaiian people stress the importance of this bond and the need for re-establishing their ties to the aina (Spickard, 2002). 

            Pacific Islanders of other ethnicities also celebrate the importance of place in determining their identities (Spickard, 2002).  Stories exist of migrant Tongans and Samoans who eschewed their aboriginal ethnicities in favor of western identities only to later realize, upon returning to their homelands, the profound influence place has on the development of Pacific Islander ethnic and cultural identity.  Spickard (2002) describes the story of Tupou Hopoate Pau’u, a Tongan raised in Australia who had the opportunity to return to her native Tonga.  “She now speaks in hushed tones of her first encounter with the village and the hut where she was born, and the intense love for her people and her culture that grew from that encounter to become on of the central forces in her life” (p. 52). 

            In the case of Pau’u, her return to Tonga influenced her decision to work as a missionary in Tonga, to attend a university consisting of mainly Pacific Islanders, to marry a Tongan American, to live in a Tongan community in Southern California, and to become a lawyer to help serve her people (Spickard, 2002).  Each stage in her life was heavily influenced by her decision to return to the place of her birth in search of her identity as a Tongan woman.  Pacific Islanders from all over the diaspora, like Pau’u, are returning to their Pacific homelands in search of a place that will connect them to the lost, or hidden, parts of their identity.

            In her seminal work on colonialism and sovereignty in Hawaii, Haunani-Kay Trask (1999) describes to the reader the importance of place in preserving the natural bounty of her native Hawaii.  “Hand in hand with protection of the ocean and land environments goes protection of the many Native cultures, which are dependent on the island/sea ecosystem” (p. 52).  Trask (1999) takes on the rapid growth of foreign culture and western economies and the negative impact they have had on the indigenous people of Hawaii.  “When coupled with the effects of tourism, rapid introduction of mass communication and transport can destroy cultures in less than a generation.  Familiar social problems follow, and the Native people are consigned to an oppressive destiny they have few means of controlling” (p. 52-53).  The effects of colonialism and environmental degradation are present in many island nations of the Pacific region and this has led to the development of suppressed and, in some instances like the Marshall Islands, oppressed ethnic identities for Pacific Islanders (Trask, 1999).  The importance of preserving the environment as a sacred and viable means for connecting the people to the land and culture appears as a major theme in Trask’s work and signals to the reader the significance of place in developing ethnic identity for Pacific Islanders.


Through the internet many Pacific Islanders are finding news ways to tap into global networks and re-discover their ethnic identities.  Within a transnational and pan-Polynesian context, many Pacific Islanders are communicating with one another through family-based listservs and web pages, home island news sites, and international websites and chat rooms (Small, 2007).  According to Small (2007), the names of the chat rooms include, “PolyCafe, the KavaBowl, Planet Tonga, Samoa Chat, Yahoo’s Fiji chatroom, and BulaFiji” (p. 541).  The cyberspace network has made a sizeable impact on the networking of Pacific Islanders throughout the Pacific diaspora and has created a new place for people to, “…keep apprised of news in their home country, issues of concerns to young people, and ethnic events, music, and interfamily news” (p. 541). 

Pacific Islander youth comprise many of the people utilizing the internet as a place to create and express one’s ethnic identity (Small, 2007).  It is primarily the young adult children of Pacific Islander migrants who are, in many instances, responsible for creating the family web sites that aid in communicating family news and assist in the displaying of photos of family members living in other countries (Small, 2007).  In addition to the typical banter regarding family announcements, marriages, and funerals there is also a propensity of Pacific Islanders utilizing family web sites as a means for transmitting important cultural values, beliefs, and institutions. 

People living abroad are able to connect with the Samoan or Hawaiian parts of their identity by connecting with family members living across the globe.  Cooking recipes, family trees, and updates on new additions to the family pepper typical Pacific Islander family web sites and make a measurable impact on connecting members’ identities together.  Undoubtedly, place has an effect on the development of ethnic identity for Pacific Islanders.  In the next sections I will describe some general findings related to this literature review as well as briefly discuss gaps in the literature and recommendations for further research.

General Findings

Social Processes and the Construction of Identity

            Overall, the four primary themes appearing in the literature on the development of Pacific Islander ethnic identity were ancestry, family, cultural practice, and place.  Generally speaking, a couple of major elements emerged in the literature tying together a description of how identity forms for Pacific Islanders.  First, identity formation in Pacific Islanders is a combination of social processes involving the interaction of the individual with the collective society.  Individuals interact with one another in meaningful ways in an effort to formalize their relationships and construct personal identities embedded in community.  The importance of ancestry for Pacific Islanders is an example of this.  Samoans, in particular, seem to participate in a kind of cultural exchange through the reciting of their respective lineages.  Genealogical exchanges of this nature help to situate individuals within a collectivist framework that most Samoans recognize and readily identify with.  Ancestry provides symbolic meaning to the connection and this helps to solidify one’s identity as a member of the group. 

The aiga is a second example of how ethnic identity forms through the socialization processes existent between the individual and the collective.  Active and latent kinship ties allow Samoans and other Pacific Islander ethnic groups to politically and economically organize their relationships within the broader context provided by community and village life.  Family networks are interdependent organizations reflecting the cultural values, attitudes, and beliefs of the community.  The fa’a samoa is a primary example of a collection of socially constructed artifacts inculcated within the family and disseminated throughout the community.  Social obligations such as sending money home to the aiga to help in reconstruction projects take on symbolic as well as literal meaning and aid in defining the parameters for appropriate behavior for individual members of the group, village, and community.  A Samoan constructs his or her identity through the interaction with other family and community members engaged in similar social processes that, again, are easily recognized and understood as culturally significant.

A third way that individuals socially develop identity through their interaction with the collective is via cultural practice and place.  Place provides the context for understanding one’s position within a given culture and cultural practice gives meaning to the context.  Pacific Islanders construct meaning through the shared language, values, and institutions emerging out the physical environments surrounding them.  Place provides the backdrop for all that is contained within the culture and practiced on a daily basis.  In this way, the identities of the person’s engaging in the culture take on the physical characteristics present in the environment.  Threats to the stability of the environment endanger the livelihood of the culture and undermine the foundation upon which ethnic identity develops for Pacific Islanders. 

On the whole, individual and collective processes of socialization involve the cultural conditions or bases of ancestry, family, cultural practice, and place.  Together, these processes and conditions aid in the constructing of an ethnic identity that is uniquely Pacific Islander.  Recognition, especially in the Pacific diaspora, of an identity unique to Pacific Islander ethnic groups like the Samoans, Tongans, and Hawaiians takes on particular significance if we are to better understand who these people are and how they might add to the variegated patchwork of cultures and ethnicities present in places like the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.   

Gaps in the Literature

Need for Further Research

The general findings emanating from this review suggest that there are gaps in the literature regarding the development of an ethnic identity unique to the island peoples living in the United States and across the Pacific.  As I previously mentioned in the introduction, there exists a verifiable lack of research and literature specific to identity formation in Pacific Islanders and even less information is available on specific ethnic groups like Samoans and Tongans.  Many of the titles that I utilized for researching this literature review were difficult to find and tough to acquire.  For example, distant libraries and titles purchased over the internet were the primary places in which I obtained my literary resources, including a few articles of relevance generated from the University of St. Thomas literary database.  What this seems to suggest, is that more research will be needed prior to developing a theoretical framework for explaining how Samoans, Tongans, and other ethnic groups native to the Pacific develop their identities and how these identities coalesce into broader patterns of identity formation for Pacific Islanders living within the Pacific diaspora. 

I am intrigued by the possibility of interviewing family members of mine living in places like Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, American Samoa, and Independent Samoa.  I am particularly interested in learning more on how the four themes emerging from this literature review interact with one another across geographic locales.  What patterns exist, in terms of the construction of a Pacific Islander ethnic identity, across the Pacific region within the context provided by a single aiga?  How do these patterns intersect with social issues such as degradation of the environment and the subsequent loss of native Pacific Islander languages and cultural knowledge?  How can we as leaders and qualitative researchers bring these issues to the foreground in an effort to preserve native culture for all peoples?  Before we provide the answers to these tough questions, we as leaders must be willing to listen to the multitude of ethnic and cultural voices that have been snuffed out by the dominant hegemony of the western world.  We must celebrate the diversity in ourselves and in each other, welcoming all at the table of nations, if we are to survive as a people.  On this principle, rests the future of our world.   


Ablon, J. (1971). Retention of cultural values and differential urban adaptation:     Samoans and American Indians in a west coast city. Social Forces, 49(3), 385-  393.

Janes, C.R. (2002). From village to city: Samoan migration to California. In P. Spickard,               J. Rondilla, & D. Wright. (Eds.), Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United         States and Across the Pacific (pp.40-55). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Macpherson, C. & Macpherson, L. (2000). The children of Samoan migrants in New          Zealand. In P. Spickard & J.W. Burroughs (Eds.), Narrative and Multiplicity in             Constructing Ethnic Identity (pp. 70-81). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mau, R.Y. (1994). Cultural conflict and gender socialization as obstacles to high school    graduation: Some insights from Samoan adolescent women. In V. Demos & M.            Segal (Eds.), Ethnic Women: A Multiple Status Reality (pp. 248-260). Dix Hills,         New York: General Hall, Inc.

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Source: See Reference List