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The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 307-340

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Seattle Fa'a Samoa

Barbara Burns McGrath

The paper reviews the concept of community as it has been used by social scientists to describe groups of people, and explores how it might be developed to understand the experience of diasporic communities. Although community avoids some of the essentializing tendencies that are inherent in the concept of culture, the classic use of community fails to acknowledge the reality of travel, and the transcultural, transnational movement of people and ideas. Four Samoan individuals who live in Seattle are portrayed using the method of "ethnography of the particular" to illustrate the cross-cutting influences of their lives and the fluid nature of the boundaries that surround their multiple communities. Shared values of the importance of family ties and church connections help to define what it means to be Samoan in Seattle.
Keywords: Samoa, diaspora, fa'a Samoa, culture, identity

In a modern world full of movement and interconnections maintaining a sense of self is one of the many challenges facing individuals and social groups. One strategy is to define self in opposition to others by emphasizing cultural identity. Samoans living in Seattle can be seen as a distinct cultural community with easily recognizable features that set it apart from the dominant culture and from other ethnic groups in the region. But as tempting it may be to succinctly define and measure this community, attempts to do so inevitably ignore the importance of cross-cutting influences and fail to recognize the fluid nature of its boundaries. Individuals have links outside the group as well as within and create a sense of self from a variety of emotional relationships and from multiple spheres of activity. Such complexity challenges the notion of communities as bounded entities and suggests a dynamic process of creating connections based on entangled cultural identities. One of the purposes of this paper is to examine the borders around this community as a way of exploring what it means to be Samoan in Seattle. A second purpose is to unsettle the concept of community and move toward a new understanding of it based on the reality of contemporary global migration.

The islands of the Pacific beckon tourists in search of a tropical paradise at the same time as the inhabitants leave in large numbers in search of better employment and educational opportunities. During the past several decades Samoa has experienced a major exodus with the result that over 60 percent of American Samoans have left for the United States and one-third of the population of Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is overseas (Shankman 1993). Destinations for western Samoan migrants have been [End Page 307] American Samoa and New Zealand, and increasingly Australia, Hawai'i, and the continental United States. The first wave of migration from American Samoa to the United States followed World War II. At that time the US military transferred its operations from Pago Pago to bases on the West Coast. Civilian employees and enlisted men, with their families, were transferred primarily to Hawai'i, California, and Washington state. These families established households that would later serve as destinations for other migrants. Many among the first cohort of immigrants were able to purchase their own homes within a few years after their arrival (Janes 1986a). This has not been the pattern in more recent times; newcomers now typically live with relatives until government-subsidized or affordable housing can be found.

Seattle is on the West Coast or the "edge" of the United States and, with a population of 540,000, represents a model of urban American life. It is infused with the belief that it is at the vanguard of social, economic, and cultural modernity in the new millennium. The city shares the limelight with high-profile companies like Microsoft and Starbucks, while trying to maintain its reputation as labor friendly and pro-environment. The diverse population is not so much a melting pot of cultures as the product of a series of waves of groups arriving, each one for different reasons. Asian immigration and Pacific...


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