Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Samoa ‘ava ceremony, circa 1911

The Crew Who Changed into Dolphins (O Le ‘Auva’a Liu Mumua)

Samoa has rich oral traditions, mythologies, and legends, and some have been closely associated with traditional festivals and rituals such as the ‘Ava (or Kava) ceremony. ‘Ava is a beverage produced from the root of Kava, which is consumed throughout Polynesia, Melanesia, and some parts of Micronesia. The dried Kava root is grounded into a powder, added to water, and blended in a tanoa (round bowl made from a single piece of wood with multiple legs). The ‘ava drink is often prepared by a group of people during the ‘Ava ceremony. This well-known ceremony has important socio-cultural meanings and is the most significant ritual at the bestowal of matai, Samoan chiefs.

In Samoan myths, legends, and written records, there are many connections between Samoan people and those of other Pacific islands such as Tonga, Fiji, Uvea, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and Papua New Guinea. A popular Samoan legend, ‘The Crew Who Changed into Dolphins’ illustrates the voyage Tuifiti’Li made with his crew and his daughter, Sina, to Fiji, when his daughter went missing from preparing an ‘ava drink for him.

The legend begins with Tuifiti’Li, his daughter Sina, and crew sailing toward the eastern part of Samoa. During this journey, Sina’s responsibility on the boat was to mix the ‘ava for her father. Since the distance from Fiji to Samoa was quite far, it meant a long voyage at the sea.

Having left Samoa behind, they dropped anchor before the village of Fagasa. Here Sina went ashore to fetch water to mix her father’s ‘ava drink. Accompanied by some of the crew, they located water at Taputapu. The men returned with the water while Sina proceeded to pick Joab’s tears, which were abundant in the area. But alas, Sina did not pay attention to the water she was to fetch for the ‘ava drink, for she was immersed in what she was doing. The men who accompanied her had tired of waiting, so they returned to the boat.

Sina’s desire to collect the seeds caused her to forget the water to mix her father’s drink. Meanwhile, in the soft evening breeze, Tuifiti’Li’s boat was slowly pulling out of the bay. We were told that just as the island was merging into a cloud of oblivion, Tuifiti’Li said, “ask Sina to mix the ‘ava, and let my assistant take the helm.” Except for the crewmen who accompanied Sina ashore and knew where she was, the rest of the crew looked perplexed. The assistant took the helm while Tuifiti’Li sat down in his chair waiting for a drink to be delivered to him.

Tuifiti’Li called out for his drink, and by that point, the whole crew knew that Sina was absent. He was informed that Sina was missing and quickly turned the boat around to find her.

When no crewman was left on the boat, he angrily called out, “May you all turn into dolphins!” We are told that suddenly Sina’s father saw the dolphins swimming together close to the boat, just as the boat was going through the passage in the reef towards Fagasa.

Meanwhile, Sina remembered that she was sent ashore to fetch water to mix ‘ava for her father; she picked up her water containers and started walking with her bag of Joab’s seeds. Poor Sina, she was startled to look at the sea only to realize that the boat was almost disappearing. In her sorrow, she threw down one of the containers of water, which became Tufu spring. While she was crying, carrying the other container, it dropped and broke, forming another shallow pool, Fagasa.

A fisherman named Togamana came across Sina, took her home, and stayed with her. On the same day, before her tears were dried, her father’s boat was seen approaching the channel.

After greeting each other happily, Tuifiti’Li said, “I thank you Togamana for your love for Sina. You will live with her. Every year you will see the dolphins in your coastal waters together with the ‘ata (larger fish), which will guide the horse mackerel. On the coastal waters you will receive fish, but never kill the ‘ata, as they belong to the dolphins. Those are the bridal gifts for my daughter Sina.” These were Tuifiti’Li’s last words as he said farewell to his daughter.

Being aware of the importance of Samoan oral traditions as well as risking the disappearance of this tradition due to rapid modernization and globalization, the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture (MESC) has been working on the safeguarding of Samoan legends, which has led to a compilation of six volumes of bilingual publications of Samoan legends. This work was a result of intensive community consultations and fieldwork. The Ten-Year Cultural Policy of Samoa (2011-2020) draft places special emphasis on safeguarding ICH in Samoa, including its oral traditions and legends. More recently, MESC organized a workshop on safeguarding ICH in Samoa with support of the UNESCO Office for the Pacific States. The workshop adopted recommendations with the objective to strengthen ICH safeguarding in the country, which include several measures, among others, establishing a committee on ICH safeguarding, reviewing the existing legislature, and making a nationwide ICH inventory.