The Institute for Intercultural Studies


IN THE FIELD: Changing Images of Samoa

Margaret Mead went to Samoa in 1925 to do her first field work on the island of Ta'u, one of the Manua group in American Samoa. This was the only field trip on which Mead was photographer, using the "box brownie" camera that had come into fashion. Mead wrote up this field trip in her 1928 best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa, which included her photos, used sparingly for illustration.

Twelve of Mead's photos were published in the first edition of Coming of Age, but omitted in subsequent editions and completely forgotten when the 2000 reissue was planned - it was based on later editions because of Mead's cumulative prefaces. Few of the classic's many thousand readers have seen these photographs, brought forward in recent presentations by Sharon Tiffany, comparing Mead's choice of images with popular contemporary ideas about Samoa.

All photos by Margaret Mead; all captions from the first edition of "Coming of Age in Samoa"
Dancing Costume
1. "A dancing costume for European tastes"
Maker of Bark Cloth
2. "A famous maker of bark cloth"
Spirit of the Wood
3. "A spirit of the wood"
Talking Chief
4. "A talking chief - the native Master of Ceremonies"
Midnight Darkness
5. "By name House of Midnight Darkness"
Dressed Up
6. "Dressed up in her big sister's dancing skirt"
Bark Cloth Costume
7. "In the bark cloth costume of long ago"
Hibiscus in her hair
8. "With hibiscus in her hair"
Chief's Daughter
9. "A Chief's Daughter"
10. "House to meet the stranger"
11. "Rebuilding the village after a hurricane"
Local Parliament
12. "The local parliament is convened"

The village of Ta'u was restudied in 1953-54 by Lowell Holmes, now professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, Wichita. Holmes has returned to Samoa repeatedly since then as it has lost the protective isolation that made Mead choose it and that made it contrast sharply with the areas of Western Samoa where Derek Freeman did his main work. In Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy & Beyond, which appeared four years after Freeman's attack on Mead, Holmes presented his findings as the only other anthropologist who had done extended work on that island. The book included a long list of detailed corrections, many concerning terminology, but Holmes reports that "the validity of her Samoan research is remarkably high." (P.103) Holmes has returned to Samoa half a dozen times and published an additional book on Ta'u, Samoan Village, Then and Now with Ellen R. Holmes. In his remarks on how Ta'u has changed through time, he emphasizes the effects of technology and the choices opened up by transportation

Ta'u Then and Now
by Lowell D. Holmes, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Wichita State University
and Ellen R. Holmes, Associate Professor Emeritus, Wichita State University

If Margaret Mead could return to the island of Ta'u today, the changes would be startling, beginning with the mode of transportation. In earlier days, one arrived at Ta'u aboard an infrequently scheduled inter-island schooner and then was rowed ashore in a long boat over a turbulent reef. Even in 1954, when Lowell Holmes first went there, the schooner only made a monthly trip to Manu'a. In the 1970s, boat service was weekly, but additional transportation by small single-engine aircraft had become available, although somewhat irregularly scheduled. The grass landing strip on the hill above Ta'u village was hazardous, because, regardless of wind direction, planes always had to land and take-off in the same direction.

Ta'u Village in 1988, a year after a devastating hurricane. Photo credit: L. Holmes.
Tau Village

Today, there is a new, safe concrete landing strip in Fitiuta village. Ta'u island residents and visitors are now dependent on air transportation; only an occasional government boat brings in supplies and takes passengers if necessary. During Mead's research on the island, the 8-mile trip between Fitiuta and Ta'u Village was a long walk over the mountain. Today a modern road connects the villages, and cars and other motor vehicles have been in use on the island for over 25 years.

Due to the threat of hurricanes, Ta'u islanders were encouraged to replace tradition fale with concrete structures. Photo credit: L. Holmes.
Concrete structures

When Mead was in Ta'u village, every dwelling was a traditional fale, and when Holmes worked there in 1954, all but six out of 89 houses were of traditional style and materials. None remain. As the result of devastating hurricanes in 1966, 1987 and 1990, the people have been encouraged to construct houses of more durable materials, primarily poured concrete or concrete blocks. All have electricity, most households have access to telephone service, and some have television.

Ta'u dock and breakwater, the first of its kind in Ta'u Village. Photo credit: L. Holmes.
Tau dock

When we returned in 1976, the old L.M.S. (London Missionary Society) church which long dominated the village landscape had been abandoned and a new one built in a different location. The first dock on the island was built in Ta'u in the 1980s; a second one, offering better protection, now exists in Faleasao.

Taro, bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, fish, pork and chicken are staple foods in the Samoan diet, supplemented by a variety of imported American foods which are available.

Clothing styles are a mixture of traditional and American: the lavalava (wraparound) is ubiquitous, but t-shirts, athletic shoes, sweatshirts and pants (in spite of the climate), shorts, and jeans are also in demand.

Census data indicate that while the population of American Samoa has increased from 20,051 in 1960 to 57,291 in 2000, the population of Manu'a islands (Ta'u, Ofu and Olosega) has been declining from a high of 2,983 in 1950 to 1,378 in 2000. Ta'u village had 700 residents in 1954; in 2000, there were only 380, and average household size was 5 people, considerably smaller than in earlier years. This decline is primarily due to the lack of economic development in this small, isolated part of the territory. Many young people leave Ta'u after high school to seek better opportunities on the main island of Tutuila, or in Hawaii or mainland U.S.

Today, 79% of the adult population of Ta'u have completed high school or a higher level of education, with another 11.8% who have at least a 9th grade education. Although Samoan is the language of choice at home, only 2% of those age 5 or over do not speak English.

Unlike Hawaii, Samoan land rights have been preserved, and except for a small percentage of government land, families still control their traditional land. Extended family households are common; and the role of matai (chief), who is responsible for family welfare and its representative in the village council, is still valued. Ceremonial events continue to be associated with display of oratorical skills, group dancing, and elaborate gift exchanges.

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