Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL, Rob Ruck, New Press (New York), 2018. Hardcover $27US.

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot, University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu), 2018. Hardcover $85US.

“What would it be like to be in a room with Tua’s father and Nick Saban?” reporters asked on a recent podcast interview about an ESPN cover story on Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The implication is that both Galu Tagovailoa and Nick Saban are strong-willed figures who seemingly bow to no one. Would a meeting between them be a standoff?

Tua Tagovailoa is one of the best players in college football right now, 2018 Heisman Trophy and national championship results aside (Tagovailoa came in 2nd in the Heisman to Kyler Murray, and Alabama came in 2nd to Clemson), whose whole family moved to Alabama when Tua’s father Galu directed him to accept the scholarship offer from UA over numerous West Coast schools that wanted him. As ESPN writer Wright Thompson discovered when he went to Hawaii to conduct research among Tua’s relatives for the story, Galu’s authority in the matter was normal for a Sāmoan family and consistent with fa’asamoa (the ways of Sāmoa).

Nick Saban is like the chief of Alabama football, a high rank given the significant resources the University of Alabama has for football, large number of players it sends to the NFL, and run of national championships. (Photo by Corey C., 2009, CC By-NC 2.0)

Nick Saban is known to anyone familiar with college football as among (if not the) most successful coaches ever, leading a dynasty of national championship teams for over a decade at the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University. He has near absolute authority over the Alabama program and is as famous for successfully training coaches through “the process” as he is for preparing players for life in the NFL. Saban’s emphasis is on building character critical to being good teammates rather than simply exceptional football players.

Two new books published in 2018 emphasize the role of fa’asamoa in amplifying “sticky” cultural concepts or memes—football and tattooing—in cultural adaptation. Both books are historical texts and do not explicitly address their subjects as adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Nonetheless, these works are excellent case studies that outline the dynamics and benefits of cultural persistence among Sāmoans in the Islands and the Sāmoan diaspora.

Historian Rob Ruck’s Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans in the NFL traces the cultural history of European sports introduced to the Sāmoan Islands, especially American football. He follows the adaptation of cricket (kirikiti in Sāmoan) and fondness for rugby to the exposure of Sāmoans to football by Navy service members stationed there during WWII.

Over the following 70 years, as Sāmoan diaspora communities grew in Hawaii, Oceanside, CA, and other parts of the U.S., football and the military became the primary means of social mobility for a largely impoverished people. Sāmoans are 56 times more likely to make it to the NFL than other American football players. In fact, football, the military, and Christianity have all been very popular in the Sāmoas because of their rigidly hierarchical and male-dominated natures.

The Sāmoan Islands are widely acknowledged to possess the least westernized culture left in the Pacific. While missionaries did not arrive until the early part of the 19th century, Christianity rapidly took root in most places. The missionization was so successful because it so closely mirrored the “big man” systems of the Pacific. Furthermore, the material goods missionaries brought with them were so appealing, many islanders quickly converted to acquire goods in a quid pro quo fashion. So what about the Sāmoas resists western influence?

While island groups like Tonga were ruled in the early 1800s by a single king and changed rapidly by royal decree, the Sāmoan island-wide paramount chief had recently died, and the Sāmoan people were in the midst of a civil war to determine who replaced him. Various factions allied with different colonial governments and, thus divided, avoided any unified colonial efforts to undermine their culture.

According to Ruck, who my co-host Cara Ocobock and I interviewed for a podcast episode, his interest is in social justice; he finds writing about games that are popularly interesting enables him to celebrate and comment on culture without alienating readers. Among his other books are Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game and The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

As Ruck points out throughout Tropic of Football, football entails a high degree of cooperation and coordination among teammates. It promotes esprit de corps and putting the wellbeing of the group over the self, something Sāmoans value highly. On the other hand, Sāmoans seem more drawn to the physicality and violence of football than average Americans, and the damage to Sāmoan bodies and brains has been considerable.

Mel Purcell, a former NFL player Ruck interviews who helped build the American Sāmoan high school football infrastructure and has one son in the NFL now, believes football reinforces fa’asamoa for young people. It helps alleviate the precarity of their futures, especially when they obtain an education. Purcell emphasizes the importance within fa’asamoa of cultural values such as ‘aiga (family), tatau (tattooing), and church.

Programs providing free swimming lessons for native Sāmoans have made sights like this common again in American Samoa for the first time in decades. (Photo by author, July 2016)

In many ways, American Samoa is similar to the U.S. Deep South. They are both deeply Christian, love them some football, and have serious carbohydrate and meat associated health problems—namely obesity and metabolic disorders. Even in sharing that dubious distinction, Sāmoans stand out. They are among the largest people in the world.

Researchers have sought genetic explanations for the Sāmoan phenotype for decades. At the time of Ruck’s interview with anthropologist and epidemiologist Steve McGarvey, there was no evidence to support a genetic explanation for what has been termed a “thrifty genotype”—a genetic profile that efficiently adds adipose tissue and reduces the effect of insulin to minimize needs for nourishment during lean times. It was previously hypothesized that only such efficient phenotypes could have managed the trans-Pacific voyaging to populate the Pacific. Indeed, the Sāmoas were first called the Navigator Islands because of the prowess of natives in deep-sea boating.

During WWII, the U.S. Navy mined the waters around Samoa, eliminating access to traditional fishing and leading to reliance on imported and processed foods. Nowadays, government initiatives are trying to reteach Sāmoan children basic native exercises such as swimming. According to a 2016 paper in Nature Genetics, McGarvey’s team, led by geneticist Ryan Minster, has now found a thrifty gene variant that appears to exist primarily in the South Pacific.

Tua Tagovailoa is remarkably small, given this stereotype. He hearkens to the pre-WWII body type. Other than the South’s predilection for Paula Dean-style cooking, his family fits right into Alabama. The homage paid by Southerners to successful Alabama football coaches mirrors the cultural values of fa’asamoa and paying tribute to chiefs, family, and community. One difference though is that Nick Saban does not arrange or even sanction his players to get traditional tatau. As a study I recently conducted at Alabama found, Alabama football players are more tattooed than average undergraduates, but the tattooing is neither organized and celebrated by the community nor does it explicitly signify the commitment of players to chiefs, community, or culture.

The importance of Sāmoan tattooing, on the other hand, may play a major role in the success of Sāmoan culture in the Islands and beyond. Tatau: A Cultural History of Sāmoan Tattooing by Museum of New Zealand curator Sean Mallon and French anthropologist Sébastien Galliot describes why and how Sāmoan tattooing persisted through the missionary period where other Polynesian traditions disappeared.

Tattooing is a master craft in Sāmoa, and the intensive pe’a and malu tattoos for men and women, respectively, are granted as honors that pledge the bearers’ service to family and matai (chief). The traditional tattooing is done as a rite of passage and involves much celebration, feasting, and significant payment to the tufuga tā tatau or master tattooist. The elaboration of these rituals is commensurate with the rank of the individuals present.

Pe’a by Su’a Sulu’ape Paul (left, in Sāmoa in July 2017), and malu by Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo (right, with the author at the 2018 Northwest Tatau Festival). (Photos courtesy author)

In Tatau, Mallon and Galliot trace Sāmoan tattooing practices as far back as is possible for a culture whose language was not written until the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century. Several archaeological studies suggest the patterns of tatau traveled with Lapita ceramic culture through the Pacific, though the practice of tatau may have arrived earlier. Importantly, Mallon and Galliot piece together the persistence of Sāmoan cultural practices with hints of tatau through the missionary and colonial periods.

Colonial governments did not finally take control of the Sāmoas until the beginning of the 20th century, following a historic standoff between warships of the German, U.S., and British navies that ended when a surprise hurricane sank several vessels. After dividing the Islands, with ‘Upolu and Savai’i going to the Germans and Tutuila and the Manu’a Islands to the U.S. (the U.S. made a side deal with Britain, so they exited the scene), the Germans tried to manage the Sāmoans to maximize production of copra (dried coconut produced for oil) while the U.S. largely ignored its new territory. New Zealand acquired Western Samoa after WWI and continued to struggle with managing fa’asamoa.

It is unclear whether colonial pressures led to the diminished practice of tatau or if it abated due to the demographic toll of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which depopulated the Sāmoas by 22%. Mallon and Galliot point to two families that have trained tufuga tā tatau for the past 200 years, though acknowledging there is a debate about this lineage among other tattoo families.

Colonial oppression by the New Zealand government targeted trade items and malaga or traveling parties by matai to visit other communities, political visits entailing large-scale gift exchange and feasting that could go on for weeks. Tatau does not seem to have been associated with this political turmoil. According to Mallon and Galliot, it was not until Western Samoa received its independence in 1962 that there was renewed interest in tatau as a symbol of Sāmoan culture, which traveled with Sāmoans as they emigrated to New Zealand, Hawaii, the U.S., and elsewhere.

As cultures change and migrant families acculturate, values tend to shift and become lost. Among the responsibilities of matai is the preservation of Sāmoan culture while maintaining community viability. Thus, while cultural practices were generally passed down within Sāmoan families before the modern era, this tradition of cultural transmission may have been a by-product of pre-colonial isolation.

The key to the Sāmoan story, as Sāmoan writer and activist Albert Wendt has pointed out, is that there is no such thing as “traditional” Sāmoan culture. The term traditional is used as shorthand for before and after the modern period, but Polynesian Islanders were never isolated from each other. The Sāmoan affinity for the military, football, and Christianity is due to their complementarity to fa’asamoa, not merely a colonial replacement for it. Sāmoans have taken in what is useful and achieved relative success.

Sāmoan tufuga have also retaught tattoo craft to Polynesian non-Sāmoans, and many of those Polynesian tattoo practices now flourish again, albeit in the context of global popularity and tourism. As Barry Hewlett and L.L. Cavalli-Sforza found in a 1986 study among the Aka (pygmy) foragers, this horizontal cultural transmission among non-kin contemporaries is faster than vertical transmission from parents to offspring.

According to Mallon and Galliot, some matai complain that training non-Samoans as tufuga tā tatau and the Contemporary Polynesian tattoo style, a fusion of designs administered with electric tattoo machines, undermine the cultural meaning and value of tatau. However, ‘aiga Sulu’ape tufuga argue that outsiders have been more interested in their culture than have many Sāmoans and have been thus integral to their success.

The Sāmoan paternalistic system of honor, status, and prestige is also part of the cultural ecology of football and tattooing whereby their culture has persisted beyond the Islands. Cultural evolutionists Joseph Henrich and colleagues suggest that prestige is a more effective mechanism in successful cultural transmission than status. Greater variation in and difficulty of acquiring skills are associated with more pressure to focus on skilled individuals and to learn from them. Status signifies a place in a hierarchy that may simply be inherited, as is the case with some matai titles, whereas prestige is conferred on those whom others emulate.

The successes of Alopati Lolotai, Charlie Ane, and Bob Apisa in college and professional football in the 1950s and ‘60s set the stage for the Sāmoan pipeline. More importantly, it was their return to the Islands to train young people that elevated the prestige of the Sāmoan football player.

Yet prestige and status are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Ruck describes, Jesse Sapolu was granted a matai title, despite being born and raised in Hawai’i, because of his success in the NFL (four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers) and malaga to Sāmoa to celebrate Polynesians in the NFL. His matai title originated in the village his mother was from, so the honor could be granted to him as a relative outsider. However, a matai title comes with responsibilities and means Sapolu is expected to help and support his village in perpetuity. The combination of prestige and status makes such individuals even more compelling as a role model.

Thus, the coincidence of a civil war during the early missionary period allowed for the stickiness of football and tattooing and their associated prestige in the 20th century. Combined with an openness to horizontal transmission of cultural skills and the valuation of matai and ‘aiga over self, their culture has arguably benefited Sāmoans in their encounters with globalization.

As someone interested personally and academically in football and tattoos, both books are fascinating, well researched, and easy to read. For those with a passing interest, the repetition of material and profusion of names (Polynesian naming practices are difficult for English speakers to follow) may be exhausting. However, Tatau is also visually stunning and sumptuous in its book artistry, making it worth the comparatively higher price for the many wonderful photos and insets alone.

Published On: January 25, 2019

Christopher D. Lynn

Christopher D. Lynn

Christopher Lynn is a biocultural medical anthropologist who studies cultural impacts on health and human cognitive evolution. He received his Ph.D. from the University at Albany (SUNY) and is currently an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. He co-edited Evolution Education in the American South: Culture, Politics, and Resources in and around Alabama and is working on a book about dissociation and consciousness. He is currently researching tattooing and immune response among Pacific Islanders, developing an anthropology outreach program for elementary students, and co-hosting the “Sausage of Science” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Ly and @Inking_Immunity.

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