O le ʻIe Sae, o le Maniti a Tamāliʻi—Weaving Social Cohesion in Samoa

A child watches and learns as her mother weaves a fine mat ⓒ Steven Percival

Samoa is a country of great natural beauty with a rich and distinguished cultural heritage. Living in isolation from the rest of the world in the vast Pacific Ocean, Sāmoans have developed a body of traditional ecological knowledge and a wide range of artisanal skills enabling them to create all they need to live in comfort and safety. The wellbeing of the extended family and an intricate network of kinship ties form a complex system of traditional governance and social organisation in one of the few remaining chiefdom cultures of the modern world. The mainstay of this culture and the profusion of expressions emanating from it is the natural environment. Sāmoans had a kinship relationship with the contingent world, living in harmony with the natural resources that provided for their wellbeing.

Filled with a spirit of inquiry, sogāsogā, early settlers in the island archipelago adapted the knowledge they brought with them with succeeding generations refining and building on that knowledge with new and innovative uses.  The knowledge and skills of the tufuga or expert artisan, can be seen in fale Samoa, a resilient style of architecture perfectly suited to the climate; in alia, swift double-hulled ocean voyaging canoes capable of sailing the vast ocean using stars, waves, clouds, currents, and birds for navigation; in tanoa, functional and aesthetic wooden bowls used in rituals; in ingenious and versatile ʻafa (coconut sennit), a versatile and strong cord used in myriad cultural products including houses and boats; in tatau (tattoo), that adorns both men and women; and, in lālaga, finely woven pandanus leaf mats created to strengthen social cohesion.

Rural women in Samoa are highly skilled weavers, and the finest of mats are known as ‘ie sae. These precious heirlooms take many months and even decades to make and are reserved for important milestones in the life of a person: birth, marriage, the bestowal of a chief’s title, and death. They are presented in connection with the building of traditional houses and churches. Old mats associated with important historical events are so highly valued that they are given names. An example of this is Le Ageagea o Tūmua, presented by the village of Lufilufi to the Prime Minister of New Zealand after she apologized to the people of Samoa in 2002 for catastrophic mistakes made during the early administration of Samoa as a British colony. The name ‘ie sae is derived from the ingenious process of splitting the pandanus leaves lengthwise. There are several varieties of pandanus cultivated by the weavers themselves, often with the help of men in their households and children in the family. The variety used to weave ‘ie sae is known as lauʻie.

Because of its importance to Samoan culture, the Government of Samoa established a Fine Mat and Siapo program in 2003 with the twofold aim of increasing the making of fine mats and siapo or bark cloth art throughout the country and standardizing dimensions and quality. Since then, ʻie sae and siapo have been paraded annually in a ceremony coinciding with the National Day for Women.

The ‘ie sae is arguably the single most important cultural product created by women in Samoa. It is cultural currency ritually exchanged to meet social obligations, strengthening kinship ties, and thereby contributing to social cohesion in Samoan society. Of all the accolades designating the importance of the ʻie sae, perhaps the most intriguing is that it send shivers of delight to Samoa’s aristocracy: o le ʻie sae, o le maniti a tamāliʻi.