Taonga/ Measina/ Treasures

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The enquiry into Samoan notions of gender, status and power below, is offered by Penelope Schoeffel. It is a Doctoral thesis that explores two female status groups (the sacred sisters and the secular wives) within in Samoan society. It was submitted in 1979, to Australian National University.

Daughters of Sina: A study of Gender, Status and Power in Western Samoa


The dyadic structure of Samoan society is based upon a concept of power comprising two complementary aspects; sacred and secular. These divisions operate as fundamental ordering principles in society. Power, in the sense of the ability to exert moral suasion and authority, is perceived as the combination of secular action and sacred legitimation. This duality derives from beliefs about the origin of society; that sacred power originated through matrilineal descent lines from the creator deity to dignify secular power, and is maintained through a predominately patrilineal mode of inheritance.

Thus the focal dyad is the kinship of a sister and brother, and a number of other important dyadic relationships are metaphorically derived from it. The division of power into two aspects does not focus, symbolically or otherwise, upon male and female, but upon an opposition of qualities ascribed to particular statuses. Samoan females have two distinct statuses which are usually held simultaneously but exercised in different contexts. As sisters this status is sacred relative to the secular status of their brothers. As wives their status is secular relative to the sacred status of their husband’s descent group and is also derived from the status of their husband in that descent group. Similarly the designation of male statuses as sacred or secular is contextually defined, according to the rank and status of a title or descent group, and by categories of kinship with respect to a descent group on the basis of ancestral cross-sex siblingship. Since 1830, Christianity has eroded aspects of Samoan social structure and, together with the new avenues for acquiring wealth and prestige, has blurred many of the fundamental distinctions on which the complementarity of secular and secular power rest.

Despite change and modification, the traditional concept of power is still reflected in kinship and village institutions. One of the most interesting manifestations of change and continuity is the introduction of village womens committees since the 1920s. These have adopted a tripartite structure which maintains distinctions between the wives of titled and untitled men, but more importantly, maintains the distinction between sisters and wives in the context of the local community. This distinction supports a complementarity between sacred and secular aspects of power, as exercised collectively by the two female status groups within a institutional framework.

The persistence of patterns of belief, action and social institutions, even after the ancient religious ideology which justified them has been formally abandoned, is illustrated by the way in which an innovation such as the Western Samoan village womens committee has developed. This evidence has particularly significant implications for planned change and economic development in small-scale societies.

Full thesis: Daughters of Sina: A study of Gender, Status and Power in Western Samoa