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Saving the Samoan Rainforest
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About the Legend

Tiputa shirt

Example of Tiputa (Shirt), similar to the one worn by Nafanua during the wars.

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Who was Nafanua?

Nafanua, an ancient Samoan diety of war, taught the people to reverence their environment and to protect their plants. Seeing Cox’s commitment to conservation, Falelaupo villagers began to whisper that Nafanua had returned to do war with the multinational logging firms.

Excerpt from the Book

"Not far from where I sat was the westernmost point of Savaii—'O le Fafa—the connection point in legend between this world and Pulotu, the undersea world of spirits. Lilo had told me that Nafanua arose from the sea at the same spot.

"Lilo," I asked later that night, "Something that Fuiono Senio said at the chiefs' meeting puzzles me. Fuiono Senio called me the 'Suli o Nafanua.' What did he mean?" I had always found Fuiono rather intimidating: he struck me as the most aggressive member of the chiefs' council.

Lilo gave me a long, sideward glance. "Perhaps you should ask Lamositele tonight after dinner."

That night, sitting with Lamositele and Silia Tusi, an extremely brilliant orator, I posed my question again. The two looked at each other. Lamositele spoke first. "What Fuiono means is that you are animated by the Spirit of Nafanua."

"Why did he say that?" I asked.

Silia then spoke. "Koki, that is not a simple question. I must first help you understand who Nafanua was and what she stood for. And that will require some time to explain."

"I would be very interested."

Silia explained that Nafanua's father, Saveasi'uleo, was the god of both the sea and the underworld, and appeared as a combination of man and moray eel. Nafanua's mother, Tilafaiga, was one of a pair of Siamese twins, and her liaison with Saveasi'uleo resulted in a pregnancy. Saveasi'uleo routinely destroyed all of his offspring, eating them alive. Knowing Saveasi'uleo's viciousness, Nafanua's mother successfully concealed her pregnancy and childbirth, and hid the placenta deep in the ground. The child was thus named "Nana Fanua"—"Hidden in the Earth."

But as a child, Nafanua once strayed too close to the beach. Suddenly the evil sea god rushed at her from the sea. Before he could seize her, however, her uncle Ulufanuasese'e surfed along the tops of the waves to decoy the monster beneath. Looking at Saveasi'uleo in ridicule, Ulufanuasese'e said: "Look what has become of you! Would you even kill and eat your own brother? We will separate: you stay in Pulotu and I will stay on the land. But we will meet again at the end of time and our lineage." Saveasi'uleo slid back beneath the waves, but demanded the presence of his daughter in Pulotu. There she remained under her father's tutelage and studied the art of destruction, but she also carried with her the knowledge of the rain forest and the healing power of plants.

On land in Falealupo, oppression reigned. The people were made slaves on their own land, forced even to climb coconut trees upside down. One day a man named Tai'i called out in desperation: "Is there no one to save us?" Deep within the ocean, his words found an audience.

Saveasi'uleo commanded his daughter Nafanua: "Go up and free the people. Destroy the oppressors utterly with three war clubs: Fa'auliulito, Ulimasao, and Tafesilafa'i."

Nafanua looked on the earth with compassion, however, and took only two of the war clubs, leaving behind Fa' auliulito, lest the entire world be turned forever to ash. Nafanua swam toward the portal of the underworld, to the place of her birth, Falealupo.

Nafanua surprised the village with the ferocity of her solitary war against their oppressors. No one suspected that such a mighty warrior could be a woman until one day in Faia'ai village, the people were stunned to see her breasts. Chiefs came from throughout Samoa to pay her homage. Nafanua sought to establish for the first time a central government for all of Samoa headquartered in Falealupo, and redistributed all of the chiefs' titles. But to the villagers of Falealupo came some special charges, or tofi. "Auva'a" became a sitting monarch, and the priest of Nafanua. The rest of the high chiefs became her aiga, or family. One trusted orator she named "Fuiono" and charged him to be the spokesman for the village. "Taofinu'u" ("Hold fast the village") was charged with upholding the good of the village. "Soifua" ("life") was charged always to protect the village's well-being. After she bestowed these titles, another prominent orator came running from the village to Nafanua. "I'm sorry, but I have no other tofi for you," Nafanua told him. "But look at your fine clothes. I will call you 'Silia laei' [literally, "beautiful clothing"], for you will always beautify the village with your presence."

Nafanua deigned that the village should be led, under Auva'a's direction, by the four paramount orators. The reign of Nafanua ushered in an era of solidarity and peace among the Samoan people. Temples were built to her, and Auva'a became her earthly representative. But before returning beneath the waves, Nafanua left a prophecy: "I have founded a government that will serve you well. But one day a kingdom will come from across the sea that is not of this earth, but of heaven. When it comes, you must enter it." It is because of this prophecy that, when John Williams of the London Missionary Society introduced Christianity to Samoa, nearly all of the inhabitants of Samoa converted.

By the time Silia and Lamositele had finished telling me the story of Nafanua, men were starting to launch their canoes by lantern light for night fishing. It must have been nearly 2:00 A.M. Lamositele started to rise to prepare his own fishing gear.

"But Lamositele, I still don't understand. I think that is a beautiful story, but why would Fuiono say that I am filled with the spirit of this goddess?"

"Don't you see? Nafanua was not from Samoa. She just appeared out of the sea to fight our battles and save the village from oppression. She loved the rain forest and protected it. Well, we're now under oppression from this sawmill. We have nowhere else to turn to get funds for the school. Suddenly, you appear out of nowhere and want to kick the loggers out. You talk about loving the forest. Fuiono, at least, thinks that in some sense, Nafanua has returned."