American Samoa

Moana: A Depiction of Present Day Polynesia

A Guest Blog by Tori Barker!

Disney’s Moana has dazzled audiences around the world, making over $450 million. Although the box office hit was a unique and darling tale for Disney, directors weren’t quite sure how the film would resonate with audiences. From the second Moana first yells, “I’m not a princess!”, the audience knows that this isn’t a typical Disney movie. There is no Prince Charming, no white horse, castle, or dragon that needs slaying. Moana breaks the mold of Disney princesses and grows into her role as a master wayfarer before our very eyes.

Moana’s uniqueness comes not only from her spirit and sense of adventure, but also from her homeland: the far-flung islands of Polynesia. From my conversations with friends back on the mainland, they seem to think that while Moana is a good story, the lifestyle portrayed in the movie is one of ancient Polynesians; great sailors who thousands of years ago settled the distant, uninhabited islands of New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, and Rapa Nui.

As someone living in modern-day Polynesia, American Samoa to be specific, I couldn’t disagree more. The movie presents island life not as how it once was, but as it is today. This, in my mind, is a crucial distinction. Polynesian culture as portrayed by Disney is not an ancient, dead culture. Polynesian culture is alive, and it is carried on in a way unlike anywhere else in the world.

Hayley Sarah Blog
I came for the coral, but am staying for the culture! Photo taken by myself at the coral reef off Utulei Beach on the island of Tutuila.

But first, a little about myself and how I came to be living in the South Pacific. I was completing my Master’s degree when I applied for yet another seemingly unattainable jobs. To be honest, the only reason I applied at all was because of the job’s location: Pago Pago, American Samoa. I had barely heard of American Samoa and certainly couldn’t identify it on a map, but the exotic name was evocative of coconut palms and white sand beaches, so I sent in an application and promptly forgot about it. Six months later, no one was more surprised than I to find myself aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight bound for this strange and wonderful place. During my first month here, the movie Moana came to our two-room theatre. I was a little concerned about watching the movie, which of course portrays the life of Polynesians, alongside, well, real-life Polynesians. What if they didn’t like it? What if I was just another white person capitalizing upon their culture for my entertainment?

Hayley Sarah
Life is hard. Photo taken by yours truly at Coconut Point, American Samoa.


In an effort to portray Polynesian life as accurately and culturally correct as possible, the storytellers behind Moana visited the South Pacific. They didn’t want a repeat of the backlash that accompanied the release of Aladdin so they visited the islands of Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Hawaii to recreate what they saw there. And that’s the important part – that they saw these things. The directors and creators of Moana did not see a portrayal of Polynesian life in museum or a book, but witnessed real life with real people. They even modified their original ideas from the movie based off their island experiences. For instance, after seeing all of the chickens running around the Samoan island of Upolu, they added in the character of Heihei the rooster (who ironically was the only character “voiced” by a non-Polynesian). For those of you who aren’t convinced, here are some examples from my life here in American Samoa that made it onto the big screen.


In Moana, siapos are used as storytelling devices, particularly for the grandmother. If you remember, there were monsters painted on cloth that hung in the grandmother’s fale, which scared the children. (But not little Moana, of course.) The cloth is called tapa and comes from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. Once the design is added, the paper is called a siapo and is a highly prized piece of traditional artwork. In daily life, siapos are used as decoration or wall hangings but are also vital to ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The siapo cloth is even used to wrap the dead.

Hayley Sarah Siapo
A belt-shaped siapo is also common, particularly for ceremonies.

The process of making a siapo is a painstaking one. First, a paper mulberry tree is cut down and the bark is striped from the limbs. There are two layers of bark: a white inner-bark and a brown outer-bark. It is the inner-bark that makes the tapa. The material is rolled and soaked in water to soften. Then, the tapa is scraped with three clamshells of various coarseness to remove any remaining bits of bark or green growth. The material is beaten in order to thin it and left to dry in the sun. Any small holes are patched to create a solid sheet. To decorate the tapa, a large wooden block called an upeti is covered in red clay. The tapa is stretched over the block and the tapa is rubbed, which stains the cloth with the pattern etched into the block. This technique is called the rubbing method (siapoelei).

To add more design elements, the artist can use the freehand method (siapo mamanu). The dyes used to paint the siapo all come from natural sources: brown from the bark of trees, black from soot, and yellow from turmeric. There are 13 symbols that are used to make siapos, which include parts of the Samoan environment including banana pods, tern footprints, and the trochus shell.

Hayley Sarah Blog

Siapo Hayley Sarah

I work with some seriously talented artists. One of my coworkers decided my office needed some decoration and made me some pictures of coral reef fishies! Each of the fish include traditional Samoan siapo and tattoo designs including the trochus shell (red arrow), banana pod (blue arrow), and tern’s footprints (green arrow). Different designs can be added together or broken apart to form new shapes, like four tern’s footprints being combined into an X pattern (purple arrow).

Today, siapos are often sold as tourist souvenirs and come in a variety of nontraditional patterns such as turtles or flowers. The art form is passed along through family tradition as well as at universities. The American Samoa Community College has a class dedicated to the art of siapo making, which culminates in the creation of a wall-sized siapo.

Sina and the Eel:  A Polynesian Legend

Remember those lines in Maui’s catchy song “You’re Welcome”?

I killed an eel / I buried his guts / Sprouted a tree / Now you’ve got coconuts

American Samoa
The ubiquitous palm trees of the South Pacific – brought by ocean currents? Or sprouted from a magical eel’s head? Photo taken by the author at Two Dollar Beach on the island of Tutuila.


Well, as ridiculous as that song may sound, it’s actually based off of a real Polynesian legend. It goes something like this: Sina was the most beautiful woman on the Samoan island of Savai’i. As a child, she had a pet eel and as she grew up the eel began to fall in love with her. One day, the eel’s affection was so strong that Sina ran away from her village to get away from him. She traveled the width of her island but at each village the eel was waiting for her. Finally, the village chiefs killed the eel. With its final breath, the eel begged Sina to bury its head in the sand after it had died. At the spot where the eel was buried, a coconut tree grew. If you look at a coconut, you will see three holes on one side that represent the two eyes and the mouth of the eel. To drink the coconut water, one of the holes is pierced, so that with each coconut, Sina has to kiss the eel.

***In an alternate story, the eel is the Prince of Fiji, who transforms himself into an eel to swim the ocean currents to Samoa. Once he reaches Savai’i, he loses his ability to transform himself back. Exhausted from his travels and knowing he is going to die soon, and asks Sina bury his head in the sand upon his death, creating the first coconut tree.***


Hayley Sarah Blog
Today, we drink our coconut water a little differently…. Photo taken during a camping trip to Larson’s Bay (Fogama’a).


Did anyone notice the sweet tattoo that Moana’s dad is sporting in the movie? It’s called a pe’a and has been practiced in Samoa for over 2,000 years. Tattoos are an integral part of Polynesian culture; so integral in fact, that the modern day word “tattoo” stems from the Tahitian “tatau” (in Captain Cook’s log, the practice is referred to as “tattaw”). A Samoan legend tells of the tale of two women, Taema and Tilafaiga, who swam from Fiji to Samoa with a basket of tattooing tools. As they swam, they sang a song of proper tattooing, which stated that only women were to be tattooed. And yet, while they were swimming between the islands, they found a fisua (giant clam) and dove down to retrieve it. During their dive, their song switched, now saying that only men were to be tattooed. Today, men and women have their own tattoo styles, the pe’a and malu.

American Samoa
At the 12th Annual Tisa’s Tattoo Festival, Samoans and palogis (white people) alike can enjoy watching masters perform the traditional tattooing methods of Samoa. Here, the master of ceremony shows off his pe’a (hip and leg tattoo) and the female host her malu (leg tattoo) while wearing a traditional finemat dress with a siapo on top. Her headdress is called a tuiga and is only brought out during special ceremonies.

Traditionally, tattoos were performed using a tapping method. The tattoo “machine” is called a “comb” and is comprised of stylized boar’s tusk attached to a short piece of wood. The more “teeth” carved into the boar’s tusk, the larger an area the comb can cover per tap. The comb is dipped in black ink made out of soot and injected into the skin by tapping the piece of wood with a small mallet. Traditional tattoos are not pre-designed but instead are created by the master tattooist as he goes along. Check out the video below for an actual traditional tattoo demonstration.

Depicted in the video is the traditional tattoo method performed at the 12th Annual Tattoo Festival hosted by Tisa’s Beach Bar. This 23 year old was receiving his pe’a from a tattoo master. (Video posted to Tisa’s Beach Bar FaceBook page.)

The pe’a is a large tattoo that stretches from over a man’s hips to his knees. All areas in between are tattooed with the exception of the man’s genitals. Pe’a literally translates to “bat” and the tattoo is so called because its appearance over the hips looks similar to a bat’s wings in flight. A full pe’a can take several weeks to complete and is extremely painful. Apprentices called “stretchers” must hold the skin tight to prevent the comb from getting stuck in the person’s flesh. Even so, it is not uncommon for the tattoo to bleed, sometimes extensively. Due to the pain and the time needed to complete the pe’a it is often considered a right of passage for young Samoan men.

Hayley Sarah Blog
Examples of the traditional pe’a and malu tattoos of Samoa. (Image from Pinterest)


There is no doubt that one of the most compelling parts of Moana is the music. I don’t know about you guys, but Moana’s big moment of self-realization made me cry like a baby in the movie theatre. And clearly I’m not alone. The Moana soundtrack peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts and gained international acclaim. The popular song “How Far I’ll Go” was nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award. But rather than keep the songs in English for their English-speaking audience, the songs were written and performed in a combination of languages, which heavily features English, Samoan, Tuvalu, and Tokelauan languages. Some of these languages are extremely rare and remote. For instance, Tokelauan is only spoken by about 4,200 people in the world, most of whom live on the remote atolls of Swains Island (part of American Samoa) and Tokelau.

Video of Pen’s church choir

I have yet to meet a Samoan who didn’t have the voice of an angel. Church choirs came together to sing Christmas carols and celebrate the holiday season through song. This group even modified the Moana “Song of the Ancestors” into a Christmas carol! (Sorry for the poor quality. That cameraman stood in the perfect position to block my shot the entire night!) Video taken at a Christmas festival in Fagatogo Square on the island of Tutuila.

In an effort to remain true to Pacific culture, Disney brought in Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i. Additionally, New Zealand band Te Vaka and a Fijian choir were consulted and their sounds were added to enhance authenticity. The few English lyrics were written by Lin Manuel-Miranda during his off-time from “Hamilton.” While it may seem like a small thing to write songs in the native language, can you imagine if Mulan had songs performed in Chinese? Or if an Arabic dance group had been consulted during the making of Aladdin? Personally, I would very much like to meet the mermaids who served as experts on the Little Mermaid, but maybe that’s just me.

And finally the characters’ names are quintessentially Polynesian. The word “moana” means ocean in Samoan and is a common name on the islands. My coworker (the same one who made me those awesome fish drawings) just had a daughter whom he named Alofa Moana, which means “love of the ocean.” Maui is of course an island in Hawaii but is also a demi-god in nearly every Polynesian culture in the Pacific, featuring prominently in Hawaiian, New Zealand, Tahitian, and Tongan mythology. I work with someone nicknamed Pua, which is also the name of Moana’s pet pig. Her mother’s name is Sina, of the Sina and the eel legend explained above. And the grandmother’s name Tala is also the modern-day currency of Samoa.

There have been many critiques about the cultural appropriation seen in Moana (a good one from the Smithsonian can be found here), as well as the movie’s portrayal of the characters. And while certainly there are some parts of the movie that may conform to Polynesian stereotypes, it is also true that Disney made a distinct effort to represent Polynesian culture accurately while still holding true to their vision of the Moana story line. It is exciting to see this thriving culture be depicted on the big screen. Regardless of audience’s thoughts on the movie, it has undeniably brought Polynesia to a wider audience. I hope the movie has inspired travelers to come to the Samoan islands to experience Polynesian culture for themselves!

Written by Tori Barker.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s