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‘Serene, beautiful’ American Samoa now marked by devastationcomment (0)

February 4, 2010

By Brittany N. Howerton

Slightly larger than Washington, American Samoa is a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean characterized by tropical rainforests, glistening beaches and rugged cliffs.

But in September 2009, a cloud of destruction rained upon the land of about 65,000 people when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami about 15 minutes later claimed nearly three dozen American Samoan lives and plowed down hundreds of structures.

“There’s still shock that something as catastrophic as a tsunami has wiped out what they’ve known,” said James Katina, a member of the contemporary Christian group The Katinas who spent part of his childhood in American Samoa. “The coastal villages once were serene and beautiful and now it’s total destruction. All you see is flat land.”

Katina was born in Southern California to American Samoan parents. When he was 6 years old, his parents felt called to return to their native land to “reach out to family members.” Although his mother’s cancer diagnosis took the family back to the states just nine years later, his rich American Samoan heritage had already taken root.

According to the CIA World Factbook, it is thought that the cluster of islands constituting Samoa was settled as early as 1000 B.C., but European explorers did not stumble upon the land until the 18th century. Although early history links Samoa with French settlement, an 1899 treaty between the United States and Germany divided the Samoan archipelago into its modern-day portions of the Independent State of Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa) and American Samoa.

The following year, the United States formally occupied its portion, which includes five volcanic islands and two coral islands — Rose Island and Swains Island.

But amid the complex history, it’s “easy living,” said Si’ave Teofilo, a resident of Pell City who grew up attending a Baptist church in American Samoa.

“People are easy to get along with, and respect is one of the biggest things they teach,” he said. “If you come in and respect the people that are taking you in, they’ll give you whatever you need.”

That’s because it’s all about family, Katina added.

“In our family, The Katinas are five brothers but we’re only five of 12 kids. … Villages are broken up into big family groups, and your last name is synonymous with whatever village you come from,” he said. “So you can imagine if our one family has 12 kids and you have hundreds of families who have 12, 10 and eight children, then that’s really where this concept of family has become sort of the model of the culture.”

Each village has a high chief of the family who serves as the patriarch, as well as a “talking chief” who serves as the spokesperson of the village, he added.

From large families and tuna canneries to pastors preaching in “lava lavas” (a rectangular cloth worn as a skirt) and the ever-popular “church-going” (see story, page 5), tradition and custom characterize the American Samoan lifestyle.

So the recent tsunami was more than just geographic destruction, it was personal, Katina said.

“I hope from a spiritual standpoint this will cause an awakening that literally shakes the island and people of the South Pacific to come to the sense that there is more to life than what we’ve known, and if we can come to have an experience with Jesus Christ, it would be the best thing to ever happen.”

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