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Instead of syllabus day, I read this story on the first day of my Fall 2017 Neuroanthropology class then launched right into the class. I’d never done this before, but I like to think of the course as interdisciplinary and experimental and that different ways of experiencing materials is important. I was inspired to do this by anthropologist Katie Hinde, who wrote a story to start her human evolution course at Arizona State and blogged about it. Katie is a friend and colleague of mine. She is a contemporary but probably a few years younger than me. Nonetheless, she is trailblazer and someone I admire and look to for inspiration in how to conduct an anthropological career-life. You can find her work at MammalsSuck…Milk, a clever play on words, as her research focus is about mammal milk.
This piece is about the fieldwork I’ve conducted the past two summers. I just wrote it the weekend before the first day of class, so, for better or worse, students heard an early draft of this story that may get published on its own somewhere or in a book some day in some form that will probably ultimately be very different than this. I wrote it because I think our work this summer epitomizes the nature of neuroanthropology as essentially biocultural, and because I think this story encapsulates much of our experience of fieldwork this summer. There may be less neuro than you’d expect here, given the course I read it to, but it’s the ethnographic prelude before we’ve finished collecting and analyzing the neuro data.
We were sitting in a parking lot behind Pago Pago Plaza as the sun went down. The parking lot is between the plaza and the water of the harbor, and a man came by to close the gates. He said the parking lot was open 24 hours, but this one gate would be closed. We sat chatting, both of us getting spooked. It’s not that Pago Pago is the bad part of town like some places in the world where you definitely don’t want to be after dark. I was recently in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where every tour book, every hotel clerk, every driver, every friend says, ‘don’t walk around at night. Take taxis.’
A good rule of thumb for anthropologists in the field is that when the people who live there don’t go out at night, we shouldn’t either.
But the village of Pago Pago is a dicier area of American Samoa, especially down by the waterfront. It is adjacent to where the tuna canneries are, the ships coming into the freight yards, and the Chinese and Korean and other prostitutes work the bars there.
Author and former American Samoa Historic Preservation Director John Enright paints an appropriately noir picture in his American Samoa detective series that in all others ways feels spot-on. In Pago Pago Tango, this is the area where the bodies of undocumented sex workers from neighboring Samoa, of all places, are found in the water.
American Samoa is not one of those places in the world where people are “disappeared”—government spooks aren’t showing up at people’s houses and whisking them away in the night—but it is a place where disenchanted palagis (non-Samoan, generally white people —pronounced puh-LONG-eez—Samoan ‘g’ always gets an ‘ng’ sound) often go to not be found. While running away from it all to a South Pacific island has an air of romance about it, anyone familiar with such stories beyond the first few pages—think of French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin in Tahiti for instance—knows such stories never end well.
Palagis never blend seamlessly with natives. They are always outsiders. These islands are small. There is not much to do. People there to get away from it all seem sad, are often alcoholics or mentally ill. Enright nails this in his second book Fire Knife Dancing, when he mentions one palagi who locals don’t really know except that he is seen walking the main road every day, not talking to anyone, not looking anyone in the eye. He walks from his house to Pago and back. It’s not clear what he does. This guy is real, and you can see him daily. I walked past him once, and he glanced up from an averted gaze but was careful not to exchange pleasantries.
But as Michaela and I sat in the parking lot, frankly, my mind was on the serial murders that had just taken place in Pennsylvania, where two antisocial, psychopathic 20-somethings had lured others they knew into their cars or to their farm and butchered them. No one knew my research partner and I were there or that we were scheduled to meet a “Tongan” guy covered in jailhouse tattoos who was supposed to be taking us back to his house, a guy who I had met in a cargo box outside Family Mart. So both of us were getting paranoid as hell.
The week before, Michaela and I were on the downward swing of our cycle of elation and despondency in the field. Field research is like that. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have deadlines. You have limited money. You have a project you proposed doing within a timeframe you knew was impossible when you proposed it, but in the current age of funding, you can’t get funding without purporting to be able to accomplish some deliverable in an unreasonable period of time. Our deliverable was to sample saliva from 100 people getting tattooed in American Samoa within a year. Michaela and I study cultural impacts on health, and this study is a follow-up to one we conducted in Alabama a few years earlier. Mind you, when I say we, I designed the study, all data were collected by students, salivary data were analyzed by my colleague Jason DeCaro, and I analyzed, wrote the paper, and reaped the glory of the media coverage.
So, while Michaela and I have independently collected biocultural data like this before, we hadn’t run this actual protocol, and we hadn’t run it together. That didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. We had days of success and pride in our mastery of our craft. But the inexperience with this protocol in this setting—it’s a thing, a source of anxiety. As teachers and researchers, we need to stop ignoring the significance of anxiety and emotional disturbance engendered by and within our research. We need to stop pretending we’ll just get used to the structural impediments that affect psychological stability and the capacity to finish a project like this, such as having some kind of emotional support, either in the field itself or back home.
Not to mention, American Samoa is small and has a small population. There are only 65,000 people who live in American Samoa. There is only one tattoo studio with a visible storefront on the entire island group, which includes the island of Tutuila, where most of the population lives and where we were, as well as the Manu’a Islands, Rose Atoll, and Swain’s Island. Aside from that tattoo studio, there is only one other tattooist with an actual studio. There are two Su’a or master hand tap artists in American Samoa. And then there are a handful of tattooists who work out of their homes or travel to other people’s homes, by word of mouth.
This so-called Tongan guy was one such artist who worked out of a home studio or his kitchen or something. We weren’t quite sure. As we went from artist to artist, we asked who else tattoos on the island.
My friend Niko rattled off a list and was calling people for us. I met Niko through Duffy, who we met through Tish. Niko tattooed by going to other people’s houses, and I hung out with him for a few days. He rode around with me one day while I was running errands and gave me a rundown on the tattoo community and his part in it, but he never actually did any tattooing while we were there. He told me a schedule going into two weeks that gave me a lot of hope for data collection, then he had family issues and caught the flu and session after session would be cancelled for one reason or another. So when he told me this Tongan tattoo artist worked at Family Mart, I thought, I know where that is. How hard can he be to find? And we were really curious about the Tongan tattoo artists working in American Samoa. Samoans and Tongans don’t generally speak highly of each other. Neither do Hawaiians and Samoans for that matter. There is a lot of ethnic tension within Polynesia, despite sharing a heritage.
Most Samoans place their origins and the ancestral home of the Polynesian god Tagaloa (pronounced TONGA-low-uh) in the Manu’a Islands, which are the easternmost of the populated Samoan Islands. For much of Samoan prehistory, the Manu’a Islands have been somewhat distant and independent from Tutuila, Upolu, and Savai’i, which are closer to each other. However, archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that movement across the Pacific from Near Oceania—New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and other islands associated with the former Sahul landmass—began around 3500 years ago and is associated with the Lapita culture. Within 500 years, they spread to Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. It was roughly another 1000 years before migration moved on—possibly spreading from the Manu’a islands as the easternmost point—to the Cook Islands, Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Throughout prehistory and history, there was continuous movement among the islands, especially those relatively close to each other, like Tonga and Samoa, and opportunity for fierce rivalry and warfare to occur. Tonga and Samoa experienced a period of extreme tension and warfare during a Tongan occupation from 950-1250 AD, where there was cruelty between the two sides that resulted in centuries of bitterness.
Lest you underestimate my point, and adding insult to this longstanding injury, in the 1970s the King of Tonga entered a boat fiberglass boat made in New Zealand in the annual Samoan fautasi race. Fautasi are the traditional Samoan longboats that made such an impression upon early European explorers that the Samoan Islands were first called the Navigator Islands for the speed and distance Samoans were able to travel in these boats. However, by the 20th century, these skills were all but lost and, in fact, banned for all but racing. Villages sponsor boats and race against each other, and the pride of villages is tied up in these races. So for a Tongan boat to win is a crushing blow. And, while it was initially blamed on the novel fiberglass construction, the Tongans switched boats with a Samoan crew to prove their worth and won again, handily. Despite this, fautasi boat-craft shifted precipitously from a native investment in culture to an economic investment in a New Zealand industry, another example of a globalizing process that results in loss of native skill and economic viability.
Thus, Tongans, Fijians, and other Polynesians are treated like second-class citizens in American Samoa, and I imagine the same is true of Samoans on other Polynesian Islands. Tongans supposedly eat dog, according to Samoans. And Tongan tattoo artists supposedly think nothing of tattooing kids, according to Samoan tattoo artists. And they all live in that area behind the elementary school in the village of Pavai’i. This was akin to living in a trailer park outside of town in the areas of the U.S. where I’ve grown up and lived. But, as it happened, Pavai’i was right down the mountain from Tafeta, where we were staying. We could walk through the trees to get there if we were inclined, which gave it an even more intrigue and appeal.
…To be continued
This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.