Since ancient times, Samoan society has been based on the aiga, a large extended family group with a matai as its head, who is elected by consensus of the clan. The matai is responsible for the aiga's lands, assets, and distribution. He ensures that no relative is ever in need, settles disputes, sees to the clan's social obligations, and is the aiga's representative on the district or village council (fono). A pulenu'u (village mayor) appointed by the government presides over the fono. Around 85 percent of the total population lives under the direct authority (pule) of a matai (only residents of Apia are largely exempt from this). The 80 percent of Samoa's surface area that is customary land is under matai control (another 10 percent of the land is freehold and the government owns the balance).
The weight of traditional village law is enshrined in the Samoan constitution, and judges in the regular courts can take into account village fines or whether the offender has performed the traditional apology (ifoga) when passing sentence. A villager who chooses to ignore the rulings of his village fono faces ostracism, banishment, and worse. In exceptional cases, stoning, arson, and even murder have resulted.
Blood relationships count to a large extent in the elections of the matai, but even untitled persons can be elected on merit. (Foreigners can also be granted honorary matai titles usually in exchange for gifts or donations, but these carry no social or legal weight.) In this formalized, ritualized society, the only way a person can achieve place is to become a matai. This semi democracy gives Samoan society its enduring strength.
A number of aiga comprise a village (nu'u) under an orator or talking chief (tulafale) and a titular or high chief (ali'i). The high chiefs are considered too grand to speak for themselves at ceremonies, thus the need for orators. The tulafale conduct eloquent debates, give ceremonial speeches, and are the real sources of authority in the community. Direct conflicts are avoided through consensus decision-making. The villages are largely autonomous, and family welfare comes before individual rights—pure preindustrial socialism.
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