Tiumalu Palemia Suli Tafiti belongs to a family of artists. As a Samoan and artist, Tafiti makes art that shows the synthesis of Western and Samoan culture.
“I have a drawing of the egg and the sperm,” said Tafiti, 52. “It’s called ‘Cross Culture.’” The egg is designed to be like an island with Polynesian designs on it and then you have this western influence coming in. I froze it there because there’s a lot of good things and also some bad things that come from that mixture.”
Like his art, Tafiti’s life synthesizes Samoan and American cultures. His wife is American, his children grew up with both cultures, and he currently lives in Stansbury Park.
Tafiti was born on the outskirts of the capital city of Apia, Samoa. Through negotiations and treaties between several colonial powers, Samoa became American Samoa and the Independent State of Samoa, where Tafiti was born.
After high school, Tafiti attended BYU-Hawaii and worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center, including fire walking.
“It’s the [Samoan] idea of not taking serious things seriously,” Tafiti said.
Tafiti majored in Fine Arts and developed his theme of synthesizing cultures through his art.
One piece Tafiti created shows this theme with a Samoan athlete playing rugby, which is a British sport.
“Everyone outside the U.S. knows Samoa because of rugby, and he’s using rugby to represent the culture to the outside world, which is the white space,” Tafiti said.
Tafiti believes all cultures have many outside influences today.
“My art is not all indigenous, because the paint, the canvas are tools from a totally different culture that you use to express your themes,” Tafiti said.
After graduation, Tafiti traveled for a year promoting the Polynesian Cultural Center, then taught art for a year in Hawaii.
His twin brother, Kap Te’o Tafiti, continued on at the center and became the “edutainer” in the Samoan village, which led to recognition and movie roles for him including one with Dwayne Johnson.
Tafiti, however, decided to join family in Utah in 1997.
“Hawaii was a good place to be where I learned to share my culture with people, and to see people appreciate it, which was good for me,” he said.
In Utah, Tafiti worked at different times for SkyWest Airlines, in the Rio Tinto Corporate Office, as a personal trainer, and remains a luau performer with Keisini’s Polynesian Revue.
Tafiti now has his own business called Tafiti Creative, which focuses on design and print. The business website is www.tafiticreative.com.
In moving to Utah, Tafiti found the mainland a transition from Samoa and even Hawaii.
“Weather between Utah and Samoa was a big difference,” Tafiti said, “In Samoa, you pretty much have one set of clothes for the whole year. Over here you have a set of clothes for the winter and a set of clothes for the summer.”
Tafiti said he found he liked different seasons. He loves snow and sliding with his children.
Ultimately, Tafiti felt assimilation to the United States was not difficult.
“It kind of happened naturally,” he said.
However, Utah has no ocean. He found oceans in Texas and California colder and less pristine than Samoa. Tafiti said Samoans get thrown into the ocean as a kid and they all learn to swim.
“In Samoa it was just so natural. You just jump in,” Tafiti said. “Love the water. It was a part of life growing up — getting in the water. ”
As a child his uncles would take him out in the ocean in outrigger canoes.
“We caught a fish. Tore off the skin, dipped it in the ocean, and ate it right there,” Tafiti said. “So everything’s fresh. Nowadays, I don’t know if there’s as many people that go to the ocean for food.”
Tafiti said Samoans traditionally live collectively. Samoans consider everyone family, which discourages crime and allows for open architecture.
“It’s very humid and it’s tropical,” Tafiti said. “Traditionally the houses in Samoa have no walls so the breeze goes right through your home.”
Many cultures found their way through Samoa; currently the nation’s government resembles a British commonwealth system influenced by Samoa.
“All of the islands still adhere to the culture,” Tafiti said. “They have the chief system. All the politicians were chiefs that were selected by their constituencies.”
In addition to government and architectural influences, colonization also brought Christianity.
“Because the cultural beliefs [Samoan] were so similar to Christian belief, it was very easy,” Tafiti said. “Everybody became Christian. So most of the people in Samoa are Christians.”
Missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in Samoa in 1863. Currently it is the third largest denomination in Samoa. The Church employed Tafiti’s father.
“This was back when the mission president said ‘OK, you take your wife and your family and go start the church here or be branch president here’ — back in the forties and fifties. So they were older.” Tafiti said.
His parents married at an older age. Still, Tafiti said he has 14 siblings hands down, though his mother would say she has too many children to count.
“In Samoan culture, when someone’s adopted they are your brothers and sisters no question.” Tafiti said. “There’s 14 official children and then a whole bunch of others.”
Recently, Tafiti had the privilege of serving the Tamaiga, Samoan head of state, in a Chiefs Welcome Ava ceremony for the Samoan Language Symposium Hosted by BYU-Provo.
The Tiumalu part of Tafiti’s name is a chief title recently bestowed by his mother’s family.
Historically the pathway to a chief included a ceremonial rite of passage to receive the traditional Samoan tattoo that goes from the waist to knee and doing service in the Chiefs Council. After Christianity, the tattoo was no longer compulsory. For personal reasons, Tafiti chose to receive the tattoo, which includes unique aspects for each individual.
“For me they did it in 10 days, 4-8 hours a day,” Tafiti said.
The extended family decides among those who give service in the Chiefs Council if they will become a chief and which title they will hold. The chiefs collectively take care of family concerns.
“If this family needs a house built, the chiefs will meet, get all the young men together, and go build a house for that family. Everyone works together to build each other up,” Tafiti said.
Samoans in the United States know each other and function in chiefs councils even here. They get together most often in family Chiefs Councils and decide what needs to be done. Now Tafiti’s service often means sending money to family in Samoa.
If Tafiti could bring anything from Samoa, he would bring the concept of extended families, which emphasize assimilating the elderly.
Tafiti said Samoans take care of the elderly until they are gone and then bury them in front of their house.
“They’re your protection,” Tafiti said, “In Samoa, your elders always know more than you from their life experience.”
As Tafiti values his experience living in American culture, the United States might benefit from assimilating some of Tafiti’s Samoan ones.
“You always send your kids to sit down with your parents and grandparents to learn,” Tafiti said. “The basic values of Samoan culture are love and respect. If you have love and respect, that’s your Samoaness.”