Flag day celebrates the day that American Samoa became incorporated into the United States in 1900. The day is filled with barbecues, boat races, and beers. To me, it sounded a little bit like the Samoan version of the preppy southern horse races we used to go to in college. Including the oversized hats. And that was right up my alley.
So, just like on Carolina Cup day, I woke up earlier than my body thought decent on a weekend and took to the streets for the festivities. In small island fashion, some friends drove by as I was waiting for a bus and offered me a ride to the day’s main event: the fautasi race.
A fautasi is a Samoan long boat. It holds at least 40 guys who spend the month leading up to the the race in intense training. They practice early in the mornings and again late at night. I know that one high school team was actually sleeping at their school so that they could be roused for practice at any hour, day or night. I have heard that the tradition used to be for the teams to go camping together the weekend before the race. This was to make sure that none of the team members drank alcohol, got too rowdy, or visited their girlfriends (all obvious risks to team cohesion). For some reason, I think that practice has all but died out.
Knowing how hard some of my very own students had been training for this race, I was really excited to watch them compete. My students warned me that it’s best to watch the race on TV, but what fun is that? I wanted to see the action, the pageantry, the magic! OK, maybe not magic. So my friends and I headed into a little seaside restaurant where we could combine the best of both worlds, watching on TV and in person. The race was announced entirely in Samoan and the restaurant’s television was incredibly blurry, but I could tell from the reactions of those around me that it was an exciting race.
As the boats neared the finish line, we rushed outside to see them appear, first as specks on the horizon of the harbor. And then, gradually, they grew to full length, man powered, muscle machines. The pure adrenaline that the boats brought with them was incredible. The children around us ran alongside the boats until they reached the finish line, cheering all the way.
The winning boat was a surprise. One that my students had told me actually sunk during the race last year (here is a good opportunity to question my students’ truthfulness). It was the boat from Nuuuli, and several of my students were rowing on board. I couldn’t have been more proud. I was also fairly certain that my particular cheering from the shore was the reason that they won.
The highlight of the day was finished, but the festivities continued with traditional dances, cricket tournaments, and ‘ava ceremonies. The volunteers and I agreed that the day felt more like a holiday than either Christmas or Thanksgiving had. Maybe it was because we weren’t singing “Deck the Halls” in 90 degree weather. But I think it’s more likely that, in American Samoa, something done well is done fa’asamoa, the Samoan way.