Achieving matai (chief) status

Photo: Andrea Godinez/Burke Museum
Photo: Andrea Godinez/Burke Museum
June 2, 2015 | Burke Museum

University of Washington undergraduate student Cory Fuavai sits in the Burke collections next to beautiful fala mats from Samoa. He is studying these mats as part of an independent study course with Dr. Holly Barker, Burke Museum curator for oceanic and Asian culture. Made from Pandanus tree leaves, fala mats range in size from a few feet to mats that cover the floor of an entire house.

“During my childhood, we used to sit and watch my Grandma,” Fuavai said. “My mom and all the ladies in our family prepare these mats.This is what we put down as decorations for our houses because a lot of Polynesians cannot afford to buy the rugs that we have in America. We are using what God has given us in land and nature. Making falas is one of the ways we stay connected with our roots, our ground, where we come from.”

Fuavai is researching Samoan objects from the Burke’s collection not only for his coursework, but also to advance his goal to become a matai—a high chief in Samoan culture. Matais have the important role of communicating on behalf of their families to the greater community. At funerals, weddings, and other big gatherings, matais perform ceremonies and speak the matai language.

In addition to fala mats, Fuavai is researching kava bowls, toto’os (orators’ whisks) and other objects, collecting information from reference publications and interviewing his grandparents and other community members.

Sharing his knowledge of Samoan culture and matai language is another important step in becoming a matai. The Burke offers Fuavai opportunities to demonstrate this knowledge because it is a museum and community resource. Fuavai leads tours for visitors interested in Samoan culture, and is also visiting schools to help students learn about his culture before they travel to Samoa. In addition, he co-curated a display on the importance of tattoos in Samoan culture as part of the Burke’s recent exhibit, Imagine That: Surprising Stories and Amazing Objects from the Burke Museum.