Tatau: An Exploration of the Journey Through Pain and Adversity

Natanielu, Sonny
Nakhid, Camille
Fairbairn-Dunlop, Peggy
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This research is an exploration of the traditional practice of the tatau1 in search of a Sāmoan approach to the notions of pain endurance, struggle, and coping with adversity. My interest in this topic emanates from a career as a social work/counsellor working with Pacific people in Auckland in crime intervention, mental health and education. Much of the literature on pain, struggle and coping with adversity is found in research on psychological resilience. Academic scholarship on coping with adversities and psychological resilience appears to be largely based on Western perspectives that privilege a mechanistic, clinical approach. However, for those from marginalised communities, such as indigenous peoples, a more relevant approach is required. There is an incipient and burgeoning body of research that seeks to understand coping with adversities through moving away from an approach that focuses on component parts of a system and towards an integrative, holistic approach that refers to networks of connection and relationships of the system. One of the key findings from this growing body of literature is that for those from minority or oppressed cultures, cultural identity is an important component of managing highly stressful circumstances. Another key finding is the efficacy of indigenous or ‘native’ approaches for such enquiries. Guided by these two premises, the foundational position of this research was to utilise an approach that gave preference to the Sāmoan worldview and seek out ‘native narratives’ about Sāmoan knowledges. Moreover, these worldviews and knowledges pertaining to coping with adversity are embodied in the tatau – the Sāmoan practice of traditional tattooing. The talanoaga methodology – akin to in-depth, semi-structured ‘conversations’ – was used to engage 20 male and female participants who wear the pe’a2 and the malu3, and who live in Sāmoa, to share their knowledge of the customs and traditions of the tatau, their reasons for and experiences of undertaking a tatau, what having the tatau meant to them and in their lives, and their understanding of the meanings behind the motifs and patterns they now wear. Two broad themes emerged from this research. First, it was found that there was a significant adversity that all participants had faced in their own life journey prior to undertaking the tatau. That adversity resulted in a discovery of self, and essentially, their ‘Sāmoan-ness’ – that is, expressions of being Sāmoan. After navigating their adversity, the participants believed that the tatau was the ideal way to ‘mark’ that journey of confirmation of identity. In this way, the tatau served as a declaration of who they had become. The second theme was the descriptions of characteristics that the participants came to value and adopt as they emerged from their adversity. Those characteristics, inscribed on them as their new lā’ei4, were described as a greater love for family, culture, knowledge and spirituality, resulting in a desire to tautua5 and to tausi le vā6. The conclusion reached in this research from a Sāmoan ontological perspective was that adversity, hardship, and unexpected and stressful life events are journeys of transformation. While the adversity and difficulties must be traversed by the individual, their integration and connectedness to a network of relationships (with family, culture, knowledge and spirituality) help the journey, as it is in those network of relationships that the individual returns as a new person on the inside, marked with new ‘skin’ on the outside, and with a greater sense of belonging and purpose.

1 Tatau – Traditional Sāmoan tattooing 2 Pe’a – the male tatau

 3 Malu – the female tatau 4 Lā’ei – literally translates as ‘clothing’; an idiom for the tatau – a reference to an ancient Sāmoan phrase for the tatau, lā’ei o tamatane o Sāmoa, which translates as ‘clothing of Sāmoan men’. 5 Tautua – to serve, or service rendered. 6 Tausi le vā – literally translates as ‘nurturing the relational space’; refers to exercising due care to protect and respect the relationships that connect one to another, ourselves with nature and the elements, and particularly with God and the spirit realm.

Tatau , Traditional Sāmoan tattoo , Cultural identity , Adversity , Pain , Resilience , Coping
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