TUILEFANO M. VAELA`A, Claimant,
VALENTINO TAUFA`ASAU, UTAIFEAU T. MAUGA ASUEGA, FANENE F.
KAVA, SEALI`IUTU F. MAUGA,
and MAILO ATONIO, Counter-claimants.
[In re Matai Title
“MAUGA” of the Village of Pago Pago]
High Court of American Samoa
Land and Titles Division
MT No. 12-98
December 14, 2001
 In matai title dispute cases, Sotoa
rule (candidate’s blood
relationship determined by reference to relationship to original titleholder,
not by descent to nearest past titleholder) is not of general application,
particularly when family genealogical understanding is contentious and when
family history suggests contrary tradition and understanding of entitlement.
traditional formula, hereditary entitlement is determined by percentage of
candidate’s blood relationship to former titleholder, as opposed to original
A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c)(3), evaluation and assessment of candidates is necessarily
comparative exercise, varying in emphasis from case to case. Court is statutorily directed to examine
personal traits that, in part, appeal to personal observation. However, leadership ability, honesty,
education, public service, involvement in church and village affairs, and
previous experience as matai are
factors which aid in meeting this criterion.
Chief Justice, LOGOAI, Chief Associate Judge, ATIULAGI, Associate Judge and
TAUANU`U, Temporary Associate Judge.
Tuilefano M. Vae1a`a, Afoa L.S. Lutu & Arthur Ripley, Jr.
For Valentino M. Taufa`asau, Pro Se
For Utaifeau T.M. Asuega, Asaua Fuimaono
For Seali`iutu F. Mauqa, Aitofele T. Sunia
For Mailo Atonio, Faiivae A.G. Ga1ea`i
This longstanding matter had its
beginnings in May 13, 1998, when Tuilefano M. Vaela`a (Tuilefano) filed his
claim to succession to the vacant matai
title Mauga of Pago Pago. The
Territorial Registrar posted the claim publicly for the requisite 60-day period
in accordance with the requirements of A.S.C.A. § 1.0406. The claim in turn drew the filing of
succession counterclaims from Valentino Mauga Taufa`asau (“Taufa`asau”) on July 10,
1998; from Utaifeau Tasi Mauga Asuega (“Utaifeau”) and Fanene Fetaiaiga Kava
(“Fanene”) on July 13, 1998; and from Lavea Seali`iutu F. Mauga (“Lavea”) and
Mailo Atonio (“Mailo”) on July 14, 1998.
The Territorial Registrar then referred the matter to the Secretary of
Samoan Affairs who duly convened the parties for settlement conferences pursuant
to A.S.C.A. § 43.0302. Without a family
settlement, the Secretary of Samoan Affairs certified an irreconcilable dispute
to the Land and Titles Divisions under A.S.C.A. §43.0302(a).
Trial commenced herein on February 28, 2000, with the evidentiary
presentation of the parties concluded on March 3, 2000. However, on March 6, 2000, the date and time
anticipated for rebuttal evidence and final arguments, the parties jointly
requested the Court to postpone the proceedings to allow them one more
opportunity to attempt a family resolution.
Given the relative importance of the matai
the motion was granted, and the proceedings adjourned sine die, with the high expectation of a fa`a Samoa conclusion.
The effort was to no avail. The communal will to move forward and select
a new Mauga titleholder was, it seems, nonexistent or, at best, feeble from the
outset. After some six months of family
inertia, one of the parties felt compelled to file a motion to reinstate
judicial proceedings citing the family’s unwillingness to at least call a
meeting as previously represented to the Court.
The motion was denied and the parties were advised that the Court would
not reconvene unless the family met, as promised, to meaningfully reconsider a
successor matai. Following a further
four months of family inaction, one family member then took it upon himself to
publicly advertise the calling of a family meeting. This action finally prompted a family
gathering at Gagamoe
on February 3, 2001. As above noted, the extrajudicial exercise
The Court, having heard the evidence
and considered the parties’ post-trial written arguments, makes the following
findings pursuant to the criteria set out in A.S.C.A. § 1.0409:
1. Hereditary Right—A.S.C.A. §
 In the
vast majority of matai title disputes
before the Court, a candidate’s hereditary right has been calculated by tracing
his lineage to his nearest ancestor holding the title. See
In re Matai Title Leiato, 3
AS.R.2d 133, 134 (App. Div. 1986). This
formula was almost universally applied until 1984 when the Court in In re
Matai Title Sotoa, 2 A.S.R.2d 15
(Lands & Titles Div. 1984), suggested an alternative method of calculation
as being more desirable. Under the rule
in Sotoa, a candidate’s blood relationship is to be determined by
reference to his relationship to the original titleholder, and not by descent
to the nearest past titleholder. The Court’s reasoning was that “every new
titleholder does not start a new line of heredity.” Id. at l5.
The Sotoa rule, however, is
not of general application, particularly where family genealogical
understanding is contentious, In re Matai
Title Lolo, 25
A.S.R.2d 175, 176 (Land & Titles Div. 1994); In re Matai Title Tuaolo, 28 A.S.R.2d 137, 140 (Land
& Titles Div. 1997), and where family history suggests a contrary tradition
and understanding of entitlement. In
re Matai Title Tauaifaiva, 5
A.S.R.2d 13, 14 (Land & Titles Div. 1987); see also In re Matai
Title La`apui, 4
A.S.R.2d 7, 10 (App. Div. 1987) (Murphy, J., concurring) (“Whether a family
traces hereditary rights directly to the original title holder or to the last
living holder of the title is . . . a matter of custom and tradition.”).
 With the
matter at bar, we note that in past Mauga succession disputes before the Court,
hereditary entitlement was determined by using the traditional formula, namely,
percentage of a candidate’s blood relationship to a former titleholder, as
opposed to the original titleholder. See Asuega v. Manuma, 4 A.S.R. 616, 624 (Trial
Div. 1965); Sialega v. Sal, MT No. 04-82 (Land & Titles Div. 1983). Secondly, contemporary Mauga family history
suggests two family branches separate and distinct to the lineage established
by the original titleholder Mauga Mulivai.
See Asuega, 4 A.S.R. at 625. Further, it is clear on
the evidence that this family development evolved prior to the establishment of
the government and the enactment of A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c), which restricts
eligibility only to those candidates with blood ties. As this Court previously noted in In re
Matai Title “Mulitauaopele”, 16
A.S.R.2d 63, 82-83 (Land & Trial Div. 1990), the legislative adoption of
the “best hereditary criterion of § 1.0409(c) did not empower the Court to
disenfranchise a family line who obtained the title hundreds of years prior to
the enactment of the [A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c)], even if the title was not acquired
Using then the familiar rule of
heredity, we find that Taufa`asau is the son of Mauga Iulio Taufa`asau, and is
therefore 1/2; Lavea is the grandson of Mauga Palepoi and is therefore 1/4;
Tuilefano is the great-grandson of Mauga Lei and is therefore 1/8; Utaifeau is
also descended from Mauga Lei, who is his second great-grandfather, and is,
Mailo’s blood claim of 1/16, given by
tracing his relationship to the original titleholder Mauga Mulivai, is
problematic. While there was little
dispute from the other parties as to Mailo’s entitlement, and while the
evidence showed that Mailo family members have participated in past affairs of
the Mauga family, we find that while Mailo is entitled, his claim, however, to
1/16 entitlement is unsupported. His
claim of heredity makes him the second great-grandson of the original
titleholder. This is implausible when viewed against the intervening
generations attested to by genealogy supplied by the other parties. Moreover, Mauga family history, as alluded to
by Mailo, pegs the original titleholder Mauga Mulivai to a time frame around
the conclusion of the Tongan wars, circa A.D. 1600. (See
Mailo’s Closing Arguments, at 7.) There
are clearly generational gaps in the family tree supplied us. Moreover, Mailo’s pedigree also lists an
intervening titleholder, Mauga Sivauea Sagaiga, a view which is singularly held
and conspicuously at variance with the genealogy submitted by the other
candidates. While widely varying
versions of family history are not uncommon in matai title disputes, especially when dealing with oral tradition
that approaches the realm of legend, the discrepancy in this instance is
conclude on this criteria that Taufa`asau prevails over Lavea, who prevails over Tuilefano, who prevails over Utaifeau, who
prevails over Mailo.
2. Clan Support—A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c)(2)
On this issue, the parties
are in agreement on the number of clans; there are three. The evidence further
bears out another important point of consensus; that is, the Mauga clans, as
they are known today, are not defined in terms of the
lineage(s) started by children of the original titleholder. Although there is
some divergence in view as to labels assigned to identify each clan, the
evidence clearly shows common awareness of three distinct family branches
labeled in terms of geographic distribution. Conveniently, reference was freely
made to one family branch identified as being those pertaining to Gagaxnoe,
while another as being those family
members pertaining to Siufaga, and yet another as being those family
members pertaining to Maiva. Each of these locations also contains a
family guest-house site.
The Gagamoe side gave
rise to titleholders from the lineage established from Mauga Mulivai, the
reputed original titleholder; the Siufaga side identifies those from the
Mauga Pulumatala line, who are said to have obtained the title as a reward for
past heroic service; while the Maiva side, identifies those from the
Mauga Manuma line which came into being through
adoption. See generally Asuega v. Manuma,
4 A.S.R. 616.
While there were many family
meetings’ called to select a matai, none of these meetings produced a
majority of clan support for any one candidate.
If there was anything to be seen from the evidence on the issue of clan
support, it is that family meetings were not exactly utilized to select a
successor matai. With each unyielding stance taken, the goal
at these family meetings simply appeared to be ensuring against a family
consensus on any one candidate. Indeed,
some candidates did not even bother to attend any pre-court family meetings,
while others attended only sporadically.
Moreover, the parties’ exercise in continuing judicial proceedings in
this matter proved to be nothing more than unproductive posturing as family
meetings were not even called until there was prodding from the Court.
find that no candidate garnered the support of the majority of clans of the
Forcefulness, Character and
Personality, and Knowledge of Samoan Customs — A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c)(3)
 Under this criterion, evaluation and assessment of
the candidates is necessarily a comparative exercise, varying in emphasis from
case to case. The task is not always
easy especially when presented with a slate of very capable people, while at
the same time the Court is statutorily directed to examine personal traits
that, in part, appeal to personal observation.
See Reid v. Tafalele, 4 A.S.R. 458, 463-64 (Trial
Div. 1964); Fagau v. Tulei, 4
A.S.R. 490, 493 (Trial Div. 1964); Asuega v. Manuma, 4 A.S.R. at 629 (The Court’s
consideration includes “personal demeanor, presence of mind, the clarity, speed
and correctness with which answers were given, candidness, the ability to stand
up to rigorous cross-examination, the education, the self-confidence, and other
qualities which are reflected from the speech and behavior of the candidates,
matters which can be assessed only from the personal observation of each
individual candidate . . . .”). However, “[l]eadership ability, honesty,
education, public service, involvement in church and village affairs, and
previous experience as a matai are some of the factors which aid in meeting
this criterion.” In re Matai Title
Leaeno, 25 A.S.R.2d
4, 8 (Land & Titles Div. 1994).
these ends, the Court here has not only had the benefit of firsthand
observation of each of the candidates as they testified, but of reviewing each
personal history as recounted both on the stand and in final written arguments,
in some cases not without a sprinkling of self-aggrandizement. Each candidate testified as to his particular
contribution and service to church, family, and village, as well as to
educational and vocational background.
We have also seen certain shortcomings as developed on cross-examination
and from personal observation.
Claimant Tuilefano pointed to, among
other things, his early career with the United States Marine Corp, together
with various commendations he received, including a citation for meritorious
action during the Vietnam war; his succession to, and service as, the ranking
orator Tuilefano of Malaeloa; his three terms as Aitulagi County’s Senator in
the Legislative Branch; his various government board memberships; and his
appointment to the political post of Commissioner of Public Safety.
Additionally, Tuilefano lists business enterprises with which he is involved.
Counter-claimant Taufa`asau, who
appearing pro se acquitted himself admirably in his own representation, appraised
the Court of his 32 years of “outstanding and creditable” service to the United
States Government, National Weather Service, attaining the “Gold Medal” award,
and his education towards attaining his career goals. He now enjoys a
well-earned retirement. He argues that
while certain of the other candidates can similarly lay claims to having held
good government positions with the territorial government, he contends that
their positions were more an incident of leading matai status rather than
indices of personal merit.
Utaifeau urges an assessment
of his character and personal qualities against his background of a stable
family life, successful family business enterprises, together with his
longstanding and continuing presence and service within the family and village. In his service to the family, he has given generously of his own
time, money, equipment, and assets to,
among other things, the family guesthouse and many fa`alavelave (family affairs). Likewise, he has equally
donated time, money, equipment and assets to village community projects. As the Utaifeau, appointed by Mauga Ioane, he
has been instrumental in promoting the village’s standing, and pride, in the
world of fautasi (longboat) racing and intra-village rugby. While
conceding the breadth of Mailo’s knowledge of Samoan culture, Mailo having
published a book on the subject, Utaifeau contends that, because of his
continual firsthand experience with family matters, he is better situated with
respect to the more pertinent customs and traditions of the Mauga family, and he is more familiar with the family’s
communal landholding and assets.
Lavea directs us to a personal resume which includes
his successful completion of a college education, Bachelor of Arts, his short
military service, his leadership skills with the Aoa village aumaga (untitled
men’s organization), resulting in three consecutive Samoan cricket crowns. He has also had a varied career with the
American Samoa Government in all its three branches, serving three terms in the
House of Representatives, Probation work with the High Court of American Samoa,
and as liaison officer for the Department of Public Safety. In his capacity as the Lavea he has served as
family spokesman for his many
extended family ties, including the Mauga family. In all his endeavors, Lavea
stresses his commitment to service.
Counter-claimant Mailo’s background
is varied. His early career was
education related, involved with both teaching and administration. As a product of the early government scholarship
program, where he successfully completed postgraduate studies, Mailo
experienced firsthand the program’s shortfalls.
Later he was appointed by Governor Haydon to reassess and revamp the
whole program to make it more student-friendly. His extensive government career
ended with his serving a term as Associate Judge of the High Court, from which
he recently retired. Throughout his work life, Mailo has also operated a number
of businesses, including a grocery store, a building contractor, a restaurateur
and tavern operator, taxi operator, apartment owner and, more recently,
commercial taro farming in the State of Hawaii.
He has held the Mailo title of Fagatogo for many years and is a leading
official of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pago Pago, Samoa.
In our assessment, we find that while
Mailo prevails on the consideration of knowledge of Samoan custom, we rank
Utaifeau slightly ahead of a very strong field on the considerations of
forcefulness, character, and personality.
His superior business skills and industry; his leadership record with
the village aumaga as the Utaifeau; his benevolence as evidenced by the
regularity of his significant contributions in time, property, and money to
family and village, his honesty and integrity, his unassuming manner and his
sense of humility, has, in our view, spoken most persuasively in terms of his
personal traits and personal potential.
We find that Utaifeau prevails on
4. Value to Family, Village, and
Country—A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(c)(4)
Under this heading we find that no
one candidate stands out decisively from the others in terms of value to
country. In their own career paths and
endeavors, we are satisfied that all of the candidates have contributed creditably
to the general welfare of the people and country. With regard to the considerations of value to
family and village, while each candidate is able to point to specific instances
of tautua (traditional, service) to either family, church, or village,
we find that Utaifeau’s contribution to both the Mauga family and the village
of Pago Pago stands out as more consistent and conspicuous over the claims of
the other candidates. Utaifeau, in our
view, better personifies the proverb “O
le ala i le pule o le tautua.”
Moreover, he has lived in the village for most of his life
and has been actively involved in the affairs of the village and family. His familiarity with family needs and members
is preferred. See Aano v. Sitau,
2 A.S.R. 107, 110-11 (Trial Div. 1940); Tuinei v. Ieliko,
2 A.S.R. 117, 123 (Trial Div. 1940).
Although Taufa`asau grew up, and has returned to live, in the village
after an extensive absence because of education and off-island duty stations,
he has been involved in village and family affairs to a much lesser extent than
We rate Utaifeau first on this
Conclusion & Order
 Based on
the foregoing, we hold that Utaifeau is qualified to hold the title Mauga as he
prevails on the third and fourth statutory criteria although preceded by Taufa`asau,
Lavea, and Tuilefano on the first. The
second criterion is discounted.
The Territorial Registrar shall, in
accordance with A.S.C.A. § 1.0409(b), register the matai title Mauga, attached to the village of Pago Pago, in
candidate Utaifeau Tasi Asuega.
It is so ordered.
 By this time, Fanene had withdrawn her counterclaim,
which was previously dismissed in open court, but she continued to file
additional material with the Clerk.
 See Taufa`asau v. Manuma, 4 A.S.R. 947, 949
(App. Div. 1967) (“Historically, the Mauga is known to be among the oldest and
most influential matai titles of
American Samoa. Available historical
records dating from the earliest contacts of the Europeans with eastern or
American Samoa contain numerous references to the Mauga.”) The preeminence of
the Mauga title is, according to one account, traced to the time of the Tongan
occupation in Samoa, some seven centuries ago.
See Amerika Samoa, Capt.
J.A.C. Gray, United States Naval Institute, 1960.
 Under A.S.C.A. § 3.0242(b), the Land and Titles
Division is accorded certain procedural flexibility consistent with the
exigencies of justice and convenience.
 One of the
Mauga family’s traditional meeting sites.
 Candidate Mailo explains family inertia in terms of
“sub-family” politics over the issue of who should call family meetings. The
matter, however, appears quite clearly to have become a non-issue after
somebody took the initiative to use the public media to call a family meeting.
 A variation of the rule employs blood relationship to
the nearest common ancestor titleholder.
 It has also been suggested that the “Sotoa rule” is
more equitable in that it “avoids discrimination against clans which have not
held the title for several generations but whose members, according to the
tradition in many families, remain entitled to a fair chance at each new
vacancy and perhaps even to some affirmative credit on the theory that each
clan should have its turn at the title.”
In re Matai Title “Laie”,
18 A.S.R.2d 35, 37 (Land & Titles Div. 1991).
 This history, incidentally, coincides with some
written accounts. See fn. 2, infra.
 This sort of strategy, now prevalent with most ranking
matai succession disputes, seems to
underscore one thing only, and that is the common reality that there is the
well-beaten path to the courthouse. But
the converse of this observation is the emerging reality that the Judicial
Branch is more and more evolving into being the preferred “matai
picker,” with Samoan families increasingly abdicating their traditional role.
Law reform efforts recurrently come and go before the Fono without any
readily apparent solution to the present avowedly unsatisfactory state of
affairs; judicial appointments and the rank suspicion that goes along with an
unpopular, albeit legally correct, court determination. For this reason, law
reform efforts could at least be redirected to explore matai selection alternatives.
The focus does not have to be centered on the option of removing the decision-making
function from an indecisive family in favor of the courts, but on keeping
decision-making within the family by way of an alternative decision-making
If a family, for any reason, is unable or unwilling to utilize the
selection process handed down by their forebears, where the model is open
discussions upon discussions until a consensus is reached, than an alternative
selection process geared to keeping the decision within the family might
perhaps be more appropriate, rather than passing the buck onto the court.
Undoubtedly, an alternative selection process will be critically viewed
as un-Samoan, but such would be no more Samoan than the current process of
leaving it to a panel of non-family members, Associate Judges, who are guided
in part by statutory criteria that essentially appeal to the subjective.