‘Coming of Age’ with Margaret Mead

[Blog and photos by Mike Foley: Originally published July 8, 2009]

In 1925-26, armed with a Columbia University Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, 23-year-old Margaret Mead spent about six months on the island of Ta’u, Manu’a, American Samoa, conducting field research on whether nurture or nature was predominant in determining behavior. Her controversial book, Coming of Age in Samoa (which I was required to read in Anthropology 101 at the University of Utah in 1964), described an idyllic place where adolescent promiscuity was a natural part of their society.

Even though her book captured the imagination of many, while raising the ire of others, that didn’t stop the people of Ta’u from giving the doyenne of anthropology a royal welcome when she returned for the first time in 46 years on November 11, 1971 . . . and I had fa’amolemole‘d [i.e. begged] and bluffed my way onto the official traveling party to see it:

Margaret Mead (center) with American Samoa Governor John Hayden
(on the left) arriving at Faleasao, Ta’u, Manu’a, on November 11, 1971
photos by Mike Foley

My wife and I happened to be in Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa, at the time as part of my own six-month  East-West Center field research in the Pacific islands that I have previously mentioned in several other blog entries. One of my East-West Center classmates — sorry, I’ve forgotten his name — was involved with the trip, and when I asked him if I could go, he told me maybe: Come down to the dock in Pago Pago that morning, he said, and if he gave me the high-sign, just walk on board the Manusina (the ship). I did, he did…and I did.

I can’t forget the ride that morning was much different from my other trips to Manu’a as a Mormon missionary in 1965: In ’71 the boat seemed very fast, only taking about four hours to travel from Pago to Faleasao, Ta’u (which, I believe, is a distance of about 70 miles) . . . whereas my first experience aboard the M.V. Sulumoni — a 60-foot wooden interisland boat — was very different:

There were no lights in Manu’a or docks at the time to help ships, so the Sulumoni had to leave Pago late at night, timing the overnight cruise to arrive at the first stop in Ofu at daybreak, so the men rowing the tulula [lighters] could see. Well, that first night the ocean was so rough that the Sulumoni rocked ferociously, and after several hours of motoring toward’s Manu’a — I was deathly seasick (ma’i vasa) practically the whole time — the captain turned back. We got back to the mission home in Mapusaga about 2 or 3 a.m., and I remember my head was still spinning so badly that when I woke up in the morning I had completely turned around in bed in my sleep.

The next night we tried again, and even though the ocean seemed rougher to me than the night before — with waves washing over the deck — this time the Sulumoni kept going.

About 2 or 3 in the morning, while I was sliding around on a wooden bunk in one of the cabins  trying to keep my ma’i vasa down, several of the crew started running around and yelling, I was told, “the ship is sinking.” We were asked to come on deck to help lighten the load.

I don’t remember how many 50-kilo bags [110 pounds] of cement mix we helped dump overboard, plus the crew threw over some construction rebar (all of the materials were bound for the then-new Manu’a High School which was under construction — largely being built by former Latter-day Saint labor missionaries who were working for the Government of American Samoa at the time). In fact, later, my companion and I had to testify for the court that, yes, we helped dump the materials — as opposed to someone just saying it was dumped and then using it for themselves.

…but finally, the captain said we were okay, and we continued on our way. I don’t remember the rest of that night, but I clearly remember that by the time the sun came up we were off Ofu and — miraculously — I was no longer seasick.

So, back to Margaret Mead:

We arrived several hours before her, because she came on another larger-but-slower ship with American Samoa Governor John Hayden. In addition to welcoming Margaret Mead back to Manu’a, the gov was also dedicating the first power plant in Manu’a, which had been built in Faleasao. This gave us time for a Faleasao matai (chief) to invite us into his fale and, in best Samoan tradition, feed us fresh talo (taro) and yummy palusami (baked young taro leaves and coconut cream).

Margaret Mead in Manu'a, 1971When Mead and the governor arrived, the fa’aSamoa [Samoan culture and protocol] really kicked in. School children danced for the officials, and all the Manu’a chiefs welcomed Mead with a ta’alolo and  sua — the ceremonial presentation of food, drink, and fine mats — followed by an ‘ava fa’atupu [royal kava ceremony].

My notes, which I have kept all these years, indicate that in her response speech Margaret Mead said, “I began my work here in Samoa 46 years ago, and it is fitting that I should end my return trip where I have been visiting other people and at last back to the place where I began my work.”

“I have taken the story of your lives as you lived it long ago to people all over the world; and I’m delighted to come back and find your customs still here, mixed with the new, so that I can see a great ‘ava ceremony at the same time you’re starting a new generator.”

“When I came the malamalama [light] had come as spoken of the light of Christianity. Now, 46 years later, electric light has come, and children no longer need to be afraid in the dark night when they walk around the village. Fa’afetai tele lava [thank you very much]. Manuia le fa’amuli [bless those who remain behind].”

In another interview Mead gave on WVUV-TV, she recalled she “packed my notebooks up in wax paper — we didn’t have any plastics then — to get them safely back to the United States.”

Asked to comment about modern clothing, Mead said: “Forty years ago it wasn’t possible to buy beautiful South Seas material. You either had to wear tapa [bark cloth], or grass skirts, or fine mats, and be completely traditional; or wear rather unattractive, European material.”

Asked about her anthropological observations in Coming of Age, Mead replied: “In 1926 we didn’t know what it was like to grow up anywhere, except in Germany. Most of the gloom about adolescence had come from Germany, and they had these terrible words like weltschmertz [world pain] and adolescence was supposed to be a terrible thing. Americans had read the German books and built up theories about it, so that everywhere in the world you were supposed to have an awful time growing up — political doubts and religious doubts, and conflicts with parents, [and] misery. Parents were supposed to try to fence the children in, and the children were trying to get out. The work I did in Samoa helped explode those ideas.”

“The Samoans, and I think this is true of all Polynesians, have a relationship to all people, that is very gay and very warm: They take you to their hearts. The Europeans and Americans are always impressed with this. They take you to their hearts [too], but I don’t think they keep you very hard. It is this general relationship that is so characteristic.”

A little like Margaret Mead, I have not been back to Manu’a since then — over 40 years ago now; but it’s still a place that burns in my memory…for the strength of its fa’aSamoa and my own development there as a young man and a Mormon missionary. In my mind I can still stand on the ridge where the high school was eventually built and look across the eight-mile gap between Ta’u and Olosega, where we used to watch the whales.

I also haven’t read Margaret Mead’s book since that long-ago anthropology class, so I’ll leave it to others to decide whether she was fooled or not, but I can tell you this from my own experience — standing with her on the sandy beach of Faleasao — that she still liked the Samoans after all those years and other travels…and they liked her.

*  *  *  *  *

[NOTE: While I’ve kept my notes all these years, I apolgize for the quality of the photos: I long ago lost the negatives at some point, and had to scan the small snap-shots that the late Les Forester developed and printed for me one evening in his darkroom at Mapusaga High School soon after this experience.]


  1. Mikaele says:

    Laie girl Nettie Alapa Hunter, who now lives in Hilo, submitted the following comment:

    That was great to read of your trip to Manu’a, Mike! I too remember my trips to Manu’a and being ma’i vasa! It was horrible. My first trip there, I remember starting out in the covered part of the boat thinking it was safer. I felt good, but not for long! We didn’t even reach Aunu’u [a small island near the eastern end of Tutuila] and I had to get top-side pronto or I’d make the rest of the group sick. I laid on the deck and it seemed like I heaved all the way to Ofu. I don’t know who was the other principal that was helping me, but I was so sick. I was so happy to get on land. It took me a whole day to get over it. Thank goodness for the nice fresh kalo, palusami and fresh fish to make one feel human again. I had to make that trip once more to Ta’u. Thank goodness that the next 2 times I went by airplane. Now that is another tale of being more scared than sick, especially in Ta’u! The plane landed on a hill and it was not a very long hill. The plane landed on one end of the grassy runway and you see it ending and you hope the plane is going to stop moving before it goes over the cliff. I feel for the people that have to make that flight more often than I did. Ah, but good memories now that it’s over…

    Another Mead story to share: When I took anthro 101, the required reading was Coming of Age in Samoa, right? I just happened to be reading it when my grandfather saw me and told me that he knew Margaret Mead. I asked him how? He told me he was principal of a school in Manu’a when she was doing her studies there and he used to help interpret for her. So, of course, thinking I’d make some points with my professor if I had a personal note of interest, I asked grandfather what he thought of her studies. His answer, “She came of age in Samoa.” Oops! What was I to think? My daughter wondered why I didn’t ask what he meant by that. To my Samoan chief grandfather? That was not an option of topics to speak with one’s grandfather considering, Mead’s studies. But I have often wondered what made him say that? Enough faitatala for now…

  2. Mikaele says:

    Nettie: Malie tele, ma ae pe sa’o lou grandpa! Of course when I lived on Ta’u in the mid-60s, we divided our time between Fitiuta and Ta’u village. There was no road yet, only a footpath, so it was a long walk…and the malae va’alele [airport] was still years ahead. Sometimes the boat would break down — one time for six weeks: The little stores ran out of stuff to buy, and I can say of those mission days that I actually didn’t spend any money at all, because there was nothing to spend it on. After that, my dad used to write and say, don’t spend too much on coconuts and breadfruit.

  3. Mikaele says:

    Nettie Hunter responded again:

    They (Mead & grandpa) are no longer here to get me! hehehe…moa of Samoa: I too remember the days when the ships didn’t come in and grocery stores ran out of supplies! Ke-o [Meatoga Polvado] and I went to Samoa together as teachers. Sometimes we would hunt for chicken soup, just to pretend it was like saimin. We always bought our stash of Spam, just in case. When our friends would visit, almost always Spam was on the menu because we had no fresh meat. They would laugh and tease us that we probably knew 101 ways to cook Spam…What we wouldn’t do for baked ‘ulu [breadfruit] right now!!!

  4. Mikaele says:

    My friend and former Samoa missionary Richard Nielson (our periods of service overlapped) emailed me the following comment:

    Great story, Mike. I really enjoyed your perspective on Dr. Mead. To be honest, I never have appreciated her observations much over the years, but you have given me pause to rethink.


  5. Max Stanton says:


    Fa’afetai tele lava mo le “article.” I enjoyed reading it and appreciate that you thought of me in sending your story.

    I spent a weekend in Manu’a (the village of Luma on Ta’u) in the mid-1970s. I arrived there shortly after the “Freeman-Mead” debate had erupted. I didn’t speak Samoan and was the guest of a local teacher who was (then) taking a class from me at the high school in Utulei [Tutuila] and invited me to visit his family for the Memorial Day weekend.

    I did have the opportunity to listen to some people while I was in Ta’u discussing the field research work and points-of-view of Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Lowell Holmes. Quite a bit of the discussion was in mixed Samoan and English (especially by some of the older men who actually remembered Mead’s research. My host would translate most of what was going on and encouraged those who could speak in English to do so for my sake.

    Since this was a discussion that grew out of general “chit chat,” I didn’t have the presence of mind to jot down some notes from that brief discussion. But, I do distinctly remember that everyone liked Holmes and said he “got it right.” One person even said he regretted the fact that Holmes and his writings were really unknown — even among the Samoans. There was also a strong feeling that M. Mead was an honest and sincere person, but really missed some important points and put too much emphasis on behavior that (even in the 1920s) was not too widely practices or approved. But she, too, was highly respected.

    Regarding D. Freeman, no one had read his work, but from what they had heard they felt he was really wrong. (Paul Shankmann told me that Freeman had talked with him once and was totally mystified as to the strong dislike his Samoan friends and informants displayed over his side of the debate. Bradd Shore said he, too, had heard that Freeman was totally devastated and confused by the nearly universal rejection of his side of the debate by his Samoan friends and associates.

    You were very fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time.

    I met “Maggie” Mead at an anthropological conference in Toronto in 1972. She was the primary discussant at a session on Samoan migration. I had a paper to deliver at the session based on my dissertation research. As I stood up to give my presentation two young men stood up to question my presence in the program. One said he just didn’t think a Mormon could be objective enough to qualify as a legitimate anthropologist. (This was Glen Peterson.

    Quite a few years later he talked to me when the PIS sponsored a meeting on Pacific Island political systems at BYU-Hawaii.) He asked me if I remembered the Toronto meeting and the “dressing down” Margaret Mead gave to two very vocal people who were not happy with my presence. He said he was the “anti Mormon” and apologized to me and added that he had to go back and revise his impressions of who had the right to free and open speech and who didn’t. We are now friends and leave one’s religion and politics out of our discussions.)

    The other protestor had visited the Polynesian Cultural Center and knew that the Church College of Hawaii was closely associated with it. He said he was appalled that nothing in any of the villages promoted anti-colonialism or mentioned the “revolutionary struggle” Pacific Islanders were having in Hawaii and the US Mainland.

    I meekly answered if those on the panel who had read my paper beforehand felt I was “out of place,” I would yield my place in the program. At that moment, Dr. Mead told me and the audience that she had read all of the papers for the session and, that of all these parers she had read, mine made the most sense to her. She then told both of my distractors that she knew both of them personally and that if they would put as much effort into honest research and not so much time going from meeting-to-meeting to disrupt the proceedings they might even make an actual contribution to the field. She then said: “Go ahead, young man, and read your paper.”

    I don’t care how controversial Margaret Mead has been in the field of anthropology and gender studies, and in public at large: I have been a strong and grateful supporter of hers from that day in Toronto.


  6. Mikaele says:

    Nettie Alapa Hunter writes again to say:

    Another thing, fyi: In my attempts to find out my Grandpa’s connection to Mead, I was reading her acknowledgments and saw that she mentioned a Kipeni. Since that name is my Grandpa’s taule’ale’a [non-chief] name, I felt sure that was my grandpa she was referring to. I still wish I was brave enough at that time to ask him why Mead came of age in Samoa. I know my daughter, with her more tautala laitiiti [cheeky] American ways would have asked. Shucks, that would have given me more points with my prof! I’m also glad you added Ke-o’s full name. Thanks! Nettie

  7. Mikaele says:

    MAX: That’s an amazing Margaret Mead story. In my own encounter she was the center of a lot of attention from others, and in addition to observing all the celebration and fa’aSamoa ceremonies, I only had a brief chance to introduce myself as an East-West Center graduate student and former Mormon missionary in Samoa. She was very cordial and encouraged me to continue my studies.


  8. Mikaele, this is quite interesting. I just browsed through your web and these comments are so interesting, especially your cabby days experience. I did not know you were in that cabby fever. When I came to Hawaii for the first time, my brother-in-law (Sefo Tonga) was doing that and I did not like the idea of him driving and leaving my sister with the 2 kids alone at home. I arrived at Honolulu during Summer and some of my Tongan friends took me to Waikiki at night on weekends. I heard stories of guys from CCH (Tongans) who were cab drivers. Reading through here I understand that it was what CCH students did for fast money at the time. Very interesting.

  9. Margaret Mead got a lot of things wrong about the Samoan people in her observations. My family is from Ta’u Manu’a and found that after her book was published they were in a way hurt. They felt that her findings were taken out of context and that she truly did not capture the true settings of Samoan life, behavior and culture. My grandfather an educated man from Ta’u who was also the high school’s Librarian at the time and my grandmother, a nurse at the infirmary, really felt misinterpreted and degraded from her “research” noted in her book. To a lot of people in Manu’a it was a slap in the face.

  10. Over the years I’ve heard a number of Samoans express similar views about Margaret Mead’s work in Manu’a. My blog entry above wasn’t intended as a critique of that, but rather I just wanted to share my recollection of the day we spent a few hours together in Faleasao…during which the Samoans, whether they agreed with her or not, were ever so gracious in welcoming her back.


  1. […] 11, 1925: Columbia anthropology doctoral student Margaret Mead arrived in American Samoa to begin her fieldwork that would eventually be published as Coming of Age in […]

  2. […] subjects and people of very diverse backgrounds, such as my earlier blog entries on Margaret Mead (http://nanilaie.info/?p=404) and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II […]

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