For Samoan Language Week, Talei Tu'inukuafe Collection Manager, Pacific examines the building blocks of Tuiga, and how they come together to form a distinct symbol of cultural and national identity. 

Bannner image: (detail) Sei, tuiga, feather tufts. AWMM 2019.54.3.

For many Samoans, the Tuiga (ceremonial headdress) is a familiar adornment and important cultural symbol.

Historically the Tuiga was worn exclusively by ali‘i1 and their manaia2 and taupou,3 for all occasions of importance in Samoa. Today it is still seen during ‘ava ceremonies or saofa‘i;4 it adorns the heads of manaia and taupou as they dance in ta‘alolo5 processions, or during taualuga,6 and in short infers honour and respect to those in whose presence it is worn. It encompasses many of the values and feelings that underpin the world of Fa’a Samoa, but many may not fully understand why the Tuiga has always been viewed as an ʻoloa ua teu.7

Florence Edith Armstrong Greig (c.1894). Daughter of Leitu Toleafoa II. Greig Family Collection.

The Tuiga’s earliest function was as a chiefly adornment for ali‘i pai‘a (sacred or paramount chiefs). The wearing of Tuiga marked these high-ranking chiefs as descendants of the maximal chiefly lineages (from which all sub-lineages in Samoa descend).

As the products of prestigious or sacred bloodlines, these greatest of chiefs had ancestral mana and were viewed as inherently tapu. To mark their singular status, they were given the prerogative of wearing Tuiga. Over time this privilege was naturally extended to include their respective manaia and taupou, who were usually their own sons and daughters.  

Andrew, Thomas. Kalolo. AWMM. PH-1992-6-25.

In their original form, Tuiga were composite headdresses, made up of several individual parts that were attached to the head of the wearer to form a single structure. They were assemblages of the most precious, coveted, and often sacred materials known to Samoans. When worn together, they implied power, authority, and wealth. The lave (crest or upright framework of sticks) was usually made with a central plate of laumei (turtle) shell and decorated with circular insets of tifa (mother of pearl). The lauulu (human hair) bundles, also referred to as lauao, were intrinsically sacred because of the close association of hair with the head.

In all Polynesian cultures, the head was seen as the most tapu part of body. As a result, the head and hair of a person was believed to be an embodiment of their mana. To further highlight this idea, the lauulu bundles were bleached in a process called fa‘aenaena to achieve a shade of reddish-light brown or blonde-brown.8

Lave, tuiga, triple staff. AWMM 2019.54.1.

The pale fuiono 


The pale fuiono (nautilus-shell headband) was another crucial part of the headdress but was an adornment that could also be worn on its own. Fuiono shells (Nautilus pompilius), with their pearly blueish sheen, were prized due to their rarity in Samoan waters and were often imported from Tonga to meet demand. The parts of the nautilus shell used in pale fuiono were the innermost ‘core’ and septum pieces, arranged in two rows. 

Pale fuiono, head ornament. AWMM 11747.

The ‘ie ula

The crowning component of the Tuiga was the ‘ie ula (a bundle made from strings of red feathers). These were constructed in a similar fashion to the titi‘ula (red feather girdle) and utilized the rare and valuable feathers of the sega bird9 (sega‘ula/segavao). These red feathers were akin to gold in Samoa and a very lucrative trade was built on their exchange with other valued commodities between Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. They were treasured not only for their natural colour (red denoted the presence of mana), but also for its connotations with divine deities in pre-Christian Samoan cosmology.

Sei, tuiga, feather tufts. AWMM 2019.54.3.

To anchor all these individual parts of the Tuiga to the head, a central foundation called le pou was built first. The pou was made by gathering the hair into a tight bun or foga. On top of this was laid a piece of siapo that was fastened around the brow and temples, before being gathered back onto the crown of the head to form a central post.

This pou was the defining substructure of the Tuiga, to which all other parts of the headdress could be securely tied. For this reason, the term Tuiga fau exists, which alludes to the act of fastening or tying with strings. It also acts to differentiate older Tuiga headdresses from Tuiga pulou; a modern iteration where the Tuiga is a single-piece structure that fits onto the head like a hat.

Tuiga, head ornament. AWMM 1932.445, 18469.

Many Samoan families have cherished Tuiga in their possession, handed down as priceless heirlooms over generations, and lovingly (or sometimes secretly) cared for.

The early significance of Tuiga to cultural notions of chiefly rank and authority has meant that their manufacture has continued up until our present day. Today many of the Tuiga’s traditional parts have been substituted with modern materials. Tifa has given way to mirrors, sega feathers to dyed chicken feathers, and pale fuiono to headbands with colorful plastic beading.

The transformations and changes the headdress has undergone, speaks to the ongoing importance of Tuiga to the world of Fa‘a Samoa, and to its visual currency as an emblem of national and cultural identity for Samoans the world over.

Beattie, William. Pacific Island head-dress. AWMM. PH-NEG-B473.

About the author

Talei Tuʻinukuafe is the Collection Manager, Pacific at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. She is also a Doctoral Candidate in Art History at the University of Auckland. Her doctoral research aims to establish an indigenous art historical record of precolonial head-adornment practices in Polynesia.



1 Chief. (Pratt, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, with English and Samoan Vocabulary, 71).

2 Young, titled son of the chief (male heir).

3 Young, unmarried, ceremonial hostess of high rank, charged with the reception and entertainment of visitors to the village. She was selected by the chief from the young girls of his household (and was usually his own daughter).

4 Title bestowals.

5 The taking of food to visitors by a whole district at once. (Pratt, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, with English and Samoan Vocabulary, 275).

6 A specific type of dance that forms the finale in a series of performances. The manaia or taupou is the solo dancer for taualuga but is supported by others that aiuli (support through exaggerated clown-like movements).

7 Treasure. (Pratt, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, with English and Samoan Vocabulary, 409).

8 Some Tuiga also used lauulu bundles that were left unbleached.

9 Blue crowned lory (Vini australis).


Further reading

Buck, Te Rangi Hīroa. Samoan Material Culture. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1930.

Krämer, Augustin. The Samoa Islands, Volume II: Material Culture. Translated by Theodore Verhaaren. Auckland: PASIFIKA PRESS, 1995.

Si‘ilata, E. T. M. “O le Pale o Laei Samoa, The Crowning Glory of Samoan Adornment: Examining the Changing Role of Tuiga in Samoan Culture.” Master’s Thesis, University of Auckland. 2018.