During numerous visits to Leone, I would walk around visiting and chatting with friends and sometimes simply enjoying the lovely, quiet village. As often as not, I would end up in the fale of Tui'uli Leoso, where her daughter-in-law, Kolone Fai'ivae Leoso, would
be working with a group of ladies making Siapo. They all
knew me. Kolone had been one of my teachers (then
Kolone Hunkin, a teacher's assistant) at the Sisters School
in Atu'u , and she taught me embroidery. They expected
me to visit with them and share their breakfast, customarily
eaten about mid-morning. Soon, my daughter would be
off in the playful care of young girls of the household or
under the affectionate watch of a grandmother. I would be
absorbed in the talk and the Siapo work of the women. Surrounded by adult women, Kolone sat designing
one Siapo after another. Some of these were her own
pieces, to be completed by young girls who would learn
about Siapo between having to scurry off to bring food,
matches or other requested items. Some designs were for
women who would complete them for their own use, or to
give as gifts or to sell. It was fascinating to watch and, ultimately, to realize
that in the course of the apparent atmosphere of joking,
gossiping and singing, masterpieces of Siapo were being
produced under the direction of Kolone.
She was a stately woman, seldom speaking unnecessarily except to direct those working with her. She would sit
in the fale, designing her Siapo, showing what she wanted
by placing small marks on the material. With just a dot here
and there, she could indicate what she wanted through
brief, simple directions . . . "start from there . . . hold that
line . . . now close it... continue the line to here. . . bring
it around to there.". Her instructions flowed effortlessly and
the women followed them explicitly.
At times, Kolone herself would outline the finer designs
she wished placed on the Siapo and then leave the coloring
to the young girls working with her. She worked quickly. A
large pupuni (curtain, or room divider) of six by eight feet
would be designed and ready for coloring in half a day.
My memories of the Leone Siapo sessions are as pleasant as they are vivid. About nine in the morning, the
women would start coming from their homes to gather at
the house of Tui'uli. I would be one of the first to arrive,
and watched as Tamala came up the road, then Pa'i would
come from Sogi way, then old Gatia Fai'ivae would appear
from her house. Soon there would be twelve or fourteen
women gathered for the daily session.
Tui'uli greeted each of the women and presented each
with a faasolo, a flower garland. There was a new one
every day. They might be made of clusters of tiny
copper-brown seeds from the lagaali tree (Ag/aia sp.)
next to her house, combined with small waxy green leaves
ofgau laulili'i (Cassytha sp.). She would send the little girls
of her household out early in the morning to collect flowers
and leaves. Whatever might be available that particular day was artfully formed by Tui'uli into a garland making
the best use of the colors and fragrances.
Tall, striking and regal, it was evident in her speech, her
bearing and her movements that Tui'uli was of high rank.
The women would arrive with much gaiety, exchanging warm greetings while finding a place for themselves on
comfortable mats over the fale floor, made with small
waterworn pebbles and crushed coral. Sitting cross-legged, the ladies had before them their papa, wooden
boards, on which bark cloth was stretched and temporarily
adhered. The boards, made by the women's husbands to
fit their needs, were about twenty inches in diameter with
short legs so they could easily be turned for working on the
Siapo. A coconut shell containing black dye would be
steadied in the loose flooring as each lady prepared to
All my life, I never have been able to sit cross-legged,
Samoan style. Normally, it is considered rude to sit with
one's legs stretched out. My handicap was understood and
special permission was granted for me to work at a low
table, with a small box beside it on which to place my
supplies. It did prove handy as I could store my things in
Everyone in the fale had their task. That of Kolone was
to design and, from time to time, correct the work. That of
Tui'uli was to encourage, tease and criticize the workers,
direct the preparation of food for the umu and food contributed by members of the group to serve at lunch. She
made sure that the needs of everyone were met.
In the afternoon, a great favorite was suamasi. Hard
tack biscuits or crackers were put in boiling water with
sugar and coconut milk. Fresh orange leaves were added
for flavor, resulting in a delicious pudding-like snack.
My nickname in the group was taliga papae, white
ears. Although Kolone was only five years older than me, I
was looked on, the youngest of the group, as a favorite
daughter, one they always could call on for little favors,
such as their tobacco or chewing gum. Kolone and some of
the other women enjoyed smoking Samoan tobacco and
often I would bring some. They would peel off a leaf, hold
it over a lit match to toast it, then roll it in a dried banana leaf cut to the proper size, thus producing a cigarette.
One reason I enjoyed being part of the Leone group
was the relaxed atmosphere of their sessions. There never
was any tenseness or hard feelings. Nor was there
jealousy. The women, living the Samoan way, Fa'a Samoa, were secure in their positions in the community.
The Leone Siapo makers did not look on their work
merely as a job or a duty, even though the Siapo they
created was of considerable economic importance to their
families and, consequently, to the village. They came together and combined social with economic purposes, enjoying both. In their friendship, their work, there was a
graciousness and style, unaffected and innocent. It was
beautiful watching them and falling into their chatter and
banter, everything from the latest gossip to the old stories
and legends they had known all their lives. Each day
seemed filled with productive work, made easy by the fun.
One of the ladies working on her Siapo might begin a song,
usually with some rather pointed but good-natured teasing from the others about the quality of the singer's voice. Before long, another woman would put aside her work
and be up on her feet doing a dance, stimulated with
enthusiasm by the rest of the group.
While working, no attention was paid to rank or status.
Only at meal time were the traditions of Fa'a Samoa
followed and the women, then sitting in their respective
positions in the fale according to rank, were served accordingly, with the lauhu (plate of food) going first to the
wife of the highest ranking chief.
From the fale, Ie afolau o Leoso (guest house of
Leoso), we could see the beautiful London Missionary
Society Church (now the Congregational Christian
Church). The striking thing about the church, in addition to
its twin bell towers, was its stained glass windows, with
bright reds, blues, purples, yellows, oranges and greens.
These windows, some of which were visible through the
open front doors, radiated their colors throughout the
church. The tower windows (now missing) especially inspired Kolone.
1925 Mamanu Kolone Leoso.
The patterns and colors of the glass windows directly
influenced the Siapo creations of Kolone. I can remember
watching her, lost in thought, staring at the church windows. Turning to her blank bark cloth, she would divide
the space into sections similar to those in the windows and
then start to place her symbols within these spaces. It is my opinion that the church windows also were the
source for Kolone originating the use, all in the same Siapo,
of multiple colors, that is, brown, black, yellow and red
used together at the same time. As simple as it seems, it
was a creative break with tradition. Previously, most
freehand Siapo was painted with two colors, brown and
black, with yellow used infrequently.
Some of the church windows no longer exist. Those
which remain continue to brighten the church and every
time I see them, they remind me of Kolone. Through my export business, I developed a market in
Honolulu for Leone Siapo. First, I sent samples because
the Leone pieces were different than the brown Siapo I
had been shipping. Orders came in right away and I
bought pieces from the ladies, at the going price of fifty
cents each for a thirty-inch piece, round or square.
The pace in the fale normally was unhurried. The
exception was just before boat day. Every three weeks the
steamer from Hawaii would come in and the women
would go down to the Fagatogo parade ground where
they would sell their work to the passengers and crew members. There always was heightened activity as the
ladies finished up as much Siapo as possible to sell.
Things were even more hectic if I had to ship a large
order to Hawaii. At times like this, the women would take
their Siapo home to work on in the quiet of evening.
Each village had special handicrafts that they offered
for sale. Some villages devoted their efforts to woven
baskets, mats or grass skirts. Leone was famous for
freehand Siapo and it was popular with visitors. Selling
their Siapo was the principal way the women of Leone had
of making money on their own. At Leone one day in 1929, watching the Siapo work, I
realized I ought to make a Siapo of my own. Since I was
going to be in town for a few days, the women provided
materials with which I could try my hand at home. One
thing they didn't give me was soga, the bark glue used to
attach the u’a to the wooden board. This glue forms a
tacky bond between the board and the bark cloth but
makes it easy to remove the cloth from the board.
I pasted my material to a counter in the store so I could
work on it between customers. Unfortunately, I used
starch adhesive, used to adhere permanently the sheets of
u’a to each other, rather than soga. The use of soga had
eluded me because the Leone women prepared their
boards at home. My first effort does not exist today because when I tried
to remove the Siapo from the counter, it came up in shreds.
I also had not learned that I could easily have soaked it off
with just clear water! The women in Leone laughed and
joked for days about my stupidity when I joined them next.
They patiently showed me how to prepare the soga and
adhere the u'a properly.
My first successful Siapo was my second. I proudly gave
it away as a gift. Many years later, I realized I had forgotten
to whom I had given it. Just a few years ago, during a trip to
Honolulu to present a workshop, I was invited by an old
friend, Henry Zuberano (who once lived in Samoa), for
drinks. After showing me his extensive art collection, he
remarked that he had a gift for me. It was my "first" Siapo! I
was indeed happy to have it again after fifty years.
Neither my family nor I grew our own u'a so I did not
have my own supply of materials. Each of the ladies in
Leone, however, had her own patch of paper mulberry
plants. One of them might remark at the fale that they
would not be with the group tomorrow as they had to
weed their u’a. I would volunteer to go along, watching,
learning and helping with the gardening. Then, when it
came time to harvest the u 'a, I would help again and would
be given u'a in return.
People constantly requested of Kolone Siapo and designs and since there was a steady flow of supplies in
payment it was unnecessary for her to grow or gather
materials. An indication of her recognition is that some
people brought fine mats as payment for work requested.
The talents of Kolone were in demand for decorating
bed linens. People would bring her sheets and pillowcases
on which she would print designs from her own stencils.
She would line out flowers and names on the pillowcases
which the owners then would embroider.
There were several other talented designers in the
Leone group but none of them could match the constant
output of Kolone. One designer was a man. Vailu'u never
joined the group, but he would design pieces in the evening at home and his wife, Pa'i, brought them in the next
day to color. It was the first and only time I had seen a
complete design drawn out. The other ladies would tease
her when each day she brought a new design, saying
"Why don't you bring Vailu'u to make our designs?".
The Leone group continued to work together until
World War II began. Government regulations were imposed, there was no transportation, no lights. Siapo making came to an abrupt halt. New ways of making money
became possible, if only by fermenting and selling home
brew and taking in washing from the troops. After the war,
and with the planting of u'a stopped, new work such as
cleaning up the island and other jobs became available.
When the war started, I was unable to ship orders out
so I had supplies on hand. Siapo that Kolone and I made
during the war years were used locally. Kolone had trouble getting her supplies in later days
when making of Siapo declined and she remained one of
the few practicing the art. With so few people in American
Samoa working with Siapo at that time, supplies became
hard to obtain. She often came to my house to ask if I had
any u’a or dyes. As I was traveling back and forth between
Savai'i, where they still were making Siapo, I managed to
obtain enough materials for both our needs.
Kolone reduced her output in her last years, but continued to create Siapo, one of the last Leone women to do
so. One of her proudest moments was the presentation of
a unique piece she made for Lady Bird Johnson during her
visit with President Johnson to American Samoa in 1966.
1966 Mamanu Lady Bird Johnson Piece.
Tui'uli was a strong influence on my early Siapo work,
as much so as Kolone, from whom I learned techniques.
Tui'uli was poetic in the way she expressed herself. Soft
spoken, she was clear and precise with every word. Even
when angry at someone and scolding them, she did it
graciously. But you could feel the impact of her voice. Her
words always right, her expressions beautiful.
Tui'uli passed on just before the start of the war.
Kolone died in 1970. The fale in which we worked has
been replaced and breadfruit trees have grown up to block
the view of the church.
Kolone cut hundreds of stencils for herself and for
others to use with contemporary materials, and made
probably as many designs for embroidery work. In her
designs for the freehand method of Siapo, she evoked the
essence of Samoan life through her imaginative use of the
traditional symbols used by generations of Samoan artists
The colorful Siapo of Leone lives on, as they are the
basis for much of the creative work that I and my students
carry on today.