Court sees “disturbing picture” of absentee sa’o
The Lands and Titles Court find disturbing the consequences of long-distance family leadership with a sa’o or chief who is “essentially a part-time resident” when it comes to land and titles cases that are before the High Court.
Communal land in Faleniu, known as Tagiape’a, is at the center of a land dispute. The land is owned by the Maui’a family. According to the six-page order, Sallie Saitupu Mane filed for a preliminary injunction from the court to halt the construction of a residential building on the communal property.
Mane claims that the Tuigamala’s building site is located within a portion of the Maui’a property previously assigned to her late father, Ulimasao Moea’i and his children. Mane is a family member and the Tuigamalas are not.
The hearing for this motion was held on September 12, 2012. Chief Justice Michael Kruse, Chief Associate Judge Logoai Siaki, and Associate Judge Fa’amausili Pomele signed the order issued last week.
It grants a preliminary injunction, which enjoins the Tuigamalas from conducting any further construction on Tagiape'a, including landscaping while this matter is pending for a final resolution of the case.
According to the order, following the hearing the court found that Tagiape’a is communal property of the Moea’i family and that a former titleholder Moea’i Luteru assigned it to his son, Ulimasao Moea’i.
“We also find that for many years, Ulimasao, his wife and their twelve children, of whom Mane is one, lived and worked on Tagiape’a and they built residential structures, cultivated subsistence crops, buried their dead, and otherwise occupied and enjoyed Tagiape’a as entitled family members.
“As such Ulimasao served as chief and family in accordance with Samoan Customs, Ulimasao has passed on as well as five of his children who are interred on Tagiape’a,” according to the order.
Mane told the court that she left the territory in early 1960s and returned in 1991 and upon her return she discovered the presence of strangers, the Tuigamala’s on Tagiape’a “living initially in what she described as a shack.” According to the order, after Mane made inquiries she was told the Tuigamalas were from Samoa and they were brought onto Tagiape’a sometime during the 1970s on the basis of some collateral family connection to Ulimasao’s sisters and her husband.
In 2006-2007, the order notes that Mane built herself a residential structure on Tagiape’a, and she complains that when she began to go back to Tagiape’a she was initially met with resistance from the Tuigamalas, who seemed to have curried favor with the Sa’o.
“The defendants were under the guise of repairing their living quarters, [and] have not started to build a substantial and more permanent concrete structure on Tagiape’a to the undeniable displacement of Mane and her side of the family.”
The court noted that it was unclear on the evidence who authorized and secured the prerequisite building permits from the authorities but the Tuigamalas’ construction impacts the Moea’i burials on the land being situated right up next to the grave sites of Mane’s siblings.
“While the matai denies Mane’s claims of continuing tautua (traditional service) we are inclined to believe Mane.
“We are satisfied that the Matai, like too many we have encountered in recent cases, maintained an off-island residence as well, and that Mane and her husband have participated in on-going on island fa’alavelave.”
The Lands and Titles court pointed out that the picture presented in this case of the returning Moea’i family members being permanently displaced from family assigned lands by non-family members with their enduring concrete structure is not justifiable simply on the basis of tautua (service) they render to the matai.
“The purposive design behind defendants’ construction is seen as even more disturbing with the seeming albeit unknown perhaps, desecration of family burials resulting from the location of defendant’s expanded structure.
“Secondly, the other disturbing picture projected with the scenario before us is the consequences of long-distance family leadership, with a sa’o (chief) who is essentially a part-time resident.
“The immediate inference to be drawn from the very apparent mix-up at the very outset of these proceedings, with absent leadership, is a very divided family, with the on-island lesser-matai and family members taking one view regarding the conversion of communal family assets, while the sa’o has taken a totally opposing and in our view arbitrary and capricious one,” says the order