Court rules in favor of Puia’i Tufele for Te’o title
The Land and Titles Division of the High Court of American Samoa has ruled in favor of Puia’i Tufele in the case involving the Te’o title from the village of Pago Pago. The Court’s decision was noted in an opinion and order issued this past Monday.
According to the Court, “Puia’i is qualified to hold the matai title Te’o” because while the parties are equal on one of the statutory criterion, Puia’i prevails over the claimant, Ma’ataua Uiva Te’o, on the other three criteria. “The Territorial Registrar shall… register the matai title Te’o in candidate Puia’i Manuma Tufele. It is so ordered.”
The dispute involves competing claims to the Te’o title, which has been vacant for over a decade. Claimant Ma’ataua Uiva Te’o initially offered to register the title with the Territorial Registrar and Puia’i Tufele filed a timely objection and counter-claim. Afterwards, according to the Court’s order and opinion, the Territorial Registrar referred the matter to the Office of Samoan Affairs for extra-judicial proceedings (mandating the parties to attend and “attempt… to resolve the controversy” in the presence of the Secretary of Samoan Affairs).
The OSA meetings “were to no avail” and as a result, the OSA Secretary issued a “certificate of irreconcilable dispute,” hence the issue ended up in the High Court.
For the criteria of “best hereditary right,” the Court found in favor of Puia’i saying he “has credibly shown his descent to Te’o Mutiatai, his second great grandfather, a common ancestor he shares with his first cousin Te’o Seuga Manuma, a former titleholder.” The Court noted “Ma’ataua’s pedigree claim is not so clear on the evidence.”
The evidence showed Pulu Taulaga Te’o had a brother named Falepopo who, according to the Pago Pago Title Registry, was a Te’o titleholder in 1918. However, the Court noted, “we fail to see by this fact alone how Ma’ataua’s claim through his paternal grandfather, a descent line collateral to the descent line from Falepopo, establishes his hereditary entitlement.” The Court said they “did not find Pulu Taulaga Te’o’s name on the Registry so as to affirm that there was such a Te’o titleholder in the village of Pago Pago.”
Furthermore, “the Te’o family’s customary clans have clearly evolved, at least in terms of organization, as a two-clan family.”
In the criteria of “Wish of the Majority or Plurality of the Clans,” the Court concluded that neither candidate prevails on the issue of family support. Ma’ataua claimed three customary clans (Vaigalu, Vaitele, and Fuamanogi), while Puia’i claimed two (Falepopo and Si’itia Manuma).
“We find evidence to preponderate in favor of Puia’i’s version of a two-clan family,” the Court noted. “Today, the Te’o family operates and interacts as a family along two descent lines - one part of the family identifies with the former titleholder Te’o Falepopo while the other identifies itself as the Si’itia Manuma clan.”
On the criteria of “Forcefulness, Character, and Personality; and Knowledge of Samoan Customs,” the Court ruled in favor of Pui’ai, noting that the two candidates are more or less on parity as far as forcefulness and personality. Likewise, with the issue of knowledge of Samoan customs, the Court found both parties similarly situated.
However, on character assessment, the scales tilted in favor of Puia’i, with the Court pointing out that “Ma’ataua has demonstrated a disconcerting history of indifference towards the Te’o family. While resolute in his desire for family leadership, Ma’ataua has done little more in this regard beyond simply invoking the statutory matai registration process, but then only to disappear thereafter for extended off-island missionary work, all without word to the family or court.”
For the criteria of “Value to Family, Village and Country” the Court also found in favor of Puia’i, saying in their relative assessment of the candidates, the parties are equal in terms of value to the country, However, “We have to rate Puia’i as decidedly ahead of Ma’ataua in terms of demonstrated value to the family and village,” the Court noted. “Puia’i has spent his whole life living and working within the village of Pago Pago, rendering traditional service on a day to day basis not only to the Te’o family but also to the village of Pago Pago.”
“Predominantly, Ma’ataua’s active life has largely been aligned with his maternal roots, the Si’ufanua family of Faleniu. This is where Ma’ataua has mostly resided when on-island and, consequently, it is Faleniu where Ma’ataua has mostly operated his various farming and business enterprises.”
According to the Court’s decision and order, Puia’i’s lifelong presence in Pago Pago put him on the forefront of cultural family affairs, representing his side of the family. “Not only has he acquired a better familiarity with the extent of communal family assets, he has naturally been more involved with both intra and inter-Te’o family obligations, especially throughout this extended period of time when the family has been without a matai.”
The Court noted Puia’i has “better rapport with the village and… overall, is better suited to lead the family, having lived in the village and having interacted with family and village affairs on a day-to-day basis.”
Lastly, the Court pointed out, “We are satisfied that Puia’i’s ambitions are better aligned with those of the Te’o family, its communal interests and welfare.”
Ma’ataua was represented by Tauivi M. Tuinei and Puia’i was represented by Sharron Rancourt.
The Court’s order and decision was signed by Chief Justice Michael Kruse, and Associate Judges Fa’amausili Poumele, Satele Ali’itasi Lili’o, Su’apaia Pereira, and Muasau Tofili.
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