A Tribute to The Honorable Faleomavaega Eni Faua’a Hunkin
The moon has fallen. The sun has turned crimson. The light that once covered the sea and the land and the skies and illuminated our days that seemed so multitudinous is there no more. And the world has suddenly become dark and cold as we shiver under the shadow of the stars, who weep with us in the distance. Who will wipe these tears from our grieving eyes? Who will comfort us now in our hour of need? The clouds have abandoned the sky. The riverbeds lay barren. And we find ourselves here once more under the ancient Ifilele tree. Facing the loud sounds of silence at twilight that have fallen on our wounded hearts as we drown in our individual and collective sorrow. Where have you gone, Eni? Why have you left us?
For twenty-six years, the world knew him as the Honorable Congressman of American Samoa, Faleomavaega Eni Faua’a Hunkin. Pacific Statesman. Humanitarian Warrior. But to anyone who knew him and met him in person, he immediately became Brother Eni or Uncle Eni. And today we remember him with love, aloha and alofa, because he was Our Eni; and because he belonged to us. And now he is gone.
While Hina and the children and grandchildren and aiga potopoto mourn and lament in Provo, Utah, the salt that stream down their faces has been tasted over and over in the last 72 hours not only by the residents of the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a and Tumua ma Pule, but in Washington D.C. Throughout the halls of the United States Congress, the international community of leaders, ambassadors and statesmen, the clergy, Samoan soldiers and their families serving in the US military, NFL players, sumo wrestlers, opera singers, poets, writers, artists and movie stars of Pacific ancestry, but by hundreds if not thousands across the moana, whose lives he touched since the news first broke a few days ago of his passing.
Those of us who had the privilege of working with him were captivated if not baffled by his work ethic which extended itself into the wee hours of dawn, and often at times left him with but a few hours of sleep. He was a paragon of hard work. And whether he was traveling between varying time zones, D.C to Pago Pago or Korea, Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Samoa or Fiji, his energy was boundless and he knew not of fatigue or jet lag. And if he did, he rarely showed it — At least not publicly.
What he did show in public was a smile. A smile that expressed warmth and his large-heart magnanimity, which was welcoming of all he met who were drawn to him by a force that was almost magnetic.
Samoans call it “loto alofa” while Hawaiians call it the spirit of aloha. One that fueled his modus operandi and characterized the relationships he forged and the tireless work he was engaged in throughout his 50 years of service to the people of American Samoa. It was also a smile that expressed tremendous grace under pressure; a sign of an inner strength that was generously given to all who needed it. Whether it was to congratulate doting parents he met at graduations for their children’s accomplishments. Or to meet and greet NFL players like Troy Polamalu, Sumo wrestlers like Saleva'a Fuauli Atisano'e Konishiki, or movie stars like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who were awestruck by him just as much as he was of them and their successes, or old friends like the late Head of State of Samoa, Malietoa Tanumafili II who became a cultural mentor and the late King of Tonga, His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, who he respected for his grace and dignity and new friends he visited and met at state functions or at airports while in transit at some God-forsaken hour. And most notably, to send off Samoan soldiers deployed in the service of the United States Armed Forces and paradoxically, to comfort their mothers and fathers and wives and husbands and children who had lost loved ones, particularly through that ultimate sacrifice during these tumultuous times that continually ranks American Samoan casualties of war the highest than any other state or territory in the union.
Indeed, Eni’s smile was layered with depth and meaning. One we all relied on as a constant affirmation that things were going to be all right. That we were going to get through this. And most importantly, that we were not alone.
Besides his trademark smile, Eni’s use of self-deprecation and humor was perhaps his most endearing quality. Not only did he use it to tell a good story, but; because he genuinely derived pleasure from the rapport he had with an audience, whoever it happened to be. Whether it be members of the US House of Representatives, the floor at the United Nations, or his Veteran buddies and childhood friends along with his own family who never tired at hearing the same jokes told over and over with variation of expression and emotion which had the potential of lasting hours and hours until time ceased to exist altogether. Accompanied by the ukulele and the songs of su’ifefiloi he so dearly loved to sing.
A fantastic storyteller, I have heard him recount the story of his early life journey to captivated audiences of high school and college students throughout American Samoa who never ceased to be mesmerized by his tales of himself as a ‘fob’, a fresh off the boat kid whose family moved to Hawai’i after his father Faua’a Eni Hunkin Sr., joined the Fitafita or Samoan soldiers to the US military, where he grew up and eventually attended Kahuku High School, home of the Red Raiders of which he was so proud.
Eni’s first encounter of lunch in school never failed to emit booming uproar. “The palagi kids would show up with sandwiches packed in lunch boxes. My brothers and sisters and I would show up with greasy brown paper bags, filled with pagikeke lapokopoko, salafalafa, and any kind our mother, Taualai, who spoke no English could make.” This story never failed to bring the house down but loudest of all would be Eni’s own laugh, which hovered above the audience and hugged everyone in the room.
He would then tell students the story of how he became American Samoa’s delegate to Washington D.C. And the long and treacherous path he took to acquire the education he needed that prepared him, somewhat, he would add, for the task.
It started at the Church College of Hawaii, known today as Brigham Young University, Hawai’I, where he graduated with an associate’s degree, continuing onto BYU Provo for his Bachelor’s and eventually to the University of Houston Law Center and UC Berkeley, earning his Juris Doctor and Master of Law degrees. A few years later, in 1985, he was elected Lieutenant Governor under the governorship of Aifili P. Lutali and then eventually as the delegate to Washington, a position he held uncontested with large majorities for 26 years until he was unseated at the last 2 years of his life, a welcome blessing to Hina and his family who needed to spend time with him.
As a young boy who once ran shoeless like the wind in the village of Vailoatai, American Samoa, Eni was unaware of his destiny as a future leader, a giant in the tradition of men who had gone before him. Men like the Mau leader, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III and the first Samoan Governor of American Samoa, Peter Tali Coleman and the late President Ratu Kamisese Mara of the Republic of Fiji who redefined the idea of Pacific statesmanship in the new millennium.
Like them, Eni was propelled into politics not for self-aggrandizement but by a profound sense of responsibility and a deep conviction of service and sacrifice to his people and to the land and Ocean he respected and loved and called home.
Eni’s early exposure to the multi-cultural diversity of Hawai’i, planted the seeds of an expanded world view that fostered an appreciation and love of the other, which allowed him to naturally perform humanitarian advocacy on the Pacific and international stage on behalf of many who could not speak for themselves, which drew much applause and respect abroad while it produced the complete opposite effect at home, from the Fono and constituents who questioned his involvement in matters outside of his role as a delegate from American Samoa sent to Washington DC to secure its interests.
But as an inclusive and visionary leader, Eni was uninterested in what was popular and more interested in what was right. And he was determined to redefine his role as a congressman so that he could navigate the future of American Samoa in compelling ways that have cleared the path for current and future leaders.
As the delegate of American Samoa to the US Congress, he repeatedly questioned its political status and affiliation as an unincorporated and unorganized territory and in 2012, advocated, along with former Governor Togiola Talalelei Tulafono, for a move towards self-determination in spite of the unique relationship between the two countries that has lasted a little over a century, which at times found him testifying before the United Nations Decolonization Committee regarding its very foundation.
Time and time again, in countless conversations with the Fono and open public forums, Eni firmly reiterated that American Samoans should take the initiative in furthering their political progress or risk having that power taken away from them, by outsiders.
While he strongly believed education to be the salvation of our Samoan people, he was also very practical and sagacious about his advice to students. ‘Whatever vocation you choose, whether it be a doctor, a soldier, or a janitor, be the best at it. And you would never have to work a day in your life.”
Although he dined with kings and queens and heads of states, Eni was not an extravagant man. He was generous but frugal. His frugality was an expression of his humble upbringing that made him shy away from the ostentatious expectations associated with his position and became most visible in the choice of car he drove and his limited wardrobe, consisting of his favorite aloha shirts, preferring a local laid back style that expressed his persona as a humble island boy who never forgot where he came from. He was proud of his humble roots and encouraged young Samoans and Pacific peoples he met, to do the same.
For years in DC, he wore a bolo tie, which emitted criticism from those who felt he needed to look more ‘island’ or ‘Samoan’. But, a Native American chief gifted him the bolo tie, and it became his ‘trademark’ as a symbol of his stand in solidarity with ‘our First Nation brothers and sisters whose struggle was an extension of our own.’
A charismatic and engaging speaker, Eni was able to move audiences in both Samoan and English. And while his training as a legal counsel gave him a window into the English language that allowed him to argue and debate and discuss matters of state, anyone who knew Eni, knew that his heart was to be found in his mother tongue, the Samoan language he loved along with an appreciation of Hawaiian, Fijian, Maori and Tongan which endeared him further throughout the Pacific.
Eni’s fascination with Samoan metaphor and proverbs continued throughout his life and manifested itself in the black marks of the centipede, the earthworm, the flying-fox, the canoe, the jellyfish, the seabird; symbols of nature; wisdom, accomplishments, bloodlines, genealogies and the fa’aSamoa, written on his body when he received the pe’a, the traditional Samoan male tattoo, along with his soa and brother and lifetime friend, Papali’itele Dr. Failautusi Avegalio. At the time, their decision to be tattooed was historic since it was rare for American Samoan men to be seen with pe’a as the pe’a had been prohibited by the U.S Naval Administration in 1930.
Along with the strong influence of the church, the pe’a had become seen as a pagan practice, a reminder of the time of pouliuli, darkness, before the arrival of Christianity and had lost its value.
Eni had first met Tusi in Washington D.C in 1970 when he was the administrative assistant to American Samoan’s first delegate at large, A.U. Fuimaono. As two of the brightest young American Samoan men, educated in the American university system, Eni and Tusi became acutely aware of the dramatic changes that swept across the islands as a result of its political affiliation with the United States. They saw Western materialism as the leading factor that contributed to the slow deterioration of Samoan material cultural practices and became determined and invested in reviving and continuing these practices as their life mission.
The painful journey of the tattoo lasted weeks and began sometimes at 3 a.m. so that they could return to the office by 9 to begin their workday, as the government denied their request for time-off. They then continued after work from 5 to 9 p.m. for the second sitting.
The tatau was a communal event that involved not merely the tattooists and the tattooed, but their wives and children and extended family and aiga, and gave Eni a deeper sense of his duty and responsibility not only to his family, but to his culture.
The pe’a upon completion was a new set of clothing which perhaps also explains why Eni wasn’t as interested in fashion since he had already received what he considered to be the ultimate clothes and proudly showed them off during family and cultural festivities and celebrations or whenever there was a taualuga and he was asked to dance, an activity he delighted in. As it was through dance that he truly felt connected to his raison d’etre and all the values and people he held dear who guided his every step.
After receiving the pe’a, Eni was determined to dive deeper into the Samoan language and took every step to ensure this was so. He surrounded himself with tulafale, talking chiefs and listened intently to their counsel. He valued words and wordsmiths. He enjoyed every opportunity to speak the language of his ancestors and employed Samoan poet Eti Sa’aga as his main Samoan speechwriter; a move that led to many intense and lively discussions of which I had the privilege to be a part of.
Eni encouraged youth to value Samoan as he saw it as a gift from God that connected one to one’s roots and to the land.
The Samoan proverb that epitomizes Eni’s life’s work is: O le ala i le pule o le tautua. The path to authority is paved by service. And for the last 50 years, Eni has faithfully served the people of American Samoa in varying capacities, as a local, national and global leader known for his firm resolve, tenacity and humility. Despite his numerous accolades and solid reputation earned through decades of work and experience, Eni always felt there was something new to learn — from others — young and old.
One of the most influential people in Eni’s life as a politician was Representative Phil Burton of California who became his mentor and friend. Eni considered Burton the “greatest and most brilliant legislator in modern times.” He worked for Burton as a staffer and it was from him, that he learned a lesson that he carried with him and influenced everything he did.
Burton had told Eni, “The only thing that matters and is worth anything, is your word.” Eni treasured Burton’s pearls of wisdom whose radiance was seen by everyone whenever he spoke and became the building blocks that defined him as a politician and as a man of character and integrity.
Raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Eni’s faith was deep. He held prayer meetings with his staff on weekends whenever he was ‘on-island’ and never took a day for granted. Eni prayed always for the blessing of leadership. Grateful he was for the opportunity he felt God gave him and he made sure the people he worked with understood it whenever they faced constituents, in or out of the District Office.
Eni’s faith grew deeper with each challenge he faced, each obstacle he had to overcome and each mistake he made. He was the first to admit to his weaknesses. Such was his character. He was hard on others. But he was harder on himself. And like Nelson Mandela, who once said, “I’m not a saint. Unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” With bowed head, Eni would have said the same of himself
He found criticism from those who argued that he should have retired. That he was too ill.
But Eni was a fighter — with a lion’s heart for service. And those of us who worked with him knew that he was going to fight and serve till the very end. And he did.
One of the most beautiful images I saw this morning as I was scrolling through the facebook newsfeed and read the hundreds and hundreds of heartfelt messages of condolences, is a picture of Eni with Congresswoman Aumua Amata whom he always called ‘Sis’ — both with jubilant smiles — Amata because of her hard earned victory; and Eni, acknowledging with a deep respect the long, long path of perseverance that produced the joy they both felt for each other that day as they stood hand in hand on the sidewalk in Pago Pago waving at cars passing by, who all honked their horns and called out, Malo Eni! A stranger would have never known that he had just been unseated by the very woman he hugged with true affection after a 26-year run as congressman of the territory. But for those of us who knew him, such a gesture came naturally and shows Eni at his most authentic. He basked in the joy of others — rarely of his own. And took defeat with a smile on his face, like a true champ.
Pictured also in the frame is a man named Nu’u, who walks the streets of Pago at odd hours of the day and would eventually end up at Eni’s office, asking, “Is my brother Eni on-island? Tell him it’s me. Nu’u. I need bus-fare.” Eni’s ability to befriend people of all walks of life was a gift and a testament to his character as a true leader of the people. From distinguished heads of states and government, to soldiers, to white and blue collared workers, and to simple men like Nu’u, who wandered the streets, uttering his name as a chant of hope.
Besides the legal and congressional language of his profession, Eni was a poet who was enchanted by the enigmatic and complex nature of Samoan metaphor and symbolism. He shared a collection of poetry with me he had penned 40 years ago that chronicled his experiences aboard the first Hokule’a voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti, his wife Hina’s ancestral home. The poems show remarkable insight into the psyche of a man who had tremendous respect for the ocean and the environment and for our history as seafarers who read the stars, winds, and currents to navigate the largest body of water on the planet. It also shows tender moments of vulnerability that became transformative in shaping the public leader we’ve come to know. One who was calm in the eye of the storm.
The hat Eni wore as a humanitarian warrior who championed the cause of human rights not only at home but throughout the Pacific Islands and beyond, made news headlines and drew international attention to each cause, too numerous to mention. Whether it was his fierce advocacy for the US Congress to acknowledge the human rights of West Papuans and to hold accountable the Indonesian military for grave abuses and tyranny in that Pacific nation, or his relentless insistence on unilateral nuclear disarmament and compensation by the US Government of Marshall Islanders for their relocation as a consequent of nuclear testings performed on their ancestral homelands during WWII. The scope of Eni’s diplomacy showed a leader who was not only invested in improving access to justice through dispute resolution, but in reconciliation, empowerment and ultimately, peace.
Eni continued to champion the cause of peace even after he was unseated. As recent as May of 2015, Eni issued a press release commending the Republic of Vietnam and how the US government would benefit by a closer relationship with that country who has seen the violent face of war, a war he once took part in as a soldier some 50 years earlier where he first came in contact with Agent Orange which had been the origin of much of the health problems that plagued him and ultimately contributed to his untimely death.
The deluge of sympathies and condolences for Eni since the world first heard of his passing continue to pour through social media and are not merely confined to those of his people; American Samoans who elected him 13 times to represent them in the US Congress. They come from neighboring Samoa, the Pacific, Capitol Hill and the global community at large who acknowledge his tremendous service and dedication not only to their causes, but to the cause of humanity.
Indeed, we have lost a unique individual. A humble and colorful and extraordinary man; A loving and caring husband; A father, a brother, a cousin, a grandfather, an uncle; A dear friend; A mighty leader with an indomitable spirit whose life was lived to the fullest with the simplest of tenants. That he lived to serve. With love, aloha and alofa.
The sting of death is still among us and won’t leave us for sometime yet. But we shall not grieve for too long. For that is not what he would want of us. Instead, we should remember the ways Eni used to comfort us so that we too could do the same for each other and for ourselves.
What better way for us to continue his legacy?
What better way for us to continue?
Eni met Elvis sometime in the early 60’s when he was a student at Brigham Young University, Hawai’i, working at the then newly opened Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie.
A picture of them hung in his DC office for decades. It is this image I wish to leave you with. Eni and Elvis — both with ukulele; singing and laughing and hugging each other. And just as they do, his brother Tau calls out. “Eh, befoa you get da kine carry away, da ol’ man like see you.”
It’s going to be one big party up there. And if there’s food in heaven it will definitely be a Chinese-style buffet. With kalua pork. taro. Lu-sipi. Poisson-cru au lait de coco. And kopai for dessert. Made of course from gluten-free organic wheat flour. Right?
And that’s just how he’d like us to remember him.
Manuia lau malaga, Boss.
Enjoy the reunion.
Sia Figiel served as a PR aide, Speechwriter and Educational Liaison Staffer to former Congressman Faleomavaega Faua’a “Eni” Hunkin 2006-2012.