Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Cultural Heritage from the Sea?

Cultural heritage resources in the marine context emphasize all types of past human connections to the sea, whether those connections are centered in Samoan traditions and lifestyles (fa`a-Samoa), Samoan coastal archaeological sites or cultural uses of marine resources, or maritime heritage sites such as historic shipwrecks and other significant underwater objects.
A coastal pillbox near the village of Alao; signposts of the Pacific War.
A coastal pillbox near the village of Alao; signposts of the Pacific War. (Photo: NOAA ONMS)
 
A whaler's try pot for processing whale oil; this one is circa 1865, recovered from Swain's Island.
A whaler's try pot for processing whale oil; this one is circa 1865, recovered from Swain's Island. (Photo: Polynesian Photo Archives, American Samoa Jean P. Haydon Collection)
 
Jennings' faletele, circa 1937 Naval personnel and Fitafita Guards near the structure.
Jennings' faletele, circa 1937 Naval personnel and Fitafita Guards near the structure. (Photo: NOAA OMNS)
 
Satellite image of Swains Island, showing the lagoon in the center.
Satellite image of Swains Island, showing the lagoon in the center. (Photo: NOAA NCCOS)

Certain coastal and marine natural features like tupua also have strong cultural connections as visible touchstones of oral history, parts of the heritage record. According to Volk, Knudsen, Kluge and Herdrich, "these sites are of extraordinary significance to Samoan culture. Compared to all of the archaeological and historic sites that the HPO [Historic Preservation Office] tries to protect, these sites are seen as the most significant to local residents." (Towards a Territorial Conservation Strategy...1992)

Maritime Heritage: Stories from the Past

In June 2007 NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries completed an initial document- based maritime heritage resource inventory for American Samoa. The inventory features multiple aspects of history in American Samoa: 1) historic shipwrecks lost in American Samoa; 2) World War II naval aircraft lost in American Samoa; 3) World War II fortifications, gun emplacements, and coastal pillboxes; 4) Samoan coastal archaeological sites; and 5) coastal and marine features associated with ancient Samoan myths and legends. Very few of the historic ships or aircraft have been located within the waters of the Territory; the initial inventory work was document-based and did not involve field survey. Some of the potential sites, if located and confirmed, could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Fagatele Bay's Management Plan Review Process

Strategies considering cultural and maritime heritage resource management and preservation have been included in the initial draft plan for Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary as part of the sanctuary's management plan review process. These are ways to enhance the public stewardship of marine resources and learn from the rich heritage of American Samoa.

Swains Island: a Special Location

The story of Swains Island, a tiny atoll which is part of American Samoa, has been almost lost in time, yet Swains Island has a unique and varied past, touching on Pacific Island voyaging, Spanish discovery in the early 17th century, the historic whaling era, Pacific copra plantations, the U.S. Navy, and more. Few archaeologists or historians have ever visited the island. The marine areas adjacent to Swains are currently being considered as a potential addition to Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary (FBNMS) as a sanctuary unit. In 2009 NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries initiated a maritime heritage study of Swains Island, including the available historical documentation, photographs, and oral interviews (including His Highness Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi of Samoa, Alex Jennings and Wally Thompson families, and others). The study produced a heritage timeline of both ancient and contemporary events on Swains. In May 2011 the sanctuary system sponsored a visit to Swains Island, hosted by the Jennings family.

Potential for a 2012 Survey

The 2011 reconnaissance at Swains highlighted the potential cultural and historic discoveries as yet unrealized at the island. Assembling a small select survey team for a short but effective investigation of the heritage resources at Swains can address many of these fascinating issues. Is there archaeological evidence of ancient Pacific voyaging at Swains? What remains of the historic 19th and early 20th century structures on the island? Has the lagoon preserved evidence of the past?

NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Maritime Heritage Program have supported numerous investigations of our shared maritime heritage in a wide variety of locations and environments. Understanding these resources teaches us about our past connections to the sea, our place within the ecosystem, and our role as stewards of the marine environment.

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