September 1966, Oahu
She might have noticed she was late. Might have gone to test in mid-October. With Roe v. Wade still six years out, among the months until May, in how many might she have wished for a different outcome? Deciding that I would need strength, armor, she called me Gunn. Gunnar is not a girl’s name. It is Norwegian. At the hospital, she asked that I be sent to Scandinavian Lutherans like her. I was sent to Alaska. For twelve years of my life, despite my black curls and brown skin, I was Norwegian. On my twelfth birthday, my adoptive parents let me in on the secret: “Your biological father is a royal Hawaiian. You are Hawaiian, honey.” But he was not Hawai’ian in the way my parents thought. He was a taxi driver. He was Sāmoan, siva afi. He spun flaming machetes at luaus in Waikiki. And she may never have told him about me.
April 2008, Upolu
In a third-world country you don’t play games with blood. And it’s not third. There is no third. So stop thinking you know anything about what world you’re in. Sit here on the porch fanning your palm-leaf fan and stop picking at the pink shopping-bag trim that wraps the edge of each dried frond. You’re going to ruin it. Resourceful. That’s what these people are. Resourceful: they will eat you if you don’t play nice. Stop laughing like you know what’s funny. You can’t read these bodies. These bodies are breadfruit and taro; all umu and palusami, not tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches like you. Try to relax. It’s too hot to think about blood.
“You no like katau, no get katau if you no like. Is okay. Okay for you.”
That’s what Mama said. She offered me a way out. I didn’t have to get the tattoo. I didn’t have to say yes to her offer of tribal recognition and familial legacy. I didn’t have to experience something real Sāmoan women experience. I didn’t have to accept the most significant Sāmoan rite of passage and seal of spiritual protection. I could say no. No to the biggest matriarch in the family. No to the woman everyone calls Mama whether she is sister, aunty, or grandmother. No, Mama. Besides, I’m not a tattoo person. I’d never wanted any tattoo, and I’d never seen the malu. Everyone I talked to clearly informed me that traditional Sāmoan tattoos are the most painful of all. The malu would cover half of both legs, from below my knees all the way up to my groin. Sāmoa is the birthplace of tattoos; the word itself is derived from the Polynesian word tatau, coined as such because it mimics the sound of the traditional method. Each mark of the tatau takes about ten whacks of a stick against a pronged mallet, to pound the ink into the skin. Each blot of the malu is riveted through skin to muscle, sinew, bone; the blots could add up to hours, days, or even weeks of torturous tapping.
All I had to do was say no.
“Yes. I want to do it. I want to get the malu,” I said.
“Good for you, Jody! Good for YOU.” A fire lit behind Mama’s black eyes. She squeezed my fingers tight. “You sure?”
There would have been no way to live with the regret of being too scared. I had to get the malu. No matter that all I’d seen of the design was a single ring of X’s and stars in a band around Mama’s left knee. No matter that my cousins would not get the malu because they were afraid of the pain. No matter that needles and blood in who knows what kind of hygienic situation in a third-world—or whatever-world—country could be sketchy, wrong, the traveler’s fatal flaw. No matter that no one would join me. I was supposed to get the tattoo with someone—a sister or cousin—so I wouldn’t have to brave the pain alone, so nothing bad would happen. Something bad could happen. Tatau is dangerous. People have died from tatau. Cousins kept such conversations hushed, veiled. But fears of the malu were also tempered with pride: “When you get the malu, everyone know who you are, know you Sāmoan, know you come from high-talking chiefs. You dance siva to show the malu. Don’t show off. Don’t be like those girls just show off. Never show it unless the end of siva. You may be afakasi, live in Alah-ska, but everybody know who you are. Faumuina. You Seagai Faumuina’s daughter.”
Even so, I couldn’t help thinking ridiculous things, like, Is it going to make me look fat? These thighs do not need any horizontal bric-à-brac. And: What if I’m wearing shorts or a swimsuit? Is it a sin to show it? Is there a curse? I tried to explain my stateside wardrobe to my aunties. They looked at me through furrowed brows, so a cousin got involved and offered the matriarchs a lengthy translation of bare thighs back home. I watched my cousin pantomime shorts and swimwear. I heard her say, “Alah-ska.” The aunties listened and nodded, held their chins in their hands, then sprang to thumbs-up! They turned to me with their fists held high: “SHOW THE MALU!”
The malu ceremony was on in two days.
Mama would not let me do anything or go anywhere alone. Her strict watch over me tightened as we waited for the malu. So I stayed put next to her in my chair on the porch—reading, fanning, writing, listening to birds through the swirl of heat. I read Lightning Bird, a book given to me before I’d left Hawai’i. The book tells the story of Adrian Boshier’s initiation as ngaka, or medicine man. Melting in tropical humidity the day before the malu, I read these words:
The symbols involved in the ritual may not be consciously understood, but they nevertheless make a profound impression. And it is significant that all the most important steps in learning, all the major transitions, are marked by some form of ritual sacrifice . . . by blood. There is no single symbol more potent or more profound.
I read and reread. Wrote the words in my own hand. Blood is sacred, sacrifice, legacy.
I became obsessed with the smooth plainness of my skin. I stood in my room with the door locked, taking pictures of my bare legs. On the porch, I propped my feet on the railing post, let the lavalava fall away so I could admire something I’d hated for so long: my thighs. What’s happening? What are they? What will it look like? The anthropologist’s words stayed with me: “The symbols involved in the ritual may not be consciously understood. No single symbol is more potent or more profound.” I knew there would be blood. I didn’t know what it would mean.
“They’re coming at nine in the morning.”
Tomorrow. Bring in light. Stay plenty in the light. Eat some ibuprofen, don’t be too proud. Put on your shorts from Waimanalo, call in your brothers and sisters in Hawai’i, call in helping spirits, aumakua, all the big powers, directions, elements. Put on the oversized surf shirt with the dragon on it from Mama. Stay strong. Hold the light. Remember, protection is the surround. Call it down. Try to sleep tonight. When you wake up at five in the morning, stay up. Stretch, breathe. Take in the dawn, be ready. Pray whatever prayers you know. There’s power in the blood. In you. Communion coming down the pike. See it shine?
When nine a.m. finally came, three men in T-shirts and lavalavas walked through the front door carrying latex gloves, plastic buckets, wads of pillow wrapped in white Glad trash bags, and a toolbox. They set up on the floor, right in front of my bedroom. Grass mats had been laid on the linoleum for me. The men arranged the padding, towels, buckets, and the box of gloves around the edges of the central mat. A set of ‘au tā and bamboo sticks were set out near a squeeze bottle of ink and a small bowl. ‘Au tā—long sticks attached to right-angled, sharp-toothed combs—pierce the skin. The combs are made of tusk, teeth, or sharpened bone and come in various widths. In the old days, the ink was mixed from a paste of coconut oil and the soot of burnt kukui kernels. Kerosene soot was also used. Looking at the bamboo sticks, bone implements, and all the white plastic, I tried not to worry about blood-borne pathogens or pain.
Instead of getting right to it, we all went to the table for breakfast. Su‘a Sulu‘ape Alaiva‘a Petelo, the tufuga tā tatau, sat at the head. He’d brought with him two assistants, or solos. The word solo in Sāmoan describes the act of wiping blood off the skin. I don’t understand Sāmoan, but the tone of the small talk felt formal, stilted. When the plates were cleared and all had finished washing their hands in the apa fafano—bowls of water provided by my cousins—we made our way to the floor and the plastic-wrapped cushions. Sulu‘ape was the man I’d seen in the driveway when Mama announced I’d be getting the malu. Jet-black hair, heavily tattooed arms. He seemed less scary now in his wire-rimmed glasses, more professorial. The most famed and respected Sāmoan tattoo artist in the world, he did not mince words. In perfect New Zealand English he asked, “Why do you want this?” and I knew right away that They told me to was not a worthy answer. It also wasn’t the truth. I looked at my cousins, at all the aunties who sat fanning themselves around the edges of the room, waiting.
“I think it’s the right thing to do?”
Sulu‘ape stared at me. He was not impressed. The aunties fanned.
“I’ve been trying to find my father, but he’s gone. I’m doing this because I never got to know him.” Sulu‘ape nodded. He picked up his tools.
“Lie on your stomach.”
The three men sandwiched my left thigh between plastic cushions and tightly pressed the skin at the top of my leg. Sulu‘ape dipped the teeth of the ‘au tā into a bowl of ink, and I felt the heat of his arms hover over my skin, heard the tapping begin. Tufuga tā tatau, tufuga tā tatau: the repetitive ticks took time and stretched it into skin, tufuga tā tatau, tufuga tā tatau, took pain and etched it into bone, tufuga tā tatau. The comb at the end of the stick chiseled dashes and dots, spelling out blessings and songs, casting out curses and ghosts, and bleeding my edges into echoes, tracers of tufuga tā tatau. Wiping cloth across each cut, the solos smoothed away the ink and blood.
You have prayed your prayers. Now all you can do is hope and bite, squeeze the hands of your sister, your cousin, your auntie, close your eyes: see him winking down through chinks in the firmament? He pretends to be stars up there—your father—and his father. His mother and your brother peeking down. Their dances cast shadows before you like images on a cave wall that you can’t make sense of in the glare of your whiteness, but your heart and your breath take him in. “Breathe normal. Stop breathing like that. Stop moving,” Sulu‘ape said. Tinkling shards of sky twinkled down, tufuga tā tatau, tufuga tā tatau.
Four and a half hours later, I peered up through the blur of tapping. I’d survived. The last mark was cut below the tendon of my right knee. The solos helped me stand from the floor, and I saw my legs for the first time. Barbed, brilliant. Sharp patterns engraved each limb with a matrix—“X’s front and back for the three councils, The Matai, The ‘Aumāga, and Women; bordering sets of V’s for my immediate family; side stripe hash marks for the ‘āiga; rowed x’s and v’s down the back of each calf for the tali malu, my connection to Mother Earth as the bearer; knees beset with stars for me, the guiding light of our family, our people, and the sparkle in the eyes of my brothers who protect me; on the back of each knee, a single deep-set diamond, the crest of protection for one who faces life singlehandedly.
“Go take a shower,” Sulu‘ape said.
I was sent to the stall with one of the solos. We kept our clothes on, stepped inside. He turned on the icy water, which poured from a hose mounted high on the tile wall and lathered a bar of soap in its smooth stream. Holding the melted bar above my newly incised skin, he let cool soapy water slip over the inky cuts, then cupped his hands around my thigh. “Like this,” he said, pushing the soap into my skin.
Back in the parlor, Sulu‘ape tapped open the end of a raw egg and brought it to me. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it,” he said. I laughed. He poured the yolk and its albumen over my head. He pressed his right hand over my eggy crown, raised his left palm, and spoke the samaga invocation of rebirth in Sāmoan. As I closed my eyes, light burned through each X and score. One of the solos came over with a large mixing bowl. “Oils,” they said, “for blessing.” A mixture of lega or ‘olena—turmeric—in coconut oil. He knelt before me, reached into the thick amber liquid, and ran his hands along the length of each leg, foot, toe; he smoothed oils across my arms, my palms, my fingertips, anointing me with a gold that made my skin shine, made my skin mine.
Tiumaluali’i Jody Marie Hassel uses her writing in tandem with her practice of Sāmoan siva to recover and embody the real and imagined pathways of her most ancient ancestors. A 2023 Rasmuson Foundation Fellow, she is working on a memoir that details her search for and reunion with her biological family, entitled To the Root: Recovery of a Sāmoan Princess in the Exile of Erasure. Also a performing artist, she lives on Tanana Dené lands in a town now known as Ester, Alaska. (updated 10/2023)