Mormon church accused of perpetuating 'savage' Samoan stereotype

Depictions of Samoan people have stirred controversy.
SUPPLIED

Depictions of Samoan people have stirred controversy.

A Mormon church's exhibition which encourages people to superimpose their face on a Samoan warrior has been slammed as exploiting a culture for amusement.

A "discovery centre" at a Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in Utah, in the United States, allows visitors to learn about different cultures around the world.

However, the depiction of a shirtless Samoan has been labelled as perpetuating a "barbarian" and "savage" stereotype for white people's entertainment, by prominent Kiwi academic and Mormon, Gina Colvin.

Canterbury academic Gina Colvin says the Church of Latter-Day Saints has a cultural history of plundering Pasifika ...
GEORGE HEARD/FAIRFAX NZ

Canterbury academic Gina Colvin says the Church of Latter-Day Saints has a cultural history of plundering Pasifika cultures for spectacle and display.

The University of Canterbury academic discovered the exhibit on a recent trip to the United States.

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Depictions of Samoan people have stirred controversy.
SUPPLIED

Depictions of Samoan people have stirred controversy.

"I was appalled," she said.

"The Pacific Islands, for Mormon people has always been a place of spectacle, all they want to know is the music and the dance and they empty us of any other kind of identity. Pacific Islanders and Maori have often been used for their amusement, but never really understood."

Colvin, who describes herself as a "multi-generation life long Mormon", has published several papers on the faith.

Mangere MP Su'a William Sio said Samoa had close ties to the Mormon religion.
JAMES IRELAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Mangere MP Su'a William Sio said Samoa had close ties to the Mormon religion.

She said Pacific Islanders were being exploited for the amusement of white Americans. The exhibit comes with commentary which states "traditionally, obesity is considered a status symbol in Samoa". 

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Colvin said it was an example of appropriation of culture.

"It reduces people to a limited range of identifiers."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its 185th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City in 2015. But ...
GEORGE FREY/REUTERS

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its 185th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City in 2015. But still faces accusations of perpetuating colonial attitudes.

By comparison, other cultures were fully dressed, with European cultures displayed as "dapper" and "civilised", she said.

The Samoan culture perpetuated the "warrior identity".

"It just reinforces that barbarian, savage identity."

Colvin questioned how much consultation had been conducted with Samoan people.

"Knowing white people are going to put their faces on your customary dress.

"But they don't do that."

She said people did not want to understand more, something she called "a very colonial mindset".

"I think they tend not to ask critical questions, it is an amusement for them."

Church spokeswoman Irene Caso said the church's intention was one of education and its message was one of unity and love.

She said the response from both members and nonmembers had been "extremely positive".

"This experience is intended to be a celebration of our patrons' cultures and heritage.

"The universal message of the church is one of unity and love." 

Caso said the experience was intended to be a gathering place where families could create memorable, fun connections to their ancestors.

Labour Pacific Island affairs spokesman Aupito Su'a William Sio hadn't seen the centre, but said it was trying to promote awareness about Samoa exists.

"The church may be attempting to present the values in the best way it can."

He said Samoa had close ties to the Mormon religion.

Sio said he was raised Catholic but has since become a member of the Mormon church.

He said it was traditional for a man to be shirtless and wearing a lavalava.

"That is acceptable traditional wear and is still acceptable today and practised today."

Sio said he was "grateful" that Colvin had raised the issue.

"This centre and [Colvin's] response highlights that we as a people need to now more about Samoa."

 - Sunday Star Times

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