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Tui Atua dedicates Doctor of Letters from University of St. Andrews to forebears

The former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, has dedicated an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) conferred upon him by the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, to his ancestors.

The honour was presented to His Highness Tui Atua by the Principal and Vice Chancellor of St. Andrews, Professor Sally Mapstone, on Friday.

The awarding of the Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) to Tui Atua by the University recognises his “major contribution to cultural custodianship and academic scholarship".

In accepting the award, His Highness Tui Atua, who is accompanied by the Masiofo, Her Highness Filifilia Tamasese in Scotland, said it was an honour for a simple man from Samoa to be recognised by a university on the other side of the globe.

“It is a great honour to receive this award, but in truth it belongs to my forebears,” His Highness Tui Atua said.

“It is they who have gathered and passed on to successive generations like mine the history, culture, customs and usage which is now ours. The most significant challenge to indigenous people all over the globe is how to keep our indigenous knowledges alive and thriving alongside the best in the world.”

“When our theologies and philosophies are taken seriously by the top universities in the world, there is much to celebrate and be grateful for. It is therefore a high honour for me to have the work of my forebears recognised by this very esteemed university.”

Tui Atua thanked the University of St. Andrews for the special recognition.

“I thank in particular Madame Vice Chancellor and Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone and the Centre for Pacific Studies for their warm support and sponsorship. I also acknowledge the loving support of my wife and my family and friends, not only those who have travelled from far away, but those at home who are here with us in spirit. Thank you.”

The honorary degree issued on the basis of high achievement in the respective field or a long record of research and publication. It is often awarded to candidates “whose record of published work and research shows conspicuous ability and originality and constitutes a distinguished and sustained achievement".

In the United Kingdom, Australia, India and the Republic of Ireland, the Doctor of Letters is regarded as a “higher doctorate, above the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)".

According to St. Andrew’s website, the University was founded in the early 15th century, Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world.

Ranked 92nd in the world, it is particularly competitive in Theology, divinity and religious studies where it is ranked 18th in the QS World University Rankings. It ranks 19th in Philosophy and 61st in Arts and Humanities.   

Dr. Tony Crook, School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies at St. Andrews, delivered the Laureation address.

This is what he said:

“Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi.

Le Afioga Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi was born into the highest reaches of Samoan cultural knowledge and customary status. He was fortunate to be born into a family who recognised that such privileges carry heavy responsibilities to cultural custodianship and duties to political leadership. Tui Atua’s grandfather challenged colonialism’s grip on Samoa, and his father was amongst those guiding the country to independence in 1962 and he shared the duty of being Samoa’s first Head of State.

Alongside these genealogical connections to some of the paramount and royal families in Samoa, Tui Atua’s family are also connected to Sweden, the United States and Scotland. When Robert Louis Stevenson settled down in Samoa in 1890, he became great friends with Tui Atua’s great-grandparents. Tui Atua’s great-grandmother spoke with a Scots brogue acquired through her teenage schooling here. His great-grandfather sold Stevenson the hill-top Vailima estate – reportedly for a stiff price – where the Scottish writer known locally as Tusitala (teller of tales) built a house, lived well and is now buried.

Tui Atua’s many customary titles carry the achievements of his forebears. Yet he has honoured, added to and grown these names and knowledge through a life devoted to political service, and through his outstanding achievements and contributions to cultural custodianship and to academic scholarship which we are honouring today.

From 1976-1982, Tui Atua served two terms as Prime Minister, and from 2007-2017 he served two terms as Head of State. Disturbed by the growing forces of globalization and the waning relevance of Samoan customary knowledge and language, in the 1970s, Tui Atua was encouraged by his wife, Her Highness Masiofo Filifilia Imo Tamasese, to do something about it by writing a book in the Samoan language.

Tui Atua has subsequently written several more books, dozens of scholarly articles and keynote addresses, bringing Samoan customary knowledge to international audiences. His topics have covered climate change; Pacific leadership; fragrance; cultural taboos; political discourse; traditional navigation;

and bio-ethics. His Highness is highly respected as one of the foremost experts on Samoan language, culture and philosophy. He is renowned across the Pacific region as a leading voice on finding Pacific ways to decolonize the thinking behind the social, economic and environmental effects of a globalizing world.

In the late 1980s, Tui Atua was part of the South Commission whose report ‘The Challenge to the South’ sought to upgrade the international community by treating developing countries as equals. In 2005, Tui Atua served as the Oceania representative to the Pontifical Interreligious Dialogue Commission, and he wrote that: ‘Harmony in the Samoan indigenous religion finds equivalence and balance in all living things. To respect nature is to respect man; to respect one’s fellow men is to respect one’s self; respecting the soul is to respect the body and mind; respecting life is to respect death’.

These scholarly interventions develop a method of using the ‘Samoan indigenous reference’ to engage contemporary issues. In doing so, Tui Atua avoids both reverential adherence to and also unthinking abandonment of Samoan heritage, aiming to find new ways of living in harmony in our ever-changing world. Tui Atua’s scholarship has been recognised through academic fellowships in several universities in New Zealand and Australia, and has been prominent through international keynote addresses including those at the East-West Centre in Hawai’i and the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. Tui Atua served as Chancellor to the University of the South Pacific from 2008-2009 and was Chancellor to the National University of Samoa from 2008-2013.

Tui Atua’s method of the Samoan indigenous reference creates space for calling out vitally important and detrimental globalized conventions that are otherwise difficult to speak about. This method and body of work clearly holds relevance and influence beyond Samoa. Ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, Tui Atua used Samoan indigenous references to the way fishermen address and bestow honour on a shoal of mackerel who reciprocate by respectfully giving themselves in return, to challenge the ‘arrogance and greed’ of humanity separating itself from, and then dominating, all other forms of life.

When Samoa hosted the UN conference of Small Island Developing States in 2014, Tui Atua took the UN Secretary-General aboard the Hōkūleʻa - a majestic double-hulled voyaging canoe of the kind Pacific islanders had used to explore and settle every island across a third of the earth’s surface by the time the University of St Andrews was founded 600 years ago. Ban Ki-Moon caught the spirit of the Samoan indigenous reference in declaring that we are all in the same canoe, sailing aboard the earth on a journey through the stars.

In 2015, in the lead up to the UN climate summit in Paris, Tui Atua paired his view of climate change from the perspective of fish with a speech to the European Union in Brussels pointing to a Samoan indigenous reference in the refusal of two starlings to break from their enjoyable coupling, despite being knocked off their conjugal branch. The example warned the international community to maintain its dialogue despite the difficulties. In fact, it was Pacific leadership which catalysed the coalition of high ambition that reached the Paris climate agreement. Tui Atua’s insistence that getting into the global conversation to protect the most beautiful things in life needs the back up of great scholarship, is a lesson all of us are celebrating here today.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to cultural custodianship and academic scholarship, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi.”

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