'Ie Toga
'Ie Toga

September 25, 2015: 'Ie Togaga

Pandanun mats are important textiles in South Pacific cultures, and none are as important in Samoan culture as the ‘ie toga. They are displayed at important events, such as weddings and funerals, to represent the status of the host and are typically given to important guests, who in turn usually return them to their hosts. While they are often referred to as mats, this is actually an English misnomer: the ‘ie toga was always worn and never used as mat in the Western sense.

As ‘ie toga are passed down through generations, they accumulate value the longer they stay within a family, with the oldest (and thus most venerated) ones being given names. The higher rungs of traditional Samoan social status are determined by the acquisition of older, finer ‘ie toga symbolic of the status desired, with the finest, oldest, and most worn ‘ie toga reserved for chieftains and other important figures. In ceremonies where they are exchanged, women, who created the ‘ie toga, had as equal say as the men when deciding to whom the ‘ie toga were given.

Samoan mats are made from the leaves of the pandanus tree, a palm tree common to the area. Women could select from three types of pandanus: paongo, fala, and ‘ie. The large paongo leaves made for coarse floor mats, while in contrast the leaves of the fala pandanus are used for softer, finer floor mats as well as sleeping mats and mats for infants. The leaves of the ‘ie had a fine upper layer and are used to make the valuable ‘ie toga. The garments made from ‘ie leaves had unwoven fringes and were decorated with red feathers.

To make the ‘ie toga, women begin by beating the leaves into thin strips. The strips are then soaked in water and sun-bleached and can be stored for several months prior to weaving. When the leaves are ready, they are woven using two double wefts parallel to one another. As the value of the ‘ie toga is partially determined by the fineness of the weave, women could spend months or even years working on individual ‘ie toga, and having incomplete ie’ togas passed from older to younger sister was common. Completion of an ‘ie toga was marked with celebration and display of the completed ‘ie toga.

This artifact of the week was donated to the Anthropology Department by Knowles Ryerson, former Director of UC Davis from 1937-1952. While at UC Davis, Ryerson served as a special representative to the Board of Economic Warfare, Pacific Ocean Area; a member of the Pacific Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, South Pacific Commission; a U.S. representative on the Pacific Science Council; and a member of the Hopkins Commission in 1946 to create a civilian government for Guam and Samoa.

When presented with this artifact, along with some others, at the Fifth South Pacific Conference in Pago Pago, Dean Ryerson accepted “only on the condition that [he] would present it to the Anthropology Department of the Davis campus.” By doing so, he started the South Pacific collection at UC Davis and encouraged other faculty members to donate to our teaching collections as well. Ryerson’s legacy continues as the teaching collections he sponsored continue to educate and inspire students at UC Davis.

Primary Category