27 Feb 2017

Tributes pour in for American Samoa's Faleomavaega

3:11 pm on 27 February 2017

Tributes were pouring in from across the Pacific and the United States on Friday following the death of American Samoa's long-serving Congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin, who died on Thursday in Utah at the age of 73.

Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin

Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin Photo: Free google search image

His death was confirmed by his sister-in-law, Theresa Hunkin, who said he died peacefully at his home in Provo, surrounded by his family and a few close friends.

As news of the 13-term former congressman's death spread overnight on Thursday, American Samoa's Governor and Lieutenant Governor said that Faleomavaega was a great public servant who gave his life to serve the people of American Samoa, while the current congresswoman, Aumua Amata, who ousted Faleomavaega in 2014, said he was a good friend and champion for the people of American Samoa.

Aoelua Solomona, who worked as Faleomavaega's Chief of Staff for 14 years, said the former Congressman never seemed to stop working, which eventually started to take a toll on his health.

"If you think of the time difference between the east coast and here it's six or seven hours," he said. "So Faleomavaega would stay up in the office all night just to catch people at home when they wanted to talk."

Several former congress colleagues posted tributes on social media, while Benigno Fitial, the former governor of the Northern Marianas, another United States territory in the Pacific, paid tribute by saying that Faleomavaega was a great leader who "without reservation" helped the Northern Marianas with its requests for financial assistance and support.

Born in Vailoatai Village in American Samoa, Faleomavaega grew up in Hawaii, where he went on to study a Bachelor's degree in political science, before studying law on the United States mainland.

He then joined the United States Army, where he fought in the Vietnam War, eventually rising to the rank of captain. While in Vietnam, he said was exposed to the toxic defoliant, Agent Orange, which he claimed had contributed to health issues he experienced later in life.

After leaving the army in 1969, Faleomavaega served as the administrative assistant to American Samoa's delegate to Washington before returning to the islands of his birth in 1981, where he briefly became the territory's attorney-general before deciding to pursue a career in politics.

He was elected the territory's lieutenant governor in 1985, under the governorship of Aifili Paulo Lutali. In 1988, he set his eyes on Washington and, capitalising on his youthful looks and powerful charisma, he narrowly won that election against independent Lia Tufele with 51 percent of the vote to represente American Samoa in its sole non-voting seat at the House of Representatives.

Initially known as 'tamaititi', or 'the boy', Faleomavaega grew up to become an established leader who continued to grow his support both on Capitol Hill and thousands of kilometres away at home.

RNZ International's correspondent in American Samoa's capital Pago Pago, Fili Sagapolutele, said that with 26 years in congress, Faleomavaega was a hugely popular leader, who won elections with large majorities.

"He was a strong leader," she said. "Not just as a political leader, but with the Fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way) because he holds that chiefly title, and despite the fact that he's in Washington most of the time he still was able to speak that Samoan language in fluently addressing in the cultural way and speak from one traditional leader to another. He had a lot of respect."

Aoelua Solomona said that one of Faleomavaega's most enduring battles was having his Samoan culture - and chiefly title - recognised in a very palagi Washington DC.

"When he was bestowed the title Faleomavaega by his family, he wanted people to call him by Faleomavaega," said Mr Solomoa. "He knew the Samoans would always call him Faleomavaega, but in the palagi world they would address him as Hunkin. But that was not the way that Faleomavaega wanted it."

"You can imagine the struggles that the non-Samoan members of Congress, which is everybody else besides Faleomavaega, they were struggling so badly trying to pronounce his name. But that didn't bother Eni, they wanted them to address him by his matai title," he said.

"I thought that was very deep in the way that he thought and insisted on doing that."

American Samoa is the only territory of the United States where its people are considered residents, not citizens. But, like other territories, American Samoans are also unable to vote for president and its sole representative in Congress is unable to vote on legislation.

That limited his efficiency and ability to get things done in Congress, but Ms Sagapolutele said that only made him more committed to the fight. In his 26 years in Washington, Faleomavaega served as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Natural Resources, which have jurisdiction over the US territories.

In terms of legislation, Faleomavaega successfully pushed for more funding for the territory - particularly for roads, schools and other infrastructure - and opposed deals that would have threatened American Samoa's tuna industry.

He also fought, unsuccessfully, for greater rights for American Samoa. In Congress, he proposed legislation that would have allowed residents of territories to vote in presidential elections if they were active members of the military, and, towards the end of his tenure, for the people of American Samoa to consider a push towards greater autonomy, if not independence from the United States.

Faleomavaega also became somewhat of a representative for the other countries of the Pacific in Washington, Ms Sagapolutele said. During his tenure he spoke on issues such as climate change, the West Papua independence movement, and other issues affecting the region.

"One big example was in 1996 when he boycotted an address by the French president at the time before Congress due to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific," she said.

However, in the early 2010s it became widely known that Faleomavaega's love of food, his work schedule and his extensive travels were beginning to take a toll on his health. In 2013, he was medivacced to Hawaii, which he later attributed to complications from his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

At the same time, his popularity started to wane. In 2014, he was ousted by the current congresswoman Aumua Amata. In an interview with KHJ News at the time, he said his loss had come as a surprise, and that despite the result, he had no intention to retire from politics.

At his farewell speech in Washington, he said he never expected the people of American Samoa to support him for so long: "I go forward ... knowing that the best is yet to come and hoping I will be remembered for trying my best. For the times I fell short I ask for forgiveness. And to each of my colleagues, and to you, Mr Speaker, I extend my kindest and highest regard."

But despite his promise to stay involved in politics, Faleomavaega slipped out of the public eye after his election defeat, apparently taking time to write a yet unpublished book.

Ms Sagapolutele said funeral arrangements were yet to be announced, including whether Faleomavaega's body would be returned to American Samoa for burial. The territory's governor, Lolo Matalasi Moliga, and Ms Amata were expected to release statements in the coming day.

Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin is survived by his wife, Hinanui, five children, and 10 grandchildren.

Monica Miller contributed reporting from Pago Pago.