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First Indigenous Woman to Run for Governor in the South Seas

Article written in November, 2000

She’s well known as the woman running one of the hottest restaurants in the South Seas. And now she’s also well known for being the first indigenous woman ever to run for Governor of her small island paradise or its surroundings islands. 

Rosalia Tisa Faamuli, owner of Tisa’s Barefoot Bar poised on an exquisite coastline of the American territory of American Samoa, lost the election last Tuesday. She got only 59 votes out of 12,600 votes cast.

The winner is the current Governor and Minister’s son, Tauese Sunia, who beat out the male runner-up, a local businessman who owns a bank and Ford dealership.

But even though the votes were not “too close to call” as they are on the U.S. mainland, Tisa claims corruption in the electoral process.

“My people were afraid to vote for me,” she said in an interview. “They told me afterward that they were made to believe by the opposition that the secret ballot was not secret, that if they voted for me everyone would know and they would be banned from their village.”

In theory, ruled by the U.S. Constitution, voting is secret and confidential. 

The island politics has enraged the grassroots feminist. 

“I never realized how corrupt things are here on my island,” said Tisa.“Big business and the government keep wages low to control the people and keep the big money for themselves. I touched on issues about women and human rights and wages that noone would discuss, and they tried to silence me.” 

“Men on the island told me that if I talked to the villagers, my children or me would get hurt.”

But fear and the harsh defeat has not deflated the restaurateur, activist, and mother of two, who is now even more fired up to improve the lives of her people.

“I feel like Evita,” Tisa said. “I was the people's candidate. The underdog.  The voice of women, young people, and workers.  The fat cat men are shocked that the underdog woman put up a fight.”

Her campaign slogan directed at women was “If not me, then who are you waiting for? If not now, then when is the right time?”

She is convinced that the women didn’t vote for her because native people don’t understand. “They only believe what men tell them, so they vote out of fear,” said Tisa.

Fear was what Tisa believes also caused her female running mate to withdraw from the race in the last moment before the registration deadline. “Taimane Johnson called to tell me that the opposition pressured her to get out,” said Tisa. She was replaced with another unorthodox choice, a white American male resident who had lived on the island 25 years but was not a native.

In another major challenge, the local legislative branch moved to pass a bill disqualifying Tisa to run for Governor on the basis of not being titled as a chief.  But the measure was deemed unconstitutional.

Campaign financing was another challenge. Determined to run a campaign with no waste or abuse, and on little money, Tisa spent only $2,000 (including $500 to register and $150 on one ad).  Her shoe-string campaign posted only one sign, in front of her restaurant, that said, “Our Land, Our Life, Tisa for Governor.” She had only 5 volunteers.   In contrast, her opponents spent about a quarter of a million dollars to win the $50,000 a year Governor’s job, including launching food give-aways and costly publicity campaigns.

Tisa was buoyed by a lot of free press coverage, with sell-out issues every time her picture appeared in the paper. 

“I felt like Hillary Clinton,” says Tisa. “The press was interested in me because I was a woman running.”

After the first gubernatorial candidates’ debate at a local college, Tisa hit the streets, handing out posters, shaking hands, and asking her people about their family. 

“It’s a technique I learned from selling real estate when I lived in California,” Tisa explains.  “You say hello to everyone because eventually they will need a house and they will remember that you care about them.”

Even her father’s illness requiring him go off-island for health care, did not sway Tisa’s dedication to platform about  improving the environment, getting rid of trash on the island, jobs for youth, women’s equality, family abuse, the economy, illegal labor practices and higher wages than the current $2.50 an hour.

“As a woman, I think I know more about these issues than my opponents,” she said.

If her business is any example, the guest register at the Barefoot Bar in Alega lists thousands of patrons from all over the world enchanted with her place and the island. “That’s a shining example of business development that none of my opponents can match,” said Tisa.

Personal experience also fueled Tisa’s platform on family and women’s issues.  She became public about domestic violence a year ago when she appeared on a local public service television show about abuse, speaking directly into the camera in her native Samoan tongue, relating her story for the first time about having been abused in a past marriage.  She pledged from that day forward to expose the extent of abuse on her island, and to encourage other women to speak out and seek help. 

Throughout the days of the campaign, an independent female documentary producer was following Tisa to record her unusual and courageous fight.  Tisa hopes her story will be told to women around the world as an inspiration that a woman is never too small and never powerless.

Two days after the election, Tisa was back at work at her internationally famous bar and restaurant, cooking and serving exotic dishes to 40 guests gathered under palm trees as the turquoise ocean waters lapped the shore.  Preparing fish freshly caught in those very waters, she reviewed the tough lessons she had learned. 

“Island politics is strange.  Everyone comes from the same tree, meaning they’re related somehow, so brothers want to tell their sisters to back off playing with the big boys.  The people who were afraid to support me openly because something might happen to them, had to go underground.  But I won’t get scared.  I’m as good as them.”  

And she vowed to continue her fight. 

“I shook the system that’s run by men,” she said proudly. “They’re not ready for a woman. The island is still living under the old ideas that the man is the head of the household and the woman and children belong to him.”

“They’re scared of me now because I call them on everything.”

And that won’t stop. Tisa’s gearing up to develop ecotourism on her island. “We need tourist retreats on a local level here, not 5-Star hotels,” she says. “It’s the only way for the people to start becoming more self-reliant.”

As her dinner guests shout compliments about her culinary skills, Tisa muses to me about her future political ambitions and campaign strategy. 

“I’m going to run again in 2004. And before that I am going to act like the governor from the outside. I’m going to start on a village level, networking with the people. I am going to get grants to help indigenous people. My people need to know how they can better themselves and I intend to help them.”