AMERICAN SAMOA COURT UPHOLDS CHIEFLY TITLE

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Challenge of succession claim denied

By La Poasa

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (Samoa News, July 3, 2008) - The Lands and Title Division of the High Court has dismissed a challenge by Leifi Taumalatou Tuika Faumuina to Rep. Agaoleoatu Charlie Tautolo's matai succession claim to the "Tautolo" title of Aunu'u.

When Agaoleatu offered to register the Tautolo title with the Territorial Registrar's Office in February 2007, Leifi filed on April 9 a counterclaim.

The challenge was not about him wanting to succeed to the Tautolo tile but he objects to Agaoleatu's offer to register the title solely on the ground that Agaoleatu wasn't appointed by Paramount Chief Faumuina, who, according to Leifi and his supporters, holds 'pule' (traditional authority/power of appointment) over the Tautolo title.

According to the Court's ruling issued last month, Leifi premises his claim on the allegation that the original Tautolo titleholder was not a founding member of Aunu'u village but rather a Saleaumua (in Samoa) matai whom Faumuina installed on Aunu'u as caretaker of his sleeping quarters, on land known as "Agaoleatu" belonging to the Faumuina family.

Agaoleatu countered that the Leifi's motion should be dismissed because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction since Leifi is not actually seeking matai succession under the registration process set out under local law.

In response, Leifi cited the Ma'ae title case whereby the Lands and Titles Division denied a sole claimant's motion for summary judgment similarly premised on the argument that the objector, High Chief Soliai, was a non candidate. In that case, the Court ruled that Soliai, as a senior matai, had standing to pursue his claim that family custom designated the sa'o (senior matai) with the power to appoint lesser matai of the family, including the Ma'ae titleholder.

The Court concluded that the issue of family opinion in matters of lesser matai succession as customary within the Soliai/Ma'ae family were matters of fact subject to evidentiary inquiry.

But in the Tautolo title case, the Court said the facts differ materially from the factual circumstances before the court in the Ma'ae case.

The Court said that in a recent land dispute between the Faumuina family and the Tautolo family, it determined that the "Tautolo title is clearly appurtenant [applicable] to the village of Aunu'u" whereas "it is equally clear that the Faumuina title is appurtenant to the village of Alofau."

In that land dispute, the Court rejected the Faumuina's family claim that the Tautolo title "was some sort of retainer of vassal" installed on Aunu'u as custodian of Faumuina family lands "Agaoleatu" by reviewing "unambiguous customary indices" such as the village salutation or fa'alupega (encapsulating the constitution of a village's council), place of monotaga (obligatory chiefly contributions) and fale talimalo (guesthouse). Such a review showed that the Tautolo title was the sa'o of the Tautolo family with concordant pule appurtenant to family lands on Aunu'u.

The Court concluded that the disputed land "Agaoleatu" was land belonging to the Tautolo family subject to the pule of Tautolo as the sa'o of the Tautolo family.

"Against this background, the matai title [Tautolo] dispute before us takes on the unmistaken air of being but yet another round of the "Agaoleatu" land dispute, a concluded issue," wrote the Court. "As the land case has determined, the Tautolo family of Aunu'u is not related to the Faumuina family of Alofau; the Tautolo title of Aunu'u is a sa'o in his own right and not a lesser matai of the Faumuina of Alofau; and the Tautolo family's entitlement to communal land on Aunu'u is neither derivative through nor dependent on the Faumuina."

Accordingly, the Court granted Agaoleatu's motion to dismiss and remanded the matter back to the Territorial Registrar's Office.

The ruling was signed by Chief Justice F. Michael Kruse, Chief Associate Judge Logoai Siaki and associate judges Mamea Sala, Jr., Su'apaia E.C. Pereira and Save Liuato A. Tuitele.

Agaoleatu was represented by Fiti Sunia while Leifi by Charles V. Alailima.

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