Samoa’s lively version of cricket turns Jefferson Park into ‘a little piece of home’

Teammates run past each other on a concrete pitch to score a point after one hit the ball during a kirikiti match at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
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IF NOT FOR the Olympic Mountains shimmering in the distance, it might be hard to place the scene that unfolds on a grassy field at Seattle’s Jefferson Park most Saturdays in spring and summer.

It could almost be the British countryside, with dozens of people engaged in a sport that looks a lot like cricket. But there’s a distinctly Polynesian flair to the proceedings.

The players are dressed in colorful wraparounds, not prim British whites. Food booths offer boiled green bananas, Spam sushi and poi drinks. Pounding music blasts from speakers while an emcee narrates the action with the fervor of a World Cup telecaster.

Welcome to kirikiti, Samoa’s version of England’s quintessential sport.

The Backstory: Cricket’s really catching on in the Puget Sound region — in all its adaptations

Like many nations that fell under the thumb of colonial powers, Samoa embraced some aspects of the interlopers’ culture — cricket among them. But the islanders put a spin on the game that’s uniquely their own. A pastime that Victorian-era missionaries hoped would instill British discipline and decorum was transformed into a joyous celebration and embodiment of fa’a Samoa — the Samoan Way.

“It’s a little piece of home,” says Roshina Wilson Kerisiano, watching from the sidelines on a cool Saturday morning before the sun burned through the clouds. Kerisiano and her extended family have been involved in the Seattle cricket league for almost 20 years, and she recently joined the leadership of the nonprofit United Samoan Organization, which sponsors the matches.

John Reno Sagaga, second from left, passes teammate Onosai Sanerivi after Sagaga hit the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

John Reno Sagaga, second from left, passes teammate Onosai Sanerivi after Sagaga hit the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

For the far-flung Samoan diaspora in the United States — which outnumbers the population of American Samoa — the game provides a link to their heritage, a way to school American-born youth in traditional values and a sense of connection, Kerisiano explains. “It’s the one sport we have here that brings the community together.”

About 22,000 people of Samoan descent live in Washington, the third-highest number in the country after California and Hawaii. Teams from Olympia, Puyallup, Federal Way and other Puget Sound-area communities compete in Seattle’s league from May to mid-August.

For many Samoans, the passion for kirikiti burns as hot as the football fever (meaning soccer, of course) that grips much of the world. The game is played in New Zealand, Australia, California — anywhere large concentrations of Samoans are found. One local player lives in Alaska but flies to Seattle every Friday for the matches.

“In Samoa, it’s: ‘After God, cricket,’ ” says Milton Ofoia, waiting for his team to take the field. He laughs, but he’s only half-joking. Ofoia’s father was a famous cricketer back home, and Ofoia and his wife both play in a Tacoma league as well as Seattle’s. The local matches might be lively by U.S. standards, but they’re tame compared to those back in the islands, he says.

“The whole village comes out and watches the games. From six in the morning, it’s entirely packed so you can’t even see the ball.”

The crowds at Jefferson Park aren’t that dense, but hundreds of people gather for the games, including members of the five men’s teams and two women’s teams and their families and friends. A group of adults shepherds the little kids, sometimes keeping them busy with crafts or cricket lessons. Families and team boosters set up lawn chairs and canopies or simply lounge on blankets. Others come early to erect tents, assemble outdoor kitchens and churn out heaping plates of food for sale.

With four games every Saturday, each lasting two hours or more, it’s like a daylong picnic or family reunion.

“We come in the morning, and we leave when it’s dark,” says Viliamu Manusavii Pini. “It’s crazy.”

Pua Aperila swings at the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. Behind him, opponents (left to right) Malele Ulugaono, Joon Key and Keneti Tagaleo’o watch. Kirikiti is Samoa’s version of the British sport of cricket, a faster-paced version with more players on the field. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Pua Aperila swings at the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. Behind him, opponents (left to right) Malele Ulugaono, Joon Key and Keneti Tagaleo’o watch. Kirikiti is Samoa’s version of the British sport of cricket, a faster-paced version with more players on the field. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

BY MIDMORNING, the first game of the day has just passed the halfway point. Tama o Le Moana, a team from Spanaway and Puyallup, is batting against Tama o Le Kionasina, a team whose players all come from the same mountain village, Aoloau, in American Samoa. Moana’s players wear yellow ie lavalava — the signature wraparound skirts of Polynesia. Team captain Malaki Feo explains that his squad has to rack up at least 58 points — one more than the opposition — to win.

“Right now, the defense looks pretty good,” he says, cautiously.

The pitcher, or bowler, takes a running start and hurls the ball overhand. Swinging what looks more like a tree limb than a conventional cricket bat, the batter wallops the ball high into the air and watches it drop between two fielders.

The batter and a teammate run to opposite ends of the concrete pitch, crossing each other in the middle with their ie lavalava flying.

An umpire waves a white flag.

“That’s one point,” Feo explains.

Samoan cricket resembles the British game in its basic elements, but very little else.

Fans describe kirikiti as faster, more dynamic — and more inclusive. Instead of the standard 11 players to a side, Samoan teams field 20. Two bowlers and two batters alternate to keep the action moving. The hard leather ball used in the British game is replaced by a smaller version fashioned by hand from the rubber of the pulu tree. That reduces the chance of injury, since no one wears protective gear. Some players even go without shoes.

A batter with the Mighty Doves team heads to the field, ready to bat, at Jefferson Park in Seattle. Samoan kirikiti bats are three-sided, individually embellished and fashioned from lightweight wood. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

A batter with the Mighty Doves team heads to the field, ready to bat, at Jefferson Park in Seattle. Samoan kirikiti bats are three-sided, individually embellished and fashioned from lightweight wood. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Bats are unique, too. Made from lightweight tropical wood, they’re longer and have three sides, with a curved hitting surface that makes it tough to predict in which direction the ball will fly. Players embellish their bats with lightning bolts, flames or team colors and wrap the grips with twine-like fiber.

All ages are welcome. One of Seattle’s youngest players is 10; the oldest is 70-year-old Tafiau Sio, who plays on the same team as her daughter and keeps an eye on her granddaughter between games.

“This is the sport that most people from Samoa grew up with,” Pini says. “Basically, the rules we set up for Samoan cricket reflect our traditional way of life.”

A bowler (pitcher) throws the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

A bowler (pitcher) throws the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

THAT’S NOT WHAT missionaries had in mind when they encouraged Samoans to embrace England’s “Imperial Game” starting in the late 1800s, says Benjamin Sacks, a historian at the University of Western Australia. An avid cricket fan, Sacks was so intrigued by the way the islanders turned the colonists’ game on its head that he made it the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

The British viewed cricket as a “rational” sport that fostered English values like order and discipline and “manly moral ideals,” Sacks writes. They hoped cricket would supplant traditional Samoan recreations, like wild, weekslong javelin-throwing contests accompanied by revelry and sensual dancing that sent 19th-century Evangelicals scrambling for the smelling salts. But Samoans, famed for what one official called their “peculiar genius for modification,” had other ideas.

“ … [T]he quiet and serious English style did not suit them long,” wrote William Churchwald, British consul to the islands from 1882 to 1885. “One by one, innovations of their own and Tongan manufacture crept into the game, until soon nothing remained of cricket, pur et simple, but the practice of one man bowling a ball to another man trying to hit it.”

Tafiau Sio, 70, the oldest kirikiti player to compete at Jefferson Park, laughs after striking out. She plays on the Fetaia’i ma Uso team and says she likes the exercise. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Tafiau Sio, 70, the oldest kirikiti player to compete at Jefferson Park, laughs after striking out. She plays on the Fetaia’i ma Uso team and says she likes the exercise. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

In the early days, matches that pitted entire villages against each other were not uncommon, and could last for days or weeks. Singing, drumming, mountains of food and the sensuous dancing missionaries so abhorred were integral to the festivities.

“The same feasting, revelry and disruption that had irked missionaries in customary Samoan contests were thus transposed into this most ‘rational’ of papalagi (foreign) sporting pastimes,” Sacks writes. “In effect, the game described by Churchwald and played by Samoans was no longer English cricket but kirikiti fa’a Samoa.”

For Samoans, cricket matches were a way to forge bonds and political alliances between villages; defuse rivalries; and reinforce their own traditional values of family, respect for others and community. For European businessmen, the game was an economic threat. They wanted Samoans working on their coconut, cacao and rubber plantations, not playing cricket for days or weeks on end.

“They got really fed up and kept lobbying to have the game banned,” Sacks says.

After 1888, every colonial government in Samoa passed laws restricting cricket. The United States, which annexed American Samoa and its strategic harbor in 1900, limited the length of games and required permits for matches between villages. The Germans, who controlled what is now independent Samoa until the start of World War I, were particularly aggressive in trying to stamp out the sport.

Men run past each other in opposite directions after one hit the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Men run past each other in opposite directions after one hit the ball during a kirikiti game at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

But Samoans kept playing what they now consider their national game. In some cases, that persistence was a form of defiance, Sacks says. “In the 19th century, it was seen as a way of thumbing your nose at German authorities, who were spiteful and jealous of cricket being played.”

Eventually, even churches dropped their opposition to a game that had become part of the Samoan psyche — particularly after Samoans themselves toned down the celebrations and abandoned some of the more suggestive dances. Today, church and cricket are firmly intertwined in many communities — including Seattle.

Reverend Elder Mulipola Willa Taulolo, of the Alofa Tunoa Samoan congregation in White Center, was a crack cricket player in his youth. Now, he sometimes offers prayers at the opening and closing ceremonies for Seattle’s cricket season.

“Our fathers created this game to ensure that all the generations pass it on to one another,” he says. “The most important thing is to keep the generations together.”

Dallas Nagaseu, left, and Gary Wilson cook 120 pounds of chicken for kirikiti players and fans on a Saturday at Jefferson Park. Four games are played on Saturdays, with hundreds of people gathered at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Dallas Nagaseu, left, and Gary Wilson cook 120 pounds of chicken for kirikiti players and fans on a Saturday at Jefferson Park. Four games are played on Saturdays, with hundreds of people gathered at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

SOME OF THE first Samoan immigrants to the Seattle area arrived after World War II, when the U.S. Navy closed a base where many of them worked. Though not U.S. citizens, residents of American Samoa are “nationals,” which allows them to live and work in the United States — but not to vote or hold office. (A group of American Samoans filed suit in Utah last year, seeking the same birthright citizenship as residents of other U.S. territories, like Guam and Puerto Rico.)

Kirikiti in Seattle dates to the 1970s, and a league was organized in 1986. But the boisterous crowds annoyed neighbors around Genesee Field in Rainier Valley, where the games were then held. Like colonial governments that sought to tone down the sport, the city restricted matches to Saturdays and set a limit of “one whistler and one drummer,” according to HistoryLink.

After bouncing around various fields and schools, the league took up permanent residence at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill in 2012. It’s a shoestring operation, relying on food sales and donations from teams and communities to cover city fees for using the field — $6,000 last year, Pini says. He’s hoping to raise enough money for a public Aso Mo Samoa or Samoan Community Day celebration in the next few years, with singing, dancing and traditional food.

Juanita Wilson, right, tries to teach her 7-week-old pup, Wilson, how to skateboard while teams compete behind her at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Juanita Wilson, right, tries to teach her 7-week-old pup, Wilson, how to skateboard while teams compete behind her at Jefferson Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The games themselves are quieter than in the late ’80s. Drummers perform only for special occasions. But emcee Akeripa “Tupu” Tupuola keeps the crowd energized with throbbing island beats and animated play-by-play. On this Saturday, he’s wearing a Robinson Cano jersey, plaid Bermuda shorts and a straw hat, and wielding a microphone with panache, like the rugby announcers he listened to on the radio when he was a kid in Samoa.

“I play good music, and I dance to entertain them,” he says, swaying to a Polynesia-flavored version of “Una Paloma Blanca.”

His banter is all in Samoan, but he’s happy to translate for English-speaking spectators who wander by. Many of the younger players born in the United States don’t speak Samoan, either. That’s one reason members of the older generations say they are so committed to the sport as a way to connect young people to a history and heritage that might otherwise be lost.

“We do this especially for our kids,” says Feo, the captain of the Moana team. “We want them to get along with each other and stay out of trouble, and learn about our culture.”

Fifteen-year-old Lawrence Pini isn’t fluent in Samoan, but he understands much of what he hears. He came to the States as a toddler, and enjoys playing on the same team as his uncle and dad. But he’s also on the football team at school, and admits he prefers to watch the American game. “I’m just more into football,” he says, shrugging.

In Samoa, another sport is casting a shadow over the future of kirikiti: professional English-style cricket. The country recently joined the International Cricket Council, which offers large development grants to train players, promote the game and build facilities. The international league also provides a route to professional careers, something kirikiti has never offered.

Now, many Samoans are wondering whether their national sport — a community game adapted by Samoans, for Samoans — can exist side-by-side with a big-money version of the sport that started it all.

“I’m kind of worried,” says Rev. Taulolo. “I don’t want to see this part of our culture washed away.”



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