Obituary: Masiofo Noue Tamasese

Noue Nelson, born Apia Western Samoa 23 May 1910, married Tupua Tamasese Me'ole (died 1963), died Auckland 9 July 1992.

NOUE TAMASESE, the founding first lady of Western Samoa, was a champion of Samoan interests and culture, and the widow of Tupua Tamasese Me'ole, one of the two joint heads of state when the country was granted independence in 1962.

She was born Noue Nelson in 1910, one of the five daughters of Olaf Nelson, the Swedish-Samoan head of a family distinguished in the public sector and in the commercial life of Western Samoa and noted for its liberal - some might say radical - thinking. Olaf Nelson had urged the independence of Western Samoa in the early 1920s, long before such notions were fashionable. As a teenage girl, Noue marched through the streets of the Western Samoan capital, Apia, by her father's side in support of the Mau movement's campaign for 'Samoa mo Samoa' - Samoa for the Samoans - and its resistance to the imposition of income tax. This tax had been levied by the New Zealand administration which, under a League of Nations mandate, had replaced the German one after the end of the First World War.

In Olaf Nelson's daughters, the Polynesian / Scandinavian / Irish American inheritance was a winner. The 'Nelson girls' were known throughout the South Pacific for their brains and their beauty, which I encountered at a family reception when I stopped overnight in Apia, en route from Tonga to Fiji by sea in 1954.

By the time of independence, Noue was married to Tupua Tamasese Me'ole, recognised by many as the head of the principal chiefly dynasty of Western Samoa. He too had been associated with that early civil disobedience movement. But his was not the only chiefly inheritance.

The constitutional problem as to which of the three chiefs - or four, if you add a minor one - was to be head of the first fully independent Polynesian state, was resolved in a unique way. Two of them, Tamasese and Malietoa, became joint Heads of State; while the third, Mataafa, was the first Prime Minister.

Noue Nelson was educated in Auckland and Sydney. Her husband, when first joint Head of State, could not have found more sustaining and positive support. To her extended Samoan family throughout the world, her robust and warm personality seemed larger than life. Noue was fiercely patriotic in her promotion and defence of Samoan interests and culture. Youthful beauty led in maturity to dignity and elegance. As a young woman, she had designed and established a national dress for Samoan women. The pulatasi is a tunic garment worn over the ankle-length wrap-around lavalava. The use of Samoan designs with modern fabrics is her legacy to Samoan feminine distinctiveness and identity.

There are innovative women leaders in many island communities of the South Pacific. In Western Samoa, Noue built up village women's committees and raised the status of women generally as she sought to strengthen their role in a part-matriarchal society.

The founding first lady of independent Samoa was a friend and near contemporary of Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga, who was born 10 years earlier, in 1900. The death of Noue Tamasese at the age of 82 severs one of the last links between the independence movement of the 1920s and the Samoa of today.

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