Disney’s animated film “Moana,” while entirely fictional, is based on the legends and cultures of several prominent Polynesian nations, such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Recently, a cast member at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa found herself following in Moana’s figurative footsteps, albeit in a less dramatic way. She didn’t have to steal Maui’s fishhook from a giant coconut crab, nor fight off hordes of Kakamora, but her journey of self-discovery was no less moving, and the lessons she learned no less valuable.
Moli Mapu is a manager at Aulani Resort’s Laniwai Spa. She was born in American Samoa, the daughter of a prominent leader in the village of Aua on the main island of Tutuila. Despite American Samoa’s status as an unincorporated US territory, most villages adhere to a traditional governing structure called the Matai Chief System in which certain individuals are chosen by families to oversee and guide each village. Known as high talking chiefs, their duty is to take care of their village “aiga” (extended family), bring them together to mark events and maintain harmony. For example, the high talking chief will call the family together to help when there is a funeral, wedding or other event. He oversees the village council, which makes rules concerning all aspects of village life, such as evening curfew, protection of religious rights and the safety of residents. He also hears grievances and settles disputes.
In September 2022, Moli’s father, Johnny Siaumau Mapu, was elected high talking chief of Aua, an immense honor and one that recognizes years of service to the village, the community, and the nation of American Samoa as a whole. “There is a proverb in Samoa that says o le ala i le pule o le tautua, which means the pathway to leadership is through service,” Moli said. “I was so proud when my father was called to be our village’s high talking chief. It was one of my favorite moments that I got to witness as his daughter. My father has always been the definition of service to me. For as long as I can remember, I have watched him serve wholeheartedly in many capacities – the church, the army, advocating for veterans. To watch him humbly accepting another opportunity to serve his “aiga” and village was beyond words.”
When Moli arrived in American Samoa last September to observe ceremonies honoring her father, it was the first time she’d set foot there in over two decades. She left American Samoa in 2002 as a teenager to further her education in Hawai‘i. While attending Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i, she saw a flyer on campus advertising the Disney College Program and moved to Orlando in 2008. What was expected to be a six-month internship turned into a three-year stint working for Walt Disney World in roles such as front desk, concierge and VIP services at several Walt Disney World Resort hotels.
Still, Hawai‘i called to her. “In 2011, I became homesick and missed my family and Hawai‘i so much. I was fortunate that Aulani Resort was hiring and invited me to be a part of the front office opening team. The rest is history, and this August I will be celebrating 15 years working for the best company in the world,” she said.
Building a life in Hawai‘i left little time to revisit her childhood home. So when she journeyed to Aua in September, she saw it through new eyes as an adult. The aroma from the Starkist tuna factories wafting in the breeze. The decades-old lumpia stand still selling the delicious spring rolls she enjoyed as a child. “All these sights and smells brought back fond childhood memories,” she said. “It was humbling to see how simple life is and how happy and content people are with the little they have. It made me appreciate what I have even more.”
The visit also gave Moli a new appreciation for her heritage and the customs she may have once taken for granted. “I definitely gained greater insight into the culture. I witnessed so many acts of service, kindness, and love, especially as everyone came together to honor my father. I am proud to come from a heritage where these important values are at the core of everything,” she said.
Now that her father is a high talking chief, is she a princess? “No, I’m not,” she said with a laugh. “There are village maidens called taupou that are similar to what Moana is, but that doesn’t apply to me. Taupou are designated by other high chiefs, but my father doesn’t determine that.”
She may not technically be royalty, but Moli certainly carries herself with the grace, humility, and appreciation of her people and customs befitting a princess.