The Samoan Roots of the Manti Te'o Hoax

Culture may play a bigger role in the Notre Dame football star's bizarre story than people realize.

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Henny Ray Abrams

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on Culture Digitally.

By now we're all familiar with the story of Manti Te'o—how he captured football fans' hearts, how he led his team to the national championship game despite the fact that his grandmother and his girlfriend had both died on the same day last September.

We're also asking ourselves how Te'o could be fooled into loving an imaginary girlfriend named Lennay Kekua, described as a Stanford undergraduate dying of leukemia whom he'd never met.

Reporters are now wondering whether Te'o was truly hoaxed, or whether he was complicit. They ask why he never visited his girlfriend in person—they had been in touch for four years, after all, chatting by Facebook message, texting, calling each other on the phone. How could he not be a bit suspicious?

But they never ask about the influence of his cultural background. What ideas about truth and verification did he learn growing up in a Samoan migrant community in Hawai'i, especially one that was so religious (in his case, Mormon)? And that is all I keep wondering about after spending two and a half years doing fieldwork among Samoan migrants.

As an ethnographer, I heard a number of stories that sound almost exactly like Te'o's story—naïve Christian golden boys who had been fooled by other Samoans pretending to be dewy-eyed innocents. Leukemia was even a theme—I guess Samoan pranksters keep turning to the same diseases.

I heard these stories as gossip—women in their late teens or early 20s would tell me about how a much sought-after man in their church had been fooled. I never talked directly to a victim or a hoaxer about this, so I didn't write about this in any of my academic work.

I did this fieldwork before Facebook or cell phones, and even before email became widespread outside of college circles. All the stories I heard involved husky voices on telephones, and maybe a letter or two.

What strikes me as particularly Samoan about Te'o's comments to ESPN is that he opens with a very familiar Samoan worry. It is not his own shame he is concerned about; he is worried about the shame this will bring to his whole family, all those who share his last name. Concern about family comes up time and time again in his tale.

He chooses family reunions over possibly seeing his elusive girlfriend. He understands when she is forced to do the same. In Samoan life, family obligations always triumph, and often seem to keep lovers apart.

Te'o was deeply concerned about how his parents would react to his new girlfriend, with the tacit undercurrent that this was not just about two people falling in love, but about two families entering into a complex alliance that will involve many mutual obligations.

He tried to find ways to have Kekua enter into his family's circle as a potential Christian daughter-in-law, encouraging her to text passages of scripture to his members of his family.

And I am not surprised that the Samoans playing the hoax felt the need to tell Te'o that his girlfriend died only hours after Te'o texted them that his grandmother had died. His girlfriend's family might have been obligated to send money for the funeral. If they did, the family name would be announced publicly at a large Samoan funeral in thanks. The hoax might have started to cost the hoaxers money and they would risk exposure, unless they took drastic measures, like pretending the girlfriend had died.

The only part of Te'o's story that I found strange was that, upon hearing that his girlfriend had died, he only sent white roses to her family, and his parents also only sent flowers. The Samoan migrants that I knew would have sent money, and the amount would have signaled how much the family valued the potential alliance. Flowers alone really wouldn't have cut it.

Te'o has been asked if he had inquired about Kekua with other Samoans from Los Angeles, where they are a tight-knit community. He said he didn't, although he did mention trying to check with male cousins about whether Kekua was a good girl. Of course, Te'o didn't ask just anyone. Being in a tight-knit Samoan community also means that gossip circulates faster than a viral Youtube video.

Te'o knew that asking about anyone lets everyone else know far too much about your personal business and he also would be risking his potential girlfriend's reputation. Practically the only people he could ask safely would be his male cousins, who would be much like his brothers in terms of closeness and loyalty. Asking his female cousins would have been considered inappropriate.

So much of this news story is hauntingly familiar to me from fieldwork with Samoan migrants: the role of family, the half-hearted attempts to verify a person's identity that fail, the strong spiritual connection Te'o thought he felt with Kekua, and the hoax itself.

The question for me is not how digital technology allowed this hoax to happen, or whether Te'o was duped. The question is how culturally specific ways of circulating knowledge and understanding of what is true will continue to be used with new media. What happens when Samoan ways of assessing others start to involve Facebook, texting and video chats?

What social workarounds will Samoans have to invent to continue using their ways of judging other people? Are Te'o's current travails an example of what happens when these culturally specific practices fail? Seeing this as only a story about digital technologies and their risks is to overlook how cultural everyone's communication truly is.