Outpouring of grief following death of acclaimed Samoan poet and writer

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Academic and historian Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard
Academic, poet and historian Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard . . . the first Samoan to become a full professor in the United States. Image: Mele Wendt/RNZ

RNZ Pacific

Tributes are pouring in for an acclaimed American Samoan poet and teacher who was murdered last Saturday in Apia allegedly by a fellow poet.

According to local police Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, a retired professor from the University of Hawai’i Manoa, was found dead at the Galu Moana Theatre in Vaivase-Uta.

The Samoa Observer reported last Sunday that police had charged playwright and poet, Papalii Sia Figiel, with manslaughter with the death but on Monday upgraded the charge to murder.

Playwright Papalii Sia Figiel
Novelist and poet Papalii Sia Figiel . . . charged with murder. Image: (cc) Wikipedia

The 78-year-old Dr Sinavaiana-Gabbard, who was also a historian and environmentalist, has been described as a peaceful and calm person.

The Samoa Observer reports a friend of Dr Sinavaiana-Gabbard said she was completely shocked and saddened when she found out.

She said Dr Sinavaiana-Gabbard was a kindred spirit, a brilliant writer, and a supporter of writers.

“Someone who did not deserve to die like that. She was a very private person despite being a giant in the literary world,” they told the Observer.

Shocked literary friends
Dr Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s death has also shocked many of her literary friends, who have been posting messages of condolence, and resulted in an outpouring of grief on social media reacting to the news.

Front to right - Mele Wendt, Eteuati Ete and Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard
Mele Wendt (from left), Eteuati Ete and Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard . . . she taught creative writing at the University of Hawai’i for nearly 20 years. Image: Mele Wendt/RNZ

In 2022, Dr Sinavaiana-Gabbard warned of the implications of the Samoa government’s inaction to address concerns about the adverse effects of paraquat. She was part of the group advocating for the ban on the dangerous weedkiller.

Born in 1946, she was an American Samoan academic, writer, poet, and environmentalist and was the first Samoan to become a full professor in the United States. She is the sister of American politician Mike Gabbard and the aunt of politician Tulsi Gabbard.

She was born in Utulei village in American Samoa and educated at Sonoma State University, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawai’i.

Her PhD thesis called ‘Traditional Comic Theatre in Samoa: A Holographic View’. She taught creative writing at the University of Hawai’i for nearly 20 years and was an associate professor of Pacific literature at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

In 2002, she published her collection of poetry, Alchemies of Distance and in August 2020, she was named by USA Today on its list of influential women from US territories.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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