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The Uses of Brown Dye in American Samoa Art and Beyond

One of the most unique aspects of creating siapo is that every part of the art came from the land. The canvas, the dyes, the brushes, they are all made from materials that are collected on our island of American Samoa. American Samoa art holds a deep connection to the land it is created on.

The o’a, or the brown dye, is an important part of siapo making. Siapo artists use o’a (brown) and lama (black) most frequently in our work. But the o’a has more uses than just a simple dye.

How is the Brown Dye Prepared for Siapo?

All of the dye used in the American Samoa art of siapo is made from berries, seeds, bark, and roots from plants and trees that grow in American Samoa. Each dye is completely natural and devoid of all additives.

The bark of the o’a tree is best harvested in the mornings. Siapo makers and their apprentices, students, or assistants will bring a pelu (machete), ʻasi (a semi-sharp edged pipi shell or tin can lid), and a palm frond woven basket or a large plastic bag for collecting the shavings.

The outer bark of the tree is brushed down to get rid of excess debris, and then it is scraped away to reveal the pink inner bark of the o’a tree (it sometimes leaks, leading to its nickname of the “blood tree”).

The pink skin of the tree is scraped (if the siapo makers reach the white inner layer they know to stop), and the shavings are collected. Once the scraping is completed, soil is rubbed onto the exposed portion of the tree.

Students scraping the bark of the o'a tree. (Photograph Copyright by Regina Meredith Fitiao)

This is an act of respect towards the o’a for its ability to provide us with the dye, and it acts as a protective barrier as the tree begins it’s three year journey of recovery until the bark can be scraped in that exact location again.

The shavings are put into a rice bag and are squeezed until they are drained of the liquid that will be used as dye. The liquid is collected in glass jars that are left open in the shade for three days. Once the natural gases have escaped, the dye can be used. It is important to note that the brown dye will coagulate eventually, and cannot be stored for long periods of time without use.

The brown dye is key because it is used not just to make brown, but it is mixed with other ingredients to make black, red, and yellow as well.

Brown dye being squeezed from the bark of the o'a tree. (Photograph Copyright by W. Fitiao)

What Are the Medicinal Uses of the Brown Dye?

The o’a tree (also known as the Java Cedar or bischofia javanica) has several medicinal uses. The bark, which is used to create the brown dye for siapo, can also be used to soothe unsettled stomachs. This can include anything from gastrointestinal issues to ulcers.

The plant can be used to treat issues in the mouth and throat. This includes gingivitus, toothache, cough, and sore throats. Historically, it has also been used as a healing agent for female sexual health, healing inflammation of the vulva, skin irritations, and acting as a soothing balm or lubricant.

The Pacific region is filled with plants that have been used to heal a variety of ailments.

In the past half a century, botanists and ethnobotanists like the late Arthur Whistler have studied, cataloged, and revived the medicinal uses of Samoan plants like the o’a tree. In fact, Art Whistler knew the Samoan name of every native plant in the Samoan islands, and he was known to some as the “king of the forest.”

The medicinal uses of the o’a tree only make it more important that we, as siapo makers, collect the bark we use for our dyes in a respectful way that maintains the safety and integrity of the plant.

How Does This Plant Help the Environment?

Throughout South Asia and the Pacific, the o’a tree has been planted in partnership with other crops. It provides shade for coffee and cardamom in India, and has been used in massive reforestation efforts in Thailand.

Are You Interested In Learning More About American Samoa Art?

From siapo to tatau to woodcarving and more, American Samoa art draws from the land and from centuries of history. We strive not just to create new art with these traditional practices, but to educate others in how to do the same!

Interested in learning more about American Samoa artists and their art? Head over to our blog to read more!

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