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Remembering Sinavaiana — respected academic and poet

Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Acclaimed American Samoan poet and teacher was murdered Saturday, May 25, in Apia allegedly by a fellow poet.

According to Samoa police, Dr Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard was found dead at the Galu Moana Theatre in Vaivase-Uta.

Born in 1946, the late Sinavaiana-Gabbard 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.

Sinavaiana-Gabbard was born in Utulei village, Tutuila, American Samoa and educated at Sonoma State University, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawai'i Her PhD thesis was on Traditional comic theater in Samoa : a holographic view. She taught creative writing as a faculty of the Department of English, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, from 1997 until her retirement in 2016. In 2002 she published her collection of poetry, Alchemies of Distance.

In August 2020 she was named by USA Today on its list of influential women from U.S. territories.

Albert Wendt said of her Alchemies of Distance, “Sinavaiana-Gabbard draws her imaginative strength and mana from the fertile depths of her Samoan people’s mythologies, past, and wisdom, as well as from the cultural soil of North American and Tibetan Buddhism. Her voice is a new blend of Samoan, American, and widely ranging poetic and philosophical languages. A unique, vibrant, undeniable voice which shapes the now fearlessly, with profound understanding and forgiveness.”

Alchemies of Distance contains 20 poems that alternate between lyric and narrative, verse and prose.

Hawaii State Senate and Sianaviana’s brother, Mike Gabbard, who was also an English major,  remembers following his sister to one of the same colleges she attended — then back to Samoa to teach English, and back to Hawaii to raise his own family in public service.

“I could have ended up in prison and I was ... getting into all kinds of nonsense,” Sen. Gabbard said.

”But she just said ‘Hang in there. Mike. God loves you. Mom and Dad love you. Just stick with it.”

Sinavaiana-Gabbard moved to Samoa after she retired. She was killed at the GaluMoana Theater in Vaivase-uta on May 26, 2024. Playwright Sia Figiel was subsequently charged with her murder.

Sen. Gabbard said his sister had requested that she be cremated and her ashes scattered in the ocean.