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The fire knife is a traditional Samoan cultural implement that is used in ceremonial dances. It was originally composed of a machete wrapped in towels on both ends with a portion of the blade exposed in the middle. Tribal performers of fire knife dancing (or Siva Afi or even “Ailao Afi” as it is called in Samoa) dance while twirling the knife and doing other acrobatic stunts. The towels are set afire during the dances, hence the name.

Polynesian historians and authorities on Samoan cultural history state that the training of Toa warriors in the art of hand to hand combat with the Nifo Oti, the serrated-edged Samoan war club, came into prominence between 900 – 1200 AD. It was the favorite weapon of the Tui Manu’a Empire in the time of King Maui Tagote of the Eastern Samoan Island groups.[1] These war clubs were often edged with the teeth of sharks, saw fish, swordfish, and other sea creatures.

The Siva Afi was originally performed with the Nifo Oti, which was very dangerous. The modern fire knife dance has its roots in the ancient Samoan exhibition called ailao – the flashy demonstration of a Samoan warrior’s battle prowess through artful twirling, throwing and catching, and dancing with a war club. The ailao could be performed with any warclub, and some colonial accounts confirm that women also performed ailao at the head of ceremonial processions, especially daughters of high chiefs.[2] It was conceived on the Island of Upolu between the years 1200 – 1250 AD, coming into cultural prominence during the reign of King Maui Tagote. Ancient legend speaks of 400 warriors who trained with their Nifo Oti.

During night dances, torches were often twirled and swung about by dancers, although a warclub was the usual implement used for ailao in remembrance of the three brothers Tuna, Fata, and Savea and their defeat of the Tongan invaders. Before the introduction of metals, the most common clubs that were wielded and displayed in the ailao fashion were elaborately carved heirloom clubs called anava. These anava were frequently carved with serrated edges and jagged “teeth” which characterized the unique Samoan weapon called the “nifo’oti” – fire Pattern Tracker Knife

The Expulsion of The Tu’i Tonga Talakaifaiki (King of Tonga) & The Birth of Malietoa (King of Samoa), The Birth of Siva Afi.
For approximately 200 years, the Tu’i Tonga Talakaifaiki established a long-term residence in ata Safotu, Savai’i, Samoa. The location for the Tu’i Tonga Talakaifaiki’s upcoming birthday festivities was a beautiful famous stretch of beach in Aleipata, a region on the Eastern side of Upolu.
The seeds of rebellion were planted, according to legend, by three brothers—the “sons” of Atiogie, namely Savea, Tuna, Fata—and a fourth Toa warrior, Ulumasui (who was actually a grandson of Atiogie). The three brothers and their nephew eventually lead a wide-scale campaign of civil disobedience, which ultimately escalated into the military overthrow of Talakaifaiki.
Samoan warriors were called upon to dance and entertain the Tu’i Tonga Talakaifaiki during a birthday celebration for the King of Tonga. The Tongans had ruled parts of Samoa (Upolu and Savai’i) but were not able to conquer the Eastern Samoan Islands, namely Manu’a and Manono, whose warriors famously held off Tongan and Fijian invasions on numerous occasions. The Manu’a warriors were renowned throughout Eastern Polynesia for their strength and ferocity.[3]
The Samoan warriors arrived to prepare their entertainment for Tu’i Tonga Talakaifaiki. The Samoans buried weapons (nifo oti) in the sand all around the beach area as they plied the Tongans with “bush gin”. Then, they utilized their nifo oti, which have remained the same design for the last millennia as those favored when the Samoans were actually head hunters, to behead the victim, while the hook carried the trophy.
As night set in, the Festivities and party progressed, more “bush gin” was consumed, and the Samoan warriors “performed” for the king. They had wrapped both ends of their nifo-oti with dry palm sennit, which was then dipped into the fires to create a blaze on one end of the knife. They danced and pointed out the locations of the buried weapons to other Samoan warriors, who were waiting in small paopaos (canoes) offshore. The warriors then stormed the beach, recovered the weapons and set them ablaze as they proceeded to drive the Tongans in a bloody battle all the way across the island, from east to the westernmost point of Upolu.
Driven westward from Aleipata, Upolu (where the Tu’i Tonga’s birthday festivities were underway) to the coast of Mulifanua, the Tongan king and his bodyguards were cornered against the sea. There was fierce fighting all the way to the sea, whereon the Tu’i Tonga reached his superior navy vessels and called out to those on the land. The Tongans who were not killed eventually boarded boats and left Samoa for good.[4] Upon his departure, the Tongan monarch delivered a short speech that praised the brave fighting qualities of the Samoan warriors and conceded victory to his once-subjects. The Malietoa title is taken from the opening phrase of that speech: “Mālie toa, mālie tau,” meaning “great warriors, well fought.”

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