It is a Samoan term for a chief.
A Matai makes the decisions within the family during times of faalalave, such as weddings, birthdays, and funerals, appointing of new chiefs, tattooing, church events and community issues.
The role of the Matai is very important in Samoan history. From the early days they controlled the life style within the family and cultural values because Samoa had not as yet developed a government.
It is usually the eldest member in a family. However, nowadays the Matai role has been influenced by Christian teaching (e.g. David who was the younger brother was appointed the chosen king instead of his older brother). These days both males and females are eligible for the role of the Matai.
When Christianity was introduced in Samoa, cultural values, traditions and perspectives started to change. Christianity is now a vital aspect of Samoan culture. Church every Sunday is considered a "must" for every Samoan family.
Daily prayer is done every day in all families throughout all villages in Samoa. This is called a ‘Sa’, meaning ‘sacred time’. Samoan singing is also a big part of Christianity. Singing to God is also a form of prayer. One of the popular Samoan church songs is ‘Ia Pepese’:
Le na tatou tupu ai
Ina ua na alofa fua
Ia te I tatou uma nei
Mataafa Iosefa, who is my great grandfather, was one of the rulers of Samoa. He was the first to accept Catholic Christianity in Samoa. When Mataafa saw white people in Samoa, his first impression was that they were people from the heavens. The Samoan term for white people is ‘palagi’. But because he thought that they were people from the heavens, he called them ‘papalagi’, meaning ‘white cloud’.