No taro or bananas grow in Plummer, and warm sea breezes are as rare as palm trees. Still, Samoan Sefo Laumatia fits right in to North Idaho’s Indian country.
“We don’t stick out as much on the reservation,” says Laura Laumatia, Sefo’s wife and the mother of their 2-year-old triplets, Justine, Jacob and Grace. “People are so welcoming. This is the best possible location.”
Laura is a new extension agent for the Indian Reservation Program. Only 28 such programs exist in the United States. The programs introduce people on reservations to 4H, small business development, better livestock care and environmental education. But extension agents are expected to respect and adapt to the Indian culture, which is how Laura ended up with the job. Different cultures have added excitement to her world since childhood.
“There,” Laura says to Justine as Sefo hands their dark-eyed daughter a glass of warm milk and speaks to her in Samoan. Justine is in her princess phase and climbs into Laura’s lap in her pink party dress and fancy white sandals.
The triplets’ vocabulary is multiplying rapidly at their age. Samoan is the musical language of choice for Justine and Jacob. Grace seems to prefer English. They’ll grow up bilingual even though the family has chosen Idaho as home base.
“It’s a good, good place to bring up a family,” Sefo says.
He’s shy about speaking English, which he’s studying in the Even Start program for parents in Plummer. He understands the language well but needs more practice speaking to build up his confidence.
Laura’s route to Plummer began in Lewiston, where she was born 30 years ago. She was 12 when her family moved to Mexico City, where her dad worked for Scott Paper. He had studied Spanish, and world travel enticed both Laura’s parents.
The giant city buried in smog and crawling with people excited Laura at an age most kids can’t see beyond themselves. She immersed herself in the language and Mexican culture. When her family moved four years later to New Jersey, Laura was bored.
Her family didn’t stay long. Her parents grabbed an opportunity to move to Bangkok, Thailand, when Laura was 17. Laura attended an international school with American and European curricula for her senior year. While her dad worked – their visas allowed only one adult in the family to hold a job – Laura’s mom, a teacher, volunteered with refugees and edited the National Muslim Newsletter.
The international scene fascinated Laura but working with animals was her career choice. She enrolled at Cornell University in New York intent on becoming a veterinarian. Travel to England her junior year, though, reminded her she wasn’t ready to settle down. She added international agriculture to her course load her senior year, traveled to Honduras and signed up for the Peace Corps.
Laura was assigned to Samoa in November 1996, not long after Cornell bestowed her with her animal science degree.
“I knew it was in the Pacific, that’s all,” she says, chuckling.
Samoa sits about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. One main island is independent; the other, Savai’i, is an American territory. Samoa is one of the 30 least developed countries in the world. Poverty is rampant but not hunger.
Laura was assigned to teach cattle husbandry to youths, which, she learned immediately, meant anyone between the ages of 12 and 45. Chiefs run the country. Anyone who isn’t a chief or elder is a youth.
“Most people in my group were older than I was,” Laura says. “Chiefs made the decisions on the cattle. We couldn’t do anything because we were kids.”
Her job was really a façade for her real purpose.
“The Peace Corps wanted me to work on social development – address suicide, AIDS, high school dropouts – in the guise of a husbandry program,” she says. “It didn’t work. We have no business going into someone else’s culture and telling them what to do.”
Plus, ministers in the 99 percent Christian country insisted those social problems didn’t exist.
“Half the women there have children out of wedlock. There are lots of suicides and 21 cases of HIV,” Laura says. “It’s there, but it’s not talked about. It was very frustrating.”
Sefo helped. Laura stayed with his family while she trained for her new job. Sefo was one of 12 children. He’d grown up in Independent Samoa farming coconuts, cocoa and taro until his father died. Sefo migrated to American Samoa to work in a tuna cannery. He was a pianist. Laura practiced her Samoan on him. Two years later, they married.
Laura left the Peace Corps after her wedding, taught high school science, researched soil erosion, then became an extension agent. She was teaching Samoans how to manage pigs without draining their waste into streams and spreading disease when she and Sefo decided to start a family.
Her pregnancy test brought a surprise – possible twins. The idea worried her because she was the career person in the family. Her shock grew five weeks later when her doctor found triplets. Laura didn’t have complete confidence in the health care available so she took good care of herself. She worked until she was 31 weeks pregnant. Her babies were born at 35 weeks with no problems. They were five pounds each. Laura and Sefo gave the babies American first names and Samoan middle names.
Sefo’s family helped so much that Laura returned to work after two months. Sefo’s brother-in-law, Amato Kolio, took over as nanny.
Laura began to yearn for Idaho this year. The triplets were 2 and Laura wanted more opportunities for her children than Samoa offered. Sefo had visited Sandpoint with her and loved it. The Laumatias knew it was time to move. The extension job in Plummer was almost too good to hope for.
But Laura was hired and her extended family in Sandpoint found her family a home and furniture in Plummer. Laura listens to the people around her to learn her program’s best approach. Already people have told her to work through the children and the adults eventually will join in. Laura is teaching fourth-graders at Lakeside Elementary an enrichment program that includes photography, cooking, sports nutrition, leadership and entomology.
Sefo is earning his GED – high school equivalency diploma – becoming more comfortable with English and mingling with the community. He plays pool with local men who don’t ask him more than where he’s from.
“We haven’t felt like the new people in town,” Laura says. “We feel like we belong. People are friendly, down to earth. The area is so beautiful. I can’t believe I live here.”