Friends, colleagues and admirers across the Pacific are mourning the shocking death of acclaimed poet and teacher Caroline “Sina” Sinavaiana-Gabbard at the hands of another prominent Samoa writer on Saturday.

Sinavaiana-Gabbard is the sister of state Sen. Mike Gabbard and aunt of former U.S. representative and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

According to police, Sinavaiana-Gabbard, 78, and Papalii Sia Figiel, 57, were arguing at Figiel’s GaluMoana Theater in Vaivase-Uta when Figiel allegedly stabbed Sinavaiana-Gabbard multiple times and beat her with a hammer. 

Police said Figiel fled to a friend’s house, where she was later arrested.

Papalii Sia Figiel, 57, was initially arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. The charge was upgraded to murder upon further investigation, Samoa police commissioner Auapaau Logoitino Filipo confirmed at a news conference.

“Caroline was my best friend as a teenager,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard in a statement to Spectrum News. “She helped me considerably during my rebellious stage of adolescence. She got me hooked on reading, so much so that I followed in her footsteps and majored in English at Sonoma State University in California, then returned to our birthplace, American Samoa, where I taught English in the high schools and was a faculty member, guidance counselor and dean at the community college for many years.

“I was very proud of her accomplishments as a writer and poet,” he continued. “I love her deeply and wish her well as she continues her journey. While I sincerely forgive the murderer of this horrific crime, I’m hoping justice will be served, and that person will be punished to the full extent of the law.”

Sinavaiana-Gabbard was born in Utulei, a village in Tutuila in American Samoa and spent part of her childhood in Florida. She earned undergraduate degrees in English and psychology from Sonoma State University, an M.A. in folklore from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D in American studies from the University of Hawaii.

The first scholar of Samoan ancestry to become a full professor at an American university, Sinavaiana-Gabbard taught Pacific literature at the University of Hawaii for over 20 years before retiring. 

In 2001, she was awarded the College of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature Excellence in Teaching Award.

A prominent figure in Pacific literature and poetry, Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s creative and scholarly writings were widely published in international journals and anthologies.

The renowned Samoan poet, novelist, playwright, and scholar Albert Wendt once wrote that 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.”

In 2020, Sinavaina-Gabbard was recognized in a USA Today list of influential women from U.S. territories.

Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s first collection of poetry, Alchemies of Distance, was published in 2002 by Tinfish Press.

“She read her poems in a staccato; they were very rhythmical,” said Tinfish founder fellow poet and longtime U.H. colleague Susan Schultz. “Some of the poems are bitterly funny; others are sweet and tender. Some address cultural and political dysfunctions of various kinds and in many places. It was an ambitious book, and yet not one that sought to bring attention to the writer herself.

Schultz remembered her friend as a devout Buddhist and like-minded colleague who loved animals.

“She laughed a lot, and was the most present person I’ve ever known, always involved in the moment,” Schultz said. “Her late discovery of dogs made her very happy. She stayed in our place with three cats and our dog Lilith a year and a half ago for some weeks. She did a lot more than feed them; she tried to relate to them as individual sentient beings.”

Shultz said she last heard from Sinavaiana-Gabbard on May 16.

“She sounded wonderful, excited about the future, building a house and inviting friends to stay with her and the dogs,” she said.

Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s longtime U.H. English Department colleague Joan Peters remembered the poet as “both a gentle soul and fierce spirit.”

“Her poetry is beautifully spiritual, but it feels to me also very earth-bound, always at the same time somehow staking a place and coming comfortably home,” Peters said. “She was also, contrarily, fiercely political, even coming out sadly but publicly against the anti-gay positions of her own niece and the injustice of the last presidential administration here and in her new (original) homeland.”

Peters said Sinavaiana-Gabbard sought peace and comfort in her retirement from the university and returned to Samoa.

“To her core, especially in retirement, she wanted to rest comfortably alone with herself — something I can so strongly relate to,” Peters said. “The manner of her death, at the hands of another poet, is therefore such a brutal violation of all that she was.”

Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s alleged killer is herself a noted Samoan poet and author with ties to Hawaii.

Figiel, recipient of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize, was writer-in-residence at the East-West Center: Pacific Islands Development Program – Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and a distinguished visiting writer at the U.H. Manoa Department of English.

Michael Tsai covers local and state politics for Spectrum News Hawaii. He can be reached at