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SOUTH SEA ISLANDERS IN UTAH

Although Utah's sometimes harsh climate provides a stark contrast to the tropical warmth and
humidity of the South Seas, thousands of Polynesians chose to make Utah their home in the
nineteenth century and again particularly during the last quarter of the twentieth. Leaving the
islands in search of educational and economic opportunities, they immigrated to the western
United States, particularly to California, and surprisingly large numbers were drawn to Utah
by family or religious ties. Settling primarily in urban neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley,
they brought a new dimension to Utah's cultural landscape.

Most of Utah's islanders are Polynesians, with the majority coming from Tonga. (The other
Pacific races--Melanesians and Micronesians--are sparsely represented although there were
148 Utahns from Guam counted in the 1990 U.S. census.) Estimates of Utah's Tongan
population range from the conservative 3,904 officially counted in 1990 to the 10,000 to
12,000 figure commonly offered by community leaders. Likewise, the Samoan population,
estimated to be around 5,000, was officially numbered at only 1,570 in the 1990 census. (This
discrepancy likely reflects both the significant numbers who might be missed during the count
and a number of undocumented individuals who initially came on temporary student or tourist
visas and subsequently remained in the state.) Third in size and growing steadily, the
Hawaiian community was counted at 1,396 in 1990 after having nearly doubled during the
previous decade. In fourth and fifth place are the Maoris from New Zealand and the Tahitians
from the Society Islands, whose populations in the state are estimated to range from 600 to
700 and from 150 to 200, respectively. Former residents of the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nuie, and
Raro Tuman have also migrated to Utah, although each group is represented by only a few
families.

Though Polynesian immigration to Utah is primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon that


started after World War II with the arrival of a few Tongan and Samoan families, emigration
from Polynesia to Utah actually began three-quarters of a century earlier. Mormon
proselytizing in the Pacific started in Tahiti in 1844, three years before the first Mormon
pioneers reached the Great Salt Lake Valley, and soon expanded to other Polynesian islands.
Like their American and European counterparts, these converts from the Pacific islands
wanted to join with other Mormons in building Zion. Often arriving with returning
missionaries, they came a few at a time, beginning in about 1875. Marked cultural differences
inhibited their integration with other Utah Mormons, prompting the LDS Church to purchase
land to provide them with a specific gathering place. On 28 August 1889 a company of
between fifty and seventy-five Polynesians, mostly Hawaiians, founded their own unique
Mormon colony on the 1,200-acre Quincy Ranch located in hot and dry Skull Valley, twenty
miles southeast of the Great Salt Lake. There they settled, naming their community Iosepa,
meaning Joseph, after Joseph F. Smith, an early Mormon missionary and church leader in
Hawaii, and later a president of the Mormon Church.

The townsite of Iosepa was surveyed, land grants were made to each family, and the colonists
built homes, public facilities, and even their own aqueduct and irrigation system. Poplar and
cottonwood lined the streets. Ponds were constructed where carp and trout were raised, and
experiments were conducted with growing seaweed and other traditional products that were
absent from this new desert environment. The residents raised livestock and farmed, and
eventually cultivated nearly 1,000 acres. The population grew, supplemented by occasional
immigrants from Polynesia. But the necessary hard work, exposure, and even a bout of
leprosy resulted in a high mortality rate that kept the population at just over 200. In 1915
plans were announced to build a Mormon temple in Laie, Hawaii, and Mormon church
leaders subsequently encouraged the Polynesians to return to their Pacific homelands.

Perhaps Utah's Polynesians could be better understood by classifying them in two general
categories. One comprises those "more westernized" cultures--the Hawaiians, Maoris, and
Tahitians--which historically experienced earlier and more intensive contact with European
cultures. The other category includes those "less westernized" cultures, such as the Tongans
and the Samoans, which experienced less and later intervention from the outside. In twentieth-
century Utah, these historical differences have resulted in two very different experiences in
terms of assimilation, acculturation, and the maintenance of cultural tradition.

Utah's Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians live in many of Utah's urban centers, with the
majority scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley. They are active in all sectors of the
economy--from service and manufacturing to business and professional pursuits. While most
are affiliated with the Mormon Church, they attend non-ethnic, English-speaking
neighborhood congregations. As a group, they have found acculturation relatively easy, as is
suggested by their geographic, social, occupational, and religious integration. Cultural
difficulties, if any, are more often related to the challenge of perpetuating Pacific traditions in
the face of American popular culture. Many find that secular ethnic organizations provide a
forum for interaction with other Polynesians that encourages the expression of their cultural
heritage and its transmission to the next generation.

The Hawaiian Civic Club, a branch of a similar organization in Hawaii, sponsors luaus to
raise money for scholarships, and also offers classes for children in the Hawaiian language
and culture. Members of the New Zealand-American Club, or the Kiwi Club that preceded it,
celebrate holidays like Utah's Pioneer Day and New Zealand's national holiday, and
sometimes get together to celebrate a summertime Christmas, reminiscent of this holiday in
their homeland. Similarly, the approximately twenty families that comprise Utah's Tahitian
community also may gather several times a year to share traditional delicacies or to host
visitors from Tahiti who come to Utah to attend the LDS general conference.

Conversely, Utah's Tongan and Samoan populations are geographically concentrated on the
west side of the Salt Lake Valley, and the majority work within the service sector of the
occupational spectrum. Many are involved in family businesses that provide unskilled labor
for hauling, landscaping, remodeling, and similar pursuits.

Religious rather than ethnic organizations provide much of the structure for Utah's Tongan
and Samoan communities, whether part of the Mormon majority, the large Methodist
population, or the smaller Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist groups. The proselytizing
success experienced by a number of Christian sects in the Pacific during the nineteenth
century is responsible, in part, for the close ties Tongans and Samoans maintain with
organized religion.

During the 1970s, a large influx of non-English-speaking Polynesians prompted Mormon


leaders to reverse earlier policies advocating full integration into neighborhood congregations
and to authorize foreign-language services for those Tongans and Samoans who wished to
attend. In 1991, twelve years after the first Tongan Mormon ward was established, five
Tongan and two Samoan wards, with an official membership listed at 2,580, serve the
community. Foreign-language services are also held at the Tongan United Methodist Church,
whose congregation numbers approximately 500, and at several other Methodist
congregations, which serve an additional 500 Tongans.

These foreign-language religious services, both Mormon and non-Mormon, have greatly
contributed to the perpetuation of Tongan and Samoan cultural traditions in Utah. Not only do
they serve as an arena where children and young people can practice their native tongue, but
they encourage group members to maintain Polynesian customs, folkways, and traditions.
Several church congregations have organized classes in Utah, sometimes taught by highly
respected visiting choreographer-composers known as punakes (Tongan) or fa'a'lumas
(Samoan), to teach their young people traditional music and dance forms. Performances are
not only enjoyed within the Polynesian community but are occasionally shared outside the
group, reinforcing self-identity and pride in one's heritage. Church-sponsored sporting or
performance competitions, reunions, and anniversary celebrations replete with traditional
foods such as roast pig, fish, and imported corn beef all serve to perpetuate Tongan and
Samoan culture.

Several pan-Polynesian organizations also serve the needs of Utah's Polynesian population. In
the mid-1980s, the Iosepa Historical Society was incorporated to commemorate the
Polynesian communities' century-old history in Utah by preserving the townsite of Iosepa in
Tooele County. Annually on Memorial Day, the organization sponsors a get-together at the
Iosepa Cemetery to clean up the area and place imported flowers on the graves of those
Polynesian pioneers who died in the desert so far from their island homelands. The cemetery
itself has been placed on the National Historic Register, and a monument has been erected to
the pioneers. Plans are in place to restore three remaining homes in Iosepa and to build a park
and stage. Group members are also working to learn more about life in Iosepa by translating
Mormon Church meeting minutes of the pioneers' worship services.

In the late 1980s, the Utah Polynesian Choir was founded. Specializing in Mormon hymns
sung in English, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Tongan, group members perform in church services
throughout the state. Music is an integral part of many Polynesian cultures, and for centuries
Polynesians have been noted for their fine group singing. Whether simply singing while
working to prepare a community meal or competing against each other in choreographed
performances of music and dance, they have a seemingly inborn ability to harmonize. Given
such traditional activities, it is not surprising that choral music functions as a way of
reinforcing group identity and is a vital part of church services for both Polynesian Methodist
and Mormon congregations in the state.

Also in the late 1980s, in response to the Utah's growing Polynesian population, a governor's
advisory council was formed with representation from various Polynesian groups. Chair Phil
Uipi represented the Tongans, vice-chair Wayne Selu the Samoans, and council members
Ellen Selu, Winton Ria, and Tekehu Munani represented the Hawaiians, Maoris, and
Tahitians, respectively. Among its activities, the council revitalized the annual Polynesian Day
Celebration (initially sponsored by an earlier organization, the Society of Polynesian Utahns),
that each August draws large crowds to enjoy traditional music, dance, crafts, and food.
Polynesian Day, along with the achievements of a number of high school and college athletes
and the success experienced in the national music scene by the Jets, a Tongan-American band
with Utah roots, have contributed greatly to the visibility of Utah's Polynesian community.

Though language, education, and occupational training have made acculturation somewhat
easier for the more westernized Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians, they are also smaller in
numbers and more removed from their own traditional cultures. This leads some to seek ways
to recover their own traditions. Conversely, Utah's less westernized Tongans and Samoans
may struggle somewhat to fit into the society that surrounds them, but their traditions still
form an integral part of their daily life. They live in Utah in sufficient numbers to maintain a
vibrant, thriving subculture that develops and reinforces a strong sense of cultural identity.
But whatever their particular challenge, Utah's Polynesian population adds color and texture
to the landscape of our state. Games of rugby and cricket in neighborhood parks, festival
performances featuring the unfamiliar movements and chants of the ancient hula, and an array
of exotic fruits and vegetables in local markets are among the indications that our citizenry is
diverse and becoming more so all the time.
Carol Edison

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