Cultural rediscovery in Utah’s Pacific Islander community

Story and photo by DIEGO ROMO

Pacific Islanders have a long history and legacy in the United States that spans multiple generations. In Utah specifically, according to many sources, Pacific Islanders can trace their roots to religious immigrants who arrived shortly after the original Mormon pioneers. The community has left its mark on Utah’s unique cultural heritage and has been shaped by it as well.

Statistics from the Utah Department of Health show that the state is home to 38,000 Pacific Islanders and the average age among the community is 20 years old. Only one-quarter of those who identify themselves as Pacific Islanders are foreign born, meaning that three-quarters of Utah’s Pacific Islander population has no physical tie to the cultural homeland of their ancestors. This leaves many in the community culturally severed from their history and people.

This void leaves many feeling lost, as if they are floating between the two identities that help them to establish their self-image.

“I always felt divided,” said Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, a Pacific Islander community resource group based in Salt Lake City.

Unlike many of the younger generations of Pacific Islanders in Utah, Feltch-Malohifo’ou has a direct, physical connection to her homeland. The daughter of a woman who worked as a housekeeper at a Mormon coconut plantation, Feltch-Malohifo’ou was born in Tonga, but was quickly adopted by a pair of Mormon missionaries who oversaw the estate.

She described the plantation as one very similar to the those of America’s deep South: rolling lawns with many trees and the key feature situated in the middle, the plantation manor.

Her life changed when she moved into the manor and began attending church school with the children of fellow Mormon church workers in Tonga.

“In my school picture, I’m the only Tongan,” she said. “I lived in Tonga, but didn’t have the real experience.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou remembers celebrating American traditions like Halloween and Easter, and always having running hot and cold water, an uncommon luxury in Tonga at the time.

From a very young age she adapted to her new life with its unfamiliar traditions and culture, but began to lose some of her Tongan heritage in the process.

When she finally arrived in Utah after spending some time in Texas, she was eager to get back in touch with the Pacific Islander community. But initially she felt like an outsider among her people.

“When I interact with other Pacific Islanders I have a hard time relating,” she said.

Many who share similar experiences to Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou express the same sentiment. This may be attributed to the fact that the Pacific Islander community in Utah is very diverse in and of itself.

According to 2010 census data, the community breaks down into four groups: native Hawaiians, Guamanian, Chamorro, Samoan and Other Pacific Islanders. However, the census is not fully representative of how diverse this community truly is.

For those who are second-, third-, even fourth-generation Pacific Islanders born in America or raised in its culture, it can be difficult to pinpoint which cultural identity to relate to.

“I always looked at what made me different from them,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, referring to her connection to the Pacific Islander community. “My parents gave me opportunities that other kids of my situation didn’t have.”

Those opportunities and experiences isolated her from the community that she considered family. With no cultural anchor, Feltch-Malohifo’ou began to reach back out to the Pacific Islander community. She was surprised when the welcome wasn’t as warm as she had hoped.

She recalls an early incident when a co-worker at a former Pacific Islander community resource group told her, “If I close my eyes, you think and sound white.”

Hokulani Aikau, a University of Utah professor can relate. “It’s hard to find a way to connect when you feel like an imposter in your community,” she said.

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Hokulani Aikau, a University of Utah professor in the Gender Studies department, is collaborating with fellow faculty to launch the Pacific Islander Studies Initiative.

Aikau was born in Hawaii but was raised in Utah for the majority of her life. She shares many of the same cultural dilemmas as Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou because she was raised in a primarily Anglo society.  Aikau grew up going to schools with white student bodies who were taught by white faculty, about a primarily white history and subject matter.

“How can we claim Hawaiian identities when we were raised here?” Aikau said.

She brings up a major dilemma in the community. How can Pacific Islanders maintain cultural identities when travel back to the islands is sporadic and access to the native language is limited and even nonexistent in some cases?

“Where do we go for that information? Universities are supposed to be a place for that,” she said.

Aikau, along with other professors and staff at the University of Utah, are launching the Pacific Islander Studies Initiative, an enterprise set forth by the university in order to further diversify its faculty and curriculum.

She described it as a hiring initiative that responds to the cultural needs of the community. This initiative would provide Pacific Islander students — who make up about 1 percent of the university’s population — with a culturally relevant education that challenges and critiques the status quo, while at the same time teaching students alternatives that are culturally relevant to their backstories and histories.

“You have to provide students with alternatives,” Aikau said. Especially those that are culturally relevant.

“The most important thing is the building of confidence,” she said, adding that Pacific Islanders “need to know there is a place for them here.”

She also touched on the fact that cultural education needs to address the diversity that exists within the Pacific Islander community.

“To be Hawaiian does not equal dancing hula and working at taro farms. You can express your culture in a variety of ways,” she said.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou’s organization, PIK2AR, provides another avenue for cultural education within the community by empowering parents and families with culturally relevant resources. These resources then help parents take that information back into the home to begin teaching children of all ages about their heritage.

“There needs to be more avenues for diversity within the ethnic communities,”  Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. But ultimately, “It’s about connection. It feels good to be valued,” she added.

Brandon Ragland, whose mother moved to Utah from Hawaii as a young child, seems to agree that implementing cultural education in the home is key to helping children understand their identities.

“Growing up we did lots of things to learn about our heritage and people. Every Sunday the entire family would get together,” Ragland said in a Facebook chat conversation. “We would have endless amounts of amazing food from home and after we ate, my great aunt got all the kids together, she’d teach us some short history lesson as well as a few Hawaiian words for everyday things,” he said.

“And the importance of passing each of those down to through the family to keep the spirit of aloha alive,” he added.

Ragland is now a father and says that he has been and will continue teach his son all that he learned from his great aunt.

“There’s a vast amount of history coming out of the Hawaiian Islands and knowing about it helps keep our ancestors’ memories alive,” Ragland said.

Cultural education is one way to rediscover one’s culture, and it can come in many different forms. But ultimately, it helps to clear the foggy area between cultural intersections and can provide a sense of identity to many who feel lost.