Empowering cultures in Pacific Islands community in Utah

Story and photo by DAYNA BAE

Utah has the largest Pacific Islander population in the United States per capita. Approximately 38,000 Pacific Islanders are currently living in the state. However, stereotypes against Pacific Islanders are considered a significant obstacle in constructing their own cultural identities.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou is having an interview at the University of Utah.

“Our first, second and third generation, they are floating around with lost identity,” said Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “When they are in their home, they are Americans, when they leave, it’s not how we perceive ourselves, it’s about how you perceive me.”

Pacific Islanders often face stereotypes related to their physical strength. They are commonly thought of as athletes due to their physicality. Consequently, many Pacific Islander figures in mass media and pop culture are typically portrayed as security guards or athletes.

In addition, many Americans tend to view different Pacific Islander cultures as one identical culture. This creates yet another stereotype.

In fact, Pacific Islanders consist of Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians divided into three different regions. Polynesia includes Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, Easter Island and the Samoan Islands. Micronesia incorporates the islands of Kiribati, Nauru, the Marianas such as Guam, Fiji, Norfolk Islands and other small islands. Lastly, Melanesia is comprised of the island of New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji and few other smaller islands. Since each region has different geographic, historical and weather conditions, there are obvious differences among the Pacific Islanders.

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., a clinical manager with the Utah Department of Health and an associate instructor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said, “Literally hundreds and hundreds of different languages are spoken throughout the Pacific, accompanied by myriad worldviews, artistic perspectives, governance systems, subsistence patterns, etc.”

Despite diverse Pacific Island cultures, a misconception as perceiving them as one group pervades in everyday life.

“When I went to the hula dance class, the instructor told me that she thought every Polynesian knows how to do a hula dance,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said.

To correct pervading misunderstandings, PIK2AR focuses on emphasizing dissimilarities and cultures of various Pacific Islands communities. The organization offers educational and cultural programs such as the Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month, an annual festival held in August. Regarding the missions of PIK2AR, Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, “To educate outside of our community of similarity between all of our countries, but also some differences.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou shared what she had witnessed in East Palo Alto, California. “Pacific Island kids were coming to know how to go to college.” She was helping them with filling out the documents. “There was a missing bridge between culture and resources,” she said.

According to NBC News report, many Pacific Islander students have experienced a lack of academic support and information. Some students were frustrated by filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) documents. The others did not feel confident about signing up for scholarships.

Although Pacific Islander students are willing to go to college or university, many of them do not have access to adequate information due to lack of appropriate support. Lack of academic resources leads to unfortunate statistics. Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, a nonprofit organization, announced that only 18 percent of Pacific Islander adults have a bachelor’s degree.

Biased perspectives also hinder Pacific Islander students from building cultural identities.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, “It feels like they need to uphold stereotypes and they are pigeonholed by everybody around them that they have to be this way.” One of the common stereotypes is that Pacific Islander students play in a football team at school. “How about if they don’t want to be a football player?” she said.

Putting them into a pigeonhole not only influences their school life but also has negative effects in their life.

Although PIK2AR has not yet quantified the depression rate among Pacific Islander teenagers, the suicide rate has increased in Utah and a 12-year-old committed a suicide in 2017, according to Feltch-Malohifo’ou.

As a response, PIK2AR prioritizes children and young students from Pacific Island communities who are suffering from intertwined identity and stereotypes as primary targets.

“We try to educate and reach out to youngsters,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said.

One of PIK2AR’s cultural preservation education programs is using cultural objects of Pacific Islands communities. They use the objects to educate young students. Kava bowls and tapa cloth are the examples. “A kava bowl, maybe it’s different, but everybody can recognize that it comes from the Pacific Islands community,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. With the objects, PIK2AR tries to find cultural commonalities and builds meaning around it. Teaching about shared culture helps young children to differentiate dissimilarities between Pacific Islands cultures as well as the common features. “We teach the history and teach about the objects. Because it still has value,” she said.

Fitisemanu shared his idea about another effective method of cultural preservation. “Teaching and developing literacy and fluency in heritage languages is another important piece, and this process involves updating language with new words to reflect modern contexts that our ancestors never encountered,” he said.

Fitisemanu also suggested that documenting oral histories and perpetuating ceremonies, customs, language and performing arts are all necessary to preserve culture. “But more importantly, to me, is demonstrating the value of these practices and values for contemporary Pacific Island generations, who will ultimately decide what cultural traits to maintain and transmit to future generations,” he said.

A community can also provide a useful way of preserving culture.

Fitisemanu lives in West Valley City, which has the largest Pacific Islander population in Utah. He said that his daughter is involved in many cultural aspects by attending school, participating in cultural dance classes and speaking Samoan language in the community. He said, “Preserving a sense of Pacific Islands identity and culture is facilitated here, whereas it would be very difficult for my family to maintain cultural and language connections if we lived, say, in Sevier County,” he said.

Young Pacific Islander students are currently living in American multicultural and bilingual settings. Within the mixed Pacific Islands culture and American culture, students need help and support to develop their own unique identity.

Fitisemanu said, “We should encourage children to be versed in English and their heritage languages. That kind of upbringing teaches children to be very observant situational learners who pick up on social cues and learn to code switch and see through different perspective lenses.”

Local universities and colleges also put efforts to work with Pacific Island communities. The University of Utah has the Pacific Islander Student Association (PISA), which is a student-run organization within the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA). The student group enhances learning experiences and provides off-campus opportunities to serve Pacific Islands communities. In addition, the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative (PISI) is an academic collective that makes the U as a premier institution for Pacific Islands studies.

Utah has the largest population of Pacific Islanders per capita in the nation, and it also has numerous organizations and communities to support them. Pacific Islander organizations such as PIK2AR and PISA aim to provide cultural preservation, economic support, domestic violence education and other useful programs for Pacific Islanders in Utah. 

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