What happens when brave women make waves in their communities

Story and photos by HANNAH CHRISTENSEN

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Matapuna Levenson and reporter Hannah Christensen at the SLC Family Justice Center, YWCA.

Pacific Island (PI) women who experience domestic violence often feel powerless, helpless and alone because the American idea of rugged individualism contradicts the ideals of PI collectivism.

Matapuna Levenson, Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center at the YWCA lead guide and advocate, said, “When intimate partner violence occurs, somebody is making you believe that you are not powerful. We need to go back to remembering and believing in ourselves both as individuals and as a people, that we are powerful. We’re resilient, we’re here, we’re alive.” Those of PI descent embody this power and strength through honoring and remembering where they have come from.

Levenson spoke to how this deep connection with their ancestral and cultural roots is sacred to the PI community. They have passed down many traditions, beliefs and ways of living that provide a stark contrast from the colonized white world of America.

Leata Puailoa Hunt is an advocate against domestic abuse. She is a native of Samoa who now lives in Draper, Utah. “In our true culture, high chiefs honor their wives and treat them like queens and then all the daughters in a home are treated like princesses. We keep them in a sacred status,” she said.

Historically, women of the Pacific Islands were in positions of power and held in high regard. Today they are raised to be strong matriarchs. “The good thing about our culture,” Hunt explained, “is we’re trained as girls growing up to be mothers already, we can cook, we can clean, we can solve problems, we can do this. We are independent and we can carry a family, but also at the same time I love that we train our men to respect our women.”

While many PI communities continue to treat women with reverence, something switched when patriarchal systems were introduced to the islands. Levenson, with the YWCA, said, “I’m going to blame patriarchy, because it’s not just white capitalists. Whenever there is an opportunity to have power and control over individual groups or communities, they’re going to do it. And it’s typically men, that’s just history. We have to combat and oppose this historical power.”

Levenson explained how indigenous PI communities did not have these complex power dynamics. A well-known Samoan proverb, “Ó le fogāv’a e tasi,” translates to, “The canoe has one deck.” This is the PI mentality at its best. Everyone is on the same boat, striving toward the same goal, together as equals. It wasn’t until power dynamics were introduced that the canoe became difficult to navigate.

Both Levenson and Hunt spoke about how the hierarchy of power was introduced to PI culture and the result was individualistic thinking. The clash of the collectivist community ideals and the egocentric mentality results in a lot of confusion, cognitive dissonance and anger. This is one underlying reason that domestic violence is happening within PI communities. The contradiction here is that because of the deep-seated beliefs, everyone works together for the greater good of all, and rather than challenge the systemic problem, it is best to ignore or not speak out when there is violence in the home.

Not feeling able to speak out about abuse also stems from the strong PI beliefs in families and family unification, because it is important to protect the family name. Hunt said “a family will hide secrets, like abuse or domestic violence, you know, things that are going on that shouldn’t be going on, that’s actually another key factor because of the family name. They hide it or sweep it under the rug and go forth as a perfect family that has a title.” Hiding these secrets within families is sometimes the only way a family can keep their titles and status in the community.

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A Samoan newspaper featured Leata Puailoa Hunt in the 2015 Miss Oceana Pageant in Sydney, Australia.

Hunt recalled how there was much less tolerance for abuse in Samoa than there was in American Samoa. “If someone is abusive or commits adultery, they will be fined by the village and if it was really extreme, they would be banished from the village,” she said.

Hunt is an advocate for those who have been abused because she lived through her sister’s domestic violence abuse. “There’s no excuse for it no matter what. I know from my personal upbringing, it is not part of our culture, it is not taught on our homeland.” Hunt advocated for domestic abuse survivors as a contestant in the 2015 Miss Oceana Pageant in Sydney, Australia.

There are many resources in Utah for victims and survivors of domestic violence within the PI community. Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) is one of them. Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, co-founder of PIK2AR, started the organization with her husband, Simi Poteki Malohifo’ou. He and other men wanted to get involved with the domestic violence issue in the community. Feltch-Malohifo’ou said of the men who started this group, “They came together because they recognized that there is a problem.” She has been an advocate for women because she herself is a survivor of domestic violence.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou coordinates many programs to provide support for PI women. These programs provide a safe space for them to share their experiences. The YWCA also focuses on empowering women and connecting them with resources. Levenson, who grew up in a domestically abusive home, shared, “I asked a survivor once, ‘What do you need to feel more comfortable in sharing your story?’ And she said very quickly and naturally, ‘I just need to hear other people share theirs.’ And that’s it exactly.”

Additional resources can be found on the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center’s website, the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition website and the Utah 2-1-1 website. Women also can dial 2-1-1 for help and connection to resources.