Pacific Islanders coalesce to preserve their culture

Story and photos by WOO SANG KIM

The Sixth Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month — an annual celebration held to increase the profile of the Pacific Islander communities and raise awareness of the different Pacific Islands — will be held July 28, 2018, from 6-11 p.m. at Sorenson Multicultural Center & Unity Fitness Center at 855 W. California Ave. in Salt Lake City.

Susie Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, proposed the observance in 2013 and Gov. Gary J. Herbert declared August as Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month.

Will Unga, career adviser at Salt Lake Community College, has assisted with hosting the annual celebration at the Sorenson center. “The event is like Hawaii. We offer different types of foods and teas. Some people love it. Some people find it interesting. Some of the dishes are lu sipi, palusami, ika, taro and cape. We also have dances like haka, mari, sipi tau and siva tau and arts like tattoos, drawings, ta moko and tatau,” he said.

“We prepare yearlong, working to offer tables for vendors or to let them perform. We want to get to a level of having an application process to elevate the level of quality,” Unga added.

He said the event is extremely short-staffed. Volunteers’ time is limited. More money is needed to hire an overseer. Yet, Feltch-Malohifo’ou’s drive and determination have helped the event to expand exponentially each year.

“The first celebration was a test, the second was going somewhere and the third was phenomenal. The first gathered about 100 people, mostly the families and friends of the event associates. The second had 300 people and the fourth had 600 people,” Unga said.

Micronesia Cultural Booth participated as a vendor at the past celebration. Melsihna Folau, a third-grade teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy who volunteered for the booth, said, “We aim to raise awareness of the current problems of the Micronesian region and educate people about the culture of Caroline Islands, Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands and Kiribati Islands.”


Folau helped in hosting the Micronesia Cultural Booth.

Folau said the staff offered food and clothing as samples. Pilolo, tapioca mixed with banana and coconuts, and kemalis, rice mixed with coconuts, are given. The staff also answered questions about the Micronesian region. Most inquired about global warming and what the inhabitants are doing to slow the heating, Folau said.

“It took us six months to prepare. We had to get approved from the Marshallese government, connect to friends in Kiribati Islands, write to tourism management companies and talk to visitors from Guam. Getting the approval was the hard part,” Folau said.

The vendor also increased in size and had to divide. “The Marshallese wanted to have their own things, so they separated last year. They were excited to show their crafts and share things that they were shy about before,” Folau said.

“We are all part of the one history with different perspectives. I was excited to learn from experiences and network with people. I am just happy that I have been a part since the beginning,” Folau said.

The Queen Center, a Pacific Islander nonprofit promoting healthier lifestyles by providing cultural resources, tobacco prevention and advocacy and education, also has participated in the heritage celebration. Tufui Taukeiaho, a health sciences instructor at Granite Technical Institute who served as a committee member to the nonprofit, said, “We helped out by starting a 5K run.”

Taukeiaho said the Queen Center has hosted the run since the first celebration. The 5K started with 80-100 runners but the number surged each year. The funding from the run was given to two families. The husband of one family had a kidney failure and the other family had a 4-year-old boy who had cyclin-dependent kinase-like 5 (CDKL5) disorder — a rare X-linked genetic disorder that results in difficulty controlling seizures and severe neurodevelopmental impairment. Each family received a check of $6,000.


Taukeiaho assisted families in need by helping coordinate the 5K run.

“Helping out to host the 5K run as a committee member and handing out the checks to the families was very rewarding to me,” Taukeiaho said.

The celebration increased the cultural awareness even among Pacific Islanders. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, “One of every four Tongans in the U.S. calls Utah home,” Utah boasts the second largest Tongan population and fourth largest Samoan population in this country. Yet, Unga said, “Second-generation Pacific Islanders have never been home (Pacific Islands). They don’t get any more of the culture, food, and language.”

Second-generation Pacific Islanders responded very positively to the past celebrations. “They can’t get enough. They want more. After the taste, they save up money to go back to the Pacific Islands and see more, especially the language,” Unga said.

They also garnered an opportunity to network with other community members. “I advise and connect students to other Pacific Islanders. I help them get internships and jobs, and refer them to other business contacts,” Unga said. “I help no less than 50 students a year.”

Some students even took part in the fourth celebration by screening a film. Unga said students from Salt Lake Community College made the film incorporating the Pacific Island videotaping techniques learned from the New Zealand filmmakers.

Participants gained novel experiences, too. “When you work with people, you have to learn to compromise. Keeping mind and heart in the right spot answered my question of what I want to accomplish at the UPIHM. Past years have been that way,” Unga said.

“Pacific Islanders are a very small group of minorities,” he said said. “We have challenges because of that, and we have one common goal: To live a happy life. We just want everyone to be successful and try to be good members of the society.”


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