Defining Pacific Islander masculinity

Story and photos by ADAM FONDREN

“You provide for your family, raise your kids in the right way,” Simi Poteki said when asked what a man is.

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Simi Poteki laughs during a Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources event in Salt Lake City.

Poteki, a co-founder of PIK2AR or Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources an organization aimed at empowerment for members of the Pacific Island community in Utah, he is also the director of KAVA Talks or Kommitment Against Violence Altogether an advocacy group aimed at Pacific Islander men to help raise awareness about domestic violence.

Poteki was born and raised in Tonga and played rugby on the national team in the early 1970s, he emigrated to the United States as an adult. His feelings about family guide his definition of masculinity. He is an obviously physically strong man, with huge forearms covered in aging tattoos and a rim of a grey beard outlining his smiling face.

“The main thing is that you work hard,” Poteki goes on, “by keeping them (your family) safe…that is what a man is supposed to be.”

Family is everything to Poteki. His wife Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou the other co-founder of PIK2AR smiles, reveling in the fact that she is included in this passion for family as he speaks of family and its central position in his definition of masculinity. Having been married several times Susi feels she got it right with Simi. At the core of his belief in providing for his family and raising his children and loving his wife is work.

Poteki and Feltch-Malohifo’ou founded PIK2AR in 2015 to give the Pacific Islander Community in Utah an avenue to gain insight into and to help the community pursue the American dream. From there the organization with Poteki leading the way began to branch out into helping men talk about domestic violence and giving them a space to voice their concerns not only about domestic violence, but what it is like to be a Pacific Islander man in America.

Western masculinity and machismo are difficult to attribute to Poteki. He has no problem holding hands with other men, he wears his wife’s earrings on a regular basis. This is not uncommon for Pacific Islander me, however. As he writes in his essay “Patriotic Games, Boundaries and Masculinity in New Zealand Sport” Phillip Borell, who studies Māori Knowledge and Development at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand writes, “…Masculinity was/is very much a Western construct….” Western views on masculinity center around physical prowess strength and violence. So, viewing Poteki through western eyes is a disservice to not only him but to all Pacific Islanders.

Borell goes on to explain how originally Māori maleness in particular, but that it can be understood as to relate to the Pacific Islander culture as a whole, was rooted in their ability to provide for their families, how farming and education were primary ways in which masculinity was defined.

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Nephi Prime gives a Māori greeting during the Pacific Islander Film Festival in Salt Lake City.

Nephi Prime, a Māori elder who worked in the Criminal Justice system in New Zealand, talked at the Utah Pacific Islander Film Series at the Sorensen Unity Center about Māori being protectors of the Earth Mother as a huge part of their original faith structure and that is has persisted with the application of Christianity to indigenous Māori and Pacific Islanders. This notion of protecting the land nurturing its fertility and using it to provide for your family has become an idea expressed toward women in general in Pacific Islander.

This female-centric, life providing, view of the world while unusual and viewed as un-masculine in Western Society is completely in line with and the Pacific Islander worldview and its view of masculinity.

Women are revered and at the center of Pacific Islander society. Sunni Penetani, who works for the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services and like Poteki was raised on the island and came to the United States as an adult, remarks how as a child when he would get into fights the only thing that could stop his fighting would be his older sister. Her mere presence would stop the fight almost immediately. This reverence for women is at the heart of Tongan and Pacific Islander masculinity and culture. It is necessary to define one’s self as a man.

This difference, in respect to Western ideals of masculinity, the humility and reverence towards women at the center and the family as the expression of masculinity represent large parts of the strength of Pacific Islander culture. Where the problems lay is in expression and modeling. Much of Pacific Islander identity in the western world is attributed to two notions.

“The football player or the thug” as Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. Here again, Borell further explains how the western ideas of masculinity were inculcated into the Māori through sport, and in particular rugby, the western notion of physical strength and violence being the core of masculinity. Rugby was used as an outlet and a training ground to westernize Māori. Māori culture and Pacific Islanders, in general, have been reduced to two masculine options the athlete or the criminal.

No culture is binary, and Pacific Islander culture is no different. What needs to happen within the culture according to John Tautau, a Tongan raised in California to a Tongan father and a white mother, is that a conversation about where Pacific Islander men are going where they have come from. This conversation needs to be an ongoing and continual part of their lives. Because without proper expression and cultural understanding of their masculinity will be lost.