Local groups aim to ease Pacific Islander alienation through cultural identity

Story by ADAM FONDREN

Kautoke Tangitau, 30, was shot to death at Club Suede in Kimball Junction near Park City, Utah, on Oct. 14, 2003.

The Deseret News reported on Oct. 16, 2003, that the club, now closed, was hosting the reggae performer Lucky Dube when a fight broke out and Tangitau was assaulted and shot in the chest. Police and paramedics were called but were unable to resuscitate Tangitau. He died shortly after.

The Deseret News also described how Tangitau had a bench warrant for his arrest at the time of his death for failing to appear in court after being arrested and posting bail in July 2002. Charges included: purchase/possession of a dangerous weapon, obstruction of justice, assault on a police officer and carrying a concealed/dangerous weapon.

At the time of the murder, the then Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds stated to the Deseret News that he defined the shooting as a gang shooting involving Polynesian gangs.

Lavinia Taumoepeau-Latu, Tangitau’s girlfriend at the time, disputes this claim. She said in a phone interview that the fight was “just a bunch of boys” who jumped him and not a larger example of Pacific Islander gang violence as portrayed in the media. She said the only people in their party at the club were Tangitau, Taumoepeau-Latu and her sister, not an entire gang.

KSL reported on Oct. 13, 2003, that two men, Telefoni Palu and Viliamie Tukafu, were arrested in connection with Tangitau’s murder. At the time, neither was suspected of being the shooter nor was either charged with the murder.

KSL reported on March 10, 2009, that Finau Tukuafu was arrested and charged with the murder. Tukuafu pleaded guilty to third-degree felony homicide of Tangitau and was sentenced to five years in prison. Unable to find witnesses willing to testify against him, prosecutors were unable to convict Tangitau of first-degree murder. As a result, he served his five-year sentence and was released in January 2009. Tangitau is now a free man. His whereabouts are unknown.

“We’ve lost the duty to each other,” Taumoepeau-Latu said, referring to the way in which the Pacific Islander community has lost its way and forgotten its past on the mainland. According to Taumoepeau-Latu, who now lives in Tonga, this loss is due to two main factors: the lack of interaction within the community, and the desire to assimilate into the predominant culture after immigration caused a loss of traditional Pacific Islander cultural ways.

Concerning the participation of young Pacific Islanders in gangs Taumoepeau-Latu said, “They don’t have a sense of who they really are as Pacific Islanders, they don’t know what their responsibilities are to each other.” She continued, “If they did then I guarantee they wouldn’t fight amongst each other.”

Taumoepeau-Latu felt abandoned by her Pacific Islander community when this was all happening. She felt that not only was the portrayal of the Pacific Islander community in the media biased against her, but that her own community was biased and unhelpful toward her.

“This experience taught me a lot about what we’re working against, the disadvantage for the Pacific Islander youth,” Taumoepeau-Latu said when asked about what she felt what were the problems that led to Tangitau’s murder.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou said images of the athlete or the gangster are the primary examples provided to young men of Pacific Islander heritage here in the mainland. Feltch-Malohifo’ou is the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), a community outreach program aimed at the Pacific Islander community that provides opportunities for advancement they might not otherwise have. These include business opportunities, opportunities to explore their heritage, to express themselves through art, dance and the spoken word and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to be surrounded by people of their own community.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou, her organization and its constituent entities have undertaken a concerted effort to reach disenfranchised Pacific Islanders. They have developed programs such as Pasifika Enriching Art of Utah (PEAU), headed by Bill Louis, that uses art to reach out, teach cultural history and provide outlets to the Pacific Islander youth of Utah. Another organization, Kommitment Against Violence Altogether (KAVA Talks), headed by Simi Poteki, uses roundtable discussion among Pacific Islander men to address the issue of domestic violence.

Lastly an event hosted by PIK2AR that specifically addresses the Pacific Islander youth is the People of the Pacific Conference, held on Feb. 22, 2018, at Utah Valley University (UVU). The conference is aimed specifically at Utah high schoolers of Pacific Island heritage with the aim of exposing them to aspects of their cultural heritage. This exposure is done with art, dance, talks and lessons. Most importantly — and in keeping with the general purpose of PIK2AR —  the event gives them a community to belong to and a sense of what it is to be of Pacific Islander heritage.

Through the efforts of PIK2AR, PEAU and KAVA Talks, the feelings of disenfranchisement that some Pacific Islanders experience in society and within their own community will hopefully be reduced. These groups aim to connect their cultural history and possible futures by giving them an inclusive community to exist within.