Bring the fire, bring the energy: The Nu Tribe

Story and slideshow by MCKENZIE YCMAT

At the edge of Salt Lake City in a small quiet neighborhood, a grocery store is closing for the night as the rest of the town gets ready for bed. It’s 10:00, the streets are dark and the parking lot is empty, except for a glowing light at the far end of the building. Music is blasting, laughs can be heard from the street, it sounds like a party. This is where the Nu Tribe gets together every Thursday night.

The energy in the Just Dance studio at 8087 W. 3500 South in Magna is contagious. The air is hot, the energy is high, everyone laughs but focuses on the teacher for the day when it’s time to dance. On that late night in early March, the teacher was a sassy but passionate man named Nate with a confident 9-year-old sidekick named Susie. The song of choice was “Oh” by Ciara.

Susie is the DJ and quickly runs back and forth between the plugged in iPhone and the front of the dance floor. The students yell and laugh when the music starts and follow the dance moves Nate taught them earlier in the night, with a mix of their own style.

“It’s the only time and place that we can practice for cheap,” Ofa Vahe said. “But we don’t mind. We’re just happy we get to teach dance.”

Vahe is one of the original founders of the Nu Tribe, alongside other dancers Moana Aiono and Teresa Kuma. The Nu Tribe is a Utah-based dance crew consisting of only Polynesian dancers who travel all over the state to teach others about their heritage. They also provide the younger generation of Polynesians a safe place to dance.

Each week a member of the Nu Tribe teaches a class of about 20 students, usually members of the Polynesian community, for an hour. The dance styles change every week so that the students learn different traditional dance routines.

“Our rule is that no matter what style the teacher brings that week, you have to fully submerge yourself in that style,” Vahe said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s hip hop, ballet, contemporary, or anything else the teacher wants to do that day, you have to do it.”

The Nu Tribe teachers mix up their styles of dance to teach the students about different forms of expressing themselves and getting that sense of love and family that the Polynesian community teaches.

Polynesian dancing started as a way of communication for most of the islands in the Pacific, including Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Hawaii. Traditional Polynesian dancing was used to tell a story and to convey a literal meaning that they carry with them after they leave.

After the first hour, the second teacher steps up to teach her choice of dance for the day. She’s a quiet, petite woman who quietly steps up to the front of the class. But once the music starts she becomes a confident and sexy hip-hop dancer.

“That’s Hannah Gagon,” Vahe said. “Growing up, she was always extremely shy and reserved but once she was introduced to the Nu Tribe, we realized she was this insanely talented dancer. Now she teaches her own classes throughout the week.”

The Nu Tribe brings together those in the Polynesian community and gets them to step outside of their comfort zones and enjoy the art of dance expression. Just like traditional Polynesian dances, they aim to tell a story.

Once everyone has learned the two different dances for the night, the teacher splits the class up by groups and has the students dance together. After that, they separate everyone one by one and eventually, a student will find themselves dancing alone.

This technique allows a student who stepped into the class for the first time, shy and hidden in the back of the room, to suddenly show confidence on their own as other members of the class cheer them on, chant their name, and even record them on their phones to share on social media so they can share the love with others not there.

“After I broke up with my fiancé, I was depressed and needed friends,” said Dook Kelsall, a member of the Nu Tribe. “I found the Nu Tribe through my friend Ofa and now we’re like family. He gave me a safe place to express myself and helped me through that tough time.”

By now, it’s midnight and it’s the end of the second hour. Everyone gathers around in a circle to share positivity and any news they have involving the class or news within the Polynesian community. They hold hands, introduce new people to the class, and say a prayer.

“Thank you for the gift of dance, amen,” says a member of the Nu Tribe giving the prayer after they all bow their heads and close their eyes.

Once the prayer is over, they gather closer together in a type of group hug and share more positive words and love with each other. Vahe proclaims, “Bring the fire, bring the energy!” and the entire group yells “Nu Tribe!” They give hugs and high fives and gather their things. Some even still dance around and laugh. It’s late at night and many of the students have to wake up early the next day for school, but they don’t care. They’re with family and they’re just there to have fun, learn and feel loved.

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Nā HALE: A home for Pacific Islander well-being

Story and slideshow by MARISSA SITTLER

In Hawaiian, nā hale means “the houses,” a word that embodies the sense of traditional Hawaiian community. This word is the driving force behind the newly formed umbrella organization for Pacific Islander wellness and resources. HALE is an acronym for Health, Advocacy, Leadership and Education.

Some of the strongest leaders of Utah’s Pacific Islander community came together to hatch the idea of Nā HALE. The idea was devised by members of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, the University of Utah Pacific Islander Studies Initiative, Margarita Satini from Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition and Charlene Lui from Hui Hawai’i O Utah Hawaiian Civic Club.

The first formal meeting took place in January 2016. During that meeting, an exploratory committee was formed “to research different collaboration models, bylaws and articles of incorporation, and membership structures of existing organizations in other states,” said Jake Fitisemanu Jr. in an email interview. He is the acting chair of the steering committee that is tasked with preparing Nā HALE to become a more formal entity. He is also the council member for District 4 in West Valley City, Utah. 

In April 2016, the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition unanimously supported the proposal to create a statewide umbrella group. It was one month later that the name Nā HALE was chosen.

Pacific Islanders have a strong sense of family and community, so it is only natural that many of the already formed Pacific Islander resource groups are some of the main collaborators for this project. In addition to the founding organizations, Fitisemanu said local groups including Queen Center, National Tongan American Society, Beyond Culture, Utah Pacific Islander Behavioral Health Association, Samoana Integrated Language Initiative, Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition, Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resource and PEAU Artists Collective are all main members of Nā HALE.

Charlene Lui, director of educational equity for Granite School Districts, is native Hawaiian and has lived in Utah since the 1970s. She and her husband, who is Tongan, have been very involved in the Pacific Islander community in Utah through various groups, such as Hui Hawaiʻi O Utah and the National Tongan American Society.

Lui said in a phone interview that collectively, they have always wanted to strengthen the Pacific Islander community by organizing a group somehow. She sees Nā HALE as “trying to bring everybody together under one umbrella and to strengthen and maximize what every group group does, to collectively share our resources.”

Dr. Kalani Raphael, who is a kidney, electrolytes and high blood pressure specialist at the University of Utah School of Medicine and one of the key members of Nā HALE’s formation, said in a phone interview that the importance of Nā HALE “boils down to recognizing that there’s a lot of disparities in health, economics and incarceration in the Pacific Islander community.” He adds, “We can and should be doing better.”

Fitisemanu sees Nā HALE as a way to strengthen each individual organization’s capacity and reach. “This kind of network can facilitate resource pooling as well as information sharing; for example, a program that has been successful in the Samoan community might be more readily adopted as a best practice among the Tongan community. It also creates opportunity for more impactful civic engagement, when communities can band together and promote policies that are in the best interest of underrepresented communities,” he said.

While Nā HALE is a solidified concept, it is still just that — a concept. The individuals who are working on this project also have full-time careers, which can make it difficult to dedicate extra time to Nā HALE’s formal creation. Despite this, the umbrella organization already has a strong presence in the Pacific Islander community. It was featured as a community-based initiative during the American Public Health Association conference in October 2016 in Denver and was introduced to national partners across the United States and the Pacific territories in May 2017 during a webinar hosted by the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander National Network in Los Angeles.

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It Takes a Village: how a culturally responsive public health program is improving birth outcomes for Utah Pacific Islanders

Story and news graphics by ALLISON OLIGSCHLAEGER

Before the Christian fervor to “multiply and replenish the earth” reached Hawaii, most women waited 18 to 24 months between pregnancies (the time period now recommended by medical professionals). Birth spacing was determined by a simple test: after bearing a child, a woman would wait to have sexual relations with her husband until that child could pick up a stone and throw it out of the house.

But according to Jacob Fitisemanu Jr. of the Utah Department of Health, in today’s Pacific Islander communities, the intervals between births are much shorter. According to a 2013 study by the department, 37.4 percent of Utah Pacific Islander mothers waited twelve months or less between pregnancies, compared to 15.9 percent of Non-Hispanic White mothers.

In addition to shorter pregnancy intervals, the health department’s first targeted study on ethnic disparities in birth outcomes found that Pacific Islander mothers had disproportionately high rates of obesity, hypertension and gestational diabetes, and were significantly less likely to access prenatal care in their first trimester of pregnancy.

“Less than half of Pacific Islander women even got screened or treated in their first trimester, which is horrific,” said Fitisemanu, who chairs the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition.

These factors lead to disproportionately poor birth outcomes for both mother and child. When compared to Utah’s state averages, Pacific Islander infants are significantly more likely to be born prematurely and about twice as likely to die within their first year.

In response to these findings, the health department reached out to The Queen Center and Moana Nui Utah, two local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations devoted to promoting health and wellness among Utah’s Pacific Islanders. Together, they ran focus groups and conducted surveys of about 60 Pacific Islander women and couples.

“We wanted to look at, if you’ve had a baby, did you have prenatal care or not? If so, where? If not, why?” Fitisemanu said in an interview at the University of Utah.

Alongside lack of insurance, researchers identified a lack of knowledge/understanding as the primary barrier to accessing prenatal care. In later focus group results published by the health department, no participants identified birth outcomes as an issue in the Pacific Islander community and most seemed unsure of what prenatal care was.

Looking for insight into this knowledge gap, Fitisemanu and Lita Sagato, who worked for The Queen Center at the time, began conducting individual interviews with Pacific Islander mothers.

“Our biggest concerns were making sure [the research] was an honest reflection of the community, meaning we actually went out to homes and met with different mothers and different women that had experienced losses,” Sagato said in a phone interview.

They found that for Pacific Islander women — even those who were born in Utah, spoke English as a first language, and/or had a college degree — the primary source of information about pregnancy and childbirth was older women in their families.

“So if you think about it, you ask your grandma … who delivered a baby in a village in a hut,” Fitisemanu said. “She doesn’t know what folic acid is, she doesn’t believe in ultrasounds — she had five healthy kids under a mango tree!”

Perhaps as a result of this, only 48 percent of Utah Pacific Islander mothers receive any sort of prenatal care within their first trimester, compared to the state average of 78 percent. Even among those who do receive professional care, the advice of family and community members is often valued above doctors’ recommendations.

“If no one in the family has experience with what you’re saying, they may go with what auntie said or what grandma said or what sister-in-law said over the advice of an MD or OBGYN,” Fitisemanu said.

Armed with insight and funding, the health department’s Office of Health Disparities established the MAHINA Task Force, a network of Pacific Islander public health professionals, educators and activists. MAHINA, a loose acronym for “maternal health and infant advocates,” is also the word for “moon” in Hawaiian and Tongan and the name of the moon goddess in many pre-colonial Polynesian religions.

“The health department said, ‘Hey, we want to help you with this. We see these statistics are really bad — one preventable death is too many — so what can we do?’” Fitisemanu said. “These women looked at the curricula and the different things the health department had and said, ‘Yeah, this stuff is not going to work in our community.’ It targets the mother, but if less than 50 percent of these mothers are even getting in in the first trimester, we’re missing all of those women.”

Working together with The Queen Center and the MAHINA network, Fitisemanu and Sagato set about adapting the health department’s approaches to maternal and prenatal health to better suit the needs of their community. This meant shifting the focus from the individual woman’s choices to the entire family’s lifestyle, in keeping with Pacific cultures’ emphasis on collective well-being.

“Everything important to us really is the family, the village,” Sagato said. “If everyone’s on board, it’s much easier for the women to take care of themselves.”

Fitisemanu also emphasized the practical necessity of involving the family.

“If we tell the mom, ‘You’ve got to take folic acid, you’ve got to eat this, you’ve got to exercise,’ but everybody in the house is eating a full pig for dinner, that doesn’t help,” Fitisemanu said.

beforeandafter

MAHINA’s community-oriented curriculum, titled “It Takes A Village,” was first debuted in a Salt Lake City focus group in 2015. The program spanned six weekly sessions, held in a Polynesian church building, and focused on teaching expectant mothers and their families what they can all do to promote healthy pregnancies and positive birth outcomes. Discussion topics included things like folic acid, diet and exercise, and birth spacing. The health department report on this pilot program notes that while participants were initially skeptical of advice on birth intervals, they were more receptive after learning that their ancestors practiced birth spacing.

“The pre-colonial constructs regarding that and customs regarding that are actually exactly the same,” Fitisemanu said. “We insert them into this curriculum to remind them, and these old ladies are like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s what my mom taught me.’”

Joyce Ah You, founder and director of The Queen Center, said the importance of culturally relevant resources cannot be overstated.

“It is everything,” Ah You said in a telephone conversation. “Having the program tailored to Pacific Islanders, making sure it’s culturally appropriate, we spoke to them. We didn’t speak about what was going on with Hispanics or African Americans, this is what’s happening in our homes.”

Even adjustments as simple as using photos of Pacific Islander women and families in slideshows make a difference, Sagato said.

“If they see Caucasian women on there or other ethnicities, they’re going to think, ‘Well, that’s not us,’” Sagato said. “When they see themselves on there, it kind of gives them a reminder that it affects all of us.”

confidence

The pilot program was “wildly successful,” Fitisemanu said, and is the only study in Utah’s health department history to have negative attrition, meaning it ended with more participants than it began with.

“That never happens when you do public health studies!” Fitisemanu said. “It’s a pretty neat program.”

Since its rollout in 2015, “It Takes a Village” has been through several rounds of testing and revision. About 200 Pacific Islander women and couples have completed the program to date, according to program manager Brittney Okada of the Office of Health Disparities.

“We are very proud of this curriculum,” Okada said in a phone interview. “To see the response — to see how they are taking pride in their culture and to see how it relates to maternal and child health, to see this light bulb go on when you mix in the cultural wisdom, it’s quite beautiful.”

Okada and her colleagues are in the final stages of preparing to release the curriculum to the public in April 2018. It will be available for free on the health department’s website, along with facilitator manuals and participant workbooks, for noncommercial public use. Okada hopes local Pacific Islander communities throughout the state will take advantage of the curriculum and implement it in ways that make sense for their populations.

“We are excited to see what might happen and to see how the community can take this program and make it theirs,” she said.

The health department has also been approached by public health organizations in Hawaii and California hoping to adapt the curriculum for their own Pacific Islander populations.

Ah You, who founded the Queen Center with her husband Sale Ah You “to help our people and give back to the community,” said her experience with the MAHINA Task Force was deeply fulfilling.

“I realized how much work needs to be done, but I realized also how much our community, my community, is like a sponge,” Ah You said. “They’re so willing. It just needs to be brought to their attention.”

 

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Cultural awareness through dance among Pacific Islanders in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by SHEHERAZADA HAMEED

Traditional Tongan dances are stories sung by the singers and acted out by the dancers, says travel writer David Stanley, author of Tonga Travel Guide. He explains that in a dance the words are represented by the movements of the hands and feet, not the hips.

But you don’t need to travel to the Pacific Islands to admire Polynesian performing arts.

On a cold February afternoon, Haviar Tuitama Hafoka, Malialole‘s leader and drummer, was teaching children from East High School in Salt Lake City. The dance they were practicing was to be performed at an event just a few weeks later.

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Haviar Tuitama Hafoka with a toere drum.

Haviar was teaching three boys the steps of their part of the choreography. Barefooted, they were slamming their feet against the cold concrete where a small heater was working in an attempt to heat up the large space. While the boys were repeating the steps under the sound of the drums, Haviar’s sister, Singa Fonua, was helping three girls to dress in traditional dresses that she was pulling out of large plastic bins. Behind a screen wall, the girls put on black skirts and colorful belts as decoration.

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Haviar Hafoka is teaching boys from East High School the steps of Otai dance.

Fonua is not only the person in charge of the costumes and appearance. She is also the contact person who manages the calendar of events and practices. For her, Haviar said laughing, “She is like the drill sergeant.”

Malialole (mah-lee-yah-low-lay) is a Salt Lake City-based music, dance and art performing group, promoting cultural awareness among Pacific Islanders. The group performs music and dance from the islands of Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tokelau, Niue, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the Cook Islands. In their dance studio at 1133 Glendale Drive, rehearsal and lessons are held daily.

The group was named for Haviar’s niece, who was the first to be born in Salt Lake City after the family relocated from Kansas City, Missouri. His mother, Merine Vida Tuitama Hafoka, who is Samoan, founded the dance ensemble. Haviar says Malialole is a symbol of something new, innovative and innocent, which is the beat of the group.

The next part of the practice in the studio is to merge the boys’ dance and the girls’ dance into a choreography. Haviar was directing them while drumming on a large wooden drum. “Keep your arms up higher. Girls, your fingertips should match up to your nose. Try it again. Ready?” The drum was loud and the students danced in the rhythm. The boys’ moves reminded a visitor of martial arts while the girls’ moves were feminine. Fonua reminded the dancers a few times to smile.

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The girls dress while the boys rehearse.

Haviar is strongly connected to the art of drumming. Drums are used to call for attention; to announce a town meeting or prayer; or warn of war. Haviar added, “In Tahitian culture, they [drums] are actually representative of the male and female counterparts.” He also said the stick and the drum represent the mother and the father replenishing the earth. Haviar explained the different types of drums. “The big ones are called lalis, these ones from Tahiti are called toere and the ones from the Cook Island are called pate, the big roller ones are takiruas, but they all serve the same purpose.”

Haviar explained the dance they were practicing is called Otea and is traditionally used to appease the gods in a request to make the land plentiful. “That’s why you see a lot of sensual moves and lots of hip shaking.” He said this particular dance tells the story of the ocean hitting the land.

Haviar gave a break to the dancers and while munching on warm fried chicken and pizza, they prepared for the next dance. Fonua said she makes sure all kids are fed before they leave the practice. She added some of them come from single-parent families or others leave home early for a practice.

For their second dance, they played a song on a large speaker. It filled the room with the sound of a soft and sensual island melody in a native language. The moves are feminine and are performed by girls only. Haviar explained the dance is Aparima and literally means “the kiss of your hands.” It is an interpretive dance and the song is about love and keeping someone close to yourself.

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Girls from East High School dancing Aparima.

Haviar explained that every aspect of dancing in Polynesian culture is about telling a story. The dance is interpretive and lyrical. Meaning that if the dancer’s hands are up, the movements relate to the sky, sun or moon. If the hands are down, they relate to the earth and the ocean.

Haviar said every part of the costume must be made of materials from the land. The colors are meaningful as well. For example, the yellow and red represent fire.

For the parts of the costume, especially the titi skirt, Haviar said, “It is used to enhance the dancer and represents the land wrapped around the individual and is developing the spirit of Tahiti.”

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From left: Singa Fonua, Selu Hafoka and Simi “Jimbo” Hafoka.

Merine Vida said, “Every different island has its meaning and we dance from our soul out to our hands and tell a story about our generations that have past and generations that are in the future for us.”

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Merine Vida Tuitama Hafoka, the founder and director of Malialole Dance Group.

By Pacific Islanders’ tradition, the first and second cousins are considered brothers and sisters. Haviar said the family members in the group number about 70 people. They all participate in Malialole. There are about 30 additional performers from Salt Lake City schools.

The whole family is involved with the dance group. They all have full-time jobs, but when it is time to teach and perform, they are available for the community. The main performing art group is broken into smaller groups by age, starting at 5 years old up to 40 years old. They also have a smaller performing group that goes out and performs at events and weddings.

The Hafoka family and the Malialole dance group are involved in a few different projects. In December 2017, they performed for the Mundi Project. It is a campaign that helps disadvantaged children to have access and play musical instruments and learn music. Haviar’s sister, Selu Hafoka, was the highlighted artist focusing on storytelling through music. She is also one of the choreographers for the ensemble.

Malialole participated in a workshop for the People in the Pacific at Utah Valley University in March 2017. At the annual event, the group teaches students about dance, music and cultural arts in the islands.

Maliaole also manages Talk2Me, an organization reaching out to families and creating a platform to speak about bullying, depression, suicide and family law in Pacific communities around Salt Lake City. About the program and the Pacific youth, Merine Vida said, “The kids understand that they will have bad days, but there is something brighter at the end.”

Another project developed by the Hafoka family is WhoGotRoots. It is a Polynesian high school competition that occurs in April between schools in Salt Lake City. The performers must focus on three island groups. They have 20 minutes to perform three dances or songs and the winners receive a prize of $1,000.

Haviar said students are judged on executing the culture correctly and properly. He thinks the competition gives the kids a platform to present their knowledge of Polynesian music and dance.

Malialole’s involvement in Salt Lake City schools helps to keep Polynesian youth occupied after class. Spending afternoons at practice prevents the young dancers from taking drugs and joining gangs, which are threatening the new generations of Pacific Islanders.

Haviar remembered, “There was a time when my life fell away. And it was our culture. And it was our music. And our dance, that brought us back to reality; to realize that there is something better out there we can be doing. We don’t want our kids to fall into that same sort of habit.”

Haviar said there are more dance groups in town that serve the same purpose. “In our culture, especially, the parents are really grounded, they are really good, they teach us respect, but when kids come out to the society, the kids don’t translate it so well.”

The newest event among the Pacific Islanders in Salt Lake City is the Pasifika First Fridays. It is a Salt Lake City-based initiative dedicated to celebrating Pacific Islander artists and art every first Friday of the month.

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Selu Hafoka singing at the Pasifika First Fridays evening with Nia Haunga and Simi “Jimbo” Hafoka. Haviar Hafoka is on the drums.

Heritage and belonging are essential for the Pacific Islanders and the tradition of celebrating their uniqueness through dance, music and art, every first Friday of the month. This is one more event that will unite the community.

At the EMBER venue in downtown on March 2, 2018, Haviar and his brother Simi “Jumbo” Hafoka opened the evening with some traditional drumming. While the room was filling with guests, Merine Vida sang a song with Selu Hafoka, the lead singer and her daughter, and the vocalists Lavinia Haunga and Nephi Moe. Nana Utai, who is also a choreographer and dance teacher, performed a solo dance.

Haviar wishes the Islanders can be more connected to locals and other communities, but he still puts family first. “Family is the core of everything,” Haviar said.

“What I wish to do more,“ Haviar said, “is to reach out to more individuals to recognize us. We can recognize ourselves within our community, but we are not validated without other communities.”

 

Diabetes is a health risk with Pacific Islanders in Utah

Story and photo by JANICE ARCALAS

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Jake Fitisemanu Jr., chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition.

Type 2 diabetes is a health risk among Pacific Islanders in Utah. According to a Pacific Islander report done in 2011 by the Utah Department of Health,  the rate of Utah Pacific Islanders is at 13.7 percent. This is nearly double the statewide rate in Utah, which is at 6.5 percent.“The biggest risk factor for diabetes is being overweight or obesity which is a huge problem in Pacific Islanders,” said Dr. Kalani Raphael, a University of Utah associate professor of internal medicine, in an email interview. “Of course obesity is related to poor diet quality and low physical activity, so these factors contribute.”

According to the 2011 report, 63.6 percent of Pacific Islanders in Utah were considered obese. Researchers  defined obesity to be a body mass index of over 30. Poor diet and sedentary lifestyle are the main factors that contribute to Pacific Islanders getting diabetes, said Jake Fitisemanu Jr., chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, in an email interview.

Rice is a common food that is in a Pacific Islander’s diet. Rice has lots of carbohydrates, which can spike blood sugars. “Rice is a huge one and is an unfortunate staple of the diet,” Raphael said. “Potato or macaroni ‘salad’ is another one and lots of processed foods.  I also suspect that there is a low proportion of fruits and vegetables.”

Many Pacific Islanders think that since their family members have diabetes there is nothing they can do about it. “My experience is that it is one of the toughest things to deal with. There is a lot of fatalism meaning that a lot of Pacific Islanders think that since their family members had diabetes that there is nothing they can do about it when there is a lot that can be done to lower their risk,” Raphael said. “Same thing for the complications like kidney failure. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t think they can prevent kidney failure because their family had it.”

One complication with Pacific Islanders who have diabetes is language barriers. According to the report, those interviewed in English had lower obesity rates than those interviewed in Tongan and Samoan. The Utah Department of Health also found that those interviewed in English were more likely to perceive themselves as overweight compared to Samoan and Tongan speakers. “Language barriers for providers that don’t speak the language or have access to an interpreter are an issue. Also providers who don’t understand the culture make it challenging,” Raphael said.

A traditional Polynesian diet wasn’t always like this. “The traditional Polynesian diet was plant-based, varied, and very healthy. This was a protective factor that was further strengthened by the very active lifestyle the ancestors lived. Fast forward to today, that healthy lifestyle and wholesome diet has been replaced by modern sedentary lifestyles and sugary diets that increase the likelihood of developing diabetes.” Fitisemanu said.

Resources are available to Pacific Islanders in Utah who have diabetes. “The Utah Department of Health’s Office of Health Disparities developed a brief video in English, Samoan, and Tongan languages that mention some overall health tips that can help prevent diabetes and promote overall wellness,” Fitisemanu said. “There is also a diabetes pamphlet in Samoan that the UDOH Diabetes program has published. Local health providers from our Pacific communities are also good resources, including Dr. Kalani Raphael, Dr. Liana Kinikini, Dr. Kawehi Au, Uaisele Panisi, [and] Karen Mulitalo.”

Raphael mentioned community resources such as the National Tongan-American Society, which assists with diagnosing diabetes and counseling. It is located at 3007 S. West Temple, Bldg. H, in Salt Lake City. Another resource is the American Diabetes Association of Utah, located at 986 W. Atherton Drive, Suite 220, in Taylorsville.

The report of the health needs of Pacific Islanders advises limiting sugary drinks to help control obesity, which is a factor that causes diabetes.

“Our communities need to be aware of the risk factors and symptoms of diabetes so that they can try to reduce their risks and be able to identify diabetes early on, before serious complications occur,” Fitisemanu said. “Our families, social groups, and churches need to take more proactive roles in encouraging healthy living while providing support for those who seek treatment, and acknowledge and incentivize those who comply with treatment and make improvements. Apathy and normalization are the two worst enemies in this fight against diabetes. Because it’s so prevalent in some families and communities, it can become normalized and ‘accepted’ as an inevitable fact of life, and that notion is not only false but also incredibly dangerous to us as a community.”

Diabetes can be overwhelming but there is hope. “Diabetes is a complicated disease that requires a lot of self-care, but the motivated and informed patient can be successful,” Raphael said.

Pacific Islander cuisine and the impact of colonization

Story and photos by ANTHONY SCOMA

On the corner of Redwood Road and Paxton Avenue in Salt Lake City hangs a sign that reads “Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market” on a background of beaches and palm trees. While the sign is at odds with the landlocked, wintery Utah surroundings, the interior of the building is filled with the enticing scents, sounds and heat of a busy kitchen. Adults and children sit and eat at the tables or stand near the counter and order what is likely the most popular Pacific Islander cuisine in Utah.

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1151 South Redwood Road, Salt Lake City

“A lot of these customers that we receive come to the restaurant because it reminds them of their upbringing and their culture,” Maryann Tukuafu, the manager of Pacific Seas, said in a phone interview. When asked why food is so important she said, “I know for the Polynesian culture, it is a sense of togetherness, a unity. Food brings people together.”

At any celebration, from birthday to baptism to promotion party, food plays a part in recognizing good news. Tukuafu emphasized how these traditional dishes promote feelings of happiness and togetherness among Pacific Islander families and communities.

This shared experience and expression of culture is built on a history that stretches back to the first Pacific Islander communities. However, the diet of those who inhabited the islands originally had a much different makeup than what is seen today.

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A plate from Pacific Seas Restaurant consisting of lu sipi, a dish of lamb, taro leaves, mayonnaise and coconut milk; a lamb chop; fish with coconut milk gravy; and sweet potato.

According to a 1992 study by the Institute of Polynesian Studies, 85 percent of pre-colonial Pacific Islander diet was vegetable-based with 10-15 percent coming from protein largely sourced from the sea. More specifically, the Pacific Islander diet in the pre-colonial era was 60-78 percent carbohydrates, 10-15 percent protein and 7-30 percent fat. In comparison, the modern U.S. diet is 45-65 percent carbohydrates, 10-35 percent protein and 20-35 percent fat.

“Prior to colonization, refined sugars, deep frying, and trash foods like turkey tails and lamb flaps were not part of the diet,” said Jake Fitisemanu Jr., chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, in an email interview. “It reduced the prestige and perceived value of indigenous foods and enhanced the value of introduced and imported foods.”

It wasn’t just changes in diet that European missionaries and colonizers brought. They also introduced technology and economic systems that made the Pacific Islanders’ highly active farming, hunting and fishing lifestyle obsolete. As with most demographics, modern work has continued this shift to more sedentary lives.

“In terms of activity, westernization’s emphasis on cash economy devalued the traditional subsistence, hunting, and fishing lifestyles of [Pacific Islanders],” Fitisemanu said. “Modern transportation, heavy machinery and processed foods have allowed for sedentary lifestyles that are a far cry from traditional lifeways that depended on intensive manual labor, walking, paddling and physical activity to ensure survival on remote islands with limited resources.”

These factors have contributed to the rise in obesity and diabetes in Pacific Islander communities. According to findings shared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Pacific Islanders were “three times more likely to be obese than the overall Asian American population” and “20 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites in 2015.” In addition, “native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 2.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as the white population.”

This phenomenon is not isolated to just Pacific Islander immigrants. According to a July 2010 bulletin posted by the World Health Organization, the abandonment of traditional diets for imported foods has led to widespread obesity, nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and premature death throughout the Pacific Islands.

Local groups and events are working to improve the relationship between Pacific Islanders and their diet, exercise and health. The MANA 5K and Aloha 5K promote Pacific Islander health. Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition chapters in Salt Lake and Washington counties host a Health Week every year. They provide health resources, wellness screenings and demonstrations to promote Pacific Islander families’ physical activity. Weber and Davis counties will also host similar events after the creation of new UPIHC chapters there, Fitisemanu said.

For food and exercise, Fitisemanu recommended Pacific Islanders start with “small, incremental changes that reduce our reliance on processed foods in favor of more fresh foods and more varied diet.”

He also stressed “family-based and group-based efforts that play to our cultural values of social connection and mutual support. We need to learn lessons from the way our ancestors lived and thrived before colonization, and I believe those tenets are easier to integrate into our cultural worldview than new-fangled fad diets and celebrity-endorsed workout routines,” he said.

It must also be noted that health is informed by a culture’s values, history and ideals of beauty. Here again, we see evidence of the clash between pre-colonial and post-colonial ideas. For a Pacific Islander, what communicates health and beauty may be very different than what would be found in the pages of a western magazine.

When asked what the standards are for female beauty among Pacific Islanders, Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, “For a Tongan, and Samoans, I’d say heavier-set. Our older elders, they love women with big calves.” She also said that being overweight in Pacific Islander culture “signifies that your family has money to feed you. … When you are plump, that is looked as your family having status.”

The role food plays in Pacific Islander culture and health is significant. Food is used to communicate love, togetherness, celebration and community. The traditional food practices of the Pacific Islands are being used as a model for improving diet and overall health of the community in Utah and the Pacific Islands. And the authentic food from Pacific Seas Restaurant has brought Utah Pacific Islanders together since 1991.

Maryann Tukuafu’s father, the founder of Pacific Seas restaurant, “didn’t realize that it would flourish the way it did,” she said. “There were no other Polynesian/Pacific Islander restaurants at the time. [In] 1991, you still had people migrating from the islands to America. So it gave people who didn’t have time … time to swing by and pick up a plate.”

Power of woman: struggle to strength

Story and photo by MCKENZIE YCMAT

We all have a story to tell, all we need is a platform to share it. Two women, Noelle Reeve and Hailee Henson, are both members of the Pacific Islander community and have stories that they believe will inspire people not just within their community, but all women in general.

“I just want to be remembered,” said Reeve, a 23-year-old half Hawaiian woman from Sandy who was recently diagnosed with lupus. “I just want to tell my story like everyone else.”

Lupus is a common disease that causes the immune system to have a hard time telling the difference between good and bad substances going through your body. This forces the body to create an army of antibodies that attack good tissues, which can lead to mild and sometimes life-threatening problems.

Reeve started showing signs of lupus early in her teenage years and decided to visit her doctor after noticing she had become sensitive to light, struggled with fatigue throughout the day and experienced muscle soreness.

 

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Noelle Reeve was diagnosed with lupus at age 20 and now tries to share her story.

 

“My first appointment was with a rheumatologist I found through Google,” Reeve said. “He looked me up and down and only asked short questions. Every time I would answer he would talk over me. I had hoped I would go in and spend at least an hour doing tests and figuring things out, but I was only with him for 10 minutes.”

After countless appointments with numerous doctors, Reeve felt like she was at a loss and needed to find another route to find the answers she was looking for.

“I realized I wasn’t being taken seriously because of my age, my gender, and possibly even my ethnicity,” Reeve said.

Researchers have found that 50 percent of non-white patients have lupus, compared with 25 percent of whites. Reeve finally discovered a small group of doctors who are aware of these facts and also are members of the Pacific Islander community.

“I felt like I finally found a place where people understood my disease and they also understood my heritage,” Reeve said.

The new group of doctors diagnosed Reeve with lupus and helped her find a treatment that fit her needs. She said she feels like she is managing her disease and living a healthy future.

“I finally feel like I have control of my life and I found it through my own community and my family,” Reeve said. “I hope one day I can help someone else as they have helped me.”

Reeve is trying to get more involved with her community and wants to help others find answers to their health questions by sharing her story with friends and family who struggle with the same things.

“It’s all about family in the Pacific Islander community and that’s the one thing I hope people take away from hearing my story,” Reeve said.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou is the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, an organization that focuses on violence prevention, economic impact and education within the Pacific Islander community. ““Everything is for the family. That’s why we’re so good at sports, besides our build. It functions the same way as a family. All for one, all for one family,” she said.

Hailee Henson, a 25-year-old from North Salt Lake, grew up in a strong Mormon family but never knew her family heritage. Henson’s mother was born and raised in a white family, but her father was adopted as a child and never knew his ethnic origins.

“I served an LDS mission and spent 18 months with companions who were islanders from Tahiti,” Henson said in an email interview. “I always felt some sort of draw to them and special bond with them, but never knew why. They always joked that I was an honorary Tahitian.”

It wasn’t until early 2018 that her family decided to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii — a trip that pushed her father to get an official DNA test to find out which community he belongs to.

The day after returning home from their Hawaiian trip, the DNA test results had arrived. His father and mother were both Polynesian, making Henson a part of the 56 percent of the Native Hawaiian population to be considered as Polynesian mixed with another race.

“It felt amazing. It felt so right. Honestly, my family was so excited,” Henson said. “But like I said before, I’ve always felt so drawn to the Polynesian culture and this helped that tie make so much sense.”

Henson is currently studying to be a chef at the Culinary Arts Institute in Orem, Utah, and feels like her newfound identity has opened her eyes to a whole new menu.

After learning about her family heritage, Henson wants to understand more about Polynesian cuisine and share her findings with her family.

“I’m obsessed with Island cuisine. It’s such a simple way of life — eating off of the land and appreciating all that you’ve been blessed with,” Henson said. “The islands contain some of the best, fresh produce. They’re so blessed! I’d love to delve further into working with island cuisine and tropical fruits and fresh fish and all the good stuff.”

Reeve and Henson hope to make a change within the Pacific Islander community to show that women have a passion and a story to share that can change many — specifically those in their close communities — for the better.