Kyle Lanterman

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  •  Exemplary service through University of Utah’s Bennion Center

MY BLOG: Volunteering

ABOUT ME: Kyle Lanterman is currently a student-athlete at the University of Utah enrolled in the College of Humanities and is studying Communication. Some of his research interests include different theories of communication, interpersonal communication and issues with relationships, and journalism. Kyle hails from Long Beach, California where he earned his high school degree at Woodrow Wilson High School. In the city of Long Beach, Kyle spent time as a member of Long Beach Search & Rescue. He enjoys to reading, video games, and various outdoor activities.

University of Utah Pacific Islander Medical Student Association

Story by ALEXANDRA OGILVIE

Julius Ulugia is a Samoan American in his second year at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He helps to operate the University of Utah Pacific Islander Medical Student Association (PIMSA). According to their currently cached University of Utah club website, the mission is, “To provide students and mentors with a venue to network, increase awareness, promote and advocate, serve our Pacific Islander communities, and prepare for careers in medicine, healthcare, and administration. PIMSA provides peer mentors and role models for students seeking to enter academic and clinical healthcare fields.”

PIMSA was started in 2008 by Jake Fitisemanu Jr. and Kawehi Au. But, “it essentially became dormant when those who started either sought other careers or graduated and went off to residency,” Ulugia said. Currently, Ulugia is the only Pacific Islander in his medical school class of around 130, according to the school.

“Many people, Pacific Islanders and non-Pacific Islanders alike, see us as great athletes. That is literally what I got from my own family and non-Pacific Islanders. Many of us don’t see ourselves as intellectually equal to other people. This is magnified in health care, where we are unable to sufficiently care for our own,” Ulugia said in an email interview.

Fitisemanu wears many hats in the Utah Pacific Islander community. Among other things, he works at the Utah Health Department, he chairs the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, and he is an elected representative for West Valley City. “PIMSA was a great opportunity for medical students to get involved in our own ethnic communities and expose other youth to possibilities in health science careers,” he said in an email interview.

“PIMSA has helped at least eight Pacific Islander pre-meds who have been accepted to med schools, and at least that many who have prepped for the MCAT and applied to medical school,” Fitisemanu said. Although it started off for MD students, it has branched to include other health sciences fields like nursing, physician assisting, dental, and pharmacy. Since there is only one Pacific Islander MD student in the state (Ulugia), the focus has shifted to undergrads rather than graduate students.”

Vainu’upo Jessop, a Samoan American anesthesiologist attendant, helped to found PIMSA when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Utah. He went on to complete medical school at the University of Utah. He was only one of four Pacific Islanders in his class and the first Samoan American to graduate.

PIMSA’s current focus is on Pacific Islander high school and undergraduate students. One way they excite high school students is to bring them to health conferences held at the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College, to show them cow heart dissections and other exciting demonstrations. PIMSA also works on a one on one basis to help students navigate the college process.

“A lot of the [Pacific Islander] college students are first-generation students, and we would help them with the logistics of how to set up their schedule in order to optimize their chances for success at the undergraduate level.  We would also get these people more involved in increasing awareness in the [Pacific Islander] community by having them run booths at health fairs, participating in after-school programs to promote healthy lifestyles, etc,” Jessop said in an email interview.

Jessop left town to do his residency at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 2012-2016 and completed a fellowship in critical care from 2016-2017. He returned home to Utah soon thereafter.

“Since I’ve moved back, I’ve had many [Pacific Islander] patients who are shocked to find out I’m a doctor. They ask me if I’m Polynesian, and when they find out I am, they usually say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that there were any Polynesian doctors!’ I hope to be an example to other [Pacific Islanders] and show them, that we can make it,” he said.

Jessop believes that getting more Pacific Islanders into medical professions would increase the health of Pacific Islanders in the state. Currently, Pacific Islanders lead the state in incidents of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“A lot of the older [Pacific Islanders] either don’t feel the need to see a medical provider, they don’t understand what a provider is telling them, or they flat out don’t trust people in the medical establishment. I think the more [Pacific Islander] providers there are in the community, the easier it will be to increase health awareness in the community,” he said.

Alyssa Lolofie, a Samoan American PIMSA member who is about to start medical school at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, agrees. “It’s important to get more [Pacific Islanders] interested in medicine (medical school, physician’s assistant programs, nursing, etc.) to increase representation and education on Western or mainland medicine for these [Pacific Islander] communities. Many patients with diverse backgrounds or from underserved communities are less likely to see a medical provider because of an assumed lack of understanding of the traditions and ways of life of these communities,” she said in an email interview.

Jessop added, “Overall, as more [Pacific Islanders] we can get into college and get professional degrees, there will be an overall increase in awareness in the community. I believe the benefits are twofold: the overall health of the [Pacific Islander] community will improve, and the younger PIs will see this and want to contribute.”

Two other organizations could potentially be helpful: the Asian Pacific American Medical Students Association and the Health Sciences Multicultural Student Association of Utah.

Redefining service in a spirit of kindness and empowerment

Story and slideshow by HANNAH CHRISTENSEN

Pacific Islanders (PI) believe that what is best for the village is best for the individual. This value system instills a spirit of empathy, generosity and kindness. This is particularly evident in the types of service we see from local members of the PI community. These individuals redefine service through the work that they do as a way of life.

Puna Fatanitavake is a former teacher at Mana Academy Charter School, where she enjoyed teaching second graders. Previously she taught at Liahona High School in Tonga. Fatanitavake moved to Utah in 2015 with two young children and a third on the way to be closer to her mother and pursue more education.

Because of her service to her students, religion and family, Fatanitavake feels that her life is blessed. “Serving helps me be the strong woman I am right now. The love I had for these kids and the good I could do for them, I didn’t expect anything in return because I knew that God would bless me,” she said.

Fatanitavake also explained how every decision she has ever made was for others — the people in her Tongan village, her children, her mother, her former students and current community. She participates in local service through her religion which allows her to serve while also educating and empowering children on how they can be successful and follow their dreams like she is currently doing by attending LDS Business College.

Ulysses Tongaonevai has also dedicated his career to serving youth in his community. Tongaonevai is a conduct hearing officer for The Office of the Dean of Students at the University of Utah where he also instructs courses for PI students as an adjunct professor. Before working at the university, Tongaonevai worked for local government with youth from at-risk homes.

“I’m here to advocate for these individuals or groups,” he explained. “I’ve done things in the community from cultural awareness, higher ed awareness, I’ve created programs to help young people graduate high school and connect with resources.”

Tongaonevai grew up in the inland empire of Southern California in a single-parent household and did not always know where to turn for help. “Because of where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced, I feel like I need to give back because I’ve been given much,” he said.

One of these programs that Tongaonevai created with his wife, Kalo, is called Teine Malohi, a competitive fast pitch softball program for PI girls. They chose this name because “Teine” is Samoan for “girl” and “Malohi” is Tongan for “strong.”

This girl power program was founded in 2016 and has been sponsored by Royal Outreach, West High School Softball, Uplift Foundation Inc. and the University of Utah Neighborhood Partners. They practice and hold events for the teams at The Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.

Teine Malohi softball has participants from all over the Salt Lake Valley, including: West Valley, Glendale, Poplar Grove, Rose Park, Herriman, West Jordan, South Jordan, Murray, Taylorsville, Salt Lake City, Bountiful, North Salt Lake and Centerville. There are 53 girls total who participate in three separate age-grouped teams ranging from age 8-14.

Teine Malohi provides an opportunity to be physically active while interacting with the community. It also focuses on affordability (scholarships and equipment), player development, academics, culture, empowerment, student-athlete experiences and college prep.

“We also include a community aspect, not only just within the Pacific islander community, but we encourage the players to do some type of voluntary service in the neighborhoods that they live in, and for them to also connect to their legislative representatives,” Tongaonevai said.

With the goal of empowering young women, the Tongaonevais have been able to create this thriving program that teaches young women from all over the Salt Lake Valley how they can serve their communities. “When I first went to school, I didn’t have the understanding of those resources or how to look for them, I didn’t know they existed,” Tongaonevai recalled. As a result, he has spent his entire adulthood advocating for youth and connecting them to resources.

The PI view is that we are all connected and so it’s important that everyone helps each other to find happiness and success. Community activist Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou co-founded an organization called Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “All of our goals encompass helping, educating and empowering,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. PIK2AR focuses on economics, cultural preservation and domestic violence.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou seeks to provide services for people of PI background because of her childhood, where she felt disconnected from her roots. By providing knowledge, connection and empowerment to the community, Feltch-Malohifo’ou is able to help orchestrate support groups, a business alliance and cultural community events.

Fatanitavake, Tongaonevai and Feltch-Malohifo’ou each described service as part of everyday life. They don’t separate service into a task to accomplish, or some way to balance the scales. Service is organic, it is a way of life.

These Utahn Pacific Islander leaders each seek not only to serve, but to empower others. Empowering others teaches them to take control of their lives, enabling them to be their best selves. This is the Pacific Island way, believing that we are all in this journey together and the success of one, is the success of all.

 

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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.

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.

Malialole 8

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.

Malialole 1

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.

Malialole 2

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.

Malialole 9

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.”