Cultural rediscovery in Utah’s Pacific Islander community

Story and photo by DIEGO ROMO

Pacific Islanders have a long history and legacy in the United States that spans multiple generations. In Utah specifically, according to many sources, Pacific Islanders can trace their roots to religious immigrants who arrived shortly after the original Mormon pioneers. The community has left its mark on Utah’s unique cultural heritage and has been shaped by it as well.

Statistics from the Utah Department of Health show that the state is home to 38,000 Pacific Islanders and the average age among the community is 20 years old. Only one-quarter of those who identify themselves as Pacific Islanders are foreign born, meaning that three-quarters of Utah’s Pacific Islander population has no physical tie to the cultural homeland of their ancestors. This leaves many in the community culturally severed from their history and people.

This void leaves many feeling lost, as if they are floating between the two identities that help them to establish their self-image.

“I always felt divided,” said Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, a Pacific Islander community resource group based in Salt Lake City.

Unlike many of the younger generations of Pacific Islanders in Utah, Feltch-Malohifo’ou has a direct, physical connection to her homeland. The daughter of a woman who worked as a housekeeper at a Mormon coconut plantation, Feltch-Malohifo’ou was born in Tonga, but was quickly adopted by a pair of Mormon missionaries who oversaw the estate.

She described the plantation as one very similar to the those of America’s deep South: rolling lawns with many trees and the key feature situated in the middle, the plantation manor.

Her life changed when she moved into the manor and began attending church school with the children of fellow Mormon church workers in Tonga.

“In my school picture, I’m the only Tongan,” she said. “I lived in Tonga, but didn’t have the real experience.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou remembers celebrating American traditions like Halloween and Easter, and always having running hot and cold water, an uncommon luxury in Tonga at the time.

From a very young age she adapted to her new life with its unfamiliar traditions and culture, but began to lose some of her Tongan heritage in the process.

When she finally arrived in Utah after spending some time in Texas, she was eager to get back in touch with the Pacific Islander community. But initially she felt like an outsider among her people.

“When I interact with other Pacific Islanders I have a hard time relating,” she said.

Many who share similar experiences to Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou express the same sentiment. This may be attributed to the fact that the Pacific Islander community in Utah is very diverse in and of itself.

According to 2010 census data, the community breaks down into four groups: native Hawaiians, Guamanian, Chamorro, Samoan and Other Pacific Islanders. However, the census is not fully representative of how diverse this community truly is.

For those who are second-, third-, even fourth-generation Pacific Islanders born in America or raised in its culture, it can be difficult to pinpoint which cultural identity to relate to.

“I always looked at what made me different from them,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, referring to her connection to the Pacific Islander community. “My parents gave me opportunities that other kids of my situation didn’t have.”

Those opportunities and experiences isolated her from the community that she considered family. With no cultural anchor, Feltch-Malohifo’ou began to reach back out to the Pacific Islander community. She was surprised when the welcome wasn’t as warm as she had hoped.

She recalls an early incident when a co-worker at a former Pacific Islander community resource group told her, “If I close my eyes, you think and sound white.”

Hokulani Aikau, a University of Utah professor can relate. “It’s hard to find a way to connect when you feel like an imposter in your community,” she said.


Hokulani Aikau, a University of Utah professor in the Gender Studies department, is collaborating with fellow faculty to launch the Pacific Islander Studies Initiative.

Aikau was born in Hawaii but was raised in Utah for the majority of her life. She shares many of the same cultural dilemmas as Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou because she was raised in a primarily Anglo society.  Aikau grew up going to schools with white student bodies who were taught by white faculty, about a primarily white history and subject matter.

“How can we claim Hawaiian identities when we were raised here?” Aikau said.

She brings up a major dilemma in the community. How can Pacific Islanders maintain cultural identities when travel back to the islands is sporadic and access to the native language is limited and even nonexistent in some cases?

“Where do we go for that information? Universities are supposed to be a place for that,” she said.

Aikau, along with other professors and staff at the University of Utah, are launching the Pacific Islander Studies Initiative, an enterprise set forth by the university in order to further diversify its faculty and curriculum.

She described it as a hiring initiative that responds to the cultural needs of the community. This initiative would provide Pacific Islander students — who make up about 1 percent of the university’s population — with a culturally relevant education that challenges and critiques the status quo, while at the same time teaching students alternatives that are culturally relevant to their backstories and histories.

“You have to provide students with alternatives,” Aikau said. Especially those that are culturally relevant.

“The most important thing is the building of confidence,” she said, adding that Pacific Islanders “need to know there is a place for them here.”

She also touched on the fact that cultural education needs to address the diversity that exists within the Pacific Islander community.

“To be Hawaiian does not equal dancing hula and working at taro farms. You can express your culture in a variety of ways,” she said.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou’s organization, PIK2AR, provides another avenue for cultural education within the community by empowering parents and families with culturally relevant resources. These resources then help parents take that information back into the home to begin teaching children of all ages about their heritage.

“There needs to be more avenues for diversity within the ethnic communities,”  Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. But ultimately, “It’s about connection. It feels good to be valued,” she added.

Brandon Ragland, whose mother moved to Utah from Hawaii as a young child, seems to agree that implementing cultural education in the home is key to helping children understand their identities.

“Growing up we did lots of things to learn about our heritage and people. Every Sunday the entire family would get together,” Ragland said in a Facebook chat conversation. “We would have endless amounts of amazing food from home and after we ate, my great aunt got all the kids together, she’d teach us some short history lesson as well as a few Hawaiian words for everyday things,” he said.

“And the importance of passing each of those down to through the family to keep the spirit of aloha alive,” he added.

Ragland is now a father and says that he has been and will continue teach his son all that he learned from his great aunt.

“There’s a vast amount of history coming out of the Hawaiian Islands and knowing about it helps keep our ancestors’ memories alive,” Ragland said.

Cultural education is one way to rediscover one’s culture, and it can come in many different forms. But ultimately, it helps to clear the foggy area between cultural intersections and can provide a sense of identity to many who feel lost.

Gallery creates a space for diversity


John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America, stated, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

During this year’s Pride at the U, artists of all sexual preferences found a venue for their visions.

“Art is a big part of queer culture,” said Bonnie Owens, 21, a senior at the University of Utah and an intern at the LGBT Resource Center on campus. “It’s a big part of any culture, so I thought it was important that it was included.”

The theme of the 2007 Pride Week held Oct. 15-20 was “Culture with a Q.” Owens was inspired by the theme, and chose to revamp the idea of an art gallery as part of Pride Week.

“In the past it’s never been successful, but I really wanted it to run well this year,” Owens said.

The art show was originally titled “Beautifully Obscene,” but was renamed “The Good Stuff” after some concern over what would be displayed in the gallery located in the U’s student lounge.

“The best thing about the gallery is that it crosses so many different boundaries,” Owens said. “We’ve got staff, faculty, alumni, community members and students all in here.”

Though it was labeled a LGBTQ art gallery, Owens said anyone could submit their art. Artists did not have to describe the subject matter, just the dimensions of their work.

“Something like this is so odd,” Owens said. “It’s so queer to have a gallery designed for queer students and faculty. So it’s very, very liberating for an artist that’s having a hard time finding their niche. It’s a good place to be.”

A variety of art was displayed in the gallery, including photography, drawings, oil, water color, mixed media and pottery.

While some works were more subdued, the gallery did feature a series of nudes painted by a former alumna who lives in Santa Quin County. Owens said the woman found out about the gallery through a culture article in the Salt Lake Tribune and was eager to show her work, not only because the county did not have a gallery that would display the nudes, but also because two of the woman’s children are gay.

The gallery became a canvas of emotion and statement for some.

Orbin Rockford, 27, submitted five pieces from a series of 25 Sharpie and acrylic paint drawings to the gallery. The dark images portrayed, both in color and tone, stood out starkly from their clean, white backgrounds.

The inspiration came from an emotional break-up that happened while Rockford was in college at a Boston art school.

“I was in a relationship that was totally messed up,” Rockford said. “It was my first real relationship with a guy.”

Drawing, Rockford said, is a form of therapy, what he calls “instinct art.”

“It’s a great outlet,” he said. “It’s been about coming to terms with myself.” 

But Rockford said he does not want his artwork to be defined only by his sexuality.

“It’s very much a part of my work, some pieces more than others,” he said.

Aside from putting the show together, Owens also submitted her own series of black and white photographs. Each one featured student leaders and activists from the U’s LGBTQ groups.

“They [Owens’ photographs] were designed to be shown, so they’re a little more apparent,” she said. “They’re something that you can look at them and say, why is this queer, what is going on here.”

The pieces were on display for the week, and the gallery full of artwork was proof of a goal accomplished, according to Owens.

“Pretty much everyone from different identities and cultures submitted something, which is something the resource center has had a hard time with in the past,” Owens said. “A lot of events this year cater to people who are often forgotten in programming like this, so people of color, transgender individuals, women, straight allies especially. So it’s great to see some of their work in this.”

Generations divide the semantics of queer

Some see it as hate while the youth find empowerment


The power of words is something a dictionary can’t define; people give power to words and decide their meaning. “Queer” is a word of hate and empowerment, and the meaning of queer changes with context and intent.

Queer began as an adjective that meant strange, different, weird, irregular or odd. In the 1960s it became a hateful word that was used against members of the gay community. In 1969, gay, bisexual and transgender people in New York City rioted against police brutality in the Stonewall Rebellion. Queer took on a new meaning then, when it was adopted word was now used as a derogatory stereotype against the lifestyles of gay or transgender people.

“There are a lot of people today who are still offended to be called queer, but there are others who will say, ‘Thank you very much,'” said Melvin Nimer, who is the president of the Utah chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans and is openly gay. “It’s all in how the word is used. If it is used as a put-down, as a slur, then it is hate speech. But often enough I hear it used as a term of empowerment by the youth.”

In the 1890s, American scientists created the term “homosexual” to describe men who were attracted to other men. Gay men were first described as inverts, and science suggested that the reason why men were attracted to other men was because gay men had a “woman inside them,” said Bonnie Owens, a senior majoring in gender studies at the University of Utah and an intern for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center on campus. Shortly after homosexuality was defined, the term “heterosexual” was created to define what 19th-century society perceived as a normal sexual attraction. After homosexuality was defined as the act of men having sex with men, an identity began to be imposed on men that labeled them as “others,” and a sub-culture began to take shape soon after.

With large numbers of people moving into the cities during the Industrial Revolution, children became less useful to families who no longer needed their children’s free help to maintain a farm. Women postponed marriage and were entered the work force. As intercourse became less about reproduction and more about pleasure in large cities, gay bars, clubs and bathhouses sprang up across the country to accommodate a growing gay-male subculture, Owens said.

During World War II, a mass movement of young men overseas into single-sex, volatile environments where they were taught to depend on and care for one another instead of competing. New relationships were presented for men who had never heard the term homosexual before, and some began to explore them. Back home, women were encouraged to work and taught to be economic and social equals with men. This allowed women to embrace they idea of being independent from their male counterparts. These events allowed people who were already questioning their personal identities and the structure of their relationships to further explore their sexuality.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, we saw homosexuality being used as an empowerment term, so people were identifying as a homosexual,” Owens said. “Then in the 1960s we [saw] the term gay being used and replacing homosexual. Then Stonewall happened and sparked the gay rights movement that led to the queer movement we have today.”

After Stonewall, the gay rights movement grew and took shape throughout the 1970s and 1980s, allowing people to openly identify with any sexual orientation and explore relationships that society still scrutinized as deviant or unnatural. The reclamation of the word queer began in 1990 with the publication of Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble,” a book that explored and explained the numerous sexual and gender identifications that people were using to define themselves.

Now, in 2007, many teens and LGBT students on college campuses are identifying as queer-opting not to base their identity solely on their sexual orientation, but instead choosing to identify with the community included under the term queer. In academia, queer and gender studies courses have made queer identity and philosophy somewhat mainstream on campus, but these theories of inclusiveness haven’t become prominent among everyone in LGBT communities.

“Queer is a very liberating identity to me,” Owens said. “Queer is something that connects me to, and makes me part of, a community. The reason I identify as queer is because it encompasses my gender identity and my sexual orientation.”

Who is queer and who may identify as queer are perspectives that change depending on who is asked. To Owens, queer includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex peoples and their allies. Everyone is queer in an academic sense, because no one is truly normal or average; everyone has differences that make people queer. Sex beyond the purpose of reproduction is queer, Owens said.

The modern queer movement is only 17 years old, but because the new face of the gay movement is considerably young, there is an apparent generational disconnect between the youth and established LGBT communities across the nation. For many older LGBT individuals, their association with queer remains derogatory because it was a term that was used to divide and separate them from the norm on the playground and in the work place.

“I just don’t like the word queer,” said Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Utah, who is openly lesbian. “I can’t explain it, but part of it could be the history behind it. The word and use of the word queer, to me, makes it sound like you are goofy, that something isn’t quite right about you.”

Biskupski chooses not to use or identify as queer, but she said she knows people who do and use the term positively. She compared the LGBTQ youth’s struggle to reclaim queer to the black communities’ reclamation of “nigger,” saying that the same controversy applies. Many of the questions that arise out of these situations are, who can use the word? Who is part of the community? Whom is it empowering and whom is it degrading?

Semantics aside, Biskupski sees a growing number of youth identifying as queer instead of strictly gay or lesbian.

“I like queer because it is more than an identity — it is an ideology,” said Jose Rodriguez, and a junior majoring in social justice and policy at the U. “Anybody can be queer, and I like that you can queer anything-politics, society or culture, anything. Queer identity tries to reclaim spaces where LGBTQ people have been marginalized, so they can become safe again.”

The queer movement pulls away from identity-based politics and into coalition building through merging the LGBTQQIA community under one distinct, open title. Queer is a way for these diverse and separate communities to come together and stand behind one issue-human rights-while still being capable of supporting one another through synergy, Rodriguez said.

For these reasons of inclusion, Rodriguez doesn’t identify as queer because he sees it as a movement that is primarily white and devoid of racial and socio-economic consideration. Although Rodriguez recognizes many queer theorists are trying to overcome the exclusionary injustice toward communities of color, he instead chooses to identify as Xueer so his race, gender identity, sexual orientation and background can all be factors in defining him.

“As more and more identities start to get their own voices and as we move forward, we have to make that jump towards being inclusive-we have to open up ourselves,” Owens said. “We are so caught up on words and terms, and what we can say, but the point is that even if we didn’t identify under a single word, we’re always going to have to identify under the single term of ‘other.'”

The goal with the queer movement and identity is to make it so large that it will erase itself, Owens said. Her goal is to make every identity have the same value, so people don’t have to rally toward a certain goal such as equal rights. They could just assume that legislation would encompass everyone.

“I identify as a normal person. I’m gay, but that is normal to me, and I don’t look at myself in any other way,” Nimer said. “To accept the queer movement we have to realize we’re all different, and in a sense we are all queer. Everyone should be included in the queer community, but right now [queer] is just used to describe the gay and lesbian communities.”

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