By Carol Edison

The Hawaiian Troubadours, Salt Lake, 1908

Although Utah's sometimes harsh climate provides a stark contrast to the tropical warmth and humidity of the South Seas, thousands of Polynesians chose to make Utah their home in the nineteenth century and again particularly during the last quarter of the twentieth. Leaving the islands in search of educational and economic opportunities, they immigrated to the western United States, particularly to California, and surprisingly large numbers were drawn to Utah by family or religious ties. Settling primarily in urban neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley, they brought a new dimension to Utah's cultural landscape.

Most of Utah's islanders are Polynesians, with the majority coming from Tonga. (The other Pacific races--Melanesians and Micronesians--are sparsely represented although there were 148 Utahns from Guam counted in the 1990 U.S. census.) Estimates of Utah's Tongan population range from the conservative 3,904 officially counted in 1990 to the 10,000 to 12,000 figure commonly offered by community leaders. Likewise, the Samoan population, estimated to be around 5,000, was officially numbered at only 1,570 in the 1990 census. (This discrepancy likely reflects both the significant numbers who might be missed during the count and a number of undocumented individuals who initially came on temporary student or tourist visas and subsequently remained in the state.) Third in size and growing steadily, the Hawaiian community was counted at 1,396 in 1990 after having nearly doubled during the previous decade. In fourth and fifth place are the Maoris from New Zealand and the Tahitians from the Society Islands, whose populations in the state are estimated to range from 600 to 700 and from 150 to 200, respectively. Former residents of the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nuie, and Raro Tuman have also migrated to Utah, although each group is represented by only a few families.

Though Polynesian immigration to Utah is primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon that started after World War II with the arrival of a few Tongan and Samoan families, emigration from Polynesia to Utah actually began three-quarters of a century earlier. Mormon proselytizing in the Pacific started in Tahiti in 1844, three years before the first Mormon pioneers reached the Great Salt Lake Valley, and soon expanded to other Polynesian islands. Like their American and European counterparts, these converts from the Pacific islands wanted to join with other Mormons in building Zion. Often arriving with returning missionaries, they came a few at a time, beginning in about 1875. Marked cultural differences inhibited their integration with other Utah Mormons, prompting the LDS Church to purchase land to provide them with a specific gathering place. On 28 August 1889 a company of between fifty and seventy-five Polynesians, mostly Hawaiians, founded their own unique Mormon colony on the 1,200-acre Quincy Ranch located in hot and dry Skull Valley, twenty miles southeast of the Great Salt Lake. There they settled, naming their community Iosepa, meaning Joseph, after Joseph F. Smith, an early Mormon missionary and church leader in Hawaii, and later a president of the Mormon Church.

The townsite of Iosepa was surveyed, land grants were made to each family, and the colonists built homes, public facilities, and even their own aqueduct and irrigation system. Poplar and cottonwood lined the streets. Ponds were constructed where carp and trout were raised, and experiments were conducted with growing seaweed and other traditional products that were absent from this new desert environment. The residents raised livestock and farmed, and eventually cultivated nearly 1,000 acres. The population grew, supplemented by occasional immigrants from Polynesia. But the necessary hard work, exposure, and even a bout of leprosy resulted in a high mortality rate that kept the population at just over 200. In 1915 plans were announced to build a Mormon temple in Laie, Hawaii, and Mormon church leaders subsequently encouraged the Polynesians to return to their Pacific homelands.

Perhaps Utah's Polynesians could be better understood by classifying them in two general categories. One comprises those "more westernized" cultures--the Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians--which historically experienced earlier and more intensive contact with European cultures. The other category includes those "less westernized" cultures, such as the Tongans and the Samoans, which experienced less and later intervention from the outside. In twentieth-century Utah, these historical differences have resulted in two very different experiences in terms of assimilation, acculturation, and the maintenance of cultural tradition.

Utah's Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians live in many of Utah's urban centers, with the majority scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley. They are active in all sectors of the economy--from service and manufacturing to business and professional pursuits. While most are affiliated with the Mormon Church, they attend non-ethnic, English-speaking neighborhood congregations. As a group, they have found acculturation relatively easy, as is suggested by their geographic, social, occupational, and religious integration. Cultural difficulties, if any, are more often related to the challenge of perpetuating Pacific traditions in the face of American popular culture. Many find that secular ethnic organizations provide a forum for interaction with other Polynesians that encourages the expression of their cultural heritage and its transmission to the next generation.

The Hawaiian Civic Club, a branch of a similar organization in Hawaii, sponsors luaus to raise money for scholarships, and also offers classes for children in the Hawaiian language and culture. Members of the New Zealand-American Club, or the Kiwi Club that preceded it, celebrate holidays like Utah's Pioneer Day and New Zealand's national holiday, and sometimes get together to celebrate a summertime Christmas, reminiscent of this holiday in their homeland. Similarly, the approximately twenty families that comprise Utah's Tahitian community also may gather several times a year to share traditional delicacies or to host visitors from Tahiti who come to Utah to attend the LDS general conference.

Conversely, Utah's Tongan and Samoan populations are geographically concentrated on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, and the majority work within the service sector of the occupational spectrum. Many are involved in family businesses that provide unskilled labor for hauling, landscaping, remodeling, and similar pursuits.

Religious rather than ethnic organizations provide much of the structure for Utah's Tongan and Samoan communities, whether part of the Mormon majority, the large Methodist population, or the smaller Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist groups. The proselytizing success experienced by a number of Christian sects in the Pacific during the nineteenth century is responsible, in part, for the close ties Tongans and Samoans maintain with organized religion.

During the 1970s, a large influx of non-English-speaking Polynesians prompted Mormon leaders to reverse earlier policies advocating full integration into neighborhood congregations and to authorize foreign-language services for those Tongans and Samoans who wished to attend. In 1991, twelve years after the first Tongan Mormon ward was established, five Tongan and two Samoan wards, with an official membership listed at 2,580, serve the community. Foreign-language services are also held at the Tongan United Methodist Church, whose congregation numbers approximately 500, and at several other Methodist congregations, which serve an additional 500 Tongans.

These foreign-language religious services, both Mormon and non-Mormon, have greatly contributed to the perpetuation of Tongan and Samoan cultural traditions in Utah. Not only do they serve as an arena where children and young people can practice their native tongue, but they encourage group members to maintain Polynesian customs, folkways, and traditions. Several church congregations have organized classes in Utah, sometimes taught by highly respected visiting choreographer-composers known as punakes (Tongan) or fa'a'lumas (Samoan), to teach their young people traditional music and dance forms. Performances are not only enjoyed within the Polynesian community but are occasionally shared outside the group, reinforcing self-identity and pride in one's heritage. Church-sponsored sporting or performance competitions, reunions, and anniversary celebrations replete with traditional foods such as roast pig, fish, and imported corn beef all serve to perpetuate Tongan and Samoan culture.

Several pan-Polynesian organizations also serve the needs of Utah's Polynesian population. In the mid-1980s, the Iosepa Historical Society was incorporated to commemorate the Polynesian communities' century-old history in Utah by preserving the townsite of Iosepa in Tooele County. Annually on Memorial Day, the organization sponsors a get-together at the Iosepa Cemetery to clean up the area and place imported flowers on the graves of those Polynesian pioneers who died in the desert so far from their island homelands. The cemetery itself has been placed on the National Historic Register, and a monument has been erected to the pioneers. Plans are in place to restore three remaining homes in Iosepa and to build a park and stage. Group members are also working to learn more about life in Iosepa by translating Mormon Church meeting minutes of the pioneers' worship services.

In the late 1980s, the Utah Polynesian Choir was founded. Specializing in Mormon hymns sung in English, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Tongan, group members perform in church services throughout the state. Music is an integral part of many Polynesian cultures, and for centuries Polynesians have been noted for their fine group singing. Whether simply singing while working to prepare a community meal or competing against each other in choreographed performances of music and dance, they have a seemingly inborn ability to harmonize. Given such traditional activities, it is not surprising that choral music functions as a way of reinforcing group identity and is a vital part of church services for both Polynesian Methodist and Mormon congregations in the state.

Also in the late 1980s, in response to the Utah's growing Polynesian population, a governor's advisory council was formed with representation from various Polynesian groups. Chair Phil Uipi represented the Tongans, vice-chair Wayne Selu the Samoans, and council members Ellen Selu, Winton Ria, and Tekehu Munani represented the Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians, respectively. Among its activities, the council revitalized the annual Polynesian Day Celebration (initially sponsored by an earlier organization, the Society of Polynesian Utahns), that each August draws large crowds to enjoy traditional music, dance, crafts, and food. Polynesian Day, along with the achievements of a number of high school and college athletes and the success experienced in the national music scene by the Jets, a Tongan-American band with Utah roots, have contributed greatly to the visibility of Utah's Polynesian community.

Though language, education, and occupational training have made acculturation somewhat easier for the more westernized Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians, they are also smaller in numbers and more removed from their own traditional cultures. This leads some to seek ways to recover their own traditions. Conversely, Utah's less westernized Tongans and Samoans may struggle somewhat to fit into the society that surrounds them, but their traditions still form an integral part of their daily life. They live in Utah in sufficient numbers to maintain a vibrant, thriving subculture that develops and reinforces a strong sense of cultural identity. But whatever their particular challenge, Utah's Polynesian population adds color and texture to the landscape of our state. Games of rugby and cricket in neighborhood parks, festival performances featuring the unfamiliar movements and chants of the ancient hula, and an array of exotic fruits and vegetables in local markets are among the indications that our citizenry is diverse and becoming more so all the time.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.