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Dancing With Spirits

Pacific Islander community seeks to both promote their differences and celebrate similarities.


  • Sarah Arnoff

Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou was in the grocery store with her husband when she was reminded how stereotypes define the way some see her.

"The chitlins are on sale," a woman told her, adding that her African-American neighbor had informed her it was a "good sale."

She is Tongan and her husband is Fijian-Tongan. He is darker skinned than his wife. "Ma'am, that's not our culture," Feltch-Malohifo'ou replied. "I'm Polynesian." Nevertheless, the woman, trying to be helpful, Feltch-Malohifo'ou says, continued to push the offer on pig intestines, regardless of her mistake.

"I've never lived where ethnic groups is such a big deal," Feltch-Malohifo'ou says. "It seems very segmented here."

The local Pacific Islander community encompasses myriad of oceanic communities—including from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, Melanesia and Micronesia. If the perceptions of other Utahn cultures of Pacific Islanders can be brutally uninformed, within the Pacific Island communities—particularly when it comes to youth—there can also be a profound disconnect with their own cultural heritage. Feltch-Malohifo'ou expresses concern for her community's youngsters, many of whom "don't understand who they are. That they are reacting to how people treat them."

While Feltch-Malohifo'ou notes that the Disney movie Moana elevated the presence of her community nationwide, prior to its release, "there were some very negative connotations about being Pacific Islander and being Polynesian, especially in this city." Polynesians are the largest subcategory of Pacific Islanders, with Samoans, Tongans and New Zealand Maoris among their ranks.

Ask what negative connotations she's thinking of and she, and a dozen other Pacific Islanders attending an organizing committee meeting last month for the fifth annual Utah Pacific Island Heritage Festival, reel off a list. Firstly, that they're all gang members. That is closely followed by Pacific Islanders being reduced to caricatures of physical prowess, particularly when it comes to high school and college football. Then there's the belief that Tongans and Samoans hate each other, and that Pacific Islanders are all the same. "We're all painted with one stroke," Weber State University counselor Eveni Tafiti says.

  • Sarah Arnoff

Feltch-Malohifo'ou is executive director of nonprofit Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, which seeks to address issues within the diverse communities. Haviar Hafoka, a youth corrections officer who's also part of Malialole, a Polynesian dance group created by his mother, Vida Tuitama, admires her. "Susi is like a mother to a lot of us," he says.

For the committee members gathered that evening at the Sorenson Multicultural Center, the festival is far more than simply fairs and food trucks. It is both a foundation on which to build cultural and social visibility in Utah, and also an opportunity to celebrate the identity, cultures and heritages of the 40,000 Utahns who self-identify as having their roots in the Pacific Islands.

Feltch-Malohifo'ou says the annual festival, which takes place each August, a month declared by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012 as Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month, addresses the differences, as well as the similarities, between the many island communities that make up the Pacific Island population in Utah. "I started realizing people really don't know our differences. Unless people know that about each one of our cultures, they really don't know us. So we just kind of blend altogether in one big melting pot." The festival provides a platform for community members to say, "I'm Tongan, this is different about me, I'm Hawaiian, this is what's different about me," she says. "Together, we're one with similarities."

Perhaps most important of all, Feltch-Malohifo'ou says she hopes to at least see some of the Pacific Islander cultural heritage handed down to younger generations through the festival. "If we can teach some of those things and hand those down through this yearly festival, then at least [at the festival] our youth can get the dose from somewhere," she says.

Haviar Hafoka - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Haviar Hafoka

Talk to Pacific Islanders about their involvement in the August events and what quickly becomes apparent is how central dance is for many Pacific Islanders. They say it's a way to connect them to their spiritual history and build community in a world where particularly Pacific Islander youth can feel lost. Other cultures, Hafoka says, "look at the aesthetics of it; they don't look at the importance to us." Every Polynesian dance, he says, "is a message. Unlike other cultures, we use lyrical dancing to keep our history alive and tell stories about ourselves." Whether at weddings, birthdays, ceremonies or any celebration, dance is about "showing respect," he says. "It's like a peace pipe, if you will."

As a people, Hafoka says, "I know we are either really happy or really angry. I describe us as the nicest, meanest people—which is how we are." In a landlocked, desert state like Utah, he says that dance plays a crucial role in his community's identity. "Where do we find our spirituality when we are so connected to each other, to the ocean, to the land? Dance and music help with that in a big way. In our Tongan community, when a gift is given, the family gives it as a dance. That dance represents where we are from. Dance is very expressive and shows your whole soul." Even, he adds, for those who might prefer the darker side of the street. "I have seen the most gangsta people, when our country's music plays, they become the spirit of Polynesia."


  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Siale Pulu

On July 29, Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month kicked off at the Sorenson Multicultural Center with performances by local groups from different Pacific Islander communities while attendees milled around booths displaying artifacts. Events throughout August include a Job and Resource Fair focusing on employment for young Pacific Islanders on Saturday in West Valley City, and the fourth annual National Pacific Islander Violence Prevention Conference to be held in Lehi on Aug. 25.

Caught between the Pacific Islander commitment to a clan-based society and the pressures of American culture to idealize the individual, Pacific Island communities have found themselves beset by many issues that once might have been addressed through familial support, if they had occurred at all. Their community's political and social marginalization, reinforced by poverty for many, only underscores the lack of dedicated resources, state or federal, that reach those in need. Feltch-Malohifo'ou says she was surprised by how many homeless Pacific Islander women have ended up at the downtown shelter, something she only became aware of when they sought help from a women's support group she is part of, asking for everything from housing assistance and detox services, to food and medical care. "We thought the community takes care of each other. That's how it used to be, but things have changed as we get assimilated into American culture," she says. "We come from a very clan society. America is an individualized society—'Be all you can be.' And so instead of 'my clan, my village,' we shift to, 'It's all about me.'"

  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Nia Haunga

Health issues, particularly obesity and mental-health concerns, are often connected with the poverty many struggle with, Hafoka says. Siale Pulu is a 16-year-old Granger High School student who teaches dance at the school's People of the Pacific Club. "The way I look at my parents, I want to change that with my generation, that we live a healthy lifestyle. Lots of it has to do with diabetes, and gout is a big one, along with obesity. Seeing how our parents are in that condition, that's a big task for our generation, so we won't have to see our parents die faster and younger."

Single mother Nia Haunga, who dances in Hafoka's group, says the most pressing issue she faces, she says, is depression. "I think it's starting to be a big thing in the Polynesian community." When her peers want to talk about it, she says parents prefer to ignore it.

Hafoka agrees that depression and mental health issues are still taboo in their community. "Culturally, we don't talk about that. It's embarrassing, we just ignore it, we call them ma'i [sick]. People brush it under the rug." Like Haunga, Hafoka says he's struggled with depression, too. "A lot of it is to do with drugs; a lot of it to do with identity crisis." Dancing, he continues, and the attendant spirituality, "helps out a lot."


  • Sarah Arnoff

Dance plays a complicated, multifaceted role in Pacific Island culture. "Even in the islands, dancing is used ceremonially still and politically," Hafoka says. He explains its political role in terms of a pese o le aso, which he translates as "song of the day." Villagers go to their parliament and sing in a mocking manner about, for example, how they've asked their politicians to fix deteriorating roads and nothing has happened. "The dance is respectful, but they do it in the most demeaning way," mocking parliamentarians by asking in song, "Why are you up there?" Hafoka has taken part in a pese o le aso in Glendale, where the performers mocked local youth about the humorous elements of being American, while at the same time suggesting they're not tough enough to be Samoan. Despite the mocking tone, the central message Hafoka says, is constructive, "telling them to hold on to their culture."

Granger student and dance teacher Pulu says his parents came from Tonga. He recognizes the impact Westernized life has on him, while also drawing on his cultural roots. The Tongan word fatongia, he says, means duty or obligation. "Mine is to understand my place in society and how I play my role as a Tongan."

Dance is fundamental to his self-identity. "It's a natural thing; it's in our blood. We hear a beat or a rhythm—it's all important, who we are as Polynesian people. Rhythms and songs, our attitudes and personalities all evolve from our dance."

Local dance group Nu Tribe Dance Crew offers a modern take on Polynesian dance, says 29-year-old member Shaun Carley. Nu Tribe seeks to bridge the gap between hip-hop and modern songs and Polynesian choreography.

While the also DJ acknowledges that the conflict between Pacific Islander emphasis on the familial unit and the American emphasis on individuality can lead to a lack of self-identity, he sees Pacific Islander community members struggling to accept dance, despite the positive role it can play. "It's a weird situation where there is such a deep cultural connection to dance, but it's looked down upon and kids in general are encouraged not to pursue the arts. Minorities of all creeds, I feel, have a hard time pursuing the arts," he says. "It's this weird dichotomy of having such a rich cultural heritage, being told we should be proud of it, yet told not to do them, either because it's too effeminate or there's no future in them."

Hafoka argues that criticism of effeminacy in dance is not an issue, pointing to how Pacific Island culture reveres third-gender people. They are called fa'afafine, young males raised as girls who display both male and female traits. Carley says that's true, that the fa'afafine "oftentimes perpetuate the culture—they remember the dances and the family trees." But acceptance is one thing, embracing the right of a loved one to act on being LGBTQ something else. His boyfriend felt accepted as being gay when he came out to his immediate family, but when he and Carley started to appear publicly together, the boyfriend's mother was upset about how it would reflect on their family. Much like with the LDS church and its attitude toward LGBTQ members, his boyfriend could be gay, "just don't live the lifestyle." Carley says, adding that such attitudes have significantly softened in recent years in the Polynesian community, as more and more youth have come out.


Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou

Pulu's POP was one of eight groups performing at the July 29 kickoff. His fellow student dancers draw on familial heritages from Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia and Hawaii. "Having the opportunity to come and represent at this festival is so important," particularly when it comes to tackling the lack of knowledge within his own communities about "our traditions and cultures, our customs," he says. "Even though we live in America, how we're all Westernized, we should still know who we are."

But male dancers in his club still face stereotyping as gang members or "bad boys," he says, or they're defined only as football players. "These mindsets are another thing bringing us down, limiting us from kind of expanding."

If Pacific Islanders struggle to be heard in Utah, some within their own ranks complain of similar issues internally. One community that is, to some degree, silent within the Pacific Island panoply of communities is the thousands of islands of Micronesia, which share a cultural history with neighboring regions Polynesia and Melanesia. Micronesia-born Melishna Folau is quick to correct someone who identifies her as Polynesian. "With all respect, I'm not Polynesian. Call me what I am."

Folau married a Tongan, and when she moved to Utah, she found that events described as Pacific Islander were actually Polynesian. Despite attending numerous Pacific Islander committees, she only found inclusion a few years ago attending a group led by Feltch-Malohifo'ou. "She wants to see everybody's point of view, not just Polynesians," she says.

Folau hopes Pacific Island Heritage Month will elevate Pacific Islanders to the point they register on legislators' radars. That said, Micronesians themselves seem to need to gain greater recognition within their community. While the kickoff festival was largely Polynesian-driven, she says that Micronesians have been invited to participate. "Right now, a lot of our community are too shy to jump on these opportunities," she says.


  • Sarah Arnoff

One statistic that worries Feltch-Malohifo'ou is that, while Pacific Islanders make up only 1 percent of Utah's population, they comprise 2 percent of the prison's. Which is why she likes to have Haviar Hafoka tell his story at public events, if only to challenge stereotypes.

When the 30-year-old, with his long dreadlocks and tattoos, talks about how he's a youth corrections officer currently working at a juvenile detention facility, Feltch-Malohifo'ou knows that some Utahns will have their preconceptions shifted. But Hafoka's story perhaps tells as much, if not more, about the life-changing value of dance in his community as it does about the school-to prison-pipeline that some Pacific Islander youth are tragically funneled through.

Hafoka grew up in Kansas City, Mo. It's home to a significant Polynesian Mormon community who believe they reside in Zion where "the last days" will occur. His mother is Samoan, his father from Tonga. He was "wild," in his youth, he says, using hard drugs and running with a fast crowd. Nevertheless, his family and, in particular, his aunt insisted he take part in dances. "I hated it growing up," he says. He was expected to take part at cultural events where families with a social position had to do certain dances. "We were forced to perform," he says, relatives employing "tough love" in the form of physical coercion if need be. He recalls how he gave "a lot of attitude to my aunt," who would tell him that one day he would be in her place trying to pass on their traditions and culture to a younger generation.

Hafoka's aunt died when he was 20. He calls her death his "turning point." Shortly after, he followed his mother and siblings to Utah, his father having been deported, "just as many other Tongans have." His mother had set up a dance group in Glendale named after her first grandchild, Malialole. When he saw the group dancing, it struck him deeply. "It made me emotional and I didn't know why." He realized that the innate spirit within the dance connected with him. While he had brought his "wild ways," with him to Utah, the more he became involved with Malialole, the more "it mattered to me when people were displaying [dances] wrong. It makes you want to do it more right. You want to prove yourself. This is how we are; this is who we are."

He worked at local junior high schools assisting with local youth, and saw how Polynesian peers were working as "trackers," attempting to keep Pacific Island youth on the right track educationally. That led him to youth corrections and employment at a detention facility. He says that he recognizes how the youth are lost in the way he was at their age. That sense of disconnection, he points out, "is because there's not a spiritual connection."

Perched on a stool in his family's dance studio at the back of Glendale Plaza on the city's west side, Hafoka's commitment to dance, he says, was driven by his desire to ensure that his nieces and his nephews growing up stateside didn't lose their identity. His success was apparent, at least with one nephew, when he graduated from Horizonte High School and did a dance called the taualuga at the reception party at a Salt Lake City dance studio. The taualuga can open or close a celebration. Hafoka describes a scene where as the youth, draped in leis, dances to a mix of screams and clapping, money is thrown at him from all directions. "What looks like chaos is a lot of family love and support. I felt a lot of connectivity between me and my nephew standing and dancing. When you start dancing, you start feeling the mana, [spiritual energy]. You feel it—it's something innate that couldn't be given to anybody else."


Hafoka hopes August brings for Utah's Pacific Islanders, if nothing else, greater visibility for communities of any generation that still struggle with where they live. He says Pacific Islanders "are out of our element, in a desert, in the middle of someone's country—a country stolen from someone else. I hope that this month raises awareness of our existence. It helps us understand within our community that we are valid and we are important and we can be us."