ST. GEORGE – The 2nd annual Polynesian Cultural Festival presents an opportunity for islanders to celebrate their heritage, while also encouraging non-Polynesians to enjoy the food, music, art and spirit of the rich culture.
The festival was founded by the St. George-based New Beginnings Academy, a support organization for youth ages 16-22 who are struggling at home and in school, or those who are involved in drugs, alcohol and crime. Self-discipline and respect for family and community are main tenets of the program, with the goal that students will develop into responsible adults.
Paki Tiatia, the president of New Beginnings and director of the festival, said his Polynesian roots and love for his homeland led him to create the event. Through music, art, dancing and food, he hopes that the Polynesian community will be able to come together and share the wonders of their vibrant culture with not only each other, but the world.
Even more important, however, is remembrance. Tiatia stressed that young Polynesians must never forget the sacrifices their ancestors made to provide them a better life in the United States, while also following the traditions of their native lands.
“[This event] celebrates our existence and promotes perpetual education in our traditions,” said Selu Alofipo, a Samoan professional painter and carver whose work will be shown at the festival. His studio, Island Kine Art, is based in Salt Lake City and features island-inspired paintings and Maori bone carvings. “I asked to be a part of [it] so I can feel closer to home.”
Aside from Alofipo’s display, activities at the festival will include arts and crafts booths, food vendors, a rugby tournament, a talent show and a presentation on Polynesian culture.
Entertainment will be provided by a number of Polynesian acts from Utah and surrounding states, most notably the Las Vegas-based Taimanuta Legacy dance group, whose members perform a colorful combination of Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Tahitian and Fijian routines, among many others.
Funded entirely by donations, the festival is 100 percent charity-based and all proceeds go to Polynesian students in Washington County in need of financial assistance. Through scholarships, they are given a chance to pursue athletic and educational opportunities that would otherwise be unattainable.
Tiatia said: “We believe it takes a village to raise a child [and though] we are far away from the islands, we have carried that tradition with us. This is a great opportunity for young generations to learn and feel the love of the Polynesian people.”
The festival will be held June 28-30, at Pine View High School, 2850 E. 750 North, St. George, which Alofipo said was the most fitting venue. Ray Hosner, the school’s varsity football coach, has been a central figure in the event’s foundation and success. Alofipo said he has shown genuine concern for Polynesian students at Pine View and throughout St. George, and selfless men like him and Tiatia are instrumental in the development of youth in the community.
Polynesian Roots in Utah
The first Polynesian immigrants to Utah arrived in 1889 and were drawn by missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had first traveled to Pacific islands in the 1850‘s. A group of nearly 200 settled the tiny town of Iosepa in northern Utah’s Skull Valley, with the desire to be close to, and attend services in, the Salt Lake Temple.
Over the next twenty-five years, the immigrants constructed homes, a church and school and attempted to farm the land. Despite their efforts, however, Iosepa never managed to become a self-sufficient community and was fully abandoned in 1915, when the LDS church announced plans to build a temple in Hawaii. The majority of settlers chose to return to their homeland.
Now a ghost town and site on the National Register of Historic Places, Iosepa is visited each Memorial Day by hundreds of Polynesians, who host a three-day luau in celebration of their ancestors.
Utah’s Polynesian population experienced growth once again in the mid-1960‘s. Having learned of the state from descendants of the original settlers, they began migrating in pursuit of educational and economic opportunities. Many were already LDS members, with many more joining the church.
Today, Polynesians make up 0.9 percent of Utah’s population, although their influence can be seen throughout the state. The Utah Polynesian Choir was founded in the late 1980s and continues to perform under the same name today. And through events such as the 2012 Polynesian Cultural Festival, members of the community are working to assure that the legacy of the first island immigrants to Utah will never be forgotten.
“We have come too far to not be relevant,” Alofipo said. “We aspire to be relevant; we want to play a role in promoting the greater good of the community of which we are a part of. We work hard and expect much from our children. We teach them the ever-important principles of respect and humility in hopes that they will carry on our traditions with pride.”
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.