Pacific islander americans

by Liz Swain


The Pacific Islands region of the South Pacific Ocean is called Oceania when Australia and New Zealand are included. There are approximately 25,000 islands, atolls and islets in Oceania. Within the Pacific Islands region are the subregions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. The islands of Tonga, Tahiti, and Fiji are located within two of these three areas.

Polynesia means "many islands," and includes within its 5 million squares miles the Kingdom of Tonga and the Territory of French Polynesia, where Tahiti is located. Samoa and Hawaii are also found in Polynesia. The region's name comes from the Greek word melas, meaning black. It was so named because of the skin color of island natives.

Tonga is an archipelago of 170 islands. Its total land area is about four times the size of Washington, D.C., measuring 288 square miles (746 square kilometers). People live on 36 of Tonga's islands. The population in July 1998 was approximately 108,207. The majority of Tongans are of Polynesian ethnic origin. About 300 Europeans also live on the islands. Christianity is the primary religion, with more than 30,000 people belonging to the Free Wesleyan Church. The monarch is the head of the church, which is the Methodist Church in the United States. Other Christian religions with significant membership include the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches. Tonga's official languages are Tongan and English. The national capital, Nuku'alofa, is located on the island of Tongatapu. The national flag is primarily red. On the upper left quadrant of the flag is a white rectangle with a bright red cross on it.

French Polynesia is a territory consisting of five archipelagos. French Polynesia's 118 islands and atolls span an area slightly less than one-third the size of the state of Connecticut. French Polynesia's total land area measures 1,544 square miles (4,000 square kilometers). Tahiti is the best known island in French Polynesia. The largest of the Society Islands, it measures 33 square miles (53 kilometers). French Polynesia had a population of approximately 237,844 people in July 1998. Seventy-eight percent of the population are of Polynesian ethnic origin, 12 percent are Chinese, and a small percentage are French. Fifty-four percent of French Polynesians are Protestant, 30 percent are Roman Catholic, and 16 percent belong to other denominations. French Polynesia's official languages are French and Tahitian. Papeete, the national capital and the territory's largest city, is located on Tahiti. French Polynesia's flag consists of two horizontal red bands, with a larger white band in the center. Pictured in the white section of the flag is a blue, white and red ship. The colors are those of the French flag, and France's tricolor is displayed in French Polynesia on special occasions.

At the eastern end of Melanesia, near Polynesia, is the Republic of Fiji. This proximity led to a Polynesian influence on the culture. Although Fiji is an archipelago of 332 islands, its total area is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. The country's total land area measures 7,055 square miles (18,272 square kilometers). Approximately 110 of Fiji's islands are inhabited, and the population in July 1998 was approximately 802,611. Of the population, 49 percent are of Fijian ethnic origin, 46 percent are Indian, and the remaining five percent includes other Pacific islanders, Europeans, and Chinese. Fifty-two percent of the population is Christian, with 37 percent belonging to the Methodist faith. Approximately nine percent of Fijians are Roman Catholic. Indians account for the 38 percent of the population who are Hindu. There is also a Muslim minority. English is the official language in Fiji, though Fijian and Hindustani are also spoken. The nation's capital is the port city of Suva. The national flag is light blue. The British flag is depicted in the upper left quadrant; the Fijian shield appears on the right half. A lion on the shield holds a cocoa pod. Also pictured are stalks of sugar cane, a palm tree, bananas, and a white dove.


The history of the Pacific Islands began thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia. From 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. , peoples left the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago, migrating to islands across the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in massive double-hulled canoes that held up to 200 people. With no navigation instruments, the ancestors of modern Polynesians relied on wayfinding, the use of nature to navigate. The navigational course was determined by observing the stars, the sun, the wave currents, and the flight pattern of birds.

The Lapita people may have reached Tonga by 3000 B.C. Artifacts confirm they were living on Tonga around 1100 B.C. Polynesians are believed to have reached Fiji by at least 1500 B.C. They were joined by Melanesians in 500 B.C. According to archaeologists, Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa settled the Marquesas Islands 2,000 years ago. Polynesians in subsequent years migrated to other areas including New Zealand and Hawaii. Artifacts found on the Society Islands indicate that Polynesians settled in Tahiti around 850 A.D.

Polynesians established a hierarchical social structure, where children inherited their father's power and social status. A chief and his descendants ruled a territory that ranged in size from a village to a region. One indication of status was a person's size. Obesity was a sign of wealth or nobility in Tonga.

Within the hierarchical governing system were power struggles. These struggles sometimes resulted in war, forcing some islanders to flee and settle other islands. Cannibalism was another aspect of war, one dictated by Fijian and Tongan religions. Captured people were sacrificed to the warrior gods. The victors ate their enemies to absorb their power and to insult the deceased and his family.

A less gruesome Polynesian tradition involved family and community life. The family extended to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, as well as the village. Family members looked after one another, respected their elders, and shared with the community. When fishermen returned with their catch, they took what they needed and left the rest for others.

Polynesians were noted craftspeople who built boats without nails. They had no system of writing. Instead, history and traditions were relayed through songs, dance, poems, and stories. For centuries, Pacific Islanders believed that gods controlled their lives.

Pacific Island life changed dramatically in the seventeenth century when European explorers discovered the islands. Dutch navigator Jakob LeMaire reached Tonga in 1616, the first European to visit the islands. Another Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, arrived in Fiji in 1643. English Captain Samuel Wallis reached Tahiti in 1767 and claimed it for England. A year later, French explorer Louis de Bougainville landed in Tahiti. He did not realize Wallis had been there and claimed the land for his country. France gained control of Tahiti in 1842 and made it a French colony in 1880. England gained control of Fiji, while Tonga remained an independent kingdom. In 1774, British Captain James Cook sailed through the islands, followed by British Captain William Bligh in 1789. In 1874, the Fiji islands were ceded to Britain.

Christian missionaries brought more change to the islands. In 1797, members of the London Missionary Society settled in Tonga and Tahiti. Missionaries eventually succeeded in converting Tahitians, but they left Tonga left in 1799. Catholic and Wesleyan missionaries also attempted to convert the Pacific Islanders. Wesleyan ministers succeeded in converting Tonga to Christianity. The missionary influence was seen in the nineteenth century when members of royalty converted. Fijian King Cokobau converted to Christianity in 1854. Such conversions ended cannibalism in the Pacific Islands. Missionaries also developed written forms of Pacific Islander languages that were previously nonexistent in the predominantly oral culture.


Fiji remained a British colony for 96 years. The island nation achieved full independence on October 10, 1970. The country was designated a member of the British Commonwealth with Dominion status.

Tongans proudly declare that their country was the first Polynesian kingdom, the only kingdom still remaining in the South Pacific. While the monarchy existed since the tenth century, the current dynasty was established during the nineteenth century. Power struggles in the nineteenth century led to civil war. The victorious chief took the name George when he was baptized in the Wesleyan faith, in honor of the King of England. When proclaimed the king in 1845, he became George Tupou I. Known as the father of modern Tonga, the king outlawed the worship of old gods and established a constitutional monarchy. After his death in 1893, his great-grandson, George Tupou II, ruled until 1918. George Tupou II was succeeded by his 18-year-old daughter, Salote. Queen Salote was beloved by Tongans as an intelligent, compassionate woman concerned with issues like health and medicine. She was also well-regarded internationally. The Tongan queen died in 1965, and was succeeded by her son King Tupou IV.

France gained control of Tahiti in 1842, making it a colony in 1880. The tropical paradise attracted numerous artists and writers. French artist Paul Gaughin moved to Tahiti in 1891 and immortalized the French Polynesians in his vivid paintings. In 1946, French Polynesia became a French overseas territory. France's president is the chief of state.


According to an article in Pacific Tide, the first known Tongan in the United States was a man who came to Utah in 1924 for additional education. The Tonga man accompanied a Mormon missionary returning to the United States. The missionary went back to Tonga and returned to Utah with another Tongan man in 1936. The first Tongan family came to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1956. This marked the beginning of a small migration of Tongans, Tahitians and Fijians.


Historical accounts and church records sometimes provide a more detailed look at migration and settlement patterns than government documents. This is especially true for Tongans, Tahitians and Fijians. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) records list immigrant admission by country of origin, with Tahiti classified as part of French Polynesia. Other government entities used the much broader classification of Asians and Pacific Islanders. This category covers people whose ancestors were the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands. By examining both official documents and less formal accounts, a picture emerges of the settlement patterns of Pacific Islanders of Tongan, Tahitian, and Fijian ethnic ancestry. While more information is available about the Tongan experience in America, some could apply to Fijians and Tahitians. Three Fijians were admitted to the country in 1953, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) records. An equal number were admitted in 1954, along with three French Polynesians and one Tongan.

Waves of Tongan immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. More came during the 1970s, and there was a boom in the 1980s. According to INS records for the 1950s, the admissions records were: 71 Fijians in 1959, 14 French Polynesians in 1956, and 14 Tongans in 1958. During the 1960s, a record 368 Fijians were admitted in 1968. The low figure for annual immigration was 45 in 1967. French Polynesian immigration never rose above the 49 admissions in 1965. Tongan migration ranged from four people admitted in 1960 to a record 119 in 1966.

During the 1970s, Fijian migration ranged from 132 admissions in 1976 to 1,000 in 1979. The record year for French Polynesian migration was 1975, when 47 people were admitted. Tongan migration ranged from 133 admissions in 1976 to 809 in 1979. Fijian migration jumped during the 1980s, when admission ranged from 712 people in 1983 to 1,205 in 1987. French Polynesian migration ranged from 19 admissions in 1986 to 59 in 1984.

In the next decade, a record 1,847 Fijians immigrated to the United States in 1996. The record year for the other groups was 1991 when 1,685 Tongans and 31 French Polynesians entered. During 1997, admission was granted to 1,549 Fijians, 21 French Polynesians and 303 Tongans.

Migration for some Pacific Islanders began when the Mormon church sent students to Hawaii for higher education, and then to the United States. Others were brought to this country to work on Mormon church construction projects. Military service after World War II also brought Pacific Islanders to the United States. They settled in California and Washington, especially Southern California cities like San Diego, Oceanside, and Long Beach.

Tongans lived in large west coast cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco until the 1970s, when the national recession crippled California's economy. Tongans began moving to North Texas during the 1970s and 1980s, seeking employment near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Approximately 1,800 Tongans lived in the area in 1993.

According to a 1996 report to the U.S. Catholic Conference, of the approximately 20,000 Tongans in the United States, 4,500 were Catholic. The report said significant populations lived in California in Sacramento San Francisco's Bay Area and in the Southern California cities of Los Angeles, Paramount, Anaheim, Upland, and San Bernardino.

In 1992, approximately 6,000 to 8,000 Tongan Americans lived in San Francisco's Bay Area. Washington State's Asian and Pacific Islander (API) population grew 59.1% in six years, from 215,454 in 1990 to more than 342,900 in 1996. In California, the API population rose from nine percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 1996, according to a 1998 state report. That increase primarily came from migration, with 452,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders migrating to the state between 1990 and 1996. Net migration averaged 71,000 from 1991 to 1996, while the natural increase (births minus deaths) averaged 46,600. From 1993 to 1996, this was the only group to experience positive net migration to California.

There were 7,700 Pacific Islanders living in Utah in 1990, according a state report. The total consisted of 3,611 Samoans, 1,760 Samoan and 1,334 Hawaiians.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Language was the first barrier for Pacific Islanders who migrated to the United States. A limited knowledge of English caused problems when islanders sought housing, employment, health care, and legal representation. The Catholic Tongan Community of North Texas chronicled the language barrier in a 1993 report. That report was presented at a regional meeting that drew Catholic Tongans from locations ranging from San Francisco, California, to Sparks, Nevada. Those who attended concluded that bilingual educational programs were needed, along with youth-oriented programs to keep students in school and away from gangs and drugs.

Similar concerns were voiced at the 1998 Polynesian Summit conferences, organized by the state of Utah Office of Polynesian Affairs (OPA). That year, Tongans in Salt Lake City raised the issue of racism at a September meeting regarding ethnic fairness in the legal system. Some Polynesians said they were afraid to use the legal system, believing that it "works against them because of the color of their skin," according to a meeting report.

Although Pacific Islanders faced intimidating challenges to assimilation, their cultural concept of community provided valuable support. Just as the village used to help its members, assistance came from organizations such as the OPA, Catholic Tongan groups, and the Pacific American Foundation. In addition, Tongans, Tahitians and, Fijians participate in the Pacific Islander Festival, a weekend event held annually in Southern California since 1990.


Kava (pronounced "kah-vah"), a nonalcoholic drink made with the ground root of the pepper shrub, is a ceremonial beverage for Tongans and Fijians. Called yaqona ("yanggona") in Fiji, the mildly intoxicating beverage is consumed during important occasions like births, weddings, deaths, and the arrival of a dignitary. Kava is also drunk socially. Etiquette requires visitors to Fijian villages to bring it to the chief. Other etiquette includes the wearing of shoes in the house. Also, it is considered rude to touch a Fijian on the head.

Centuries of island life are reflected in South Pacific legends that sometimes have some truth. According to an ancient Fijian myth, the sound of women singing lures massive turtles from the sea to hear their voices. The Calling of the Turtles is a reality that continues today. Turtles rise to the water surface to hear the singing of women villagers from Naumana on the island of Kaduva.

Another fact-based legend concerns firewalking. Fijians from the island of Bequa walk across hot rock without burning their feet. The firewalkers say the god Veli give them the power to do this. Another Fijian legend has to do with the presence of red prawns in cliff pools. Supposedly, the prawns were a gift to the daughter of a Vatulele chief. The red crustaceans disgusted her, and she had them thrown from a cliff.

Polynesian mythology traces the beginning of Tonga to the hero Maui. When Maui was fishing south of Samoa, he pulled up Tonga's islands one at a time. He walked across some islands and flattened them. The untouched islands remained mountainous.


Tongan proverbs relate wisdom based on the island people's reliance on nature. The proverbs include: "There is a silver lining in every cloud"; "You will know the expert navigators when it comes to a rough time in the ocean"; and "Treat your plantation well for you are not the last person to use it".


While language and traditions changed as Polynesians migrated to other islands, Tongans, Tahitians, and Fijians still hold communal feasts. In an out-door pit that Tongans call an umu ("oo-moo"), a whole pig is roasted with foods like chicken, fish, meat, sweet potatoes, fish and taro (a starchy tuber). Tongans cook the feast with taro leaves, while Tahitians and Fijians add banana leaves.

Pacific Islander cuisine includes numerous types of fish, fresh fruit like bananas and coconut, breadfruit, cassava (a starchy plant), and sweet potatoes. Corned beef is also popular and is cooked in Tonga with taro leaves. Tongans also combine taro with other meats, or serve it with onions or coconut milk. A favorite Tahitian dessert is gateau a la banane ("ga-tow a la bah-nan"), which is French for banana cake.


Since Pacific Islanders had no form of written language for centuries, music was a crucial means of expression. Musicians play the guitar and traditional Polynesian instruments like the pahu (a wood drum), ukelele, uli uli (small gourds), ipu (larger gourds), puili (split bamboo) and Tahitian drums made out of hollowed logs. Pacific Islander voices also unite in church choirs.


Tongans wear ta'ovala ("tah ah vah-la"), a woven-leaf mat worn around the waist. Women sometimes wear a smaller version called a kiekie ("key-ah keyah"). Ta'ovalas come in everyday and fancier varieties for special occasions.

In Tahiti, people wear a tiare (a hibiscus blossom) behind one ear. A flower worn behind the right ear means the man or woman is available. When placed behind the left ear, the wearer is spoken for. The tiare is also added to a crown of braided palm fronds and greenery. Fijian dancers wear skirts of shredded leaves and paint their faces for war dances.


Pacific Islanders' songs and dances commemorate major events or activities, like the beaching of a canoe. A highlight of a Fijian feast is the meke, which combines dance, song, and performance. The Tahitian aparima portrays the everyday life of a young woman. During the Fijian war ceremonial dance, men holding spears dance to the tempo of bamboo sticks tapped on the ground by seated musicians.


Christian beliefs mean that Pacific Islander Americans celebrate feast days like Christmas and Easter. Tahitian Americans in the United States may also observe the French Polynesian celebration of Bastille Day on July 14. This date is known as France's independence day in French-speaking countries. July 4 is celebrated by Tongan Americans as King Taufa 'ahau Tupou IV's birthday and a national holiday.


For centuries, Pacific Islanders regarded obesity as a sign of wealth or nobility. This excess weight can lead to diabetes. Hypertension is another concern for Pacific Islanders. A 1998 California Department of Health Services report indicated that Pacific Islanders living in the state were "less likely to be aware of their hypertension [and] to be under treatment with medication" than people from other ethnic groups. The report concluded that Asians and Pacific Islanders were likely to rely on traditional remedies, perhaps because of the lack of health care providers of from their ethnic background.

Pacific Islanders face other health issues. Pacific Islander Americans have the highest mortality rates for most cancers and incidences of chronic diseases, smoking, and binge and chronic drinking. In addition, they have the lowest rate for prenatal care and immunization of children. The Oahlana Laulima project sought to address these concerns. The project's goal is a national organization to serve Pacific Americans health concerns. This will be accomplished through "advice, education, information, service and volunteer efforts." The foundation noted a connection between poor health and the cultural insensitivity of health care providers. That insensitivity would make people reluctant to seek preventive care. Economics also played a role, with access to care limited by lack of medical insurance, high costs of care, and medical treatment.

The first phase of Oahlana Laulima involved a one-year study of successful health care centers for underserved minority communities in California, Washington, Virginia, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. During the next phase, the "Family of Working Hands" in 1997 applied what they learned at the Carson Community Health Center in Carson, California.


Fijian, Tahitian and Tongan are part of the large Austronesian, or Malay-Polynesian, family of languages. Also included are languages such as Hawaiian and Samoan. During centuries of migration to other islands, the words changed. However, some similarities remain. The word for fish is ika in Fijian and Tongan. In Hawaiian, fish is i'a. Language varies within a country, too. Fiji has 300 dialects as well as the Standard Fijian language.


In Standard Fijian, there is one sound per vowel. These are pronounced: "a" as in "father," "e" in "get," "i" in "police," "o" in "most," and "u" in "zoo." When two vowels are together, the first one is pronounced. A long vowel is marked with a line called a macron over the top. Pronunciation is lengthened. Most Fijian consonants sound the same as English. The exceptions are: "b" is pronounced "mb;" "d" is pronounced "nd;" "th" as in "that;" "g" as in "ring;" "k," "p" and "t" are pronounced without a puff of breath; the "r" rolled as in Spanish; and "ng" as in "hunger." Common Fijian greetings and expressions include: Ni sa yadra —good morning; Ni sa bula —hello; sa moche —good bye; yalo vinaka — please; and vinaka —thank you.


Tongan vowels are pronounced as follows: "a" as in "can;" "e" as in "bet;" "i" as in "in;" "o" as in "not;" and "u" as in "put." Consonants "f," "h," "l," "m," "n," and "v" are pronounced as in English, However the "k" is pronounced like the "gh" in "gherkin;" the "ng" as in "singer;" the "p" is midway between "p" and "b;" the "s" has a slight "sh" sound; and the "t" is between "t" and "d." Accent stress is usually on the last syllable. An apostrophe called a glottal stop (') represents a space and a slight pause. Common Tongan greetings and phrases include: Malo 'e lelei —hello; malo tau ma'ue pongipongi ni — good morning; faka molemole —please; malo —thank you; fefe hake —how are you?; and nofo —Good bye.


Tahitians vowels are pronounced as follows: "a" as the vowel in "cut"; the "e" say; an "i" in "police"; "o" as in "old"; and "u" as in flute. The consonants "f," "m," "n," and "v" are pronounced as in English. But "h" is pronounced as in "hat" unless it follows an "i" and comes before "o." An "h" in "iho" has "sh" sound. In other consanants, the "p" as pronouned in "spoon" (shorter sound); the "r" is sometimes rolled; and the "t" as in "stop." Common Tahitian greetings and phrases include: Ia ora na — good morning; nana —good bye; maruru —thank you; Manuia —cheers; marite —American; and aita p'ape'a —no problem.

Family and Community Dynamics

The phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" is not a cliché for Pacific Islanders. Children raised in Fiji, Tonga, and Tahiti are taught they are part of an extended family, one that works together for the good of the community. Tongans call this nofo a'kainga, which means everyone counts on one another. Cooperation starts in the home, continues at the village level and on through to the country. Children are taught to respect everyone, especially their elders. In the Tongan household, the father is head of family. Children usually remain at home until they marry.

Sometimes Pacific Islander immigrants are surprised by the differences between cultures. An 18-year-old Fijian American, Saul Brown, wrote in the 1997 Pacific Islander Festival program that growing in the United States was difficult. Growing up in Southern California, he wrote that he "felt a little embarrassed" when friends asked about the Fijian masks and other items in his home. However, Brown discovered the friends were interested in learning about his culture. Friends found the kava socials "strange but interesting." He sometimes envied theirs junk food meals of pizza and hamburgers. Another shock was discovering that people at school were not raised the way he was. "I was taught to never answer back, to always use my manners and to show respect."


Parents who migrated from the Pacific Islands sometimes did not realize the importance of education in the United States. For example in the North Texas Tongan Catholic Community, one out of five students graduated from high school. Few of those went to colleges and universities. The high cost of an education was a factor, along with a lack of knowledge about financial aid.

During the 1990s, organizations such as the Utah Office of Polynesian Affairs (OPA) and The Pacific American Foundation developed programs to keep students in school. In Utah, 21.1% of Pacific Islanders dropped out of school. To lower that statistic, OPA director William Afeaki reinstated the Polynesian Young Achievers Award in 1997, which honored exceptional students. Similar programs were instituted in Southern California with tutoring and scholarships set up the Pacific American Foundation.

In San Diego, The Pacific American Foundation began concentrating on the educational needs of Pacific Islanders in Southern California, The foundation celebrated several successes in 1996. Volunteers tutored 10 students tutored for the Scholastic Aptitude Test; all enrolled in two and four-year educational institutions. A scholarship recipient graduated from Southwestern Law School. The foundation also founded a parent-student counseling program. Families of pre-teenagers learn about prerequisites and experience needed for higher education. Older students and their families learned about college financing, career counseling, grants, and loans. During 1999, the foundation worked to set up a learning center partnership program to assist the parents of Pacific American children between the ages of three and eight. The foundation also worked on a program to help parents to obtain computers and software. By May of 1999, the foundation offered two scholarship programs and intensive SAT tutoring for high school juniors and seniors.


A traditional Tongan wedding is a family event. After the couple falls in love and decides to become married, the family plans and pays for the event. Special attention is paid to the elders' opinions.

A special ta'ovala is worn, made of a soft, silky ngafi nagafi ("gnaw-fee gnaw-fee"). This traditionally comes from Samoa to symbolize the connection with Polynesia. The ngafi nagafi is brownish-colored and decorated with feathers. Husband and wife wear the wedding ta'ovala again on the first Sunday after their marriage.


For Tongan funerals, a dark brown ta'ovala is worn. The size of the ta'ovala indicates the mourner's relationship to the deceased. A larger ta'ovala signifies a closer relationship. When a relative or close friend dies, adults and children wear black. When a member of the royal family dies, Tongans wear black for a year. Families set the length of mourning times when a member dies. Tongan Americans carry on the tradition of the extended family preparing food and gathering for up to five days after the funeral.


The efforts of Christian missionaries in the Pacific Islands are reflected in the faiths of Pacific-Islander Americans. There are 8000 Pacific Islander members of the United Methodist Church in the United States. The church has 23 Pacific Island United Methodist congregations and 97 Pacific Island clergy. Catholics accounted for 4500 of the 20,000 Tongans living in the United States. Fijian-Americans and Tahitian-Americans are also adherents of both faiths.

While denominations vary, Pacific Islander tradition is interwoven with religious services. Worshippers value a service in their native language. Tongan-American ministers and congregation usually wear ta'ovalas.

In Tonga, where the king is the head of the church, religious observances affect the calendar. Government and shops close down for Good Friday. Tongans in the United States try to take that day off. Tongans in both countries attend services leading up to the sunrise Easter service. Government also takes a vacation that extends from the week before Christmas until the first week in January. Tongan Americans know that this is the best time to visit family in the South Pacific.

Pacific Islanders of all faiths participate in out-reach programs. The Catholic St. Joseph Women's Association in San Bruno, California, was formed in 1977 to raise funds for seminarians studying for the priesthood in Tonga. In 1984, the association began issuing scholarships and awards for educational and athletic accomplishments.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Although the U.S. Department of Labor does not have specific employment information about Pacific Islanders, other accounts provide an economic picture that can be bleak. During the recession of the 1970s and early 1980s, Tongan-Americans began migrating to North Texas. Most who migrated found employment at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, primarily in food service and transportation. Others did cleaning work at the airport, office buildings, movie theaters, and restaurants. Most jobs paid minimum wage, so many Tongans worked two jobs or overtime to support their families. Children of working age were urged to find jobs to help support their families. In addition, Tongan-Americans performed yard work to supplement wages. These experiences were common to other Pacific Islanders living in the United States.

Language was often a barrier towards obtaining higher paying work. Another obstacle was the Pacific Islanders' centuries-old traditional values, which were at odds with the American idea of success. "In Tonga, people live in extended families in which everyone helps each other through agricultural gain. There are very few who hold professional jobs," Tongan Percival Leha'uli wrote in the program for the 1994 Pacific Islander Festival.

In Tonga, men are the providers, while women are the homemakers. People value the simplicity of their lives. "The idea of moving to a technological society is foreign to most Tongans," Leha'uli wrote. That situation isn't limited to Tongans. "While there is a growing number of Pacific Americans owning small businesses, it is a daily challenge just to stay afloat," David E.K. Cooper wrote in an essay on The Pacific American Foundation website. In 1999, he was president of the foundation, which strives to improve the economic outlook. The foundation's Pacific American Leadership Center offered its first forum in Claremont, California, in April of 1998. The eight men and eight women who attended the two-day seminar learned how to develop leadership skills within a cultural context.

Politics and Government

Pacific Island migration largely began after World War II. For some men, military service was the route to that migration. Although the U.S. government did not track active duty service by ethnic origin until decades later, an examination of the 1999 U.S. Department of Defense manpower records provides some information. However, these records don't provide the full picture. The military ethnic classification for active duty personnel places Tongans and Tahitians in the Polynesian category. Fijians are among the groups categorized as Melanesian.

As of March 31, 1999, the Army's ranks included 534 Polynesian men and 113 women. There were 34 male officers and five female officers. Also in that Army at that time were 102 Melanesian men and 14 women. Two men were officers. In the Navy on March 31, 1999, there were 251 Polynesian men and 46 women. Nine men and four women were officers. On duty at that time were 29 Melanesian men and 11 Melanesian women. Three Melanesian men and two women were serving as officers. On March 31, 1999, five male Polynesian officers, 56 enlisted men, and nine enlisted women were serving in the Marine Corps. Melanesians accounted for nine of the Marine Corps officers and 11 enlisted men. On duty with the Air Force on March 31, 1999 were 13 Polynesian men, and three were officers. Of the 11 Polynesian women serving, one was an officer.

A look at all branches of service indicated that the Coast Guard attracted the most Pacific Islanders, a people descended from wayfinder origins. On March 31, 1999, 795 Polynesian men served with the Coast Guard. Fifty-one were male officers. Of the 167 Polynesian women on duty, 10 were officers. At that time, 143 Melanesian men were on active duty with the Coast Guard, and six were officers. Also serving were two Melanesian women.


It has long been a practice for people who migrate to the United States to send money home to their families. This is called a remittance, and remittances were an important source of revenue for Tonga according to the CIA 1998 World Fact Book.

Tonga is an agricultural-based economy. The country exports copra, vanilla, and squash pumpkins. Sugar is Fiji's chief export. Tourism is an important industry. Approximately 250,000 people visit Fiji each year. Tourism accounts for 20% of French Polynesia's gross domestic product. France began stationing military personnel in French Polynesia in 1962. Since then, a majority of the work force is employed by the military or in tourism-related jobs.

Individual and Group Contributions


Manisela "Monty" Fifita Sitake (1952– ) was one of three founders of the Literature and Arts Heritage Guild of Polynesia in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was born in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, and graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, with a degree in English literature in 1984. He, Filoi Manuma'a Mataele, and Sione Ake Mokofisi started the guild in 1998 to help Polynesians with artistic talents and skills. Sitake has served as the guild president since its inception.

Sitake is also an author who writes in both Tongan and English. He prefers to write in his native tongue to preserve the Tongan language, and to encourage the importance of Polynesian literature. Sitake also plays guitar, ukulele, harmonica, and trumpet, and has recorded a compact disc mixing Tongan and western music.

Filoi Manuma'a Mataele (1968– ) is vice president of the Literature and Arts Heritage Guild of Polynesia in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was born in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. He is also involved in small business and management.


Sione Ake Mokofisi (1951– ) was editor in chief of Polynesia Magazine, the online magazine published by the Literature and Arts Heritage Guild of Polynesia. He was also a founder of the Literature and Arts Heritage guild. Born Nukunuku, Tongatapu, Tonga, he is a freelance writer/photographer and has served as the editor of Ke Alaka'i (on the Brigham Young University-Hawaii campus), Alaska Sports, and Rugby magazines. He worked as a reporter at Hawaii's Northshore News, Anchorage Daily News, Alaskan Journal of Commerce, Alaskan Oil & Natural Resources News, and Tongan International, a Tongan newspaper based in New Zealand. He plays the guitar, ukulele, and was a member of the band, the Liahona Seven.


Filia (Phil) Uipi (1949– ) was the first Polynesian to become a member of the Utah House of Representatives and the first Tongan to become a legislator outside of Tonga. He was born in Fotuha'a, Tonga. Upon graduating from the University of Utah Law School, Uipi was admitted to the state bar in 1986. A Republican, he was elected to two terms in the state legislature, representing District 36 from 1990 to 1994. He chaired the House Judiciary Committee during his second term. His voice was among those rallying for the establishment of the state Office of Polynesian Affairs (OPA). After leaving elected office, he served as the first chairman of the OPA's Polynesian Advisory Council. He served on other advisory boards, and by mid-1999, he was the only Tongan lawyer with a private practice in Utah.


Viliame Niumataiawalu is a longtime advocate of Fijian self-improvement and cultural awareness. He moved to Sacramento, California, in 1993 and became concerned about the plight of Fijians in America. In 1994, he founded the American Fiji Islanders Association, a nonprofit organization. Its goals included recognition of Fijian contributions and providing assistance in immigration, housing, employment, and language skills.

While working in Fiji and Australia during the 1960s, he became concerned about laborers in the business where he worked. Believing they were underpaid, he helped organize a Credit Club. Members made bi-monthly contributions into a fund that was used to provide low-interest loans for social and educational needs. When working in Utah from 1990 to 1992, he was active in the Asia and Pacific Islanders Association. He promoted education and social development for Pacific Islanders. He returned to Fiji in 1999.


KPOP-AM (1360).

"Ports of Paradise" is a weekly syndicated one-hour radio program featuring South Seas music from the 1920s to the present broadcast Sundays at 9 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Syndicated broadcasts are heard in: Albany, New York, on WLAL-AM (1190); Las Vegas, Nevada, on KLAV-AM (1230); and Anchorage, Alaska, on KKHAR-AM (590).

Contact: J Hal Hodgson, Executive Producer.

Address: P.O. Box 33648, San Diego, California 92163.

Telephone: (619) 275-7357.


Online: .

Organizations and Associations

Literature and Arts Heritage Guild of Polynesia.

The nonprofit guild in Utah was founded in 1998 to develop and promote the literacy and artistic talents of Pacific Islanders. The organization's goals include providing opportunities for artists to market their work and youth programs in areas such as literacy and historical traditions.

Contact: Manisela "Monty" Fifita Sitake, President.

Address: P.O. box 57978, Murray, Utah 84157-7978.

Telephone: (801) 495-3560.

The Pacific American Foundation.

The foundation was founded in 1993 as a national organization dedicated to improving Pacific Islanders' lives by helping them to help themselves. The foundation educates and provides information to decision-makers and leaders about areas of public and policies that affect Americans who trace their ancestry to the Pacific Islands.

Contact: Al Pauole, Executive Director.

Address: 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-3123.

Telephone: (206) 282-4993.

Online: .

Polynesia, Polynesia!.

Founded in 1996, this is a nonprofit cultural heritage society that focuses on Polynesia as a connective group. The group's purpose is to promote and preserve Polynesia's culture. The organization presently offers classes, seminars, workshops and meetings to enhance cultural understanding. It also is to provides support, counseling, and assistance to needy or troubled families.

Contact: Vern Chang, President.

Address: P.O. Box 365, Fremont, Californian 94537-0365.

Telephone: (408) 972-0107.

State of Utah Office of Polynesian Affairs.

One of four offices created in 1996 by Governor Michael O. Leavitt to advocate and promote cooperation and understanding between government agencies and ethnic citizens. The governor appointed William Afeaki as the first director.

Contact: William Afeaki, Director.

Address: 324 South State Street, Fifth Floor, Salt Lake City, Utah 84111-2830.

Telephone: (801) 538-8678.

Tongan History Association.

Academic association founded in 1989. Main purpose is to study Tongan history up to the present.

Online: .

Museums and Research Centers

Center for Pacific Islands Studies.

Contact: Letitia Hickson, Editor.

Address: University of Hawai'i at Manoa, 1890 East-West Rd., Honolulu, HI 96822.

Telephone: (808) 956-7700.

Fax: (808) 956-7053.


Polynesian Cultural Center.

The 43-acre site has re-creations of the villages of Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji and four other Polynesian islands. An open-air shopping village features arts and crafts. Cultural demonstrations include dance performances.

Contact: Lester Moore, President.

Address: 55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, Hawaii 96762.

Telephone: (808) 293-3333.

Sources for Additional Study

Kay, Robert F. Tahiti and French Polynesia. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1992.

Pacific Tides, November 1997.

Pacific Islander Festival Programs, Los Angeles and San Diego, California, 1991-1999.

Paulole, Al. The Pacific American Review, Spring 1997.

Stanley, David. Fiji Islands Handbook. Chico, California: Moon Publications, 1993.

Swaney, Deanna. Tonga. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1994.

Ungar, Sanford J. Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

The United States Catholic Conference, Office for the Care of Migrants and Refugees, Washington, D.C: reports from 1993-1996.

Williamson, Robert W. Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia. Reprinted. New York: AMS Press Inc., 1977.

Also read article about Pacific Islander Americans from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Being a recent Fijian immigrant ,it gives a great insight into how migration from Fiji to USA initiated and the obstacles faced by the immigrants.I would have loved to support in education of the Fijians towards this new transition had I had been here before.However its not too late yet.I am available to support American Fiji Islanders Association should my service is seen worth to contribute. I had been a teacher in Fiji for 20 years.
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M Burnell
Swain, Liz (2010). "Everyculture. A Countries and Their Cultures: Pacific Islander Americans". Retrieved July 3, 2015.

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