Tongan americans

by Amy Cooper


Tonga is an archipelago of 150 tropical islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, 36 of which are inhabited. The islands experience a cool season between May and December, and a warm season between December and May. The total land area is approximately 290 square miles. Together, the islands are known as the Kingdom of Tonga, or Pule'anga Fakatu'i'o and the capital is Nuku'alofa. Tonga is ruled by a constitutional monarchy that was established in 1875 and is headed by a King and a Privy Council. The population is composed of approximately 101,300 people, over 90 percent of whom are of Polynesian descent. The population is relatively homogeneous, though some Americans and people of other nations who are involved in Tonga's popular tourist trade also live on the islands. There are three primary social classes in Tonga: the King; a nobility made up of 33 families; and commoners.


Tongans are descended from Malaysians who settled on the main island group of Tongatapu about 3,000 years ago. Beginning in the 10th century, they were ruled by a line of sacred kings and queens called the Tu'i Tonga. The sovereign transferred power to his brother under the title of Tu'i Ha'a Takalaua in 1470. In 1600, power was transferred to the Tu'i

This Tongan American man is a primary participant in a luau.
This Tongan American man is a primary participant in a luau.
Kanokipolu, from whom the current rulers are descended.

The Dutch were the first to visit the islands. Jacob Le Maire arrived in 1616 and Abel Janszoon Tasman followed in 1643. In contrast to his predecessors' short stints in the islands, Captain James Cook visited the Tongans several times between 1773 and 1777. He named the Tongan islands the Friendly Islands because of the warmth shown him by the native inhabitants. In 1826, the Methodist Mission successfully introduced Christianity to Tonga, and Marists introduced Roman Catholicism in 1842. Leader Taufa'ahau, who converted to Methodism in 1831, ended the unrest and took the title King George Tupou I in 1845 and ruled until 1893. During his reign, Tonga was unified and became an independent nation, establishing its constitution in 1875. Germany, Great Britain and the United States all recognized Tonga's independence in 1876, 1879 and 1888, respectively.

George I was succeeded by his great-grandson, George II. Under George II's reign, Tonga renounced its independence in return for protection from German invasion. In 1900, it became a British protectorate, agreeing to conduct all foreign affairs through a British counsul and giving Britain veto power over its foreign policy and finances. Queen Salote Tupou III ruled from George II's death in 1918 until her death in 1965 and was succeeded by her son, who became Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. It was during his reign that Tonga became a fully independent nation, regaining control from Britain on June 4, 1970.


In 1990, Tongan immigrants to the United States numbered approximately 17,600 people. Tongons are considered Pacific Islanders, the smallest ethnic group represented in the country. Tongan Americans are often confused with Samoans and Hawaiians, and have only been enumerated distinct from Asians and Hawaiians since 1980. It is important to note that, in 1980, there were only 6,200 Tongan Americans. The Tongan American population rose 184 percent in ten years due to continued immigration. Mormon missionaries have been most instrumental in encouraging Tongan immigration to the United States. The Mormon Church has assisted Tongans in immigration to the United States by providing student and work visas, employment, and the opportunity for Tongans of marriageable age to meet spouses.

Tongans first came to Laie, Hawaii in 1916. The number of immigrants increased dramatically at the end of World War II when they came as labor missionaries for the Hawaiian Temple, Church College and the Polynesian Cultural Center. On mainland America, Tongans have settled primarily on the west coast, with 45 percent of Tongans living in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. Over 22 percent live in Salt Lake City or Provo. Tongan law guarantees each male eight acres of land, but Tongan men who leave the islands lose their right to land, thereby freeing land rights for other islanders. However, a shortage of land has resulted in increased immigration since the 1970s.

Acculturation and Assimilation


Because Tongan Americans are Christian, they celebrate the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. They also celebrate the traditional New Year's Day (called Ta'u Fo'ou ) during which children go caroling, singing hymns for friends and neighbors. Tongans celebrate Sunday School Day (called Faka Me ), which is something like a first communion celebration. Faka Me is celebrated on the first Sunday in May and gives the children in the church an opportunity to dress in new clothes specially made for the occasion. The families attend church and then host a feast for the children. Another important holiday is Tonga Emancipation Day, celebrated on June 4 in commemoration of Tongan independence from Britain, which was gained in 1970.

These Tongan American school children are  singing at a luau celebrating a new road being built in Milolii, Hawaii.
These Tongan American school children are singing at a luau celebrating a new road being built in Milolii, Hawaii.


Tongans have a strong heritage of poetry, set to dance and music. The lakalaka is a formal, traditional line dance performed by both men and women that uses commemorates people, historical events and places. New dances and songs are composed and choreographed for special occasions by Tongan poets. A more informal type of music is called hiva kakala (love songs). Young women perform solo dances ( tau'olunga ) to these songs at fund raisers. The paddle dance ( me'etu'upaki ) features dancers who carry paddle-shaped boards painted or carved with abstract representations of the human body. Other popular dances include the kailao, which is a war dance, and the ma'ulu'ulu which is an action dance similar to the lakalaka, but is performed while seated. Tongans have also developed a high form of harmonization for hymns.


Tongan and English are both considered official languages of Tonga, and therefore much of the population is bilingual. English is considered a second language, and schools primarily teach Tongan. Linguistically, Tongan is related to Samoan and other Polynesian languages. Among immigrant cultures, Tongans have the highest degree of native language spoken in American households. Second generation Tongan Americans are generally more fluent in English.

Family and Community Dynamics

Both Tongan island communities and Tongan American communities are generally organized around large family units called kainga . The kainga encompass all blood relatives and can include people other than blood relations. Tongans see themselves as members of several overlapping groups of descent, and each person has a rank within the family structure. In this complex system, Tongans trace descent through both the mother's and father's lineage, called unilineal descent, and have social obligations to both groups.

Tongan households are large and include many generations and relations. Aunts, uncles, cousins and others may all, at some time or another, live under the same roof, for the household can shift, depending on the needs of work, marriage or education. Tongans have very specific obligations to each family member, depending on rank. Though many Tongans feel that residence in the United States relieves them from the social obligations to village chiefs and others, visiting Tongan chiefs and their families are welcomed with gifts and exclusive treatment. Tongans rely on the status that their ties to the chiefs provide, and hold strongly to the protocol of social obligations. Many Tongans are also tied to large social groups, including church groups (probably the most important), sports groups, and community associations.


Many different family celebrations are marked in similar ways. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations and chiefly installment ceremonies are celebrated within families by the exchange of painted tapa cloth (a cloth made of bark), pandanus mats and feasts. Women provide the koloa, or ceremonial wealth, which is normally redistributed at the next event. Men provide the food for the feast. Recently, as a replacement for the traditional cloth and mats, women have begun to create quilts as koloa. This enables Tongans who have immigrated to the United States or other countries to participate in traditional exchanges more easily, because of the difficulty in obtaining tapa cloth and mats outside of Tonga.


Tongan women symbolically rank lower than their husbands, but are ranked higher than their brothers. A brother and all of his children are especially obligated to support his sister and her children. Tongan women spend much of their time in same-sex groups, providing child care, participating in sports and organizing church activities.


Christian missionary activity has taken place since 1797 and has had a great impact on the Tongan culture. Most Tongan Americans are Christian, and are primarily Methodist. In Tonga, 47 percent of families belong to the Free Weselyan Church. Sixteen percent of Tongans are Roman Catholic, 14 percent belong to the Free Church of Tonga, and nine percent are Mormon.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Tonga's economy is still agriculturally based, but there is a growing pattern of middle class Tongans who have been educated abroad who have started small businesses. Tonga also has a thriving tourist trade. Tongans living abroad in the United States, New Zealand or Australia, often send money to family members still living on the islands. Kainga participate in resource sharing characteristic of the traditional redestributive economy in Tonga. This economy is based on three core values: 'ofa (love), faka'apa'apa (respect) and fuakavenga (responsibility). Family groups rely on traditional economic cooperation to raise money for such important occasions as weddings, funerals, graduation and home building. Tongan American family groups regularly participate in this tradition, though they are not geographically near their families. Thus, the social structure necessitates that a Tongan American living in Provo, Utah, or Los Angeles, California, fulfill an economic obligation to a relative still living in Tonga. The same Tongan American may receive goods from Tonga for an event in the future.

Tongans are generally not college educated. The 1990 census shows that most Tongan Americans are working class, employed in service occupations and technical support. Men and women are employed at almost the same rate.


The Tonga Chronicle.

This online newspaper provides news from Tonga and includes an archive of back issues..

Address: PO Box 197 Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga.


Online: .

Tonga Page.

Personal website that provides photographs, maps, facts, and links about Tonga.

Online: tonga/index.html .

Tonga Online.

Professional website that provides current news and information about Tonga.


Online: .

Organizations and Associations

Maui Tongan Association.

A local organization supporting Tongans in Maui.

Address: PO Box 5103, Kahului, HI 96733-5103.

National Tongan American Society.

Founded in 1994, this group supporting Tongan Americans has annual membership dues of $20.

Address: c/o Ivoni M. Nash, 1175 W. 4515 S, Number 61, Salt Lake City, Utah 84123.

Pacific Islanders Cultural Association (PICA).

Supports Pacific Islanders in Northern California. Includes information on all Pacific Islands, links, the Northern California Outrigger Canoe Association, and Pacific Island News sources.

Address: PO Box 31238 San Francisco, CA 94131.

Telephone: (415) 281-0221.


Online: .

Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC).

This organization, founded in 1963, seeks to preserve Polynesian cultures, and provides information and education about arts, crafts and lore. Sponsors several recognition awards and funds the Institute for Polynesian Studies at the Brigham Young University—Hawaii campus.

Address: 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie, HI 96762.

Telephone: (808) 293-3333 or (800) 367-7060.

Sources for Additional Study

Barkan, Elliott Robert. Asian and Pacific Islander Migration to the United States: A Model of New Global Patterns. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Levinson, David. Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1998.

"Tonga" in Encyclopedia Britannica Online. =5 [Accessed June 1, 1999] .

User Contributions:

kaufale aloa tuakoi
do you know when the mormons come to tonga and what is it the name
i think this is a wonderful site for all people to go to and i just wish that you can just add a few more pictures. this is great that you actually have a site for us tongans but to also share our customs with everyone else. well i just wanted to say thanks.
cori swaner
Can you direct me to where I can find a Tongan care giver for an elderly woman who lives in Torrance, CA. This woman has heard wonderful things about another Tongan woman caregiver and is now convinced this is what she needs.

Thank you, Cori
Are there Tongan fellowships in the United States?
Is it true that Tongans and Samoans do not get along and why?
Are Tongan people welcomed or shuned when they return home to visit?
Are there any and what happens to feminist Tongan women?
After Christianity, what is Tonga's next largest religion?

Are there any "specific" health data on Tongans in California. Can you suggest how I should go about this? I'm actually gathering data for the San Mateo County Public Health Department and they want me to scoop up as much valid information there is about Tongans here in California, especially within the San Mateo County. I've collected alot of health information on Asian/Pacific Islanders but, it doesn't say much about Tongans specifically. With these health reports, the San Mateo County PHD will determine whether or not they should fund more efficient services to the Tongan Community. Please help me if you can! Thank you for listening!
tongan kid
can you please research your subject matter. there are many mispelled names and places.
please, do your homework.
My new family are Tongan,and I love them.They have expanded to a point of sharing many beautful stories of History to me.My Families names are Helaman and Viola Hansen.I gave them nicknames,Ha amonga is Helaman and Viola is Mamuta.They gave me the name Fatafehi.His brother is the King of Tonga.Some day I will come to visit the most beautiful people ,the "TONGAN PEOPLE".I have native american blood in me.With Irish,welch,Scots of Scotland.Helaman has a Television probrams called the Pacific Friendly Islands company.I love the Tongan people so much,I would lay my my body down to protect all my Tongan people.With love ,Fatafehi
Where would one go (in the San Francsico, CA area) to learn the tongan language? Also I am finding that a lot of tongan americans are of the mormon religion.. can you tell me more about that exposure to their culture. My sister (not tongan but mormon) is moving to Tonga and I am interested in visiting her at some point and wish to know more before I do. the language specifially. is this something i should look for on a tape/cd format like Rosetta Stone? Any input you could give me would be appreciated.
um...Tongans do get along with Samoans but some just don't, but i just don't know why?
& Tongans are welcomed back home by their loved ones so yeah we are really friendly so yeah.
I live in N.Z where you can find heaps of islanders (e.g Tongans,Samoans,Fijians,etc.) we haven't really heard about islanders around the world because we watch shows like the tyra banks show , Oprah , & the list goes on. & all we hear when they talk about race is Blacks,Whites,Hispanics & Asians.But do they really count us in the race subject? if so i wonder what they call us islanders?.
Hi, I am bringing my Tongan wife and our new baby over to the USA in June or July. We will live in Pennsylvania for a year or so and then we will move back to New Zealand where the majority of her family lives.

Does anyone know of any Tongans that live in or near Philadelphia area? I would like our son to learn to speak Tongan and it would be nice for my wife to be able to be around her culture while we are in the USA.

Thanks this was very interesting indeed to read :)
we are in need of someone who could translate Tongan language here in California USA. Do you know where we could find one?
Rescy, I attended BYU Hawaii and am able to help with your translation. I am fluent in both Tongan and English. If you will email me what you want translated and I would be happy to translate it for you.
Do you know who the first Tongan to migrate to USA?
Bless your heart for allowing Tongans and others to be informed with Tongan cultures. It was very interesting to read about the timelines of Germans stepping foot in to our Island. I don't know much about my culture due to living in America(it's a lame but honest truth) so again, thank you for sharing. God Speed!
a friend is asking about Caregiving for an older woman by Tongans and Samoans. Do you have info? thanks. S.F. south Bay, CA
Ann Lordeman
Would you know of any Togan caregivers in the West Hollywood area? My friend is in need of three days a week. We have had Togan caregivers for some of my family members in the past in the SF Bay Area and they are just such wonderful caregivers. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: