Luau in the desert
Descendants of Mormon Polynesian pioneers return to Skull Valley to hula in the tumbleweeds.
If you want to test your pioneer spirit, come to Skull Valley. In this broad, sun-baked basin just south of the Great Salt Lake, dust devils rake the desert, rattlesnakes coil in the sagebrush, and the thermometer rockets between extremes. Rugged mountains, severely stunning against blue sky, rise to the east and west.Skip to next paragraph
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Even today, this is an isolated place. A century ago, it was the end of the earth.
In August 1889, a small group of pioneers set about surviving in Skull Valley. Their skin, used to the tropics, cracked in the dry desert air. Thoughts of their distant island homes, of lush blooms and ocean waves, must have pricked at them as they stared across the forbidding valley. Their story is a classic tale of courage and endurance, part of the pioneer tradition that still echoes through the modern American West.
But in Skull Valley, the pioneer story is told by Polynesians.
"Welcome to Iosepa!" Richard Poulsen's voice, its New Zealand accent undimmed by three decades in Utah, echoed across a busy festival pavilion last weekend. "Those of you in your camps, come out and talk to each other. You might find out you're related!" said Mr. Poulsen, who is part Maori.
Today, little remains of the Polynesian settlement of Iosepa but a few disintegrating foundations and a small cemetery.
Yet each Memorial Day weekend, hundreds – indeed, about 1,000 last weekend – gather in a weedy cow pasture to celebrate its history and the cultures it embodies. The partygoers roast pork until it falls from the bone, dance the hula, and weave family, faith, and multiple traditions into something that feels like home.
"We come here to be Hawaiian," said Ned Aikau, who's been attending the Memorial Day gathering at Iosepa with his family since he moved from Hawaii to Utah in the 1970s. "We come so that we can laugh loud, sing loud, and talk loud."
Most of the people at Iosepa last weekend were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – Mormons – and some were the descendants of converts who moved to Utah from Hawaii and other Pacific islands beginning in the late 1800s. The Mormon Church settled them in Skull Valley. Their new town was christened Iosepa – pronounced "yo-sepa," after Joseph F. Smith, a Mormon missionary who served in Hawaii.
The first Iosepans suffered through broiling summers, frigid winters, and even an outbreak of leprosy. A church-owned company ran the town, and in the early years, residents were paid for their labor in company scrip.
The Iosepans had left the tropics to be closer to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. But in Skull Valley, days of rough and expensive travel separated them from the temple. Despite the hardships – and some resentment over their transplantation here – few abandoned the valley, even when the Hawaiian government offered to bring them home.
The Iosepans gradually gained a foothold in the desert, and by the early 1900s they were growing rosebushes and raising enough wheat, squash, melons, and livestock for the company to turn a profit. Transportation improved, wages increased (thanks in part to strikes), and life in Skull Valley became almost enviable. But in 1915, the church announced plans to build a temple in Hawaii, and offered to pay for the more than 200 Iosepans to return to the Pacific. Most accepted the offer, but not without genuine regret. Iosepa, after all, had been their home for decades, and some knew no other.
The history they left behind remains contentious. Where some see only valiant endurance, others see racial segregation and mistreatment.
"There are a lot of indications that it was an exile," said Matthew Kester, a historian at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. "But that doesn't take away from the commitment of the people who lived here."