Luau in the desert
Descendants of Mormon Polynesian pioneers return to Skull Valley to hula in the tumbleweeds.
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For years, Iosepa quietly crumbled into the desert. But after World War II, new waves of Polynesian pioneers began to arrive in Utah, drawn by the Mormon church as well as by economic opportunity. Utah now has a higher percentage of Pacific Islanders than any state except Hawaii.Skip to next paragraph
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Poulsen, a Mormon who grew up in New Zealand, came to Utah via Hawaii with his family in the 1970s. When he visited Iosepa with his Hawaiian mother-in-law, whose grandmother is buried in the cemetery, "she was really mad it was in such disrepair," he remembered. "Families started coming out here every year for a few hours, just to clean graves and talk story."
The gathering soon became a weekend affair, with dozens and then hundreds of Hawaiians and other Polynesians in the Salt Lake City area strapping mattresses and chairs to their car roofs and heading to the desert. They danced the hula among the tumbleweeds and cactus, pulling spines out of their feet.
"People said, 'Just go to Iosepa, and you'll have a good time,' " said Cory Hoopiiaina, a descendant of one of the two families that remained in the area after Iosepa was dissolved.
Modern-day pioneers bring campers and diesel generators and come from Idaho, California, Nevada, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Organizers estimate that only 15 percent have relations in the Iosepa cemetery. "The rest come here just because it's a Polynesian thing," said Poulsen.
The original Iosepans included not only Hawaiians but also a handful of Samoans, Maoris, and even a Scotsman, and the modern-day gathering reflects this diversity. "Sorry, don't speak Spanish," read one young girl's T-shirt. "I am Samoan."
Flags of the Polynesian nations and the US now stand in front of the cemetery, snapping in the stiff wind. The Iosepa Historical Association has built a permanent pavilion and a kitchen. And more and more people keep coming, drawn by family and friends.
"Every year, I wonder if we're going to have enough food," said Poulsen, who prepared for 1,400 last weekend.
On Saturday evening, as a procession of Polynesian bands and dance groups performed on stage, brawny young men pulled racks of tender, steaming pork out of a pit barbecue. They pronounced the meat perfect, and the crowd lined up for large helpings.
For many Mormons of Polynesian descent, this place has become a kind of native ground. Though some immigrants still miss their island homes and return as often as they can, many say that life in the Pacific is too expensive – and besides, their families are now in Utah. So they come to Iosepa to laugh over college yearbooks from Hawaii, "talk story, "and teach their children and grandchildren how to make leis and lau lau (a treat of pork and fish wrapped in taro leaves).
For the younger generations born in Utah, Iosepa is also refuge, a quiet place to reflect. "It's home," agreed Keawe Aikau, a young father who is part Hawaiian and was raised in Utah and has come to Iosepa for 25 years. "I'll come here at other times during the year just to relax, and I'll see other people here, doing the same thing."
On Sunday morning, the crowd slowly emerged from tents and campers, drawn to the pavilion by a breakfast of eggs, sausage, rice, and Spam. One small group gathered in the far corner of the cemetery, around a gravestone erected just two years ago – the first burial at Iosepa in nearly four decades. Mabel AhQuin, whose Hawaiian Mormon family has come to the Memorial Day gathering for almost 30 years, chose to be buried here, and this morning, her family surrounded her again.
Later, Mabel's husband, William, stood before the crowd and remembered his wife's decision. "I invite all of you to choose your spot in Iosepa," he said, as the audience responded with gentle laughter. "Make your reservations now."