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.

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."

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.

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."

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