SALT LAKE CITY — Land-locked, desert Utah may seem an unlikely Mecca for Polynesians, but a lot of them have come here. Pacific Islanders are an important part of the tapestry of peoples who contribute to the life we know in Utah.
In fact, Census numbers show that 25 percent of all ethnic Tongans in America live in Utah. The state has many Samoans and strong communities of other Pacific Islanders.
An LDS missionary brought the first Tongan to Utah in the 1920s. Three decades later the first Tongan family came to Salt Lake City. This marked the beginning of a small migration of Polynesians from many different faiths. Utah now has more Tongans than Hawaii and an equally large Samoan population. These strong pacific island roots are well known to leaders of the Polynesian countries.
Over the summer, Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho of Tonga visited to rededicate the Tongan United Methodist Church in West Valley.
"I think it is a blessing for all of us to see her," said Ana Makalemani Namoavea.
And just last week the prime minister of Tonga and the head of state of Samoa visited Utah.
"I think it's a high honor for me that they are taking time to meet me," said Prime Minister Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.
His highness, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi toured the LDS Church History museum. His own family history now has ties to Utah.
"I did meet some of my family yesterday at brunch. Like the Mormons we are very family oriented," he said.
That commitment to family is an integral part of the Polynesian community. Each culture also celebrates distinct traditions and language. It is that heritage that many of the older generations are hoping to preserve as they help their youth navigate towards a successful future.
They face challenges: achievement gaps in schools, gang violence and substance abuse are problems among the youth. But community leaders believe they have solutions to help them.
"As a community we are working with the families (to) become more culturally relevant."
This week leaders within the Polynesian community are gathering for a conference to address the challenges and discuss the solutions. The Deseret News is sponsoring the event Wednesday at the Joseph Smith Memorial building.
This Pacific Islander Conference is open to the public. But adults — not children. A complimentary dinner will be served between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Breakout sessions will follow.