Polynesian Days festival brings island culture to Utah, raises money for Maui
This year is the first time in the festival’s eight-year history that Polynesian Days also serves as a fundraiser
Aitofi Liavaa, 13, was raised in West Jordan. But every Labor Day weekend she connects with her islander roots by competing in the Tahitian dance competition at the Polynesian Days festival.
"Every year, I think it becomes more special," said Aitofi, who is Tongan. "I love being at Polynesian Days, especially because my family's here, my dance team is here and just the cultural environment in general makes me feel happy."
She said island dancing is a way to tell stories and express emotions.
"Competing in it and feeling all your emotions just makes you feel really good inside," Aitofi said.
Frank Tusieseina, the festival's executive producer, said Polynesian Days isn't just a way to celebrate and unite the local Polynesian community. It's also a way for them to share their culture with all Utahns by bringing a mini version of Laie, Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center to Lehi.
"It's like a big Polynesian party," Tusieseina said.
‘From the Utah ohana to the Maui ohana’
This year is the first time in the festival's eight-year history that Polynesian Days also serves as a fundraiser, "Kokua for Maui," to gather funds for islanders affected by what may be the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
Tusieseina said "kokua" means "help" in Hawaiian and that Polynesian Days will serve as a fundraiser not only this year but also for the next five years to continually support the island's long-term rehabilitation.
"It's one thing to send emergency help, but then they're going to need a home, a car, a job and all those things, so every year we'll be raising money for them," he said.
Tusieseina, who is Samoan and was born in Laie, said the wildfires have hit home for him.
"It's one thing to know that people are losing their homes and their lives, but to know that they're from the same culture and that they probably grew up with the same challenges as you, it's a lot more heartfelt," he said.
He said the donations will go "from the Utah ohana to the Maui ohana," referencing the Hawaiian word for "family."
Even after the festival ends, Tusieseina encourages supporters to visit polynesiandaysutah.com to donate to the cause with the hopes of raising more than $1 million over the next few years.
About the festival
The three-day Polynesian Days is running at Thanksgiving Point's Electric Park on Friday and Saturday as well as Labor Day on Monday, featuring around 200 performers. It kicked off Friday night with a fire knife dancing competition. Saturday's main event was the Tahitian dance competition, interspersed with live music, drummers and dance performances. Competitors and performers came all the way from the Pacific Islands, Japan and across the United States.
Monday will end with a bang, with a 2 p.m. ceremony honoring Maui, and an evening concert including big names in the Polynesian community like Sammy Johnson, Spawn Breezie, DJ BAGG and Hawaiian comedian Augie T, along with local artists Pheliphel, HEEVA and Rose on the Moon.
Moana Havea-Angilau, founder of Polynesian Days, is Tongan and was raised in Utah. She said she started Polynesian Days to promote cultural awareness and education for Polynesians in Utah.
"It's a great one-stop shop, you can come enjoy your Labor Day and get a cultural experience," she said.
Food vendors at the festival represent local Polynesian-owned cuisine, including Kai Pops island-style popsicles, Lou's Island Dawgs and Rosie's Island Spot complete with boba, smoothies and musubi. Clark's Island Donuts also promoted its "Malasadas for Maui" campaign, with 10% of their proceeds going to support wildfire victims in Maui.
Havea-Angilau discussed how several of the food options show the collaborative influences of Polynesian and East Asian cultures.
"We can showcase how all the foods that we enjoy and love across multiple cultures are influenced by other people, and I love how that brings us together," she said.
Other Polynesian vendors are selling souvenirs, such as jewelry, leis, island clothing, artwork, themed T-shirts and home decor this weekend. Activities for all ages include face painting, ukulele lessons, jewelry-making and bounce houses.
‘A seat at the table’
Along with fundraising for Maui, Polynesian Days also offers a local educational impact. This year, the festival is partnering with the Lava Foundation, which raises awareness for human sex trafficking. The Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition has also set up a booth to help teach healthy habits and raise awareness for the commonality of diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems within the Polynesian community.
Another booth offers free college education consultations. Tusieseina explained that he hopes this festival inspires and encourages young Polynesians.
"It means everything because what we want more than anything for the rising generation of Polynesians, our young people, is for them to get a seat at the table in technology, in law, in medicine, in all the industries," he said.
Tusieseina pointed out Polynesians are often successful in professional sports, but that he wants them to see there are even more possibilities they can achieve.
"We just need to give them that vision," he said.
With one day left in the festival, Havea-Angilau encourages everyone to come out on Monday to support Maui and experience the Polynesian culture.
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