Island style: The rise of Anchorage’s Polynesian community

By Kirsten Swann

If you wandered through Downtown Anchorage the Saturday night before summer solstice, you may have caught the reggae music drifting up off F Street – local bands RnR and H3 performing for a tight crowd at Humpy’s Midnight Sun Splash.

The music has a catchy, island feel, and the performers themselves have Pacific Island roots.

Leave Downtown and go east up Mountain View Drive, and you’ll pass a Polynesian restaurant, a Samoan sewing shop, a Polynesian florist and a popular Hawaiian eatery – not to mention nearly half a dozen Samoan churches. On the west side of town, there’s Turnagain’s Didlika Park, adopted by the Polynesian Association of Alaska. Most local gas stations sell cheap spam musubi.

Fresh Leis

Anchorage is a city with visible ties to the Pacific Islands. Yet statewide, Alaska’s Pacific Islanders make up less than 2 percent of the population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Nearly 12,000 Alaskans share a Pacific Island heritage. Nearly 10,000 are Hawaiian, Samoan or Tongan.

Despite the relatively small numbers, Polynesian culture runs deep here.

Lucy Hansen, PAOA president, has spent the last decade trying to keep it that way.

“We try to keep what is important in our culture – in our history – and teach that to our kids,” said Hansen, sitting at Fairview Lions Park one Saturday afternoon.

It was the last day of the annual Juneteenth celebration, and a week before Polynesian Culture Flag Day. This year’s festivities mark the 10th flag day celebration in Anchorage.

The holiday commemorates the relationship between Samoa and the United States and the raising of the American flag on Tutuila Island in April 1900, and honors Polynesian-American service members.

It’s an important anniversary for Alaska’s Polynesian community, Hansen said.

A few decades ago, things were much different. There was no flag day celebration in Anchorage, and Alaska’s Polynesian population numbered in the hundreds. But when Hansen’s aunt married a military man and moved north in the ‘80s, her sister soon followed and before she knew it, Hansen was settling down in Anchorage, too.

That was the year she saw snow for the first time. She was born and raised in American Samoa, and Alaska seemed like a whole new world. It took some getting used to. As the years passed, though, it began to feel more like home. Hansen took her young children to story time readings at the Loussac Library and volunteered throughout the community

Meanwhile, Anchorage’s Polynesian population grew by leaps and bounds.

Families were drawn north by the economic opportunities, Hansen said. They heard about the plentiful fishing and the fresh, cool air – especially good for the elders. By 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Alaska’s Pacific Islander population totaled around 1,900. Over the next 10 years, that number doubled.

Many families settled in northeast neighborhoods. Mountain View became home to more Polynesian people than anywhere else in Anchorage, according to U.S. Census data.

With growth came new challenges, Hansen said. Preserving Polynesian traditions in a Western culture took work.

Growing up on the island of Ta’u Manu’a, she said, community life followed a time-honored order. Families follow a hierarchy – a chief, then grandparents and then parents. The chiefs would represent the families in community meetings; organizing community work, planning community events and enforcing community standards.

“The village raises the families,” Hansen said. “We don’t have homeless, we don’t have people living on the street.”

The culture she was born into was conservative and devout. Families followed curfews. Children practiced sitting while they ate. Women and girls wore long hemlines and sat with the soles of their feet away from the men in the room. God came first.

Thirty years ago, she carried those ways with her to Alaska. Today, she’s still working to keep them alive.

“Most of our kids, they were born in America, and they never know the culture and the history they have,” Hansen said. “It’s a respectful culture.”

In Anchorage’s Polynesian community, time and distance have changed some things. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, there’s no village curfew. Hemlines might inch above the knee. Kids eat on the go.

But the respect for family and strong sense of community are still the same.

In 2004, the Polynesian Association of Alaska came together for the first time in a little two-bedroom Mountain View apartment. There were 53 members and 19 board members, Hansen said, and they were concerned by some of the modern issues facing their community; issues with crime, poverty, health and education.

PAOA sought to organize the Polynesian community in Anchorage similar to the way things were organized in villages back on the islands. They met with the mayor, and in 2005, the newly formed association hosted its first Polynesian Culture Flag Day. The inaugural event drew more than 300 people.

Since then, the community has only grown.

By 2010, people with Pacific Island roots made up the fastest-growing group in Alaska, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. You could see the cultural presence across the state: Hula dancers performed at the Cama’I Festival in Bethel, and the Polynesian dance group Pacific Bloom took the stage at the Alaska Federation of Native’s Quyana Night. There’s a Polynesian Community Center that aims to “empower, perpetuate, and unify the Pacific Islander community within the state of Alaska.”

Pacific Bloom performs in Downtown Anchorage in 2013.

Pacific Bloom performs in Downtown Anchorage in 2013.

Anchorage’s first Polynesian Lions Club was chartered in 2013, the same year Hansen was honored by the White House for her work within the city’s Polynesian community.

By 2014, Samoan was the fourth most frequently spoken language in the Anchorage School District, behind only English, Spanish and Hmong, according to ASD.

And this year, the 10th annual Polynesian Culture Flag Day is set to take place during Anchorage’s official centennial celebration June 27 at Cuddy Family Park.

The Anchorage Assembly recognized the event with an official resolution. The festivities include more than a dozen local performers and more than two dozen vendor booths.

While PAOA has shrunk drastically over the years – Hansen said only about half a dozen active members remain – the Anchorage community is strong. From Polynesian-owned businesses to cultural events, Alaska’s fastest-growing demographic is easily one of the most visible.

The Saturday before the flag day celebration, RnR played F Street, celebrating solstice with hundreds of Alaskans in the heart of Anchorage. The band performed catchy originals and covers alike while people of all ages danced in front of the stage.

Ma’o Tosi made his way through the crush, holding a beer, snapping photos of the band and stopping to chat with people in the audience. Former NFL defensive end-turned-community advocate, youth mentor and property manager, Tosi is perhaps one of the most prominent members of Alaska’s Polynesian community. He knows why it is the way it is; small in numbers but big on influence.

It’s based on family and community, he said, and that can’t help but pull people in.

“It’s all love,” he said.

The music rose around him as the band struck up another song, and the crowd on the street cheered and danced some more.

Editor’s note: This article originally reported an incorrect percentage regarding the size of Alaska’s Pacific Islander population compared to the state population as a whole. The number is around 1.6 percent, not .016 percent.

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