Utah exhibit explores ‘collective rest’ in Pacific Island communities

The display will be at the Friendly Islands Tongan Festival on Saturday until 9 p.m.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rain falls as members of Denise’s Polynesian Creations group get ready to take the stage during the Friendly Island Tongan Festival at Jordan Park on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Looking at carved wood and bamboo headrests from the Pacific Islands in a museum can prove interesting.

At first sight, it shows how a sturdy arch could work as a pillow for individuals or families. But put into context, the artifacts tell more. They reflect the story of a people who value collective rest and cultural embrace.

That’s what ‘Amelia Afā ‘Aikona Niumeitolu intended when she put together the exhibit “Asoso: Resting Collectively, Rising Collectively,” which opened Friday night at this week’s Friendly Islands Tongan Festival in west Salt Lake City’s Jordan Park.

The display will run through Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

‘Aikona Niumeitolu wondered how her ancestors back in the 1500s and how Pacific Islanders in Utah thought of rest. She found answers in Utah, where one of the nation’s largest Pacific Islander populations lives, and in Massachusetts, where a collection of headrests from Oceania is displayed at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

The resulting exhibit is an immersive collection of photos, cultural objects, videos and stories by children, young people, elders, LGBTQ, Indigenous and Black communities.

“We wanted to have a platform,” ‘Aikona Niumeitolu said, “and turn up the volume on those voices.”

She and a team of volunteers from Utah were able to hold and touch the headrests for this exhibit. Now, they are sharing the experience, and plan to continue this work and tour other community spaces.

Jakey Siolo, a victim advocate who lives in Salt Lake City, said the project allowed him to share his perspective as half Samoan and a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I find a lot of rest in community work,” he said. But there are also things, he added, that have to be put to rest as well in different communities, such as colorism, homophobia and transphobia.

Sinia Maile, who grew up in a Tongan household in Utah, also shared her experience with racial identity conflicts.

“If you’re half-caste, you don’t feel like enough Tongan for the Tongans,” she said. “Or they’re not white enough for the white people.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sifa Kolo and Seti Hausia performs during the Friendly Island Tongan Festival at Jordan Park on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

These stories are shared among other cultural activities at the 25th annual Friendly Islands Tongan Festival, which features performances, sports, a traditional kava ceremony, food and vendors from Tonga and other Pacific Island communities.

Even on a rainy day, people gathered under umbrellas Thursday night to enjoy a barbecue while watching drummers and dancers in traditional attire.

“I see a lot of people coming down and bringing their children,” said Sesili Taukiuvea, who is on the advisory council of the National Tongan American Society and traveled from Ogden to attend the festival. “They want their children to know about our country.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Numerous Polynesian vendors set up for the start of the first day of the Friendly Island Tongan Festival at Jordan Park on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.