Nearly every Memorial Day weekend, the barren expanse of Utah’s west desert enjoys a small taste of tropical paradise.
Members of Utah’s Pacific Islander community head to the Iosepa Memorial in east Tooele County, where they celebrate their history and heritage. Sitting in the shadow of the Stansbury Mountains, this remote memorial consists of a cemetery and pavilion.
It also lies near the original site of Iosepa, a Native Hawaiian settlement at the turn of the last century.
“[The celebration is] an important identity-affirming experience for many Pacific Islanders,” said West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu. It allows them, he said, to “participate in a social gathering that honors traditions and history.”
Traditionally, the event takes place on Memorial Day weekend, a fitting date since the Iosepan celebration reflects the national holiday’s spirit of remembrance. It also comes during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
When the event takes place, people enjoy traditional performances, prayer and food — including huli-huli chicken and poi, a Polynesian staple made from fermented taro root.
This year, though, the event has been postponed. In a statement, the Iosepa Historical Society announced the celebration — which had been scheduled for May 28 and 29 — will be postponed “due to the ongoing uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.” No make-up date has been announced.
The historical society said the postponement doesn’t mean people can’t gather on their own. “We welcome you and your ‘ohana [family] to come and pay your respects,” the statement reads.
(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Deborah Hoopiiaina decorates the grave of her uncle, Conie Hoopiiaina, on May 26, 2018, as Hawaiian descendants gather to clean the graves of their ancestors in Iosepa, a ghost town in Tooele County that was once a thriving settlement for Hawaiians who immigrated to Utah. The celebration usually happens over Memorial Day weekend. This year's celebration, set for May 28-29, 2022, has been postponed due to concerns over COVID-19; no rescheduled date has been announced.
Fighting for survival
In the 1850s, Joseph F. Smith, nephew of church founder Joseph Smith, served his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaii, and local converts, eager to worship in the mecca of the Latter-day Saint faith, trickled into Salt Lake City some years later.
The city’s residents did not greet the transplants warmly. In her essay “Life at Iosepa, Utah’s Polynesian Colony,” historian Tracey Panek wrote that “racial prejudice contributed to tension between the Polynesians and the larger Salt Lake community.” One rumor claimed they were plagued by leprosy.
In 1889, a small group of Native Hawaiians and church officials chose to relocate the roughly 50 immigrants west of Salt Lake City to a ranch in the west desert, an arid and unforgiving landscape 75 miles away.
Sepa Faupula, a student and mentor at Salt Lake Community College, said their arrival must have been disheartening.
“I would feel like I was seen as unworthy,” Faupula said. “These people came over with this faith, only to be pushed aside.”
The Iosepans initially struggled to raise crops and to keep warm in winter, but eventually they found their footing. “Our people… have good relationships with the land,” Faupula said, referring to Hawaiians’ proclivity for agriculture, “so they were able to thrive.”
It didn’t happen immediately, though. The first winter was particularly harsh, Panek wrote, as “snow and icy gales forced everyone indoors, and crowded quarters led to an outbreak of influenza.” But the settlers grew accustomed to Utah’s climate, learning to prepare for the cold, and completing an irrigation system to allow for successful growing seasons. The development and sustained upkeep of the colony earned Iosepa the state’s “Clean Town” contest in 1915, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune in August of that year.
In 1916, Hawaii’s first Latter-day Saint temple was constructed, and within a year Iosepa was abandoned, as Hawaiian residents were now able to worship in their homeland. Whether the Iosepans left by choice or at the urging of the church remains unclear.
The settlers’ legacy
Today, there are almost 40,000 Pacific Islanders living in Utah, the vast majority in Salt Lake and Utah counties, according to the Utah Department of Health. Most are affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including 25 Samoan-speaking wards and more than 40 Tongan-speaking wards.
While some in the Pacific Islander community are aware of the role their forebears played in Utah history, this knowledge isn’t universal, Fitisemanu said.
“I think it’s generational,” he said. “My parents’ and grandparents’ generation[s] are more aware and more connected to the story and [the site].”
Awareness may not be the only generational divide.
“There’s been a resurgence of reclaiming our culture,” said Faupula, particularly among younger people, who, in today’s socio-political climate, are more apt to celebrate diversity, advocate for social progressivism, and take a less forgiving view of historical injustices.
Older generations might be more inclined to find inspiration in the Iosepans’ ability to overcome adversity, Faupula said. But “[younger people] feel a lot more resentment… [the Iosepans] shouldn’t have had to prove themselves,” she added, suggesting the establishment of a desert colony was an unfair obstacle for the Pacific Islander cohort to overcome in proving their worth to the Latter-day Saint congregation.
Will Stamp wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.
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