ANCHORAGE — This time of year across the country, gyms and auditoriums fill with robed students, “Class of 2013” balloons and the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” In Anchorage -- home to the highest concentration, per capita, of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders on the mainland -- another unique graduation tradition has taken hold among people from all backgrounds: the graduation lei. Draping a graduate’s neck with bands of candy and flowers has become as expected in many families here as watching a graduate fling a mortarboard cap into the air.
The entrance of Sullivan Arena, where high school graduations are being held this week, has the feel of a Honolulu tourist market, with five competitive vendors selling leis made of flowers, candy, shiny kukui nuts, green ti leaves and jewel tone yarn. The sweet smell of plumeria hangs heavy in the air. Sellers shout, “Flower leis! Candy leis!” over the noise of the crowds trailing in.
Wednesday afternoon, Amy Riley browsed boxed $20 orchid leis at a stand set up along the road across from the arena and decided on a couple for her son and his girlfriend, who were graduating from Service High School. Their family is Yup’ik, she said, but they like the lei as a way to celebrate graduation.
“Even though we’re not Hawaiian, they’re really pretty,” she said.
Vendors Summer Prescott and Carey Ofahengaue, both Hawaiian by heritage, own the Utah-based lei business LeiAway.com. This graduation season was their first selling flower leis in Anchorage, they said. Business has been better than they could have hoped, they said. Leis are a Polynesian thing, Prescott told me, but they spread the welcoming “spirit of aloha.” That appeals to everybody.
“Our people migrated to the mainland for opportunities,” Prescott said. “They are bringing that tradition with them.”
Their lei business tracks with what census data show are some of fastest-growing Polynesian communities.
“We’ve been to Washington, Arizona, Nevada, and we’re heading to Oregon,” she said.
Alaskans have always been connected to Hawaii. A five-hour flight away, it’s a popular vacation destination. Over the last 20 years, Alaska has become popular with Pacific Islanders as well. About three percent of Anchorage residents-- roughly 9,000 people -- now identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander alone or in combination with another race, according to the census. About half of those say they are from Samoa. The Pacific Islander population in Anchorage doubled over the last 10 years and experienced similarly rapid grown between 1990 and 2000.
Sisters Maria and Evangeline Morisa of Anchorage have been selling leis, made with Halloween candy, ribbon and cellophane, for graduations since 2001. They slowly built their family’s business to include mail order. Pictures of customers from around the country and the world were posted all over their lei table Wednesday. In the Pacific islands, leis might be a symbol of welcoming, part of a wedding costume, or even a funeral decoration. On the mainland, the women said, they’re most often a symbol of accomplishment.
“It’s saying, ‘you’ve done well,’ “ Evangeline said.
Leonee May, who isn’t Pacific Islander, bought three candy leis from the Morisa sisters for her sister, who was about to graduate. Her sister insisted, she told me. Other members of Leonee’s family bought leis too.
“(It will be) like, around her neck, choking her, yes,” May said.
That’s part of the fun.
Bobbie Hammond, whose twin daughters were graduating Wednesday, showed up at the Sullivan Arena with homemade money leis in Service colors. She taught herself lei-making with the help of the Internet, she said. Their family is white, it isn’t their cultural tradition, but she’d seen leis at other graduations and thought they’d be fun, she said. When I caught up with her, she was explaining to her daughters’ grandmother, Liz Jones, and her boyfriend, Hal Greeney, about the Anchorage lei tradition. They were visiting from Upstate New York.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Greeney said.
I talked for a while with Leilani Silao, who sat at the largest stand in the entrance of the Sullivan, pulling needles through plumeria, carnation and orchid blossoms. Her stand is operated mainly by relatives and “church family” from 1st Samoan Body of Christ Church, Silao said. Most of them are Samoan and many have spent time in Hawaii, she said. Their group was the first to set up a fresh-lei stand near the arena in the early 2000s, she said. They used to be at the corner of 15th Avenue and Ingra Street.
They might be responsible for igniting the lei trend in Anchorage, but the popularity has spawned lots of competition, she said. People are making their own leis now with everything from crochet to Saran wrap. There are so many vendors at the entrance of the Sullivan now, they are thinking of moving back to Ingra, she said. They expect to sell hundreds of leis this season between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, she said. Exact sales numbers are confidential.
“The smell makes me miss home,” she said, standing over a box of white plumeria that rode to Anchorage on a jet days before. “I was raised into (lei-making), it’s from the islands, our parents, our ancestors.”
Just before the green-robed graduates made their way to their chairs on the floor of the arena, Noemi Uri sat in the bleachers with a half-dozen candy and ribbon leis she made for her best friend, Alyssa Honeycutt. Uri walked Tuesday with her class at East High, she said. She showed me a cellphone picture of her leis, stacked chest to chin. I asked how it felt to collect her diploma and then have friends and family drape her with sweets and money and flowers.
“Great,” she said. “But it was very heavy.”