Polynesians form tight-knit community

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2008

Juneau residents dreaming of island paradises during mid-winter's miserable weather had three Pacific Island-themed events to entertain them on Saturday.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Juneau Hula Halau class offered its first hula dancing class at JRC The Alaska Club. The Juneau-Douglas High School band had a "Hawaii Calls" fundraiser to send the band to Honolulu. And there was a Luau complete with Polynesian dances at the Tlingit and Haida Community Council as a fundraiser to send Glacier Valley Elementary School kids to Washington, D.C., to perform a play at the Kennedy Center.

Juneau's island connection doesn't end with hula classes and fundraisers.

A proud Hawaiian and South Pacific Islander (commonly referred to as Polynesian) community exists in Juneau, though just how many people it has is a matter of debate, even among the people who compose it.

Leimoni Matunding grew up in Waikiki on Hawaii's island of Oahu. At the hula dance class at JRC she said there are about 2,000 to 3,000 Polynesians in Juneau.

Not quite, said fellow Hawaiian and hula instructor Kalani Kanahele, who lives in Haines.

"There's no Polynesians in Juneau," he said.

Kueni Maake is from Tonga and helped organize the fundraiser for the Glacier Valley students. She estimates there's a couple hundred Polynesians in town.

The U.S. Census bureau isn't much help. Its most recent data said that in 2006 there were 0.6 percent of Alaskans who were solely Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders. If the percentage holds true in Juneau, there would be about 180 people of solely Hawaiian or Pacific Island origins in the city. But many Polynesians are of mixed background and wouldn't have been counted in those census numbers.

Regardless of numbers, Polynesians in town are a tight-knit group, Matunding said.

"We all have a common ground," Matunding said. "We like to share our culture."

Maake agreed and said that while there's no formal organization of Polynesians in town, there is a strong informal network of families.

"We get along, we do things together," she said. "We're like one big family."

Close family ties are the reason most Polynesians come to Juneau, according to Missouri Smyth, who's of Samoan decent. Many Polynesians move to Juneau from bigger cities such as Los Angeles because it is a better place to raise a family, she said.

Maake said her brother was the first person from Tonga to move here, and family members gradually followed when told of the jobs that were available. She said there's a similar pattern among Polynesians in town.

"The thing is, coming to Juneau, coming to America, there's more opportunity," Maake said.

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