Juneau Color: Tongan family makes a village in Southeast

Family relocates from South Pacific islands

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

First came Leitoni Tupou in 1984.

Leitoni, now 44, worked as a corrections officer, and is currently a parole officer.

"He met his wife, Lori, in Hawaii and she was from Juneau," said Leitoni's sister Kueni Tupou Ma'ake. "They moved here, and in 1985 invited me to visit from California."

Kueni chose to make Alaska home, too. "Juneau is beautiful and peaceful and the people are more friendly than in California. They have the patience to listen, to see what you are trying to express even if you have an accent."

Kueni owns and operates a Mendenhall Valley child-care center that serves as the hub of a village for her extended Tongan family, which has migrated to Juneau over a period of years, beginning with Leitoni.

"My brother started the whole tribe," Kueni, 41, explained. "It's traditional that the oldest son runs the family. Everyone has a voice, and we discuss, but he makes the final decisions."

Tonga is a group of tropical islands in the South Pacific. Wages there are low, about $1,300 a year, and job opportunities are limited. Tongans must travel to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and the United States for education beyond high school, and few return, Kueni said. Those who settle in the United States can support themselves and have extra to send home.

Like middle Europeans and Scandinavian emigrants of a century ago, Tongans arrive one or a few at a time.

"First one (family member) establishes himself, others come, and we help them. Then they will reach out and bring others," Kueni said. "We've had up to five families in this house."

Kueni had met Tevita Ma'ake in California, and they married in July 1988. Meanwhile, she worked in child care and earned her Child Development Accreditation credential. In 1992 she bought Ever-growing Montessori School. The business, re-named ABC Center, has moved to Jennifer Drive near Glacier Valley Elementary School.


The center is licensed for 30 children age 6 weeks to 10 years. It has all the usual accouterments, such as cots and quilts, blocks and toys, storage cubbies and a backyard playground. It also has a flow of uncles, aunties and a grandma-in-residence, Kueni's mother.

In September 1988, Kueni's parents, Sione and Heleine Tupou, moved straight from Tonga. They brought four of their 11 offspring; six now reside in Juneau. Sione had been a church custodian back home and landed the same job here before retiring. Heleine's charges at the child-care center include eight babies and her grandsons, Fe'ao and Va'esiu Tupou's youngest, Roy, 18 months, and Garth, 2 1/2.

Kueni multi-tasks easily. Without missing a beat, she segues from conversation to directing her young charges. "If you want to help other people, go ahead," she calls to a girl eyeing a bottle of water. "Pour from that bottle into cups." Or, "It was very nice of Tony to share."

"I believe if you train up kids with love and lots of attention in their early years, they grow up to be good men and women. If we wait until they are teen-agers, it's too late," she said. "Material things are not as important (in child-raising) as time."

In 1991, two Tupou brothers and a sister arrived. The men remain: Paul, 39, and Feao, 37, both ramp workers for Alaska Airlines.

In 1993, Uncle Feleti and Aunt Nita and their two children arrived. Feleti Tupou, 65, works for the Gastineau Humane Society. Nita works at ABC. Son Ongo works for Alaska Airlines, while young Leitoni works at Jensen's Home Furnishings.

In 1995, Tevita's sister's family, surnamed Sekona, arrived plus a brother, Kuli, his wife, and three children. In 1997, more members of the Ma'ake family joined the clan.

Kueni's youngest brother, Romney, 24, works for Costco mornings, and ABC afternoons. After 11 years in Juneau, Romney says, "It's a new place for us but we learned to love it."

Every Wednesday morning, the ABC kids take the bus to the Juneau Pioneers' Home, said Joyce Levine, activities coordinator. They sing, dance, address residents by name and hug them.

"Kueni and her family encourage the kids to be affectionate with the residents. The kids are able to show genuine warmth and do a lot of touch and contact. It's wonderful; I love them."

The clan, now 65, keeps growing. Two more families, including the Toetu'us, arrived last month, and Leitoni and his wife Lori are expecting a baby any minute now.

"We believe in being together," Kueni said. "We don't know where these kids will be in 40 or 50 years, so they need to bond now and understand who they should be when they grow up."

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