Asian Pacific Islanders (API) have been an integral part of our modern society. According to the 2000 US Census, the US population was over 281 million. Of these, a staggering number emerges. Nearly 12 million reported as being “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander”.
The islands of the south Pacific Ocean is called “Oceania” and comprise about 25,000 islands. In the Pacific islands, there are sub-regions known as Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Polynesia means “many islands” and is where the Kingdom of Tonga and Samoa can be found.
Inhabitants of the Pacific islands originated from southeast Asia thousands of years ago, between 3000 BC to 1000 BC. People left the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago and migrated to islands across the Pacific Ocean, eventually forming the indigenous populations of the Pacific Islands.
“Islanders” are no strangers to travelling and carving a better way of life for themselves. The wave of Tongan and Samoan immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1950s to 1960s through way of student visas or work visas. But, a few pioneers pave the way for them.
One of the earliest recorded travelers or “temporary migrants” was a Samoan shaman named Siovilli or Joe Gimlet. Captain Samuel Henry hired “Joe” as a deck-hand on a trading vessel. Through Joe’s employment, he made his way south to the island of Tonga. From there, he’s recorded to have headed eastward to the Society Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific, in the mid-1820s.
The first known Tongan in the United States is recorded to have arrived in Utah in 1924 for educational purposes and accompanied a Mormon missionary returning to the United States. The first Tongan family is said to have arrived in Salt Lake City, over three decades later, in 1956.
Military service was another means for Pacific Islanders to gain entry. Betty Patu, a local Samoan American, who is a long-time teacher at Rainier Beach High School, shares her memories of coming to America.
“I remember my older brother had stolen away on a navy ship to Hawaii at 10 years old,” Patu describes. “He lived in Hawaii with my uncle and then joined the Navy when he was 16 years old.”
Patu says after her older brother served in the military, he found his way to Seattle. Around the same time, Patu’s father was given a scholarship to attend Northwest Bible College in Kirkland. The scholarship only paid for schooling, so Patu’s father worked as a janitor at night. Her brother helped out financially by earning a living as a professional fire-dancer and boxer. Eventually, with the efforts of both men, the whole Patu family, one at a time, were re-joined in the mainland.
Difficulty assimilating to American culture persists today for Tongans and Samoans. Language and racism was and is a huge barrier in way of accessing housing, employment, health care, legal services and other needs. Patu recounts her own traumatic experience.
“Leaving my home was just devastating,” says Patu. “I didn’t know the language or anyone at my new school. I had no friends because the kids would make fun of me, especially my name. The teacher didn’t even call me by my name. She would just gesture or say, ‘Hey you,’ when she needed me. No one had even heard of Samoa, so they thought I made the country up and that I was really Native American.”
Patu says the 1950s were difficult, “because during this time, Blacks and Whites were still trying to work out their issues, so when we arrived it was like no one knew what to do with us.” She says her family felt discriminated against because of their skin color.
“I believe because of my experience in the school system, I really wanted to make sure no immigrant or refugee child had to go through what I went through,” says Patu.
The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child,” continues to ring true in both communities. They are taught everyone works together for the good of the community, not just the nuclear family. In the Tongan language this is known as “nofo a’kainga,” meaning everyone counts on one another.
Despite cultural barriers and institutionalized racism, Pacific Islander communities have established churches, social networks, community centers and cultural activities to continue their value of working together to help one another and many others.