Story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa
The sun is on its way down as guests begin to arrive en masse at Poamoho Park. They pull their cars in side by side at the edge of the wide, grassy field—the community playground of the Central O‘ahu plantation camp—and make their way to the tent, where the festivities in honor of recent graduates Isaac Ickes and Te-kie Pedro will take place.
Isaac, dressed in a striped shirt and tie and draped in lei, greets arriving guests with a generous smile. For the last forty-eight hours the newly anointed juris doctor from the University of Hawai‘i’s Richardson School of Law has been working hard with his family—aunties, uncles, cousins and all—to prepare for the party, setting up the tables and cooking for a few hundred people. His spirits are high. You’d never guess he slept for only two hours last night.
Isaac and Te-kie trace their roots to the tiny Pacific island nation of Tokelau. Their grandparents were among the first Tokelauan migrants to settle in Hawai‘i in the 1960s, and tonight they are celebrating, Tokelauan style—with food, fun and above all family. The DIY extravaganza boasts a pride and personal warmth that distinguishes it from starchy catered events in hotel ballrooms. The emcee invites everyone to indulge at the püpü table: “coconut, ‘ulu chips, raw fish, pig, all the good stuff!” When dinner is announced, guests form a long queue to assemble a plate from a massive buffet of home-cooked favorites.
Sixteen-year-old Denielle Pedro is getting ready to honor her older sister, Tekie, who just earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UH Manoa. This time it won’t be with a Beatles or Monkees tune like the ones they used to bellow together in the car, but with a traditional Tokelauan dance. Along with many of her younger relatives, Denielle is a student of Te Lumanaki o Tokelau i Amelika (“the future of Tokelau in America”). The class assembles every Saturday afternoon at a community center in Wahiawa to learn Tokelauan language, history and culture, taught by aunties and uncles and guided by elders.
“We learned the alphabet, numbers and body parts,” lists Denielle, who has attended Te Lumanaki since its inception eight years ago. Besides new vocabulary and verb conjugation, students are also taught legends of Tokelau. Often, Denielle explains, the older kids learn the stories and tell them to the younger ones. “There’s one about a tree that’s sad because people keep taking away its branches,” she recounts. “At first people needed the branches; then they just took them away for fun. The tree was all beaten up.”
Such legends are also embodied in song, and the students have been practicing numerous fatele (dances) for weeks in preparation for two graduation parties. Tonight the girls have donned royal blue dresses with matching necklaces and hair clips fashioned from lauhala and bright red anthuriums. The boys have traded their gym shorts for titi (grass skirts). Performing at family gatherings is standard ritual for the group, which is also frequently invited to dance at public venues, from the East- West Center to the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. “I’ve been practicing all day!” exclaims six-year-old Henua, the youngest student. Is she anxious about tonight’s performance? “I don’t get nervous when I’m dancing,” she replies, “because I know my cousins are all by me.”