On a drizzly, gray day in May, the Huntsman Center on the U of U campus is jammed. Parking lots are full, and crowds of people—toddling children, gray-haired grandparents, teenagers, all huddled under umbrellas—stream into the arena. It’s Graduation Day for Salt Lake City’s West High. As the graduates take the long walk across the stage, their families applaud with culturally appropriate enthusiasm: The small groups of middle-class WASPy types stand and clap. But as the young Polynesian teens walk, their families—big groups of 15 or 20—rush to the rail and pile leis over their graduate’s head—leis made of flowers, paper and money. Some of the kids can barely see over the congratulatory leis stacked up to their noses as they accept their diplomas while their extended families clap, cheer and stamp their approval, an island of enthusiasm standing out in the huge facility among the more sedate applause. It’s bound to stand out. The merging of larger-than-life Polynesian culture into LDS Utah has always been tough, even though the two cultures have lived together in the desert for more than a century.
“Pacific Islanders have been in Utah longer than my Italian, Irish and Serbian relatives have been in the United States,” says University of Utah’s American West Center director Matt Basso. “And they’ve been in Utah in an unbroken chain, which is absolutely a remarkable story.”
In 1845, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent its first missionaries to the South Pacific Island of Tahiti. The Mormons weren’t alone. It was a period of zealous Christian proselytizing in the region. But the LDS missionaries had remarkable success in the Polynesian islands—perhaps because their belief that the native island peoples were descendants of the Lamanites, a group of people in The Book of Mormon, gave LDS missionaries extra zeal.