In Skull Valley, the abandoned settlement of Iosepa has become a pilgrimage site for Mormon Polynesians from across the West. Each Memorial Day, a celebration here attracts some 2,000 people. The historical society that takes care of the place has erected a large monument to the people who settled Iosepa. Around it wave the flags of the United States, Utah and seven Pacific Island groups. Carved on the monument is the Iosepa Song of Love, created by the pioneers who once tried to scratch out a living here:

    Iosepa my home of love
    Iosepa with its beautiful mountains
    Iosepa my best home


Cliff Chase comes here every so often, sometimes for the Memorial Day celebration. Many of his friends have family members buried at Iosepa. “It’s a way of us never forgetting that our people were here,” he says. “We were all one family at one time, before we all went to different parts of the earth.”

In the corner of the old Iosepa graveyard, the day after the performance at Glendale School, Cory Hoopiiaina, the president of the historical society, weed-whacks in preparation for a funeral the next day. Hoopiiaina’s Hawaiian grandparents helped start the settlement, and now he is proud to participate in its rebirth.

He describes the night they dedicated the monument, when a giant moonbow stretched from Deseret Peak over the valley. “The things that happen out here make you realize why you’re here,” he says.

Presently, a monster thunderstorm prowls to the west. Lightning rakes the peaks not far away. Hoopiiaina says not to worry — it will swirl around the valley, then drop over the Stansburys to the east, toward the Salt Lake Valley.

In a strange way, despite its history of trouble and tragedy, Iosepa has become a refuge for Polynesians. It’s their own place tucked in the hills, where they can watch over the barren, shimmering valley below. It’s a place to start over and renew.

And as of yet, Hoopiiaina says, Iosepa has not seen the Tongan Crip Gang, the Regulators or the Samoans in Action. “The first person who tags this (with graffiti),” he says, pointing to the cemetery, “we’ll put ’em in the ground.”


The Polynesians of Salt Lake City -- A Photo Gallery

Photo Essay: The varied lives of Polynesian Mormons

Writer Tim Sullivan, a native of Salt Lake City, has reported for the Salt Lake Tribune and The Oregonian

Photographer JT Thomas, a longtime contributor to HCN, maintains base camps in New York City and Western Colorado. He can be reached at