Hula in the high country


On the surface, not much remains of Iosepa, a Polynesian settlement of Mormon converts that briefly flourished in Utah’s Skull Valley. A few gravestones and a fire hydrant linger in the desert where once more than 200 Hawaiians, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders settled to be closer to the mother church in the late 19th century. (By 1917, the church had sent most of them back to Hawaii to found a new temple, leaving Iosepa a ghost town.)

But now Benjamin Pykles, an anthropologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam is digging below the surface.  The first archaeological survey of Iosepa—the Hawaiian word for “Joseph” after missionary Joseph Smith—has so far turned up an assortment of typical pioneer paraphernalia: shotgun shells, glassware, buttons. But fish bones, chicken skulls and other food finds supplement the official history of these unusual pioneers. (According to the Iosepa Historical Association, settlers stuck to their culinary traditions when possible. For instance, they replaced traditional island poi with a cornstarch and flour concoction.)

Pykles has also discovered that the town was arranged on a grid with the church in the center, like other Mormon towns. And it was built to endure.

"This was supposed to be a permanent settlement," Pykles told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Its size and the amount of money they put into it points to that conclusion."

Though Utah’s original Polynesians left the desert in the dust, the state now has the second largest population of Polynesians in the country. And they are proud of Iosepa.  Hundreds go there every year for a Memorial Day celebration, complete with roast pork and hula, with nary a drop of saltwater in sight.

For more HCN coverage of Utah's Polynesian community, see The Gangs of Zion.

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