The Gangs of Zion

In Mormon Country, young Polynesians search for identity — and for escape from a seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence

  • At the Manhattan Club in downtown Salt Lake City, Pacific Islanders flashed gang symbols and both traditional and gang-related tattoos. The day after this photo was taken, several of the men (not those pictured) attended services at the Mapusaga Ward, a Samoan-speaking congregation of the Mormon Church

    JT Thomas
  • Samoan-Americans Fiailoa and March Malaeulu and their daughter Chessleeann, members of the Mapusaga Ward, mix Mormon culture with Island culture. Thanks in large part to the church, Pacific Islanders are perhaps Utah's fasted growing ethnic group. Mapusaga ward leaders estimate that their congregation grows by half every year

    JT Thomas
  • Young Samoans pray during Sunday school at Mapusaga. Insiders say that gang members use church services and events to network and recruit on the sly. A Web site for Pacific Islanders in Utah recently editorialized, 'Most Tongan gang members in Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We've always known this, yet we don't talk about it..

    JT Thomas
  • Miles Kinikini, who now sells trucks and SUVs at Larry H. Miller Truckland, flashes signs associated with the Tongan Crip Gang. When the police arrested them, says Kinikini, the first question he and his friends would ask was, 'This won't prevent me from going on my mission, will it?' Kinikini says he's settled down in recent years, but there are still temptations: 'There's a bullet hole in my front window. I wanted to avenge that, but I thought better.'

    JT Thomas
  • Members of the Salt Lake City Police Department's Metro Gang Unit keep a close eye on the crowd outside Club Mangattan, where a young gangster was shot earlier this year. In the first six months of 2005, Salt Lake area gangs were responsible for 132 assaults, 20 robberies, 16 drive-by shootings and two homicides

    JT Thomas
  • West Valley City police officer Umu Manatau with his police portrait and family photos. Three of Manatau's five sons have tangled with the law for their involvement in gangs. 'I was not aware at all,' he says. 'The way they did it was secret.'

    JT Thomas
  • Umu Manatau (L) sits with friend and fellow police officer Cliff Chase. Once, when Chase heard a rival gang was targeting Manatau's sons, he sat in his car outside their house, guarding it for three straight nights. Polynesian gang members once shot up Chase's house, just missing his sleeping nephew

    JT Thomas
  • Kuli Pupunu says he has left his gang days behind. Today, he works full time, goes to school at night, and makes music with his friends in a basement studio. The studio is affiliated with Aiga Records, an all-Polynesian indie, hip-hop, hard-core and rap company that tries to put a positive light on Polynesians. 'Some of us are gangsters, some of us were gangsters, but we do this (make music) because it is a better thing to do for all Polys.'

    JT Thomas
  • A sign on Skull Valley Road points to Iosepa, the site of a former settlement of Mormons from the Pacific Islands. The church evacuated the settlement in the early 1900s, after disease and harsh winters took a serious toll on the population. Despite the hard times, many settlers cried on their way out of Iosepa, prompting the name, 'the trail of tears.'

    JT Thomas

Page 2



Fifty miles west of West Valley City, past the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake and graffiti-covered ruins of truck stops, is a place called Iosepa. It lies at the base of the Stansbury Mountains in Skull Valley, the third in the series of high-desert basins bracketed by mountain ranges that reels all the way to the Sierra Nevada in California. Now little more than a cemetery, Iosepa is perched on the hillside above a corridor of sparkling wetlands.

More than a century ago, a group of Mormon converts from Hawaii, who came to Utah with missionaries who first sailed to the Pacific Islands in the 1840s, started a new life here.

The Islanders first came to Salt Lake City. But in part because of cultural differences between Polynesian Saints and white Saints, in 1889, about 75 Islanders left to start a new settlement in Skull Valley. The settlers named the place Iosepa — “Joseph” in Hawaiian — after Joseph F. Smith, a nephew of the church’s original prophet, who served his mission in Hawaii. They irrigated and farmed, planted fruit trees, and became famous for their yellow roses.

But Iosepa was a rough go for islanders used to the bounty of the tropics. Irrigating the dry country, and trying to grow traditional foods such as seaweed in briny reservoir water, were intensely hard work. They suffered from the harsh winters and endured an outbreak of leprosy. Between 1907 and 1916, about 10 percent of the population died. In 1915, the church built a temple in Hawaii, and over the course of the next few years, church leaders paid for the remaining Iosepans to return there.

Iosepa exposed the difficulties of starting over in this harsh, isolated environment, even for the tenacious Mormon Saints. This early ethnic ghetto also revealed that Zion’s many tribes might not settle together so seamlessly.

Still, the church continued to proselytize throughout Polynesia. In Mormon churches and schools, missionaries spread heroic stories of the prophet Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young and his Utah pioneers. By the 1960s, they had converted so many Islanders that some church leaders claimed that Tonga would become the first Mormon country in the world.

The Latter-day Saints and the Polynesians forged a powerful cultural bond, based on shared values of family and authority. In Mormon doctrine, absolute obedience to God through one’s father, a bishop or an apostle is “the First Law of Heaven.” Polynesian children are also taught that obeying their parents is of paramount importance.

“The LDS Church is more in harmony with our culture and ways than any other church,” says Cliff Chase, a West Valley City police officer and a member of the Mapusaga Ward, a Samoan-speaking congregation of the Mormon Church. “In a sense, we were already Mormons.”

Chase, like other Mormons, believes the Islanders’ destiny was pre-ordained. According to traditional church teachings, Polynesians and American Indians are Lamanites, a tribe of Israel that was wicked; as punishment, God colored their skin dark and banished them to the wilderness, where they would stay until the Mormons saved them.

“Saved from the wilderness” is not exactly how many Islanders would describe their arrival in Utah. Many of them were unprepared for the realities of urban and suburban life.

“I thought it would be a place for just Mormons,” says Mike Brunt, who came to Salt Lake City from Western Samoa in 1981, and now runs a Boys and Girls Club recreation and education center on the city’s West side. “I was so naive.”

His first clue that all was not as he had imagined came as his plane from Hawaii descended into Salt Lake International Airport: “Everything was so brown and looked dead,” Brunt says.

Lise Tafuna’s family immigrated to Salt Lake City from Tonga via California in the late 1960s. The day after they arrived, it snowed; she didn’t know what it was.

Nonetheless, the Islanders settled in. They spiced up the normally bland Latter-day Saint ward houses and Sunday services with their tropical flower leis, lava lava skirts and sandals. They formed brass marching bands, played rugby and cricket, drank the intoxicating island beverage made from kava root powder, and received the king of Tonga on visits to this new outpost.

Still, members of the generation that immigrated to the Salt Lake Valley felt the difference every day between the humid islands and the high desert, the village and the city, Tongan and English. This harsh change generated inner turmoil, especially among young Islanders. Tafuna, who had been a star pupil in Tonga, ran away from home for several months when the differences between her family and her peers at West High School became overwhelming.

Isi Tausinga, whose family moved to Salt Lake from a Tongan village in 1974, when he was 12, spoke no English and was lost in school. “I’d sit there and have no clue what was going on,” Tausinga says. “There were times when I wondered whether we’d made the right move.”

The first generation born in Utah had it equally tough, for different reasons. They knew nothing outside this dry, sprawling city in between mountain ranges. They spoke in unaccented English and carried American citizenship. Yet they still stood out. They were Islanders, but they were less sure than their parents of what that meant. Isolated from both their parents and their Anglo peers, they started looking out for each other.

“Everyone was going to football practice, and our house was the hangout,” says Fotu Katoa, director of the state’s Office of Pacific Islander Affairs, who attended Salt Lake’s East High in the early 1980s. “When we heard about Hispanics beating up on Polynesian kids at South High, we’d drive down from East to help out the brothers.”



Just as Salt Lake’s young Polynesians were beginning to band together, gangs crept in from Los Angeles. There, Latinos and African Americans were fighting over control of neighborhoods in communities like Compton, Lennox and Inglewood. Many Polynesians — Tongans especially — moved into these dangerous areas in the 1970s and ’80s, and the kids adopted the same self-defense tactics as their neighbors: They joined gangs, and eventually formed their own. The gangster life, with its money from drugs and quick elevation of status, was addictive.

These kids were familiar with violence. Many Polynesian males tell of punishment at the hands of their fathers or mothers. “We would always get the hell beat out of us,” says Pearl Masuisui, who grew up in East Palo Alto, Calif., and has roots in Samoa. He tells of receiving beatings with barbells and table legs. Once, he came home late from an amusement park and his father beat him so badly that he couldn’t go to school the next day because of all the cuts and bruises.

This family violence, combined with a hostile environment and resentment toward other kids who didn’t receive such treatment, fueled an anger that some Polynesians call “the beast.” “Because of that, I went crazy,” says Masuisui, who, with his friends — members of the gang Samoans in Action — looted houses, sold drugs and beat rival gang members. “I didn’t care about anything.”

This young generation of Polynesian gang members became so violent and troublesome that some parents sent their kids away. Many California families had relatives in Utah, and it is common in the islands for uncles, aunts and grandparents to raise children collectively. Quite a few gangbangers ended up in Salt Lake City, a place their parents presumed to be a gang-free haven.

Instead, the delinquent Polynesian teens found virgin territory and upstart gangs — many of which were Hispanic or black.

Miles Kinikini was one of Salt Lake’s early gangsters. Kinikini was the youngest of eight siblings; his Mormon parents had moved to Salt Lake City from Tonga before he was born. He says he first joined a gang when he was in third grade.

It was the mid-1980s, and he lived in Glendale, a heavily Latino neighborhood on Salt Lake’s West Side, where many Tongan families were moving. He realized he’d be in serious trouble if he were caught walking to school alone by one of the packs of Latino boys who prowled the streets. So at age 9, he allowed a group of older Polynesian kids to beat him up in exchange for letting him become a “baby gangster.”

Drive-by shootings picked up when Kinikini was in sixth grade, he says, and the gang started to sell more marijuana and cocaine. They waged street battles against Latino gangs like Varrio Loco Town.

Kinikini is small for a Tongan, but his unrestrained charisma propelled him to a leadership role in his gang. It was originally called the Tongan Coconut Connection. In 1989, when Kinikini was a freshman in high school, it became the Salt Lake branch of the Tongan Crip Gang, with the arrival of an “original” California gangster. Members of the Tongan Crip Gang wore white T-shirts or “wife-beaters,” Dickies and Nike Cortez shoes — and as much blue as possible. The gang had a leadership code, hand signs spelling out “Tongan Crip,” and graffiti to signal attacks on enemy gangs.

In 1989, in response to the rise in L.A.-style gang violence, the Salt Lake City Police Department organized the task force that eventually became the Metro Gang Unit. Isi Tausinga, Salt Lake City’s first Tongan police officer, was assigned to tackle Polynesian gangs. The problem was much closer to home than he supposed. “We would drive right to the address,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Holy smokes, I know these kids. I go to church with them.’ Some were my relatives.”

Kinikini, a cousin of Tausinga’s, hated the police officer. “We had no respect for him because we thought he was a sellout,” Kinikini says. “He was whitewashed.”

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