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 7


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.”

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 [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds