The island nation of Tonga is spread over 36 inhabited islands in the South Pacific.
The shores Tongans call home, however, extend much farther than those islands. Wherever they chose to build their homes, they try to re-create a bit of Tonga, said Tevita Ka'ili, a doctoral student at the University of Washington and paper presenter at the Tongan History Association Conference this past week.
Ka'ili discussed Tonga diaspora, or the breaking up and scattering of Tongans. Specifically, he mentioned how in his cultural discussions with Tongans stemming from his doctoral research, the Tongans were able to make a symbolic return to their homeland.
"Part of the diaspora is that (Tongans) want to return to home," Ka'ili said. "They are trying to re-create Tonga here." When Tongan-Americans talk to academics about their culture, as they did through Ka'ili's research, they are able to symbolically return to Tonga re-connecting them to an important part of their culture through the work of a Tongan, he said.
Other conference topics mirrored Ka'ili's theme. They ranged from the effect of the media on Tongan culture to health issues in the Utah Tongan community to a court interpreter's take on cultural conflicts in the legal system. As an international conference that is held every two years, alternating between Tonga and other locations, the topics had to engage participants from the corners of the globe.
"We are extending our shores to other countries," said Fahina Tavake-Pasi, conference co-organizer.
Conference participants hailed from Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and West Valley City and that thrilled Tavake-Pasi.
"This is something the community at large could benefit from," she said, and she estimated that 400-500 Utah Tongans had stopped in at some point during the week-long conference.
The official title, "Takanga 'Enau Fohe," means a "coming together of their oars," said Mata Finau, a minority affairs liaison for the Salt Lake mayor's office. The title reflects melding of Tongan culture with other world cultures, a theme in all conference papers.
In organizing the conference, Tavake-Pasi wanted to include presenters from all walks of life. Thus, medical doctors and professionals rounded out a presenter's field comprised primarily of professors and students. Each talk dealt with some form of cultural conflict traditional Tongan culture clashing with American culture in the medical field, the courts, academics, or economic development.
Finau said the Tongan community is the second-largest growing minority group in Utah, doubling its population in recent years. Census figures are difficult to come by regarding Tongans because they are lumped together with other Pacific Islanders and Asians in census race categories.As an end to the five-day conference, attendees dedicated a memorial at the International Peace Gardens Saturday in the Tongan garden.