Skip to main content

West Valley City Journal

‘Empowerment Is Healing’ for Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference

Sports Illustrated model Veronica Pome’e’s brave domestic violence story helped others heal while in West Valley City for April’s National Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference. (Photo Credit Lauren Ulugia/ PIK2AR)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

The first Polynesian Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, a New Zealand cultural expert on prison lockdowns, and a Hawaiian social worker.

What unites them?

A mutual interest in contributing to an understanding of Pacific Island culture and informing others about unique ways of preventing, intervening in, and healing from violence.

“Empowerment Is Healing” was the theme for the sixth-annual National Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference, held April 13-15.
West Valley’s Embassy Suites was the site for dialogue, tribal ceremonial openings and closings of daily meetings, and numerous presentations about the role of culture in preventing, intervening in, and healing from violence.

Pacific Island guests hailing from Guam, New Zealand, Samoa, and other areas of the Pacific Islands flew to Utah to participate in the conference. Locally, social service, law enforcement, education and community members attended.

PIKAR2’s mission

The entity hosting the event is the West Valley-based Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), led by organization co-founder Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou. PIK2AR’s mission is to build alliances and eliminate violence by increasing income for ethnic and under-served households, all the while preserving Pacific Island cultures. 

“Self-identity, self-awareness, self-control” is how Feltch-Malohifo’ou crystalized the opportunity for the community themselves and for service entities interfacing with them.

Utah’s significant Pacific Island population

Utah hosts a burgeoning Pacific Island community, with almost 40,000 Utahns identifying as Pacific Islanders. Indigenous inhabitants of the Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia groups of islands of the Pacific Ocean comprise Pacific Islanders.

According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data, one in four Tongans living in the U.S. resides in Utah, with Salt Lake City and West Valley being the most populous Tongan communities in the country. Salt Lake City has the fourth-largest Samoan community in the states.

“The history of Utah includes Pacific Islanders since the earliest times of the pioneers to the state,” West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu explained to the audience in attendance at the event, declaring that there are seven generations of Hawaiians, Samoans and Maori here in the state.

Of West Valley City’s “minority-majority” of Pacific Islanders, Fitisemanu presented a picture of a “vibrant, thriving, beautiful community… [needing to] move beyond taboos, a circle of silence, a cycle of trauma… to be even more vibrant.”

Fitisemanu himself hails from Wellington, New Zealand, where he was born of a Hawaiian mother and a Samoan father. His uncle, Eveni Tafiti, who has worked with elementary, junior high and high school students in gang-prevention programs, delivered the ceremonial opening to the first full day of the conference.

The model

Being the first Polynesian woman to ever be featured in Sports Illustrated, model Veronica Pome’e has been given a platform to speak about domestic violence in the Pacific Island culture and communities. (The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, featuring Pome’e, is on newsstands this month.)

Pome’e shared her “personal journey in violence and healing.” She grew up in a crowded household with parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. “Most of my uncles beat their wives,” she shared. Her older brother “disciplined” the siblings.

Pome’e said domestic violence is both a symptom and a form of miscommunication. “Miscommunication can manifest in violence. Healthy communication can heal,” she said. She also stressed that “self-love” begets “connected love,” and that members of the Pacific Islander community need to embrace that notion.

The cultural experts

Indigenous cultural expert Herwini Jones shared anecdotes about how culture is key to breaking cycles of violence. New Zealander Jones has uniquely worked with Pacific Island prison populations. Operating in “lockdown,” without external intervention, he “take[s] them on a journey of identity” to reconnect with their culture, including language and traditions.

“Their anger goes away,” he said. “You can connect with them.” Jones shared an anecdote of a 20-year gang leader’s becoming humbled through an identity journey. In another circumstance, he worked with a group of 20 men, focusing on learning and exploring cultural song for four days. “Twenty men came in. Twenty different men left.”

Like swimsuit model Pome’e, Jones considers communication a lifeline for breaking the chain of violence. He told the audience he encourages Pacific Islanders who are incarcerated to find their leadership inspiration through indigenous cultural gods and heroes, and realize that they, too, went through afflictions. “These evil afflictions you will experience,” he noted, “you will experience them so that you might grow as a leader.”

Dr. Val Kalei Kanuha, assistant dean of field education at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, said that “culture is the pathway to healing.” Kalei Kanuha shared case studies of Hawaiian values at work in healing both sides of domestic violence – perpetrator and victim alike.

Her philosophy of “holding them accountable through love” is missing, she said, in the U.S. justice system. “We have a very punitive, retributive, angry system,” she said, and it is one whose “jails and prisons are filled with brown people.”

Whereas every tribal hero or god cited by Jones was a male entity, Kalei Kanuha focuses on female goddesses from Hawaiian traditions. 

The “na’au” or instinct leads to being in a good place, she said. Kalei Kanuha shared stories of men learning about goddesses and the spiritual “na’au” and then being made to reconcile their actions, feeling remorse and learning a path to change.

At closing sessions working with domestic-violence perpetrators, she has the men hold hands – a thing that she insists does happen, with big-boned Hawaiian men clasping for group strength – and, together, chant “Our work, our stories, go on forever and ever. Mahalo.”