“When you look at the globe, Tonga is a little dot on the map, but we are people full of love,” said Olga Kalamafoni, an organizer of this year’s Tonga Day, a festival on Aug 18 that honored the tiny South Pacific kingdom. She stood backstage in between introducing traditional dances on a makeshift platform at Gateway Discovery Park in Northeast Portland.
Young men and women walked by in full ceremonial dress, sporting brilliant red and white garb. They laughed and took selfies while waiting for their turn to dance.
In the late 70s people from Tonga migrated oversees from their archipelago island nation, seeking work and education opportunities. They faced a rising population and a shortage of agricultural land. Recent population estimates say half of all Tongans live abroad.
Cultivating strong connections to Tonga among American-born generations is key to the Tonga people’s cultural resilience, according to Tongan Consul General Selia Tukia, a guest of honor from the San Francisco Bay area.
"We are proud of who we are and the way in which we respect and maintain our cultural identity through oral literature, through singing, dancing,” she said, “and we have certain artifacts, which we try and preserve and pass down, in particular, to our youth, and our children.”
Tukia is the highest ranking official representative of the Tonga government living on the U.S. mainland. She said the event helps the community integrate with other Oregonians while celebrating their Tongan culture.
“America is a great country, full of immigrants,” Tukia said. “In order for us to better appreciate each other's backgrounds, I think it's absolutely crucial for us to support these kinds of activities so that we can understand each other’s cultures better.”
Last year’s celebration was an important turning point for the Tongan people. Portland is the first major city in the United States to formally recognize Tonga and support a Tongan cultural festival.
“Now it feels like we are starting to be on center stage,” said Kolini Fusitu’a, an organizer of Tonga Day and program manager at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. “We are being recognized, and being accepted, and being part of the general community.”
Tonga Day is supported in part by Metro’s Community Placemaking grant program. The grant supports grassroots efforts to create a connection to place and strengthen community ties.
“The nurturance of the Polynesian community is pivotal in that a community grows in strength, harmony and resiliency by recognizing and celebrating its roots while integrating into a community,” said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington when the grant committee selected Tonga Day.
People came from all over Oregon to attend the event, from as far as Salem and Woodburn.
Throughout the day, the community’s heritage and traditions came alive through art and food that included taro, fresh coconut meat, raw tuna relish and roasted pig wrapped in banana leaves. The Tongan dances and songs commanded the most attention from festival goers.
Every movement, from the twist of a wrist, to the tilt of a head, tells a story.
“Even the dancing, the movements, everything is about telling Tongan history,” Kalamafoni said.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes Tonga’s traditional dance, the Lakalaka, as a piece of intangible cultural heritage, an art form that represents the culture and warrants preservation.
Many of the Tongan people wore traditional clothing to the fest, such as the ta'ovala, a woven mat is wrapped around the waist, or a keikei, an intricately woven belt.
Wrapping ornamental clothing around the waist is a sign of respect in Tonga culture, said Mona Palu, a vendor at the event. One origin story says this tradition extends back to their ancestors, who traveled by boat to the islands in the Tongan empire and their neighboring countries.
After long periods of travel, the seafarers didn't consider themselves fit to meet the King with tattered clothes. So they would take the woven mat from the ship mast and wrap it around their waists.
“From then on, we always wear something on our waist because you want to be decent, and you want to be presentable when you have an audience with his majesty,” Palu said.
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle and Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick were among the local government representatives honored at the event. Craddick received a painting of a turtle rendered in deep reddish-brown and black, and Doyle bone carvings of a turtle, shark and manta ray.
“I am really enjoying it [Tonga Day] personally - to be able to learn about the culture and meet some of the people that live in the Tonga community and learn more about what's important to them,” Craddick said.
Doyle said supporting events like Tonga Day is the often the first step in bringing diverse communities into civic life. He said governments need to reach out and create welcoming environments.
Doyle cited the success of the Beaverton Organizing and Leadership Development program, which focuses on civic engagement and leadership development for immigrants, refugees and people of color. The program has had five cohorts that have gone on to represent their communities on Beaverton’s boards of commissioners.
“We really pride ourselves in this region, the diversity that's here,” Doyle said. “We need to make sure people know they are very welcome. Coming to these events… is a great way to demonstrate that.”
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Metro’s investments, such as these placemaking grants, are strategically focused to help local communities create or sustain the vibrant places envisioned in the Region’s 2040 Growth Concept.
The work of the Community Placemaking grant recipients aligns with Metro's strategic plan to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
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