Polynesian in Reno

Students of the Halau Hula ’O Leilani school of hula practica an otea, a dance that tells a story.

Students of the Halau Hula ’O Leilani school of hula practica an otea, a dance that tells a story.


The Pacifica Festival will take place at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel Aug. 20-21. For information, visit www.pacificafestivalreno.org. Reno Aloha Festival is set for Aug. 27 in Wingfield Park. To learn more, visit www.renoalohafestival.com.

Inside Freeman’s Shorin-Ryu Karate in Sparks, the karate mats were pushed to the edges, bold colors adorned the walls and parents and young siblings lined the room. In the center was a class of 12 girls dressed in sarongs or pareos as they practiced a new otea, a traditional Tahitian dance.

This class is part of the Halau Hula ’O Leilani, a hula school in Northern Nevada run by the hula master or Kumu, Leilani Rivera Low, who founded the Halau’s sister school on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.

The Halau teaches the two main subcategories of hula, Hula ’auana and Hula kahiko. While the former is the contemporary hula that Westerners are often more accustomed to, the latter refers to ancient hula, which is set to traditional chants and instruments. The school also teaches other types of Polynesian dance, such as those originating from Tahiti and from the Maori people of New Zealand.

On that particular night, Cecilia Reyes-Peros, the assistant instructor or Alaka’i of the Halau, led the girls through an otea, a dance that tells a story. That one was about coconuts.

Reyes-Peros smiled at the children as they bouncily drifted around the room, fruitlessly trying to keep their coconut shells in their hands instead of on the floor.

Even to a stranger, the class felt like a family affair.

“[The kids] are such a blast, with all of that young energy,” Reyes-Peros said. “Then the aunties come and sedate us with comfort food.”

It is moments like this that best exemplify the Polynesian spirit—which lives on through the practice of artful, ancient traditions and their passage from one generation to another.

Cultural transitions

So what exactly is Polynesia? In its most basic form, the term refers to over a thousand islands that make up the largest subregion of Oceania, spreading across central and southern areas of the Pacific Ocean. It includes places like Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand.

Although the islands are dispersed over an expansive area, many of them share similarities in their languages, histories and belief systems. These cultures are also each rich with complexity and distinct beauty, and it has become all too easy for Polynesian cultures and people to be oversimplified to the point of offensive inaccuracy.

While dances from Hawaii and Tahiti originated as means of sharing stories and oral histories, today they are often all lumped into a mass-produced, artificial hula that is at best exoticized and at worst fetishized. Demonyms such as “Tongan” and “Samoan” are frequently used interchangeably even though Tonga and Samoa are two different nations, and these populations are sometimes more renowned for their body size than for their cultural achievements. Meanwhile, traditional tattoo designs from some Polynesian areas have been appropriated by guys with soul patches and Affliction T-shirts. And Polynesians in Reno have definitely encountered some stereotypes.

“When people talk about Polynesians, sometimes it is so general,” said Sefina Tautu, a student who plans to attend the University of Nevada, Reno in the fall. “Hawaiians are always happy, and hula girls make great dashboard decorations. Samoans are either linebackers or professional wrestlers, and Tongans are just Samoans who don’t like being called Samoans. But we can’t be that easily compartmentalized.”

However, if there ever were to be a single factor that could characterize Polynesian people, it would be their dedication to family in the community.

“Everyone becomes family,” laughed Jasmine Gunn, president of the non-profit group Kekoa of Aloha, as she talked about her experience learning more about her Hawaiian heritage. “If they are older, they are your aunties and uncles. If they are your age, they are your cousins. But they all end up as family.”

This extends to the Tongan and Samoan communities in Northern Nevada, which are largely centered around churches, such the First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal Church or the First Tongan Fellowship United Methodist Church. These buildings have become not only places of worship, but centers of celebration. The churches host weddings, birthday parties and other functions. Most importantly, it is where people feel they can connect with one another.

“Going to church is like going home. It feels like all of your family is together,” said Tolini Kam, a young mother who comes from a Tongan and Hawaiian background.

However, even with this strong sense of unity within families and neighborhoods, there are still tensions between different Polynesian subgroups. Many feel as if the separation between these different groups is almost a tangible force.

“Even in a small area like Reno there is still tension, even though it has improved over the years,” said Kam. “I think a lot of it today comes from young people. You would never find an elder that would disrespect someone from another island.”

Time to celebrate

For Northern Nevada, 2016 will go down in history as the year of the Polynesian. Over the past few months, a surge of events and organizations have come into existence to unite Polynesian people, celebrate their heritage, and share their culture with the larger community.

There are two main festivals coming up in Reno. The Pacifica Festival, which will be held at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel, has branched out to include all people with ties to the Pacific Rim. Vendors will sell Polynesian goods and shave ice, and attendees can expect to hear some reggae, which is popular in Hawaii, and learn a few words in Samoan or Hawaiian.

Ken Allen, more commonly known as DJ Kentot, has played an integral part in planning this festival and in bringing contemporary Polynesian music to mainstream local audiences. He believes it is one of the best ways to connect across cultures.

“The goal is to bring cultures together, and it does not matter who or what you are,” Allen said. “I think that happens with island and reggae music. Everyone can listen to the music. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the lyrics. Everyone vibes to the beat and comes together.”

Meanwhile organizers of the Reno Aloha Festival in Wingfield Park aim to integrate educational and cultural aspects into the festivities. Attendees can enjoy reggae tunes, watch performances from Halaus from across the country, engage with a traditional Hawaiian tattoo artist and attend a cultural workshop with an expert on Tualauta letuli, a Samoan fire knife dance.

“What I hope is that the Reno Aloha Festival can share a little bit of Aloha spirit,” said Gunn. “That is what I think this country needs right now.”