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Aloha, Alaska Style: Pacific Islander Community Groups and Businesses

by | Jun 24, 2024 | Magazine, Nonprofits, Small Business

Photo Credit: Lei’s Poke Stop

The Tropics and the Arctic seem like polar opposites. Frozen darkness and ice dominate in Alaska, while pleasant temperatures and abundant sunshine bathe the Pacific islands.

Yet Alaska and Polynesian communities, separated by hundreds of miles of ocean, have been linked for generations. The Tlingit tell of pre-colonial meetups with ships carrying Hawaiian deckhands, and other accounts exist of Hawaiian or Polynesian crew aboard Gold Rush-bound boats and whalers.

Both communities share a focus on foods from the land and an adventurous spirit. Ask Polynesian community members what brings them to Alaska and chances are the answer has to do with one or the other of those.

Double in a Decade

Polynesia refers to a triangle-shaped area of the Pacific Ocean from the Hawaiian Islands on its northern corner to Easter Island on its eastern corner and New Zealand on its southern corner. The region contains the Cook Islands, French Polynesia (including Tahiti), Niue Island, Pitcairn Island, Samoa and American Samoa, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Tonga, Wallis, and Futuna.

The term “Pacific Islands” is a little broader, containing two additional ethnogeographic groups: Melanesia (New Guinea and environs, including Fiji and the Solomon Islands) and Micronesia (the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Mariana Islands, Nauru, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands).

As an ethnic group, Pacific Islander is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Alaska population, increasing by 67 percent between 2010 and 2020 from 7,514 to 18,668 people. About 2.5 percent of Alaska’s population identifies as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NHPI), either alone or in combination with other races.

The Pacific Islander population is largest in Anchorage, where about 13,350 people, or 4.6 percent of the municipality’s population, identified as NHPI in the 2020 census. In 2010, the number was 5,297.

When Lusiana Hansen arrived in Alaska in 1985, the Polynesian community was small. Hansen is from the island of Ta’ū, one of the Manu’a Islands in American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the United States.

“I only knew of twelve or fifteen Pacific Islanders here. We’d all get together on Sunday for [church] services in a trailer home,” she says. “Now we have fifty-three churches, as of about ten years ago. That tells us our numbers are going up quickly.”

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Hansen says there are many reasons Pacific Islanders move to Alaska.

“Alaska has a lot of things you can benefit from. There are good employment resources, good health resources here. Our employment is not good back home, our health[care] is not good— you have to be flown to Hawai’i or to California maybe,” she says.

Raising Flags and Awareness

Hansen is the founder and CEO of the Polynesian Association of Alaska (PAOA), one of the oldest groups focused on the Pacific Islander community in Anchorage. It started after Hansen taught a computer class about twenty years ago for Polynesian elders eager for an inexpensive way to communicate with loved ones back home. Before mastering email, the elders needed basic computer skills.

During the class, she says, elders said they wanted a place to learn about the benefits available in Alaska. Language and transportation barriers meant that getting basic information about Medicare and other benefits was difficult. To solve those problems, PAOA organized in 2004 and became a federally recognized nonprofit in 2006, with fifty-three members and seventeen board members. On July 30, 2005, PAOA hosted its first Polynesian Culture Flag Day in Anchorage, raising the flags of American Samoa, the Independent State of Samoa, and Tonga. Today the flag celebration has a new name: Asian and Pacific Island Culture Flag Day.

While she is proudly Samoan, Hansen says she wants the association to be a place of support for all Pacific Islanders. “We have so many Pacific Islanders here, we want to bring it all together,” she says.

For the past nine years, PAOA has hosted a health fair in partnership with the Z.J. Loussac Library. PAOA worked with local churches during the COVID-19 pandemic to bring vaccinations to the community, combining vaccination drives with hot meals. The effort led to about 50 percent of the Pacific Islander community in Anchorage getting vaccinated, Hansen says.

Changing and Saving Lives

The focus on community benefits continues with quarterly discussions about a range of topics, from labor and immigration laws to homeownership classes and how to work with the Alaska Office of Children’s Services. PAOA started a scholarship program in 2022 for high school graduates, and grant funding from RurAL Cap and other organizations supports rental assistance, helping 386 people in 89 families in 2023.

Hansen also hosts Pasefika Voice of Alaska, a radio show broadcast at 10 a.m. Saturdays on Anchorage station KNBA. The show, which uses the Samoan word for “pacific,” focuses on the younger generation, asking them to tell their stories, or on scholars and entrepreneurs from the community. “I bring them out, I want them to tell their story. Their story might change someone else’s life out there,” she says.

Changing lives in Alaska isn’t Hansen’s only focus. When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January 2022, producing the largest underwater explosion ever recorded by modern scientific instruments, PAOA leapt into action, spearheading a relief effort.

The ensuing tidal wave and ash significantly affected Tongan residents, Hansen says, and families were left with no food, water, or medical help. PAOA, along with the Tongan Community of Alaska (an organization created to assist with relief) led a donation drive, shipping three 40-foot containers to Tonga filled with clothing, canned food, water, toiletries, tents, shovels, picks, and farming tools, along with other relief supplies.

In 2023, the community rallied again to help Hawai’i. When wildfire raged on Maui, PAOA donated $2,500 to help purchase generators to assist displaced families. The organization also recognized Lei’s Poke Stop, an Anchorage restaurant, for the immense effort its owners undertook to send aid.

Sending Ohana Home

Tasha Kahele moved to Alaska in 2009 with her husband and children, joining her father, who already lived in Alaska. Five years later, they opened their first business, the Aloha Stop and Shop, selling poke (diced raw fish) and Hawaiian grocery goods difficult to find in Alaska. Three years later they shifted gears and opened Aloha Poke Stop in the Tikahtnu Commons shopping center in Muldoon.

With the business up and running, Kahele and her family were shocked in 2018 when they became part of a lawsuit by Chicago-based Aloha Poke Co., which ordered them to stop using the words “aloha” and “aloha poke” in their restaurant’s name, claiming to have exclusive rights to the words. The Anchorage shop wasn’t alone; even an Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu was sent a cease-and-desist letter. Rather than fight a potentially costly legal battle, the Kaheles decided to change the name to Lei’s Poke Stop, named for her daughter, Lei.

The couple’s business model is all about family; their children, with help from Kahele’s mother, own and operate the Anchorage store and the spinoff Lei’s Poke Stop 2 in Wasilla as well as the Da Poke Man Express food truck from April to September. Kahele’s husband Shaun, finishing his culinary degree at UAA this year, is the chef and handles all the catering.

The Maui wildfire gave the family focus a new meaning. Among the residents of Lahaina displaced by the fires were Kahele’s relatives. Part of Kahele’s family owns a farm outside Lahaina, she says, and nearly eighty family members flocked there for safety but were unable to return home.

“We decided as a family to put together a community service project,” Kahele says.

She works part-time for Alaska Airlines, and her employer agreed to donate cargo services. A friend’s husband works for Hawai’i-based shipping company Matson, which donated two 40-foot containers. They collected donations at both restaurant locations over a weekend and were overwhelmed by the response: 75,000 pounds of goods to send to Maui. It was everything one could think of, Kahele recalls, from medical supplies and baby supplies to food and nonperishable items. Funded by the donation from PAOA and a sweetheart deal from Lowe’s, the Kaheles were able to buy twelve generators to ship as well. They worked closely with King’s Cathedral in Maui, which has several branch congregations in Alaska.

The goods were shipped, but the family didn’t stop there; a group of nearly twenty traveled to Lahaina on donated tickets to distribute the goods. A smaller team flew back every weekend for nearly two months to continue to help, even building one family a small house on the farm.

Investing Locally

Until recently, another organization by and for Anchorage’s Pacific Islander community was the Hawaiian Civic Club. Kahele served on its board, and so did Hula Hands restaurant general manager Corinna Kanaina. The club hosted Hawaiian entertainers and offered classes to teach Polynesians skills that might be difficult to learn outside of the islands, such as how to make Hawaiian lau lau, a traditional dish of pork and butterfish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed. Other classes, such as weaving, tying ropes for fishing, and Polynesian traditional dance and music were also taught.

Kanaina says the club dissolved prior to the pandemic, partly due to board members having too little time to devote to it. Now she works through her job and with Hula Hands owners William Hoopai and Charlene Goeas, her aunt and uncle, to give back to the Anchorage community in other ways.

“From day one, the owners have supported the Anchorage community here. Their way of giving back is offering positions to some of the people who are less fortunate, who have no place to stay and are looking for a job; we give them an opportunity to have a job and learn a skill,” Kanaina says.

The business finds other ways to support the Anchorage community as well, Kanaina says, from sponsoring sports teams to sponsoring a race car. Hula Hands frequently donates money or time to PAOA, and Kanaina has walked in the PAOA flag day parade, representing Hawai’i.

Another community focal point is the Aloha in Alaska music festival, organized by the Kaheles. Started in 2015, the festival held in June or July is a time for Pacific Islander-owned small businesses to come out and share products while visitors enjoy Island food and music. They’re taking a break from it this year, but the Kaheles plan to bring Aloha in Alaska back in June 2025 at Tikahtnu Commons.

Health Focus

Relatively new on the NHPI-focused community-support scene is Pacific Community of Alaska (PCA). Much of the work it does is health focused, in part because the group got started during COVID-19, addressing health needs related to the pandemic, as well as the underlying health factors that make the NHPI community more susceptible to illnesses like COVID-19.

“PCA was formed as a collaboration of those of us who are in the health sector and running in those circles, having conversations about COVID. There was a bigger need. We felt we needed to do more,” says PCA Director of Programs Mavis Boone.

Organizers found grants to support the effort, reached out to the NHPI community, and met community members wherever they were.

“Armed with NHPI Community Health Workers in its employ, PCA continued its assistance in navigating both social and health systems to provide leeway for NHPI families and individuals in need,” PCA states in its inaugural newsletter, posted at its pcalaska.org website.

Boone adds, “As we engage in this work, we note that, although there are many mainstream programs available to communities, regardless of subject matter, only a handful are culturally relevant and sensitive. And that is one of our biggest motivators—that approaches are implemented with consideration and respect for a community’s cultural values.”

PCA hosted a dozen pop-up clinics, provided five COVID-19 health education sessions at NHPI churches, administered 361 COVID-19 vaccinations from Anchorage to Utqiaġvik, and distributed at-home COVID-19 tests and prevention kits throughout Anchorage. It hosts both virtual and in-person step aerobics sessions and hosted a three-part series focusing on managing blood pressure and creating healthy habits.

Great and Growing

Focusing on youth, some of PCA’s founding board members created the Nesian Lounge, a virtual space online to talk about culturally relevant topics. They also created a three-part video series called Bridging the Gaps featuring NHPI youth in Anchorage talking about growing up outside the Pacific Islands. It premiered at the Loussac library in June 2023.

With a focus on mental health, PCA hosted a “Let’s Talk About It” panel with NHPI mental health providers last year to address concerns in the community. Understanding that many of the NHPI community live in multigenerational homes, PCA created the Alaska Pasifika Safe Homes program for families with four or more members, offering case management and short-term housing for those dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault. The project has been extended to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Utqiaġvik.

A newer area of focus is civic engagement, beginning with voting location assistance in 2022. In the 2024 Anchorage municipal election, the group helped with translating ballot language into Samoan and Tongan.

Boone says PCA has no plans to slow down. She feels the doubled numbers of NHPI residents in Alaska are an undercount; more who might have not filled out the census due to immigration concerns are likely, she says. The need is great and only growing.

“There are a lot of people, and there’s a lot of need for engagement and for the community to know we’re here to help, not judge,” Boone says. “Being part of the community, we understand their needs, and it is for that reason that we must find funding to continue on in the work and push through with the heart and compassion for the community.”

Tasha Kahele accepts a check from Polynesian Association of Alaska founder Lusiana Hansen for the Maui Relief effort Kahele organized. Over a three-day period, Alaskans donated clothing, money, and much more, dropping goods off at the Lei’s Poke Stop locations in Anchorage and Wasilla. More than 75,000 pounds of goods were sent to Maui in two 40-foot containers donated by shipping company Matson.

Photo Credit: Lei’s Poke Stop

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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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