An American Samoan Army Specialist dances at the Frontier Theater on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, during an Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration. [Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher / Wikimedia Commons]

Bringing the Tropics to the Tundra: Pacific Islanders in Alaska

The Pacific

Walking around the streets of Anchorage with the sounds of ukulele music, roadside leis, spam musubi, and performances of siva afi (better known as the Samoan “fire dance”), you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Hawai'i or another Pacific Island. But these are also a feature of Anchorage, Alaska, thanks to the relatively small but tight-knit community of Pacific Islanders who live there and elsewhere in the state. Although the climates of Alaska and the Pacific might be polar opposites, Pacific Islanders living in Alaska are actively preserving and bringing their tropical traditions to the Alaskan tundra.

Alaska’s Pacific Islander population has grown exponentially over the past few decades. In 1990, only about 1,900 Pacific Islanders lived in Alaska. Today, approximately 12,700 Pacific Islanders reside in Alaska. Unsurprisingly, then, it makes sense why Pacific Islanders were the fastest growing group in Alaska in 2010. Nearly 10,000 are Hawaiian, Samoan, or Tongan, and the third most spoken non-English language at home in Anchorage School District is Samoan, demonstrating why this community is so impactful.

Many Pacific Islanders move to the United States in search of economic opportunity outside the Pacific. Pacific Islanders often come to Alaska for its large fishing industry, or are assigned there by the US military. This is because Pacific Islanders—mainly Native Hawaiians and those in the US Territories or the Freely Associated States—enlist in the military at a highly disproportionate rate, making Alaska’s military bases a familiar assignment.

With the increase of the Pacific Islander population in Alaska, organizations dedicated to Pacific Islanders began springing up. To name a few, there’s the Polynesian Association of Alaska (PAOA), the Alaska Samoan Community Corporation (ASC), the Pacific Community of Alaska (PCA), and other community groups, like local Samoan Churches. PAOA was created in 2004 with the goal of addressing common issues in the community and bringing Polynesian culture to the North Pole. The ASC was founded by Vaiomataimatu Maddy Unutoa, who was worried her sons might lose touch with their culture and language while living in Alaska. Thus, these organizations have solidified Pacific communities and culture over 3,000 miles from home.

One of the major celebrations in the community is the Pacific Island Cultural Flag Day, hosted by the Polynesian Association of Alaska. Originally, the event took place in June to commemorate the relationship between Samoa and the United States, specifically the raising of the American flag on Tutuila Island in April 1900, as well as Polynesian American service members. However, after two years of hiatus due to COVID, this past Flag Day was held in May as a celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month. PAOA has also organized donations for relatives in Tonga after the country was devastated by a Tsunami earlier this year.

The impact of the Pacific Islands on Alaska doesn’t stop there—in 2021, Uluao ‘Junior’ Aumavae was appointed as Anchorage’s chief equity officer, making him the first Polynesian to serve as an executive in the city’s government. This demonstrates how much the community has grown in importance over the years. All of these examples—from community organizing to jobs to people-to-people connections—shows how the Pacific Islands matter to Alaska and Alaska matters to the Pacific Islands.

Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies