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Polynesian Cultural Center Cites 60th Anniversary ‘Treasures, Examples’

The center in Laie, Hawaii, honors 14 ‘living treasures’ and eight others for ‘exemplary service’

(Front row, left-right): Toiva L., Sela F., Iraani B., (for Cy B.), Mahana Mo’o P., Elisa T., Mildred E., Eseta T., Ellen Gay Dela R., Fifita U., Kelela L.; (back row, left-right): President Alfred and Valerie G., William M., John M., Keith A., Larry Y., Mike F. (back), Steve C., Tauasā Sielu A., Fakasi’i’eiki T., Ratu Seru Inoke S. Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Cultural Center, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Mike Foley, Church News

The Polynesian Cultural Center, dedicated on October 12, 1963, started its 60th anniversary celebrations on August 9, 2023, by honoring 14 “living treasures” and eight others for “exemplary service.”

Living Treasures Center vice president of cultural presentations Tagaloataoa Delsa Atoa Moe explained treasure honorees generally worked with the public and met the following criteria:

They must have been former employees or contract workers for a minimum of 10 years and living at the time the award is announced, but not a current employee (the last part does not apply to contract workers). All are recognized within and beyond the Center for their mastery of Polynesian culture, and are considered “friends” or on good terms with the center, its mission, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The hard part was reducing the list of nominees,” Moe continued. “We had many others who we considered based on these criteria,” she said before announcing the most recent “treasures”:

Sela Feinga, a Tongan handicraft and weaving artisan who often created colorful lei and haku (braided) masterpieces. “We created our plumeria farm so she wouldn’t have to go around the community, climbing trees and picking flowers,” Moe said.

Fakasi’ieiki Tovo, a master of Tongan performing arts known for his lively choreography, poetic song composition and teaching. His wife, the late Mele Tovo, was honored as a “living treasures” during the 50th anniversary.

Cy Bridges, a renowned Hawaiian cultural, performing arts and oral traditions expert. “We had to wait for him to retire before we could honor him with this award,” Moe said. “Sixty years ago, Bridges was a student of the center’s first kumu or master hula teacher, the late Aunty Sally Wood Naluai,” Moe said. His wife, Iraani Bridges, was recognized as a 50th anniversary living treasure.

Keith Awai, a Hawaiian cultural and performing arts specialist, kumu hula, choreographer, chanter and dancer. “He is very well known for teaching Hawaiian cultural values, a gifted and revered teacher here in Hawaii and on the mainland,” Moe said. “Awai was also one of Aunty Sally’s students.”

William Mahoni, a Maori/Tongan carver and artisan known for his extravagant designs and fabrications. For example, he created some of the center’s previous special events such as the “Christmas lagoon” canoe ride.

Ellen Gay Dela Rosa, known as a Hawaiian choreographer, chanter, musician and dancer. “She is beloved not only here at the center but also throughout Hawaii, the mainland, Japan and other places,” Moe said. “She is Aunty Sally’s niece and one of her students.”

Mildred “Aunty Milly” Enos, a master Hawaiian quilter whose knowledge was vital in quilting exhibits and demonstrations at the Mission Settlement. “Her handiwork has been presented to many VIPs,” Moe said.

“Chief” Tauasā Sielu Avea, a Samoan ambassador, actor and entertainer extraordinaire. “He genuinely loves his audience,” Moe said, “and he was our inaugural world fireknife champion here at the center.”

Eseta Toelupe, a Tongan artist, weaver and intricate leimaker “whose creations adorned prophets, presidents and celebrities as an employee, then as a volunteer, a senior missionary, and she’s back to being a volunteer again,” Moe said. “It’s very hard to find weavers of this caliber anymore.”

Steve Cheney, a former contract worker, a volunteer for the past 10 years and a steel-guitar master who is renowned throughout Hawaii and across the U.S. Moe pointed out he grew up in a family band and started playing the steel guitar in 1961. “He’s been recorded many times for the center’s luau and other shows, and his son, Ben, also plays steel guitar for the center,” Moe said.

Ratu Seru Inoke Suguturaga, a hereditary Fijian chief “recognized for his knowledge of Fijian cultural arts as well as a liaison with many of our Fijian dignitaries. Moe said, “They are so comfortable with him; many times they go to his house and relax there.”

“Mommy” Elisa Teriipaia. Said Moe of this Tahitian genius: “When it came to creating costumes from all across the Pacific, she could take measurements, then cut cloth without a pattern — a skill only a very few people have.” Her husband, Iona Teriipaia, was recognized as a “living treasure” during the 50th anniversary.

Faivaola Eric Shumway learned Tongan so fluently as a young missionary that he was given a Tongan chiefly title and is a well-known Tongan language scholar and orator. He spent many years as a professor, administrator and president at BYU–Hawaii. During that time, he also served as an interim president of the Polynesian Cultural Center. “When the king and queen of Tonga came to the center in 2016 to participate in the reopening of the Tongan Village following extensive renovations,” Moe said, “Faivaola addressed them on our behalf in an appropriate manner.”

Leilua Logoitino Apelu started at the center as a student dishwasher, and demonstrated such a strong work ethic in everything he did that after graduating from BYU–Hawaii and earning a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii, he went back to Samoa and became the Church schools administrator. Later, returning to work at the center, he dynamically filled several leadership positions and retired as the chief operations officer.

Exemplary Service Awards

Moe noted the Exemplary Service awards go to people who “worked for the center for about 30 years, either full- or part-time, demonstrating excellence in service, and were friends to our mission and what we represent as well as to the Church.”

The honorees included:

Mahana Mo’o Pulotu “worked for many years in the Tahitian Village, Guest Services, and in the (former) Education Department,” Moe said. “She has a perpetual smile. Even when she speaks, you can hear the ‘smile’ in her voice. She leaves a lasting impression on anyone she meets.” Her husband, Tui’one Pulotu, was recognized as a “living treasure” during the 50th anniversary.

Toiva Lake “performed her job as a custodial supervisor with passion and commitment,” Moe began “ when she and her team took it upon themselves to ask, what more can we do to WOW our guests. They then put fresh floral arrangements in the restrooms. She also nurtured homesick students.”

Fifita Unga, who retired recently as vice president of culinary services, Unga “never did anything less than 100 percent, especially when it came to hosting,” Moe said. “The food workers always looked sharp, just like she did with her ‘garden of flowers’ in her hair.”

Kelela Lombard: Moe described her as “the person who was the initial welcoming voice of the center, who sounded like a Polynesian Oxford graduate. She is dedicated to the center’s mission, just like her mom, Ofa Talakai, was. She worked for years as a reservations supervisor — even when center President Alred Grace was just a young sales guide.”

■ Larry Yuen “was the quiet and the ‘invisible’ financial controller for the center, who worked many long, dedicated hours to ensure the center was financially sound,” Moe said. “That was the hallmark of his service.”

■ John Muaina was the center’s long-term vice president of human resources, now retired, “and our number-one connection to China through the former Asian Executive Management program. For example, he and program alumni arranged the visit of President Gordon B. Hinckley to China.” Moe added Muaina continues to help in human resources working as a service missionary and a volunteer.

Mike Foley: Moe described him “as somebody who made sure the world knew about the center. He is a dedicated and gifted writer, journalist, photographer, digital media guy and historian for the center and the Church in Laie.” She added he is currently helping as the content editor for the center’s soon-to-launch 60th-anniversary legacy history website.

Les Steward started as a student from “down under” in the theater sound and lights department and moved into the business office as he completed his studies. More recently Steward was vice president of finance and, after serving as a mission president in California, returned to oversee the center’s physical facilities.”

On behalf of all the recipients, Toiva Lake said she was “very honored” to receive this recognition, but she also thanked all those who “supported me during my time of service” as well as those who worked hard.

Toiva added she loved working at the center for 42 years, and “came to appreciate the other cultures. I wish I was still young so I could continue this job.”

Tovo said he didn’t consider himself a “treasure,” but rather he and his family “had been blessed by the treasure of the Polynesian Cultural Center and what it has taught me.”

Tovo also shared some of his time with honoree Tauasā Sielu Avea, who “thanked the center for the award and all those who have worked hard to make it successful.”

“The years I worked here, I thought of it as my own cultural center. I came early and I went home late. I treasure the time that I was here,” Avea said.

In his closing remarks, Polynesian Cultural Center President Alred Grace said to the honorees, “Every one of you is so accomplished, and I’ve recently realized one of the greatest privileges of being a long-term employee is knowing all of you in your roles and responsibilities. It was wonderful working and traveling with some of you.”

“On behalf of all our center ‘ohana’ (family), we have a cultural belief to honor our legacy. As we strive to do that, we know that you have done that before us. I want to thank each and every one of you.”

“Mahalo nui loa to all of you for your contributions to the Polynesian Cultural Center and to the mission and vision of this community where we are blessed to have a temple, a place of higher education, and the number-one attraction in Hawaii that preserves and perpetuates the arts, crafts and cultures of Polynesia.”

President [Russell M.] Nelson has said to us, ‘When you share the spirit of aloha, you are sharing the light of Christ.’”

“Our motto is ‘One ‘ohana sharing aloha.’ Our vision is simple, to spread aloha around the world. It’s who we are, and it’s what the world needs. You did your responsibilities so admirably, and we’ll try to do the same thing.”

Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

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