The Tuaimei’uta family-owned storefront, South Pacific Island Art, is not only a Polynesian cultural center but the Polynesian cultural center in Utah. Located on Redwood Road in Taylorsville, South Pacific Island Art has been open for less than a year and has quickly become so much more than just a retail store. The Tuaimei’uta family had experience selling their hand-carved jewelry and Pacific Island emblems in several retail locations spanning the Hawaiian Islands, but in September of 2021, they decided it was time to open Utah’s first Polynesian shop. South Pacific Island Art’s multifaceted storefront offers visitors a place to learn about Polynesian culture from a family who is working diligently to share their historical importance with the public. With Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May, now is a great time to check out South Pacific Island Art.
Meet the Tuaimei’utas
Since moving from Tonga to Maui to Utah in 1965, Iuni W. Wolfgramm Tuaimei’uta and her family are one of the earliest pillars of Utah’s Polynesian community. “When we first came from Tonga, we were the first Tongan family here,” luni says. Their family alone represents over 400 Polynesians, and the business is a place for “Polynesian people to come when they need support,” says luni. Utah represents a large portion of the Polynesian community in the U.S., and “maybe 90% of Polynesian[s] who live in the U.S. are Tongan,” luni says.
The Polynesian umbrella encompasses seven groups: Tahitian, New Zealand Māori, Easter Island, Hawaiians, Samoan, Rotuman, and Tongan. The history of those groups and their separation is one that luni’s parents carried with them on scrolls from Tonga before luni was born. The carvings themselves were used by Tongan peoples before the alphabet was brought in by English settlers in the 1800s. “We needed to open this store to share this information … about where we came from, our migration, and why the art [of carving] is important because it was our first written language. It’s how genealogists and historians were able to find out the history behind our peoples because it was recorded in the carvings.”
Traditional Ceremonial Garb and Relief for Tonga
The storefronts’ doors open to a large floor plan with mannequins on either side. luni’s daughter, Moana, carefully hand-painted each figure and dressed them in traditional ceremonial garb she knitted herself. “We had someone from New Zealand come in who was so excited to see the black and white flax skirt … exclaiming, ‘I haven’t seen one of those in so long,’” says Moana.
Hand Carved Designs
Together, luni and Moana run the store, while luni’s son shows newcomers around, and her husband, master carver Sailosi Fa’onelua Tuaimei’uta, handcrafts each piece. Wooden turtles and whale tails of varying Hawaiian mahogany and Koa wood find homes on the shelves, though not for long.
Other Polynesian shops in the U.S. “often get their pieces from China because the demand is so high,” luni says. “That’s why people are drawn here … It’s all made by hand.” The family also processes the cow bones themselves. After taking the raw meat and boiling it to remove that fat from the bone, they soak the bones in hydrogen peroxide. Then Fa’onelua begins the carving process—It can take up to three weeks and is done with chisels and mallets.
The designs carved onto cow bone or petrified whale rib have been passed down from carver to carver for generations and can only be replicated by those who have mastered the art of shaping bone and wood. The tightly woven thread around the hook of the pendant was traditionally made from coconut fiber but is now made with a resilient and unbreakable three-ply nylon thread. luni, Sailosi, and Moana have all learned how to weave the thread around the hook to make it so the wearer can keep the piece on for years to come. The bone pendants hung from the nylon thread hold long-standing beliefs and stories centered on values of respect, family, loyalty and spirituality. “Many Polynesian children have not been taught these stories because growing up in America, you can lose your way [and] lose sight of who we are,” says luni.
A Tongan children’s block book is sold in the store, with pictures of bone pendants and basic Tongan words so that younger generations can begin to relearn aspects of their culture. Many visitors who are unfamiliar with Tongan values pick up a necklace that speaks to them “without knowing the meaning behind it,” Moana says. “It’s the koru; the new beginning, or protection on their way to college … in a marriage or divorce. The piece they pick up has the meaning behind that they didn’t even know they needed.” Moana put together a laminated book that delves deeper into each pendant’s meaning. Besides the pendants, detailed genealogical stories are told on tiki statues, wall hangings and spear handles.
Visit South Pacific Island Art
The Tuaimei’uta family has been weaving an unbreakable thread in Utah for decades, but their outpouring of education is somewhat recent. Their unwavering desire to share their history with Utah residents and visitors is a palpable opportunity that should not be missed. “When you come to the shop, you get an experience here that you can’t get anywhere else. If you want to learn something about Polynesian culture, get a hand-carved piece or you just want a cookie… we have it,” says luni.
Visit South Pacific Island Art at 5612 South Redwood Rd. in Taylorsville, UT. View the full collection of carvings at myspia.com and stay up to date with the Relief for Tonga Fund at SPIA’s Instagram @myspia.