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‘It takes a village’

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SOU class focuses on Oceania and Moana peoples, and food at their cultures’ center
Members of The Samoa Club grill out at Garfield Park in Ashland. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
George Mulitalo, with the Samoa Club, grills chicken at Garfield Park in Ashland. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
“Food is a natural part of gathering,” said Pacific Islander Studies course instructor Kris Haina Galago. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Members of The Samoa Club grill out at Garfield Park in Ashland.

A new course at Southern Oregon University this spring offers students the chance to learn about and from the Oceania and Moana peoples, including the food at the heart of each culture’s traditions.

The course covers the origins and migration theories of Pacific Island peoples, the Pasifika hip-hop/island reggae movement, Polynesian sports representation, kava drinking ceremonies and more, among the largest populations in the U.S.: Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian and Maori.

“Food is a natural part of gathering,” said Pacific Islander Studies course instructor Kris Haina Galago, a native Hawaiian scholar and Pacific Islander advocate.

In all cultures featured in the course, food is “the catalyst that brings people together,” Galago said. Any gathering, family reunion or celebration centers around food, including funerals, which can become elaborate feasts.

Galago, a native Hawaiian, married a Samoan 30 years ago, at which point she rectified a false impression she held like many others — that “Pacific Islander” has one definition.

“It was as if I had married an Irishman, somebody from China, it’s a completely different culture,” she said, adding that the course focuses on some similar aspects of Pacific Islander traditions.

Death ceremony

In a Samoan funeral, the body of the deceased person lies in wait at home for nine days, Galago explained. During that time, the family prepares and receives visitors for up to 24 hours a day. Guests bring gifts such as songs, chants or dances for the family, to honor the deceased.

As a thank you, the family is expected to feed the visitors who pay their respects, and the preparations can deplete all of a family’s resources.

“Many of them are farmers, fishermen, hunters, and so they will have slaughtered cattle, or harvested all of their crops to be able to actually feed all of these guests,” Galago said. “You might have a whole village of people come visit you for this funeral.”

As a University of Oregon instructor in student athlete-academics, Galago said she once advocated for a Pacific Islander student who nearly faced disciplinary action for missing two weeks of class and failing to respond to communications.

Lacking understanding of the relevant customs and traditions, the student’s adviser asked Galago for advice, relaying that they knew only that the student left town for a funeral.

“Typically a funeral in a Western American society is a day or two, a weekend, something like that,” Galago said. “It’s actually nine days, [and] this student had to fly back to Samoa.”

In Samoan culture, depending upon one’s position in the family, certain rituals are expected to be performed.

As the eldest grandchild of a grand-mother who died, the student bore a significant responsibility “to show up for the family,” she said.

“They’re completely engulfed in protocol right now,” Galago explained. “This is a family obligation, and that will come before academia.”

She supported the allowance of the period of absence, while imparting that the student hadn’t abandoned their academic responsibilities, she said.

The student’s family lived in a rural village, and had purchased a cow and a lamb for the funeral. The meat is prepared in an underground oven — a Samoan “umu.”

Prepared food is placed in a hole in the ground, hot lava rocks are spread over leaves covering the food, and the meal cooks for about 24 hours before it’s unearthed. Food might include bread-fruit (ulu), coconuts, green bananas, lamb, beef, pig and chicken.

“They would be cooking large amounts of protein and large amounts of starches all together in the underground oven,” Galago said. “It’s quite a large operation.”

Men dig the 6-by-6-foot underground oven, and heat and place the lava rocks. Women prepare the food with seasoning or gut fish, for example, and wrap the food in leaves. Men unearth the rocks and women portion out food for the guests.

“It’s not a festival where there’s dancing and those kinds of things, it’s more somber because you’re celebrating the life of someone,” Galago said.

Cooking a meal to feed hundreds can drain the family’s resources, and other families may pitch in to help. The tradition is collectively accepted because “there might come a time when it will be your family member and then you would reciprocate,” she said.

“It’s just understood that this is the way we do it, and whether it’s your family or your neighbor, you’re going to help them in the preparation,” she said. “That saying of ‘it takes a village’ really holds true, because the village will come together and help you do this.”

The family might receive money, gifts, meat, canned goods, clothing, fabric or fruit from guests.

Galago said the funeral tradition in Samoan culture is similar in Hawaiian and Tongan cultures, with a few notable differences as far as the length and time of the ceremony. The core, she said, is a celebration of life surrounding food.

Roots of luau

Pre-commercialized luau originates from a period in native Hawaiian culture when men and women were not allowed to eat together. The “kapu” system was in effect until 1819, when King Kamehameha II overturned the rule.

The decision was viewed as so “earth shattering” that people didn’t know how to react, but they soon “broke out in elation” and the event took on a joviality celebrating the change, Galago said.

When Hawaii encountered European contact, the native Hawaiian population was devastated by disease and illness, including the monarchy, and the infant mortality rate rose significantly.

“The monarchs started trying to celebrate every time that they had a child,” Galago said. “It was believed at that time that if your child lived to the age of 1 year old, that they had a good chance of making it to adulthood, because they would have passed the most risky time in their life to be susceptible to those diseases.”

A baby luau might bring together hundreds of people, the underground cooking of several pigs and traditional foods, and money from the guests given for the child’s good wishes, typically put toward a college fund today.

Planning begins from the time of birth, said Galago, who held baby luaus for both of her children in Hawaii.

“At 1, there would be a huge celebration, this child has made it, more than likely it’s going to be a successor in the kingdom, and a huge luau was thrown,” Galago said. “That tradition has grown and carries on to today — you might be invited to attend a baby luau that is larger than most weddings you’ve ever been to.”

Galago said that as a natural part of her culture and the course, students will be encouraged to bring food to class.

“It just invites in that welcoming atmosphere and people are more open to discuss, talk about the issues, share their lived experiences, because it’s what we know,” Galago said. “The food, to me, levels the playing field for everyone.”

Galago said whether students come from the Pacific Islander community, she will encourage the sharing of information about different peoples, traditions and cultures.

“I want to show people: We’re more alike than we are different,” Galago said. “The bottom line comes down to relationships and family bonds ... it’s a course about self discovery, but also through the lens of our Pacific Islander people.”

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.