Polynesian Cultural Center Marks 50 Year Anniversary
Turning The Hearts: Polynesian Cultural Center Honors South Pacific Heritage
October 12th marks the fiftieth-year anniversary of the opening of the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) at Laie, Hawaii. Since 1963, this jewel in the Pacific has introduced the Gospel of Jesus Christ to over 34 million guests. It is an extension of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, providing hundreds of students and others each year with a source of education, employment, and training in the many customs and traditions of their ancestors that they in-turn are then able to share with visitors. This Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ center is second only to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah as a tourist site.
The PCC hosts an extensive series of native villages on its 42 acres representing the cultures and peoples of the Pacific Nations. The rich heritage and traditions of the fathers are presented in song and dance in village settings for Hawaii, Tonga, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, and other smaller island nations which make up the 12 million square miles of the inhabited South Pacific.
These “villages” on the PCC campus display authentic buildings, with students in native dress demonstrating Polynesian arts and crafts, wherein visitors can learn to beat drums, throw spears, make poi balls, learn to dance, and many other activities. Guests can also purchase tickets to attend evening Luaus and floor shows where they can both taste the “family recipes of Polynesia”, and view the multi-ethnic Polynesian songs and dances of the islands.
Celebrating the Memory of Ancestors
For most of the audience members these meals and singing and dancing are delicious and exotic entertainment. But so much more is there when you see PCC through the lens of family history and celebrating the memory of ancestors. That is what happened when my wife Mary and I attended the special 50th Anniversary Golden Alumni Show on September 6, 2013. We were guests of former PCC performers and BYU-H students in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, Frank and Alexa Merrill of Indianapolis, Indiana. They joined with their fellow alumnus from around the world in this special celebration to dance and sing for family and friends with the remaining original cast members from that historic day in 1963. It was a night to remember and cherish.
We knew that the songs were not just “songs”, but were narrations in native tongue about the history and traditions of the past of each culture. Consequently, as we watched the joy and excitement that went into the island performances, we recognized that these were songs about beloved forefathers. Each dance elicited memories of their “forebears”, and we could feel the love that was generated as hearts were turned to their fathers.
As we listened to alumni voices raised in unison, and watched hips and arms swaying in full and modest native dress, the emotions inside us were overwhelming to the point of joy and tears. We rejoiced with the thousands of family and friends viewing their return to the stage. Elder Russell M. Nelson attended the celebration and left his blessing and testimony regarding the Polynesian Cultural Center and its participants. What a feast of gospel love we all experienced that beautiful Hawaiian night.
The Mission of the Polynesian Cultural Center
Earlier in the day, Mary and I attended a seminar, at which the history of PCC was recounted, and its mission and purposes discussed. One of the points which stood out for me was that the young people of Polynesia were able to attend BYU-Hawaii to work and gain an education, which could then be taken home and used to contribute to the growth of their own families and countries. We learned that these young men and women from dozens of Pacific nationalities were able to pay for this important education because of what we call, “the family history work” opportunities of the Polynesian Cultural Center.
And most importantly, as they learned and shared the historic and cultural origins unique to their Polynesian ancestry, the PCC enabled these students to share the stories of their forbearers in dance and song and live their testimonies of faith with the visitors. We clearly saw, through their experience of participating at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Perpetual Education Fund style, the Gospel was and is being shared at PCC in the lives and work of these students and the heritage of their ancestors.
As we viewed the various village presentations and performances, this struck a familiar chord with me. It drew my memories back to an experience I had as a missionary in the Florida mission (1967 to 1969) in the spring of 1968. I was stationed in Winter Haven, in central Florida, and my missionary companion was an Elder Victory Ormsby (1946-1995). We were both new to the area and needed to find a way to introduce ourselves to this deeply southern community.
A Maori native of New Zealand, Elder Ormsby was an outgoing, cheerful individual with one of the biggest smiles I ever saw. He spoke with a broad English New Zealand accent, and could instantly draw attention because of his interesting persona. I soon learned that prior to his mission he had been a professional dancer and had received training at the Polynesian Cultural Center while a student at BYU-Hawaii. He brought Polynesian family history to Florida.
On our preparation day each week, Elder Ormsby practiced his native dances, and began to teach me (the little Dutch boy) the art of the Haka, the traditional Maori war dance, as well as how to make and use poi balls. We developed an idea to approach local schools and introduce ourselves by performing Maori culture through song and dance. We dressed in missionary shirts and ties, but with a traditional grass skirt worn over our slacks. We went from school to school, doing the Haka, or twirling Poi Balls to the native music on the LP records Elder Ormsby received from home. We stomped the floor, shouted Maori chants, and swayed our hips and hands, before he introduced us to the group and told about our mission. For this blond-haired blue-eyed white kid (me), the performances were exciting and daunting at the same time; but people heard about us, and opened their doors when we tracked in their neighborhoods.
In 1968, it was just as it had been described in the 2013 PCC historical seminar Mary and I had attended: the message of the gospel went out through the heritage, the customs and cultures of Polynesian ancestors as Elder Ormsby testified to the power and truth of his family history as we shared it with our audiences.
Sharing the Gospel with the “Haka”
As Mary’s and my visit to the PCC World of Polynesia came to a close in September 2013, we viewed the performance at the Maori Village. The young men performed the Haka, and the women twirled their poi balls to the native music. For me it was like being carried back to that time in the mission field with Elder Ormsby. I could almost repeat the words of the songs and it brought tears to my eyes as I heard these students bear testimony of their ancestors like he had and we did, through their music and dance.
At the program’s ending, the commentator singled out one young woman who was leaving the college to pursue a higher degree, and a young man who had just been called to serve as a missionary in a Spanish-speaking LDS mission. As these two were leaving to share their Polynesian Cultural Center experience with others, the rest of their ensemble gathered around and performed a farewell chant to see them on their way.
For me, as a genealogist, this experience was more than cultural entertainment. To me, these were covenant songs and prayers; a reminder of our latter-day mission to remember our fathers, and to turn our hearts to them in a joyful, glorious celebration of life.
The first fifty years of the Polynesian Cultural Center has produced miracles in sharing the good news of the gospel, as the family history of Polynesia has been remembered, preserved and shared in the food, dance and song of its ancestors. The next fifty years of such family history celebration will help in preparing for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May we all go and do like-wise.
We all have family history that needs to be remembered, preserved and shared. As Joseph Smith declared, “The truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
James W. Petty, AG, CG, is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally, Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing US and International genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.
For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including expert family tree research, LDS family history assistance, and answers to genealogy questions, please see Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com and his blog ProfessionalGenealogy.com. Heirlines: We professionally identify and document ancestry and kinship relationships and verify and certify the family tree with Certified Family Trees™ and Certified Forensic Genealogy Solutions™. We’re ready when you’re ready!