In a rare public appearance, the Tongan royal family honored the Polynesian Cultural Center in Lā‘ie, Hawaii, with a visit this summer. Their special visit commemorated the June 11th opening of the PCC’s new Tonga Village. In attendance were Their Majesties King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipauu, along with other local authorities and Church notables.
The PCC, owned by Brigham Young University-Hawaii, was conceived in 1963 as a living museum and features several simulated Polynesian villages. Represented are the cultures of Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Aotearoa (now New Zealand), Rapa Nui, Tonga and other islands in the area. Park highlights include native song and dance, the “Rainbows of Paradise” canoe pageant, an IMAX theatre and authentic luʻau. The PCC has grown from a footnote in the Hawaiian vacation industry to one of the largest tourist draws in the region over its 50-year history. Operating as a nonprofit organization, 100% of the PCC’s proceeds go toward daily operations and support of its student workers.
The renovation of the Tonga Village took over sixteen months. Visitors will now be treated to restorations in the drum presentation stage, the queen’s summer house and the family house. New structures, including a town hall, women’s workshop, and kitchen, have been added. Updates will allow for more cultural presentations and a better display of traditional Tongan methods and materials, a point of pride at the center.
Tonga, unique in that it is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy still governed by a king, has been ruled by King Tupou VI and his consort since 2012. The king comes from a royal lineage that stretches back a thousand years, to days when Tonga wielded its powerful influence over adjoining island nations. The kingdom, known as the “Friendly Islands” for its reception of Captain James Cook in the 1700s, consists of about 170 islands and has a population of over 100,000.
In his remarks, King Tupou VI lauded the Polynesian Cultural Center as a “window to the world,” enabling visitors to better understand the islands and help Tongans achieve a sense of cultural identity. Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Twelve addressed the royal pair during the three days of festivities, along with Elder O. Vincent Haleck, a General Authority Seventy, and other local Area Seventies. Of special note was the oration in Tongan by Brother Eric Shumway, retired president of both BYU–Hawaii and the Polynesian Cultural Center, who also served his mission in Tonga. Many of the messages delivered focused on the blessings of cultural and spiritual identity and ancestry.
The royal entourage, which consisted of the king’s ministerial staff, personal secretaries and assistants, contained both BYU-Hawaii grads and a PCC alumnus. They were welcomed by Alfred Grace, the Polynesian Cultural Center’s president and chief executive officer, in a flurry of pageantry that incorporated displays of the Tongan coat of arms and a raised, flower-strewn dais for the royal couple.
The ceremony adhered to cultural protocol, involving colorful performances, the exchange of floral leis, and gifts for the attending dignitaries. Local performers presented a special song for the occasion, Afi Mei Pulotu (“Fire From Heaven”), a celebration of the relationship between Tonga and the Church.
The connection between the Church and the Tongan people is a strong one. Missionaries first arrived to the island nation in 1891 as part of the Samoan Mission; now, Latter-Day Saints are the second largest religious group in the country. The Tongan people have their own temple, the Nuku’alofa Tonga Temple, dedicated in 1983. Tongans comprise the majority of Polynesian students attending BYU-Hawaii.
While this was the royals’ first official stopover to the Polynesian Cultural Center, they had visited before as tourists. This trip marks the first royal visit since 1993.