By Vivian J. Malauulu
Long Beach City College alumnus Iuogafa Salima was 10 years old and on a church malaga– a ceremonial visit taken according to Samoan custom– to the small island of Savai’i in what was then Western Samoa, when she discovered her passion for anthropology. That realization occurred in 1996, and Nafa, as she is affectionately known by family and friends, has been intrigued by stories of her Polynesian ancestors and their rich history ever since.
“Our youth group was visiting an abandoned church in a deserted village in the lava fields of Savai’i when I stumbled upon an ancient grave,” Nafa recalls. “I remember how the lava went around the grave but didn’t cover it. I wanted to know how old the grave was, who was buried in it, and what the cause of death was.” That experience changed the course of Nafa’s life.
“I love researching ancient civilizations of the Pacific,” she said. “I love discovering clues about how islanders lived and learning how they acquired different languages and traditions.” As a child, she regularly borrowed such books from relatives, friends, and the local library in Carson where she grew up. Her interest in Pacific Islander history motivated her to take a cultural anthropology class at Long Beach City College (LBCC). That was when her passion for anthropology– the study of humanity– became a career possibility. Upon her graduation from LBCC with an associate’s degree in liberal studies in 1996, she transferred to the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa, where she is currently a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Nafa plans to continue her education through graduate school and beyond.
“I feel the need to immerse myself completely in Pacific art, archaeology, and anthropology,” she said. “I tried everything I could to find ways to travel throughout the Pacific to join excavations, but being a broke college student on a limited budget made that impossible. That’s when I heard of PIEAM, and here I am.”
Nafa is referring to the brand-new, only-one-of-its-kind Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum that just commemorated its grand opening in downtown Long Beach last weekend.
“The community has been a great force in creating this museum,” said PIEAM Director Brenna Barrett. “I hope everyone comes to appreciate the rich history and cultures of the Pacific, and I hope everyone recognizes the importance of this museum.”
Barrett, who served as executive director in 1994 during the inception of the Ethnic Art Institute of Micronesia (EAIM) on the island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, was instrumental in solidifying the PIEAM vision on the mainland. When asked why Long Beach was chosen as the destination for the museum, Barrett cited the city’s central location to many diverse Pacific Islander cultures as a geographic gateway to and from countries of the Pacific Rim.
“This museum is truly an honor for our city,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. “It definitely helps mark 2010 as a monumental year for the arts in Long Beach. The city is energized about hosting this fantastic cultural experience.”
“PIEAM is also conveniently located next to MOLAA (Museum of Latin-American Art),” said Barrett, “which has been very successful in introducing people to an under-appreciated art form. PIEAM hopes to interest the same type of audience.”
PIEAM is the first museum in the world to display the diverse cultures of all three regions: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Featuring rotating exhibits that include tours, story telling, films, sculptures, textiles, paintings, tools, jewelry, carvings, and more, PIEAM’s staff hope the museum will be both educational and inspiring to guests.
“This museum is a superb addition to the East Village Arts District,” said State Senator Alan Lowenthal (27th District). “It provides a unique opportunity to showcase the diverse cultures of the Pacific that are part of the fabric of our community.”
More than 3,000 distinguished guests attended the three-day grand-opening gala, held throughout both the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) and PIEAM facilities. Community blessings by various individuals representing every island in the Pacific took place throughout the weekend, along with performances by a variety of musical guests and dance groups. Multiple vendors were on hand, offering an assortment of island foods and goods. Friday evening’s highlight was the highly regarded Fire Knife of Samoa ceremony. Saturday’s events included coconut husking and basket weaving demonstrations. Sunday’s activities included multiple dance and ukulele workshops.
PIEAM’s motto– “Many islands, many stories, one museum”– reflects its goal to bring ethnic and living arts from all regions of Oceania under one roof for the world to experience through its artifact presentations, community-driven events, educational programs, museum store, media room, sculpture garden, family art activities, outreach classes, and more.
The exhibition which generated the most enthusiastic response from guests was the community-driven exhibit Walk In. This multi-dimensional display was the chosen inaugural exhibit for the grand-opening celebration because the people visiting the display actually became the art.
“I really enjoyed the traditional medicine display in the Walk In exhibit,” said Line Sevaaetasi Scanlan, who drove more than three hours from Ridgecrest to attend the festivities. “When I was a little girl, traditional medicine was used to cure everything. It wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it worked. The museum did a good job of capturing that aspect of our island history.”
According to US Census statistics, more than one percent of Long Beach’s population is Pacific Islander, and approximately .04 percent of the state’s population claims a Pacific heritage.
Nafa, who is currently on leave from UH, hopes to share her enthusiasm for anthropology by volunteering at PIEAM this semester. “I remember when I first fell in love with the history of my Pacific ancestors, and I hope to play a small role in helping others fall in love with it too.” PIEAM is located at 695 Alamitos Ave.