Guest Book Review: Dominic Martinez on “Remembering Iosepa”

By August 10, 2013

Dominic Martinez {dominic.martinez AT} is currently a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver in the School of Education and Human Development with a focus on Leadership for Educational Equity.  He has presented papers titledIosepa “The Iosepa Voyage: The Reconstruction of Hawaiian Voyaging within Mormon Context” and “Iosepa, Utah: Reclaiming History Through Connectedness” at national conferences.  The Juvenile Instructor is pleased to share his review of Kester’s book on Iosepa.  


Matthew Kester. Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. vii, 203.  Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Hardcover: $44.35; ISBN 978-0-19-984491-3


I had the opportunity to meet J. Matthew Kester in the summer of 2009 when I was in Hawai?i conducting research for my Master?s thesis on Polynesian Mormons.  I was thrilled to meet this exceptional scholar with his laid-back, surfer-dude personality.  Our conversation focused on three main subjects: the history of Brigham Young University Hawai?i; a character from the Book of Mormon named Hagoth who is speculated to have been one of the first ancestors to the Polynesian population; and Iosepa, a community in Utah founded by Mormon Hawaiians.  Knowing his passion for the history of Mormonism and the Hawaiian culture, I was pleased to see that his first book to be published is on Iosepa–a space, according to Dennis Atkin, that has not been researched enough (1). Other than Dennis Atkin?s Master?s thesis, his chapter, ?Iosepa: A Utah Home for Polynesians? in Voyages of Faith: Explorations in Mormon Pacific History (2) and Tracy E. Panek?s chapter, ?Life at Iosepa, Utah?s Polynesian Colony? in Proclamation to the People: Nineteenth-century Mormonism and the Pacific Basin Frontier (3), there has not been as much attention spent on this Mormon colony for Polynesians in the west.

In his book, Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West, Kester peels back layers of meaning, stories, and hopes embedded in the Utah Hawaiian pioneering community, Iosepa, in order to provide insight on how historical and spiritual relationships have formed a sacred space for both past and present Mormons and Polynesians.  Building upon his 2008 doctorate dissertation, Kester?s book is divided into five chapters, in which he explores the Hawaiian Saints? desire to further their newfound dedication to Mormonism by migrating to Utah in the late 1880s.  The five chapters include the Pacific world, the Hawaiian Mission, early Native Hawaiian Migration to the Salt Lake Valley, the development of Iosepa, and Iosepa in Public Memory.

Kester sets the tone of the book in the introduction by demonstrating to the readers that he is both an insider and outsider to the study of Polynesians (4) and Mormonism, thus permitting him the authority and connection as both a scholar of Mormon studies and an extended member of the Polynesian community in La?ie, where he is an Assistant Professor of History & University Archivist at BYU Hawai?i.  He does so by sharing personal experiences while in Salt Lake City conducting research for this book.  One example is when he encountered a local Tongan in Salt Lake City who, as it turns out, is the nephew of one of Kester?s acquaintances in Hawai?i.  These experiences lay the foundation for both Polynesians and non-Polynesians to know that he writes from a place of familiarity and understanding of the community, traditions, beliefs, and culture.

My only criticism would be that when I first started reading Remembering Iosepa, I felt chapters one and two were reproductions of scholarly work that has already been researched and presented.  Scholars like R. Lanier Britsch, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, and Ben Finney have laid an historical foundation already.  Therefore, I felt a briefer description would have sufficed.  However, after finishing the book, I realized that Kester?s contribution to this field of study on collective memory of Iosepa would not have been as rich as it was without the chronological history of the Pacific World and the missionary impact in Hawai?i.  Clearly, the epilogue gives reason as to why he chose to include the histories of the Pacific World and the missionaries? “plot” to colonize the “foul savages” of Hawai?i.  He writes,

I cannot make sense of the story of Iosepa without understanding the stories of Hawai?i, the American West, Mormons, missionaries, land, sugar, the gathering to Zion, and the post-World War II Pacific Islander diaspora.  And so throughout this study I have made an effort to connect Iosepa to the larger currents of history that link these seemingly disparate places and subjects (p. 166).

In chapter three, I was enthralled by the in-depth historical timeline of the first Native Hawaiian Migration to the Salt Lake Valley.  Finally, a scholar has depicted in detail an uncensored picture of how Mormons and non-Mormons discriminated against Native Hawaiians.  He did not hold back the fact that Mormons and non-Mormons viewed the Hawaiians as savages with diseases.  He argues that these stereotypes were reinforced by local newspapers, adding fuel to the fire for the ?removal of Pacific Islander migrants to Skull Valley in 1889? (p. 97).

In my opinion, chapters four and five provide the richest material.  Chapter four introduces the reader to the establishment and eventually the departure of the Polynesian Mormon community known as Iosepa.  Hoping not to reveal too much, I have provided a brief synopsis of the Iosepa settlement.  On August 28, 1889, the Polynesians who had migrated to Utah were moved to Skull Valley in Tooele County, Utah.  The immigration brought well over 200 Polynesians to the colony, which became known as Iosepa, in honor of Joseph F. Smith, who had served multiple missions in the Hawaiian Islands and later become the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  These obedient Polynesians were desirous to come to Zion where they would have an opportunity to do temple work for themselves and their ancestors, so they managed to thrive in this barren land with a changing climate.

The Polynesian families at Iosepa worked for the church-controlled Iosepa Agriculture and Stock Co., which continued to provide financial support.  This, however, caused underlying resentment from both white members of the church and the Polynesians.  The white members felt burdened by taking care of Polynesians, much like caring for one?s children, and the Polynesians felt, at times, that their work was for nothing since they did not own their homes or their crops.  Kester argues, ?By placing the ranch manager in a position of both managerial and ecclesiastical authority over the Native Hawaiian laborers on the plantation, the company was able to blur the lines between sacred and secular power? (p. 111).  He furthers this argument, ?Before the advent of cash wages in Iosepa, workers were essentially indentured to the extent that they drew compensation against expenses owed to the company for housing, clothing, food, and other necessities of life that could not be produced within the household unit? (p. 105).  This caused unhappiness and tensions among the Church leadership and the Polynesians.

Eventually, in 1915, Joseph F. Smith, President of the Mormon Church at the time, announced the building of a Temple in La?ie, Hawai?i.  He strongly encouraged the Polynesian to move back to their homelands.  He informed the Polynesian Saints that it would be better for them to leave Utah while he could support and care for them because he would not be able to control what would happen to them once he was gone from this earth.  Throughout this chapter Kester challenges the portrayal that the newly converted Polynesians were content with their situation in Iosepa.  Even though the Polynesians were told that they were free to go as they pleased, there was an underlining message that to fulfill their mission in life, they must maintain their loyalty to the Church.  Thus, leading to the process of peer pressure directed from the top down.

In chapter five, Kester explores how at this sacred space, past and present narratives combine to form a public/collective memory of Iosepa.  Taking a sociological approach, he argues that that there are two dominant narratives present, first: the Mormon idea of a promised land and the symbolic pioneering journey or gathering movement carried out by the Church during the first few decades of its existence; and second, the Hawaiians? diasporic connection to Iosepa.  Kester demonstrates an unique and powerful bygone history that places Polynesians within Mormon context and now an impactful lived history in which their descendants and others are reestablishing connections with their past.  This insightful work, which expands upon public memory, has modern-day Polynesians becoming empowered and reenergized, providing relief from an environment in which they may be one of the few Polynesians in their community or workplace.

On a personal note, I was struck with emotions as I came to chapter five and the epilogue.  As he a states, ?Iosepa functions as a historical metaphor for the lived experience of all sorts of Pacific Islanders in Utah today? (p. 156).  Like in the past, present day Polynesians have had to deal with some of the same issues that their ancestors dealt with, including racism, discrimination, isolation and identity construction.  This process of belonging to a group while not really belonging to the society which in one lives.  Having had an opportunity to visit Iosepa, Utah in the Fall of 2009, I felt a connection to this sacred space, similar to the connection of those that attend the annual Memorial Day celebration.  Maybe not with the same sentiment, however; as a Mexican American Mormon convert, I too long for a place or space in Mormon history to reconnect with both my cultural and religious identities.

Overall, Remembering Iosepa is a brilliant piece of scholarship.  Kester’s work is much needed for scholars of both Mormonism and Hawaiian studies.  These histories tend to interweave throughout time, but few scholars feel comfortable taking on this research, for reason of not wanting to offend either group by misrepresentation.  Kester took on this challenge and was successful.  In 167 pages, I feel that Kester was able to build upon past research done by other scholars to shed light on new topics and issues within this complex history of Polynesian Mormons.  Some may disagree with me, but I believe his work only opens the doors for other scholars to build upon his work.

I would place this book in my top five must read list, along aside Hokulani K. Aikau?s book, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i and R. Lanier Britsch’s book, Moramona: The Mormons in Hawai’i.  Mostly, I applaud Kester for his bluntness that the first Hawaiians and Polynesians that immigrated to Utah encountered racism.  He suggests that racism may have contributed to the separation of the White members and the Polynesian members.  He also eluded that this separation is present today in Utah among Whites and Polynesians.


[1] Atkin, Dennis H. A History of Iosepa: The Utah Polynesian Colony.  Thesis: Department of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 1958.

[2] Atkin, Dennis H. Iosepa: A Utah Home of Polynesians. From Voyages of Faith: Explorations in Mormon Pacific History. Edited by Grant Underwood. Brigham Young University Press. 2000.

[3] Panek, Tracy E. Life at Iosepa, Utah?s Polynesian Colony. From Proclamation to the People: Nineteenth-century Mormonism and the Pacific Basin Frontier. Edited by Laurie Maffly-Kipp and Reid L Neilson.  The University of Utah Press. Salt Lake City. 2008.

[4] I am using the word ?Polynesian? over ?Hawaiian? due to the multiple Polynesian nationalities and complexities surrounding the Polynesian Mormon colonies (La?ie and Iosepa).  I use the term Polynesian in the most general way to encompass the people and culture, whereas the term Hawaiian is used in a geographical sense.



Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Dominic, thanks for your review. Sounds like a fascinating book. I’m curious as to Kester’s methodology for identifying the two narratives you mention from chapter 5. To what extent do Polynesians outside of Utah connect with Iosepa? It seems to me that La’ie would have more of a real and symbolic draw at least for Hawaiians, but also for any Pacific Islanders attending BYU-H or participating in PCC.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 10, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  2. Dominic, did you detect any difference in tone in Kester’s book and Aikau’s? After reading the two books, I felt like Aikau’s feelings towards the church were much more negative than Kester’s. She also seemed more willing to deal with racism in the contemporary church and to think about the ways in which the narratives that the church has crafted in regards to Polynesian members might harm individuals and their communities. Do you know how the native Hawaiian scholarly community has reacted to Kester’s book, if at all?

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 10, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  3. Thanks for the review, Dominic. It’s great to see so much recent working on Mormonism in the Pacific Islands/Mormonism and Polynesians. Now I just need to find the time to read all of this great scholarship.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

  4. Dominic, I would love to get to know you better as I seek to attract more scholars of color to the Y.

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — August 10, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

  5. Thank you for your comments.

    Nate, in regard to your question about Polynesians outside of Utah, I would argue that connection is very strong. A couple of examples are the names of streets in La’ie are named for Iosepa, Utah. Plus, Iosepa, a Mormon-Hawaiian canoe built by a Mormon group in La?ie, Hawai?i, comprised of students in the Hawaiian Studies Program at Brigham Young University-Hawai?i (BYU Hawai?i) and employees at the Polynesian Cultural Center, under the leadership of William Wallace, was named for and after Iosepa, Utah. This connection is passed down to new generation by stories.

    Amanda, I would have to say that Dr. Aikau’s tone is more personal. In her book, her perspective provides
    the long overdue other side of the story. Throughout her research and desire to negotiate an “irreconcilable tension” (185) between Mormons and Polynesians, she discovered that “cultural regeneration can happen in unexpected
    places and with unexpected alliances” (185). I love her work. In regard to how Hawaiian scholars reacted to Kester’s work, I really don’t know. I do know that Dr. Kester and Dr. Aikau have partnered on many projects.

    Ignacio, please contact me. I would like to talk more to your about the Y.

    Comment by DF Martinez — August 12, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

  6. Are the streets named for Iosepa, Utah, or for Joseph F. Smith (which Iosepa itself was named after), who was instrumental in purchasing the La’ie land and spent a good deal with the Hawaiian Mormons throughout his life? Seems like a possible mis-transmitted memory, like that of the so-called “La’ie Prophecy”.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 12, 2013 @ 8:17 pm


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