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Luau in the desert

Descendants of Mormon Polynesian pioneers return to Skull Valley to hula in the tumbleweeds.

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If you want to test your pioneer spirit, come to Skull Valley. In this broad, sun-baked basin just south of the Great Salt Lake, dust devils rake the desert, rattlesnakes coil in the sagebrush, and the thermometer rockets between extremes. Rugged mountains, severely stunning against blue sky, rise to the east and west.

Even today, this is an isolated place. A century ago, it was the end of the earth.

In August 1889, a small group of pioneers set about surviving in Skull Valley. Their skin, used to the tropics, cracked in the dry desert air. Thoughts of their distant island homes, of lush blooms and ocean waves, must have pricked at them as they stared across the forbidding valley. Their story is a classic tale of courage and endurance, part of the pioneer tradition that still echoes through the modern American West.

But in Skull Valley, the pioneer story is told by Polynesians.


"Welcome to Iosepa!" Richard Poulsen's voice, its New Zealand accent undimmed by three decades in Utah, echoed across a busy festival pavilion last weekend. "Those of you in your camps, come out and talk to each other. You might find out you're related!" said Mr. Poulsen, who is part Maori.

Today, little remains of the Polynesian settlement of Iosepa but a few disintegrating foundations and a small cemetery.

Yet each Memorial Day weekend, hundreds – indeed, about 1,000 last weekend – gather in a weedy cow pasture to celebrate its history and the cultures it embodies. The partygoers roast pork until it falls from the bone, dance the hula, and weave family, faith, and multiple traditions into something that feels like home.

"We come here to be Hawaiian," said Ned Aikau, who's been attending the Memorial Day gathering at Iosepa with his family since he moved from Hawaii to Utah in the 1970s. "We come so that we can laugh loud, sing loud, and talk loud."


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