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Annual Polynesian spring luau returns to Montana Western

UMW News Bureau

Montana Western Poly Club presents Circle of Life Celebration.  Luau, Dance, Exhibits April 24, 2010.The Montana Western Polynesian Club presents the fourth annual spring luau on Saturday, April 24. This year's event, “The Circle of Life,” will be held at the Keltz Arena. Doors open at 5 p.m. Dinner and performances begin at 6 p.m. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Poly Club president Villi Haunga performs a traditional Maori dance. "]Villi Haunga[/caption] Dillon may seem like an unlikely location for a luau, but the nearly 700 people who come to the University of Montana Western Polynesian Club’s annual spring luau don’t seem to mind. The 2010 spring luau, “The Circle of Life,” will be held at Montana Western’s Keltz Arena on Saturday, April 24. It is the university’s fourth annual luau. “We’re one in a million here in Montana, and we have the unique opportunity to share our culture with people here,” club president Villi Haunga said. “Having the honor to do that is something great.” The luau first started in 2007 with six members, most of whom were Hawaiian students who came to Montana Western as football student-athletes. By the next year, the luau had grown to nearly 500 attendees. By 2009’s “A Journey Through Polynesia,” over 600 people gathered on the Montana Western campus to experience authentic Polynesian culture, food and dance. The club regularly performs on campus and across the state. The club most recently performed at the University of Montana during International Week. They will perform at the 35th annual Montana State University American Indian Council Pow Wow in Bozeman on April 2, 2010. In November and December 2009, two native New Zealand Maoris, Robin and Chanelle Casey, spent nearly two months in Dillon training the Polynesian Club in traditional Maori dance. The club gave several performances with the Caseys throughout December. Montana Western’s Polynesian population is a diverse mix of south Pacific ethnicities: Polynesian, Fijian, Hawaiian, Samoan and Tongan. For many of the club’s members, both the club and the luau have unexpectedly brought them closer to their home and culture than they were while living on the islands. Keenan Ho’ohuli, a freshman biology student, first came to Montana Western in August 2009 from Oahu, Hawaii. Ho’ohuli moved to Dillon without even a campus visit under his belt. It was a big change, to say the least, and though he often missed his home, Ho’ohuli found good company in the Polynesian Club. “It helped me stick it out and almost made it feel like a second home,” Ho’ohuli said. Ho’ohuli grew up hula dancing with his family, but he said it was not until he came to Montana Western that he began to fully understand Polynesia. “I’ve learned a lot about all the Polynesian cultures from every island,” Ho’ohuli added. “Through the dances, we’re pretty much telling a story, but the main part is sharing it with people and spreading some good words about Polynesian people.” While stories like Ho’ohuli’s are beginning to be commonplace on the Montana Western campus, Villi Haunga is still pleasantly surprised when he hears them. “Who would have ever known they would learn about their own culture in Montana,” Haunga said. Haunga grew up in a family steeped in his people’s traditions. His grandparents are Tongan dance choreographers, and both of his parents also stressed the importance of education and knowledge of their culture. “My dad is a speaking chief,” Haunga explained. “He taught me a lot about the Tongan way and our culture, but he also taught me the ethics of living in a different culture.” Haunga and his fellow Polynesians take those ethics seriously; the Polynesian Club is continually active in the Dillon community sponsoring food drives, participating in recycling drives and many other volunteer efforts both on and off campus. The Polynesian Club has even performed on the floor of the Montana State Legislature. Judy Ulrich, the Polynesian Club’s artistic producer, helped found the club with Nani Lee, former Montana Western football coach, and Mala Afoa. Ulrich said the club has come a long way from its advent five years ago. “We’ve ballooned to 60 dancers, musicians, seamstresses, and tour managers with the Montana Western Provost Karl Ulrich as bus driver and chef,” Ulrich said. “The club includes community children as well as adults. We’ve reached over 10,000 Montanans with free school performances and received two prestigious grants from Montana Humanities and The Montana Arts Council.” The Polynesian Club’s efforts, combined with community support, are forging a unique, positive relationship in this traditionally western community. Christina Oppegard, the club’s advisor, said the mutual support is crucial in the production of community events like the spring luau. "If it was not for the club members’, performers’, and community members’ support and dedication to the Montana Western Polynesian Club, the club would not be where it is today,” Oppegard said. This year’s luau will include 18 overall performances of Hawaiian, Polynesian, Fijian, Samoan, Tongan and Maori dances. Each island will be represented with one male, one female and one group performance. The evening’s menu will include pulled pork and Hawaiian barbecue dinners. Doors open at 5 p.m., and an opening performance will precede dinner at 6 p.m. Tickets are pre-sale only through April 16. Inquire about table reservations. Single ticket (includes dinner) is $40. Show ticket only for adults is $20 and for students of all ages is $10. Call (406) 683-7305 for tickets.

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