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Video: With leis for grads, Pacific Islanders bring piece of home to Anchorage

Tara Young

Alaska may seem an unlikely place for a Pacific Islander to relocate -- going from the warm climes of the South Pacific to the cold north -- but in Anchorage, there is a thriving Hawaiian and Samoan community.

Regardless of the reason, Pacific Islanders have been moving to the frozen north for decades. And with them come traditions from their homelands, like lei-making.

Leis are traditionally made of flowers and foliage native to the islands of the South Pacific and given as gifts. Over the years, the tradition of presenting leis to graduating students has captured the fascination of Alaskans, and it is now a local tradition as well.

Peke Kahananui hails from the Hawaiian island of Molokai but said she loves Alaska.

"I don't mind the snow at all. The first two years you have to get used to it," she said. "But other than that, it's so nice."

Kahananui still longs for the days of picking flowers on her island and making gifts for friends.

"I miss that -- I really miss home," she said.

Living up north, there's no way to grow enough orchids to supply the demand for graduation leis, so candy leis came into being.

Kahananui says, "you can use any kind of candy, like how you go trick-or-treating."

Lifesavers, Reese's and M&Ms, wrapped in cellophane and ribbons, now make up the bulk of graduation leis sold. But it's the fresh flower leis that really remind these lei-makers of home.

Reach Tara Young at tara@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By TARA YOUNG
tara@alaskadispatch.com