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Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 31, 2023

As Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month comes to a close, we’d like to share stories and accomplishments of members of the Montana Western Community that were shared on our Instagram account throughout the month of May.

Kenai Liua

“Samoan culture is rich in traditions and customs, with a strong emphasis on family and community. Music, dance, and art play a significant role, and the Samoan language is an important part of the culture.”

Wrapping up his junior year, Kenai Liua has implemented the values of his culture into his experience at Montana Western.

“Growing up on an island, in the middle of nowhere, you have to learn how to get along with everyone. My culture has taught me many life lessons on how to survive like my ancestors and about life at sea.”

Although moving to Montana after growing up on an island is a big adjustment, it’s one that Kenai has successfully navigated.

“The community of Dillon has been a big help in the adjustment from Hawaii to Montana. The people here are welcoming and always willing to help. The professors are passionate and the staff seems to never have a bad day.”

As a football player and a member of the Polynesian Club, Kenai has been able to make connections with other students from similar backgrounds.

“Although I may be the only Samoan student here at Western, I am not the only Polynesian. The Polynesian students know each other and are almost always together. Our little ‘village’, as we like to call it, likes to gather and talk about how life was back on the Island.”

Ho’okipa Sakalia

“Our heritage provides evidence to our past and how our society developed. It helps us look into our history and traditions and allow us to develop a recognition about ourselves. It helps us understand and explain why we are the way we are.”
By integrating his culture and heritage at Montana Western, Ho’okipa Sakalia, an anthropology/sociology major and Bulldog Football student-athlete from Lahaina, Maui, has created a second home thousands of miles away from his family.
“I keep in touch with my loved ones at home a lot, and the connections I’ve made with some of the other students from Hawaii definitely made it a lot easier to adjust to being far away from home. Having coaches from Hawaii also helped because they’ve been through the same experience. Being with them makes it feel like home away from home,” Kipa said.
Although Montana culture and traditions differ from life in Hawaii, Kipa is enjoying his education and experiences in the state.
“I enjoy the block schedule which focuses on experiencing one course at a time and the great vibes given by great people. The community of Dillon is very supportive in everything: a small town with big hearts.”

Jaden Amasiu 

“The Hawaiian culture is really interesting and unique in its own way. We are deeply rooted in love and respect for friends, family, and whoever we may encounter. Sharing the aloha spirit is what makes us different from everyone else in our own special way.”

Jaden Kekainui Amasiu, a senior studying kinesiology, is from Kailua, Oahu. When speaking on his heritage he said, “honoring my culture is important to me because it keeps me grounded to where I have come from. It always reminds me of who we are as a people and what we preached to the keiki. It gives me a sense of identity and belonging, helps me connect with friends, family, and community. Also, it gives the people here from Montana a taste of Hawaii.

Having lived in Montana for a few years now, Jaden has settled into life away from home.

“I brought my culture with me by not changing who I am, but by being proud of where I have come from.”

Shey and Junior Mata’afa

Two years ago, Junior and Sheynoa Mata’afa, alumni from the Class of 2013, made the decision to move from Hawaii to Montana for the second time in their lives to raise their family in the community they fell in love with 15 years ago.

“We visited Dillon in 2017 for an alumni event here on campus. We told each other we would love to move back and let our kids experience Dillon just like how we did. We’ve been back for two years and don’t have a single regret. We love the small town feel as it reminds us of home. We love being outdoors and learning the ways of Dillon. Dillon is now a home for us just like Hawaii is.”

Though Montana is now home for the Mata’afa family, their initial move to Dillon, in 2008, was not without challenges.

“Thinking back, it was hard leaving family and friends at home. I remember feeling sad, scared and excited. We lived in the on-campus family housing, attended school, and had our two older kids in daycare. We joined the Polynesian Club and met some of our best friends whom we call family now. We shared our culture with everyone through dance, music, and food. We had potlucks and would cook all our favorite meals from back home. We had jam sessions and would sing all the songs that reminded us of home. It didn’t seem like we left Hawaii, as we had so much support from our family, new friends in Dillon, professors, advisors, and community members.”

Knowing what it’s like to make such a big move, the Mata’afa’s understanding and support provides current Polynesian students with a home-away-from-home. Doing so allows them to honor and celebrate their culture, and has brought exciting opportunities–such as the ability to share knowledge and traditions of the Pacific Islands with the reestablishment of the much-loved Polynesian Club.  

“While going to school I remember having to explain how to pronounce my name and share where I’m from. Being away from home has taught me to appreciate home and my different cultures. I keep who I am and where I’m from very close to my heart. It’s important that my kids remember who they are and it’s my responsibility to teach them. Some ways are cooking the foods we grew up with, playing the ukulele and dancing the hula. I am the advisor of the Polynesian Club, and we are excited to teach others about the Polynesian Islands. We have been able to perform a few different times within the community of Dillon and we look forward to more,” said Shey.

Now, a decade after they graduated, both Junior and Shey are working at Montana Western. Junior, a former member of the Bulldog Football team, now coaches the teams’ running backs and also works for Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch. After six years of teaching eighth grade English, Shey is now utilizing her strengths as an academic advisor by helping guide Montana Western students in their educational pursuits.

Descended from Samoan, Hawaiian, Korean, and German ethnicities, Junior and Shey honor their heritage by teaching the importance of cultural traditions and holidays to their five children. Fully settled into their life in Dillon, the Mata’afas spend their time attending their children’s various sporting events and adventuring in the Montana outdoors. 

Marcus Lombard 

“Honoring my culture and heritage is important because we were raised to take pride in our culture and to not hide it. I want to live in a way that would make my grandparents proud.”

Marcus Kelepi Lombard, a mathematics major going into his senior year, is from Laie, Hawaii. Marcus describes his heritage as “mainly Tongan mixed with Irish and German.” Coming from a strong cultural background, as is common in the Pacific Islands, Marcus has made Montana feel like a second home by continuing cultural traditions while in school. 

Like others, Marcus experienced an adjustment period after moving so far from home. 

“Some things I did to adjust to my new surroundings included learning to cook the foods I had when I was back home and make a lot of new friends.”

Although the culture of Montana may be significantly different than that of Hawaii, similarities between Dillon and Marcus’ hometown aided in adapting to the move. 

“I enjoy that Dillon is a small country town where people are kind to each other, because that’s what my hometown was like.”