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Hawaii graduation tradition adopted in Alaska

By Julia O'Malley

Anchorage Daily News

LAST UPDATED: 01:15 p.m. HST, May 19, 2013

ANCHORAGE, Alaska » This time of year across the country, gyms and auditoriums fill with robed students, "Class of 2013" balloons and the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." In Anchorage -- home to the highest concentration, per capita, of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders on the mainland -- another unique graduation tradition has taken hold among people from all backgrounds: the graduation lei. Draping a graduate's neck with bands of candy and flowers has become as expected in many families here as watching a graduate fling a mortarboard cap into the air.

The entrance of Sullivan Arena, where high school graduations are being held this week, has the feel of a Honolulu tourist market, with five competitive vendors selling leis made of flowers, candy, shiny kukui nuts, green ti leaves and jewel tone yarn. The sweet smell of plumeria hangs heavy in the air. Sellers shout, "Flower leis! Candy leis!" over the noise of the crowds trailing in.

Wednesday afternoon, Amy Riley browsed boxed $20 orchid leis at a stand set up along the road across from the arena and decided on a couple for her son and his girlfriend, who were graduating from Service High School. Their family is Yup'ik, she said, but they like the lei as a way to celebrate graduation.

"Even though we're not Hawaiian, they're really pretty," she said.

Vendors Summer Prescott and Carey Ofahengaue, both Hawaiian by heritage, own the Utah-based lei business LeiAway.com. This graduation season was their first selling flower leis in Anchorage, they said. Business has been better than they could have hoped, they said. Leis are a Polynesian thing, Prescott told me, but they spread the welcoming "spirit of aloha." That appeals to everybody.

"Our people migrated to the mainland for opportunities," Prescott said. "They are bringing that tradition with them."

Their lei business tracks with what census data show are some of fastest-growing Polynesian communities.

"We've been to Washington, Arizona, Nevada, and we're heading to Oregon," she said.

Alaskans have always been connected to Hawaii. A five-hour flight away, it's a popular vacation destination. Over the last 20 years, Alaska has become popular with Pacific Islanders as well. About three percent of Anchorage residents-- roughly 9,000 people -- now identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander alone or in combination with another race, according to the census. About half of those say they are from Samoa. The Pacific Islander population in Anchorage doubled over the last 10 years and experienced similarly rapid grown between 1990 and 2000.

Sisters Maria and Evangeline Morisa of Anchorage have been selling leis, made with Halloween candy, ribbon and cellophane, for graduations since 2001. They slowly built their family's business to include mail order. Pictures of customers from around the country and the world were posted all over their lei table Wednesday. In the Pacific islands, leis might be a symbol of welcoming, part of a wedding costume, or even a funeral decoration. On the mainland, the women said, they're most often a symbol of accomplishment.

"It's saying, 'you've done well,' " Evangeline said.

Leonee May, who isn't Pacific Islander, bought three candy leis from the Morisa sisters for her sister, who was about to graduate. Her sister insisted, she told me. Other members of Leonee's family bought leis too.

"(It will be) like, around her neck, choking her, yes," May said.

That's part of the fun.

Bobbie Hammond, whose twin daughters were graduating Wednesday, showed up at the Sullivan Arena with homemade money leis in Service colors. She taught herself lei-making with the help of the Internet, she said. Their family is white, it isn't their cultural tradition, but she'd seen leis at other graduations and thought they'd be fun, she said. When I caught up with her, she was explaining to her daughters' grandmother, Liz Jones, and her boyfriend, Hal Greeney, about the Anchorage lei tradition. They were visiting from Upstate New York.

"I've never heard of it before," Greeney said.

I talked for a while with Leilani Silao, who sat at the largest stand in the entrance of the Sullivan, pulling needles through plumeria, carnation and orchid blossoms. Her stand is operated mainly by relatives and "church family" from 1st Samoan Body of Christ Church, Silao said. Most of them are Samoan and many have spent time in Hawaii, she said. Their group was the first to set up a fresh-lei stand near the arena in the early 2000s, she said. They used to be at the corner of 15th Avenue and Ingra Street.

They might be responsible for igniting the lei trend in Anchorage, but the popularity has spawned lots of competition, she said. People are making their own leis now with everything from crochet to Saran wrap. There are so many vendors at the entrance of the Sullivan now, they are thinking of moving back to Ingra, she said. They expect to sell hundreds of leis this season between Mother's Day and Father's Day, she said. Exact sales numbers are confidential.

"The smell makes me miss home," she said, standing over a box of white plumeria that rode to Anchorage on a jet days before. "I was raised into (lei-making), it's from the islands, our parents, our ancestors."

Just before the green-robed graduates made their way to their chairs on the floor of the arena, Noemi Uri sat in the bleachers with a half-dozen candy and ribbon leis she made for her best friend, Alyssa Honeycutt. Uri walked Tuesday with her class at East High, she said. She showed me a cellphone picture of her leis, stacked chest to chin. I asked how it felt to collect her diploma and then have friends and family drape her with sweets and money and flowers.

"Great," she said. "But it was very heavy."

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Konawayne wrote:
Wouldn't it be nice if Hawaii would send people across the globe spreading the Aloha spirit. It would be a win win situation. The world would be a better place and more people would wish to come to Hawaii to see the people with this great Aloha spirit.
on May 18,2013 | 12:12PM
Grammy wrote:
I love it that Hawaiians/Islanders/locals follow the traditions in far away locales, too. Spread a little Aloha around the world. What it signifies may change from place to place, but it's the thought (aloha) that counts.
on May 18,2013 | 01:55PM
atilter wrote:
not to be a party pooper but, altho' not called "lei", many cultures around the world give floral garlands on occassions such as these - graduations, birthdays, funerary rites, etc. it's not unique to hawaii and not as ornate or grandious.
on May 19,2013 | 06:25AM
hanalei395 wrote:
If you want to compare those floral garlands to the lei, then you don't have a Hawaiian sense of Aloha.
on May 19,2013 | 06:53AM
hanalei395 wrote:
BTW, if you hear a Hawaiian love song with the words "pua" (flower) and/or "lei" in it, it's a song about or for a loved one, most likely a child. It's called "kaona", and the "pua/lei" represents a really special, beloved person.
on May 19,2013 | 09:59AM
AmbienDaze wrote:
where did you get that info, wikipedia?
on May 19,2013 | 10:33AM
hanalei395 wrote:
This unfortunate person, who hates Hawaiians, and everything Hawaiian, is after me again.
on May 19,2013 | 11:02AM
4watitsworth wrote:
We/ve always brought leis to California when my nieces and nephews graduated from high school and college and we don't bring leis only for them. They ask us to bring leis for their friends and I'm sure other Hawaii families do the same so I can see how this tradition has spread over the years. It's really nice to see so many students with leis at mainland graduations.
on May 18,2013 | 05:50PM
Hugo wrote:
How many flowers would one have to buy to equal the cost of a college textbook?
on May 18,2013 | 09:16PM
kahuku01 wrote:
IRTHugo: Brother, on special occasions such as graduation, proms, weddings, funerals, bon voyage, sporting events, mother's/father's day, birthdays, memorial day, retirement, welcoming to Hawaii, May day, personal accomplishment and whatever, the cost of the lei is irrelevant because of the sprit of Aloha (love) (hello) (good-bye) and recognition that makes it so special. If you're considering the cost of the lei being too expensive or equal to the cost of a college textbook, than you're not the person to give from the heart. Having said that, you don't have that spirit of Aloha because you weren't brought up learning and living the Aloha tradition. But that's OK, because there are many like you that prefer to give just a hand shake on special occasions.
on May 19,2013 | 07:33AM
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