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Rape Culture & Sexual Violence in Pacific Islander Communities: An Oral History Project


About the Project

Introduction to the project

Gender and sexual violence within the US Tongan diasporic communities is often a taboo topic and a difficult subject matter to discuss for many Tongans and other members of the Pacific Island community (Thomas, 9). In December 2020, Eleni ‘Iongi Alaalatoa had post a live video speaking on her own rape story as well as mentioning other girls who have suffered sexual violence. This went on to create an upsurge of other Tongans publicly sharing their testimonies. Although Eleni opened a door for other Tongans to share their own experiences and for other Tongan to listen and grapple with certain behaviors that might have enabled rape culture. Eleni and many other Tongan girls who shared their stories often found their stories were doubted, invalidated, and gaslighted. In response to the community’s challenges with violence, the Tongan community counters abuse with fundamental values in the Tongan culture of love, respect, humility, loyalty, and building relationships (these values are also known as the Faa’i Kavei Koula, The Four Core Values (To’o Folau, and Tonga, 31).

This is furthered by stereotypes surrounding Pacific Islanders; there are assumptions of Tongans, similar to other people of color, as being associated with violent behaviors. Pacific Islanders often see this stereotype play out when addressing men of color, particularly in popular culture where Pacific Island men are thought of as “savage cannibal and self – inflated (Brisin, 106).” A core aspect of this proposed project is not to label Tongan communities as violent, but rather to understand the language and beliefs that further silence ongoing patterns of abuse. The research behind this project is meant to shed light on the voices of sexual assault survivors of Tongan heritage and their family members who witness abuse to further gain a deeper understanding of Tongan culture and practices in response to violence.

Central to this project is understanding how language and behaviors in communities normalize violence and the silence surrounding gender-based violence within Tongan communities. Pacific Island communities often normalize sexual violence through the silence that is created by the family members of the survivors. Shaming simultaneous occurs when survivors of sexual violence are silenced, a common theme within the Pacific (Laholo, 3). Katharine – Laholo and Leilani A. H also brings light to shame and stigmas among the Pacific Island community; it is embedded in socialization and is a way to shape and create emotion regulation.

In this project, I interviewed Pacific Islanders in Utah utilizing oral history methods. Participants are Tongans and Pacific Islanders. Okihiro speaks about oral histories being distinctly different; that oral histories are documentations of living persons, whereas written histories are in regards to the dead (Okihiro, 33). Using oral histories as a method will add to the severity of the issue within Tonga communities as it is the testimonies of survivors who are presently among us. Modeling similar methods as Crystal Baik and the Intergenerational Korean American Oral History the use of oral history as a method allows for one to listen as a method. Therefore this oral history project engages in active listening with narrators through the oral history method where the interviewer unpacks concepts, feelings, and experiences surrounding rape culture and sexual violence. The interviewees are referred to as narrators, and the interviewer is Moala Solomone-Halaeua.

Overview

Literature overview

Colonization impacts Pacific Islanders, where colonialism is defined as the subjugation of a population by separating people from each other within their own community, their land, language, and culture (Thomas, 2017). Colonialism disrupts the indigeneity of Pasifika people, disrupting traditional cultural practices of Tongans, particularly within the diaspora. Relevant to this project: defining rape culture is not limited to a culture that validates rape, this is not enough. Rape culture also encompasses a society where girls are taught to value their appearance in order to gain male validation (Nicholls, 2020). In Dismantling Rape Culture: The Peacebuilding Power of ‘Me Too,’ Tracey Nicholls defines rape culture as, “… one that normalises and excuses rape, a social context in which the desire of privileged aggressors are prioritized over comfort, safety, and dignity of marginalized populations that are seen as targets, as prey.” This project argues that rape culture is dangerously prevalent in the Pacific and in Tongan communities in the diaspora, because it is excellently discreet in its execution. It is discreet in that sexual violence most often occurs within the household (Thomas, 2017). This project also claims that sexual violence and the experience of it, is knowledge that is subjugated by community members that adhere to the culture norms of shame and silence. 

This project builds upon oral history methods. Okihiro speaks about oral histories being distinctly different; that oral histories are documentations of living persons, whereas written histories are in regards to the dead (Okihiro, 1981). Using oral histories as a method will add to understanding the Tongan community through the testimonies of survivors who are presently among us. Modeling similar methods from Crystal Baik, where she uses intergenerational Korean American Oral History as a method. As Baik also uses listening as a method, this project documents a multitude of oral histories and discussions with Tongans and Pacific Islanders using listening as a method in which both the interviewer and interviewee can respond to body language and help each other unpack concepts, feelings, and experiences. This project also uses these oral histories as a call to action for other Pacific Islanders to actively listen to their community and family members that may be sexual violence survivors.  

Although sexual and domestic violence is throroughly discussed and addressed on the GBVC website, missing and a central of the community are Pacific Islanders and the effects that this violence has on community. Research shows that Intimate Partner Violence or IPV data is limited; existing research relating to Pacific Islanders with about 284,000 with Tongans comprising 18% who experienced IPV (Heard, Fitzgerald, & Whittaker, 2020). Additionally, Pacific Islanders are often grouped with Asian Americans, however the experiences, cultures, and responses to violence differ in many ways. The colonial histories, immigration patterns, and cultural life make Pacific Islanders a unique group to understand in itself, where they are connected to Oceania. This project is about elevating Pacific Islander voice.  

Elevating voice is important, where the silence and shame are also overwhelmingly present in the  Pacific Island communities. Individuals who have witnessed and/ or witnessed are more likely to continue to experience anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, and low self – esteem, particularly children in households where parents take part in IPV(Schluter, Paterson, Feeham, 2007). They are also more likely to perpetuate violence through silence and shame. Schluter, Paterson, and Feeham also collected data on IPV with Pacific Islander parents and the effects this may have on children within the family. Because this oral history contains heavy and personal conversations about rape culture and sexual violence, the narrators greatly contribute to research by shedding light on how trauma of IPV is generational – by showing this through the voice of the community. While not all the narrators in this project have experienced IPV in their own childhood, all participants add to this project with differing perspectives whether it be conversations about rape culture, sexual violence, the trauma that they might have experienced at an older age, or being able to talk through their stories with an active audience.  

This project is not meant to act as a therapy session for the storytellers, but to act a safe space where individuals can not only express their feelings about responses to rape culture and sexual assault, and help create a more open safer environment for other Pacific Islander children to voice their experiences. Furthermore, this project strives to help Tongans add to history as Pacific Islanders and make an effort in stopping the damaging cycle of silence and violence through creating an archive of an oral history project.  

Key terms

Key words

‘Ofa – Love

Faka’apa’apa – Respect

Tauhi’i Vaha’a – Building and nurturing relationships / Sharing

‘Anga Fakatokilalo – Humility

Mamahi’i Me’a – Loyalty

Language

To adhere to accurately representing the narrators, exact wording was used. At times, the narrators may choose to use explicit language as an adjective or verb.

About the researcher

Moala Solomone-Halaeua

Moala Solomone-Halaeua is the researcher whose study was supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program Scholars (Spring 2022). This study is also being presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at the University of Utah.

 

As a Tongan -American, I have dedicated an overwhelming amount of my time, knowledge, and mana in fighting for justice for my people as well as creating a safe place for other Pacific Islanders to feel comfortable in their own skin. As a Tongan -Americanwomen who has witnessed and experienced the repercussions of behaviors and languages that have enabled sexual violence, I am particularly interesting in creating a space for others Tongans to reevaluate their own behaviors and family life norms. With thisproject, I hope to bring light to a topic that has been shoved into darkness for so long. Given that this project addresses difficult and taboo topics of conversations, I understand that conducting these interviews may trigger trauma (that may also be generational). However, I hope that with my training from Dr. Fukushima and other sexual harrasment and my own cultural background may help with the interviews and the discussions. Still, my aim for these oral histories is to highlight and discuss sexual violence within the home, the reaction of silence and shame from the community, and give power and a voice back to survivors of sexual violence and rape culture who are specifically of Pacific Island descent. I intend to use my knowledge from this project to further help the Pacific Island people by bringing awareness to sexual violence in the home and allow for more safe spaces to be created where can healing to take place. As a teacher and mentor at the Mana Academy Charter school, I also plan on using this project to better my ability to listen and support students in any issue they may come across. In doing this, I also hope to set an example and open more opportunities for my students to become better listeners and supporters themselves. These oral histories can add to this important narrative that addressing and listening to stories of sexual violence can better communities and the environment they foster. — Moala

 

Citing

Suggested citation: Solomone-Halaeua, M. 2022. Rape Culture & Sexual Violence in Pacific Islander Communities: An Oral History Project. Gender-Based Violence Consortium.

Narrators

Narrator 1: Moana*

Narrator 2: Raven*

Narrator 3: Sione*

Sione Transcription

*Pseudonym

 

*Pseudonym

Bibliography

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