Andre Fa'aoso, Contributing Photographer

After months of planning, the Indigenous Peoples of Oceania — or IPO — group at Yale hosted the inaugural Pasifika Fest. 

The event, which involved months of preparation, focused on sharing the food, arts and culture of the Pacific Islands and showcasing some of the cultures of the diaspora to which Pasifika students at Yale belong. The group hosted the Pasifika Fest at Steep Cafe which they decorated with the flags of the Pacific and filled with Pasifika food. 

Kumu Lelemia Irvine, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Hawai’i – West O’ahu, and ‘Ulise Funaki, a professor in History, Pacific Studies and Anthropology — along with his wife, Sina Funaki — flew in from Hawai’i to assist IPO with the Pasifika Fest. They also helped to lead an ‘Aha ‘Awa, a Hawaiian ʻawa ceremony, as one of the event’s cultural teach-ins. In the broader Pacific, ʻawa is known as kava, a bitter-tasting ceremonial and social beverage made from the root of a pepper plant.

Alongside the ‘Aha ‘Awa, Linda Lambrecht, a practitioner and researcher from Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi hosted a Hawaiian Sign Language teach-in. 

Members of the Pasifika diaspora from across the Northeast were present at the event and were once more immersed in cultural celebration. 

The IPO began planning the Pasifika Fest last fall after initially considering hosting a Lūau. Joshua Ching ’26, a member of IPO said that group members wanted to acknowledge and celebrate more than just Native Hawaiian culture, but also that of the wider Pacific, in recognition of Yale’s growing Pacific Islander student population.

“We finally have enough Pasifika people here now to do something meaningful and to assert our presence, as visitors on Quinnipiac land, but also within an institution that has a long history with us,” Ching told the News. 

The over 150 attendees at the event included Pasifika students from not only Yale but also the United States Coast Guard Academy of Connecticut who participated and performed at the event. 

Executive members of IPO, along with Matthew Makomenaw and Denise Morales, assistant dean and assistant director of the Native American Cultural Center organized the logistics and funding for the event with weekly meetings beginning in the fall. 

Pasifika Fest was funded and sponsored by the NACC, the Yale Chaplain’s Office, the Asian American Cultural Center, Yale Peabody Museum, Andover Newton Seminary and Indigenous student organizers at the Yale School of Public Health.

The packed program presented an interactive experience, where attendees could float between the different stations and be immersed in the various cultures of the Pacific. At the snack station, there was Keke ‘Isite and Piri Piri, Tongan and Tahitian forms of fried donuts, along with Spam musubi. 

Interactive stations also included Lei making, Kalo and ‘Ulu workshops led by IPO, and a Fijian stamping station where attendees could design tote bags. 

Helen Shanefield ’26, who led a hula workshop with permission from her Kumu Hula, told the News that there wasn’t a large Pasifika community at Yale until recently, but that it was good to see people and resources come together to support the event. 

“We had so many people come together to help plan this, and to help make this possible, and so much enthusiasm from all of the members of the community was really nice to see,” Shanefield told the News. 

Throughout the day at the front of the venue, there were dance and music performances showcasing dance and music from across the Pacific and guest performances from the Yale Glee Club and Kasama. 

The dinner service, prepared by Yale Hospitality in coordination with IPO, offered an array of Pasifika foods, new to some but reminiscent of home for members of the Pasifika community at the festival. 

Anh Nguyen ’26, who attended the Pasifika Fest said the teach-ins and cultural workshops allowed her to learn more about the culture of respect and community in the Pacific. 

At the ‘Aha ‘Awa teach-in at the end of the day, Irvine and Funai taught through action the importance of this ceremony, a sacred ritual where ‘Awa is consumed. 

Funaki said that ‘Awa is an integral piece of Pasifika culture and he told the News the ceremony was a “representation of the land and the people.” Drinking ‘Awa, Funaki added, is a sign of connection and commitment – a  “bitter commitment” that involves kuleana, or responsibility and commitment. 

“So when you take the land, you take the people, you literally ingest it, you have a responsibility of kuleana,” Funaki told the News. 

As the kahu kanoa — Guardian of the ʻawa serving bowl — Irvine acknowledged the Quinnipiac lands that Yale stands on and that the ‘Aha ‘Awa ceremony took place on. He also acknowledged the Native Hawaiian and Pasifika kūpuna, or ancestors, that came before us at Yale.

“We don’t make the assumption that we’re the first of anything, because we know, people came before us to make it better and paved the way,” Irvine said.

Funaki and Irvine posed a challenge to the Yale administration to honor and acknowledge Pasifika kupuna, or ancestors, who have paved the way for Pasifika knowledge and belonging, both in the islands and at Yale. 

“I would hope that this is an opening to a larger conversation with the university about the Pasifika representation we have on campus not only within the student body but also within our Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School faculty,” Ching told the News. 

Irvine and Funaki emphasized at the ceremony that Yale should elevate and honor Henry Opukahaʻia for his contributions to creating the first Hawaiian language text and Bible, as well as uplift living Native Hawaiian kūpuna, Kekuhi Kealiʻikanakaʻole and Māhealani Pai with honorary doctorate degrees, in acknowledgment of their extraordinary contributions to the revitalization Hawaiian culture.

Henry Opukahaʻia arrived at Yale University in 1809, and whilst in New Haven was taught by former Yale College Dean Timothy Dwight. 

Opukahaʻia was denied an undergraduate education at Yale, but still worked closely with students, alumni and administrators whilst in New Haven to learn Christian bible scripture in multiple languages, with the intent to spread it in his Native Hawaiian tongue of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

Funaki said that he wanted people to take away the extra knowledge of the tapestries of the Pacific, and acknowledge what they perhaps did not know about Pacific culture before. 

“What I hope people take from this event is that our culture is more than just what they thought they knew: more than a coconut shell bra in a grass skirt and fake Tiki,” Funaki said. 

Jairus Rhoades ’26 told the News that he thought the Pasifika Fest was an educational and informative event conducted mindfully. 

Rhoades echoed Funaki and Irvine’s words during the ‘Awa ceremony, saying that this festival was about more than just displaying Pasifika food, art and culture. Rather, the festival also represented a “commitment to how Yale interacts with its indigenous communities of Connecticut and Pasifika communities,” he said. 

The Indigenous Peoples of Oceania group at Yale was founded in Spring 2023 and is the only Pacific Islander cultural group at Yale.

Correction, April 13: Several names and terms throughout the article were updated with correct spelling and additional context.