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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 12:25 p.m., Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Leotas have reservations for La'ie

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

LA'IE — The Leota family reunion is going to be big.

From New Zealand to England they have come, 700 strong, for a grand gathering of family and friends. They will celebrate the legacy of Aivao and Matala Leota, get to know one another and reconnect to their Samoan history and culture.

A few of the 700-strong Leota family that will gather in La'ie for a reunion 2 1/2 years in the making.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The event has been planned for 2 1/2 years and will last four days. It is a family reunion that includes six generations of relatives, with the oldest 76 years and the youngest 2 weeks old. They have taken all 49 rooms in the La'ie Inn, and the rest are camping out on the beach at Malaekahana.

All over town, their red-and-white signs proclaim "Leota Reunion."

Attendees have been trickling in from around the world for days, and today marks the official start of the reunion in the town where it all started.

Stories will be shared and dozens of relatives will meet for the first time as everyone celebrates, said Kinaçu Tollefsen, 35, and a member of the fourth generation. Born and raised in La'ie but now living in Utah, Tollefsen said he is excited to make new connections.

"This is one of the highlights of my entire life so far, seeing my whole family," Tollefsen said.

Aivao and Matala Leota were among the first Samoans to come to Hawai'i after converting to the Mormon faith in 1919, said Craig Keiki, a great-grandson to the couple and one of the event's organizers. They were among the laborers who built the La'ie temple, the first Mormon Temple outside the U.S. mainland.

"They were the kings in their own village, and they gave up their riches to sacrifice and serve as missionaries," Keiki said.

As part of the reunion activities, the family will present a production about Aivao and Matala’s lives at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i, taking information directly from journals that chronicled their everyday activities, including when they left their home.

Above: Aivao Frank Leota, left, and Matala Penita Fuataga Leota were among the first Samoans to come to Hawai'i after converting to the Mormon faith in 1919.

Below: The Leota family tree, sewn on a quilt. At the top of the trunk (detail photo) are Aivao and Matala's names.

"It was a sad, sad day because many of the families knew they would never go back to Samoa," he said, adding that one of the main reasons for the reunion was to pass on that history. "We're preserving our family history, the legacy of their faith and all they stand for."

A number of fun things are planned, too, including a bus tour, golf tournament, silent auction and cricket matches. The whole bunch will meet at Hukilau Beach, La'ie Stake Center and Malaekahana Beach for other events and dinners.

Everyone is responsible for their breakfast and lunch, but the group will get together for dinner. Some will be catered, some are pot luck. There will be a Hawaiian grinds night, a Samoan night and a stew night, said Dannette Leota-Pascual, part of the fourth generation.

There will be a room for genealogy, where each family created a collage or some kind of display of their family. A quilt of the family tree was sewn by one of Keiki’s friends and a family crest was carved out of wood by a New Zealander.

Lee Duque, 39, and a fourth-generation Leota, said she looks forward to the workshops about Samoan culture.

"My generation was raised in the Hawaiian environment," Duque said, explaining that when her great-grandmother came to La'ie, the children were encouraged to speak English and the language was lost. "They were a step away from a lot of the culture."

Fortunately, many of the other relatives maintained their heritage and will teach it at the reunion, she said.

The families come from around the world, including Samoa, New Zealand, England and the Mainland. About 70 percent are from outside Hawai'i, said Keiki, who is from Maryland.

He brought up the idea of a reunion at a family wedding more than two years ago, he said.

It occurred to him that he could be working next to a relative and never know it because they haven’t met. Lora Wong, 45, and of the fourth generation, said the last reunion was in 1992, with 200 people attending.

"Getting together is the hard part," said Wong, who lives in Aivao and Matala's former home in La'ie. "It's all sacrifice because we have big families."

One cousin has 12 children and another has 10, but not all will make the event.

Part of the activities will be to honor the third generation of Leotas in Hawai'i.

Only one son of Aivao and Matala's nine children — the second generation — is still alive. He is 76-year-old Alema Leota. Five of the children died while young or in infancy.

Alema Leota ran for governor of Hawai'i in the 1970s at a time when law enforcement agencies tried to link him to organized crime. During that race he called the allegation "ridiculous."

He was tried on federal tax fraud charges in 1974 and was acquitted. He was later hit with a $26,211 federal tax lien.

Alema Leota said he remembers his parents as always active in the church, taking good care of their children. "The theme was love thy neighbor as thyself. No matter where you go, you have to extend courtesy," he said.

Aivao was a fisherman, and Matala worked as a telephone operator for Hawaiian Mutual, said Pola Wong, 69, Lora's mother and part of the third generation. Both died years ago, with Aivao living to be 99.

After visiting Samoa many years ago, Pola Wong said she realized that having her grandparents move to Hawai'i was a blessing for the family.

"I couldn't help but cry when I took a trip to Samoa," she said. "The women had to go to the river to wash their clothes, and there were animals in the kitchen."

This and more the Leota family will share as they tell their stories and count their blessings, back in the place where it all began with Aivao and Matala.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.