Bringing the Pacific Islands to Tillamook

A traditional luau meal and a performance of the haka were the highlights of a learning and enrichment event at OYA’s Tillamook facilities.

Above: Johnny Demus of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations and a youth make musubi rolls.

The sun is just rising as Sander Choffat walks into Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility on a Friday in late May.

It’s 5:30 a.m., a bit earlier than he usually arrives for his shift as a group life coordinator. But today is a special one for Choffat, one where he will be sharing his Pacific Islander heritage and traditions with the youth in custody, and so he comes in early to start the prep work.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, OYA’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR) is hosting a luau at the facilities. It’s one of numerous cultural events OIIR brings into OYA facilities to help youth connect with their own cultures and learn about others.

The focus of Choffat’s morning is the food: pork he must marinate and get into the oven so that later it’ll be ready to pull into shreds by hand. Spam that needs to be fried and then rolled up with rice and seaweed to make musubi.

All of this he does side by side with youth workers who watch and learn from him, occasionally nibbling an extra slice of fried Spam as they go.

Nearby, Johnny Demus with OIIR dons gloves and gets to work shaping the musubi rolls. Meanwhile, just outside, group life coordinator Justin Caballero dips chicken into a teriyaki marinade before putting it on the grill, taking time while he’s cooking to chat with a youth who wants his advice.

Choffat is mostly quiet as he works in the kitchen, but the pride he takes in sharing his traditions, food, and culture is obvious. He knows every Asian and Pacific Islander youth at Tillamook YCF and the neighboring Camp Tillamook transition facility by name. Even when there aren’t any AAPI youth living there, he still enjoys sharing his culture with those who are interested.

When all the Tillamook youth later sit down for the luau meal, they gobble up the musubi rolls and pork, along with macaroni salad, Hawaiian rolls, and tropical sherbet for dessert. Enjoying a meal outside, followed by a few hours playing volleyball and cornhole, seems to lift their spirits.

Not only are they getting to enjoy a great meal featuring food that some of them have never tried before, they are spending an afternoon feeling “normal” despite their circumstances — a feeling that goes a long way toward their mental health and rehabilitation.

After the meal comes another Pacific Islander tradition: the haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge in Māori culture. It’s rooted in a tradition of warriors preparing for battle, moving and shouting vigorously in a show of strength.

Gavin, a youth who is of Hawaiian heritage, taught the haka to some of the other youth last year.

“It’s a war cry, shouting to the gods, telling them that this is our last day and we’re gonna look up at you, and we’re gonna die for you,” he says.

At the luau, nine youth — some Asian or Pacific Islander, many not — join Gavin in performing the haka for the rest of the facility.

Av is one of them. He’s of Micronesian heritage but had never done the haka before Gavin taught it to him.

“I feel like it helps us grow together. It helps us bond better,” Av says. “It’s crazy because we’re doing this in Tillamook, Oregon — we’re bringing something from far away to this place.”

For Gavin, it’s also a reminder of his childhood and his family.

“I remember when I used to do this stuff as a little kid,” he says. “And now I get to do it again. It feels good.”

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