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Amata’s Journal: Many Samoans in Norfolk area

Rolling into Norfolk, VA after our visit to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, there was no question we were in a town dominated by the military. Naval facilities and other service buildings dotted the landscape and, of course, as we went over the many bridges that span the various waterways in the area that ultimately flow into the Atlantic Ocean, we could see warships of all sizes, including aircraft carriers in port.


If asked what is the largest city in Virginia, most people probably would guess Richmond, Roanoke or Norfolk, but it is actually Virginia Beach, a city adjacent to Norfolk and home to many defense facilities.


This whole area of “Tidewater Virginia” is dominated by the military and Naval Station Norfolk is not only the largest naval base in the world, it is the largest military base of any kind in the world. For the U.S. Navy, it is the home of our vast Atlantic Fleet.


Because I was to deliver the Keynote Address for Asia Pacific American Heritage Month and National Military Appreciation Month, our liaison officer, Chief Petty Officer Michael Atchley, arranged for us to be housed at the nearby Navy Lodge, an off-base visitors quarters located conveniently just a short drive from where the celebration would be held.


Although the Army is the service of preference for many Samoans, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that we are well represented in the Navy as well, both in the active duty Navy and the naval retirement community. In fact, Norfolk is also the home of one of the largest and best organized groups of Pacific Islanders on the Mainland outside of California: the Pacific Islander American Group of Virginia (PIAGVA).


The group's president, Iakopo Poyer, a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander from Laulii, founded the organization five years ago with the stated purpose “simply to preserve our culture, to educate others about our culture and to educate our people to become self-reliant, productive members of society - by focusing on the needs of our youth and teaching them, by example, to be civic minded and active citizens of the community in which they live.”


The PIAGVA website ( goes on to say “Our overall mission is to bring together all Pacific Islanders (and islanders at heart!) striving to keep the "island spirit" alive - through programs, activities and workshops within the community.  As Pacific Islanders, WE HAVE A VOICE!”


The highlight of PIAGVA's social calendar is an annual Polynesian Festival held in Virginia Beach on the ocean front, which draws hundreds of islanders from as far away as New England to the north and Georgia to the south for a day of food, fun and fellowship. This year PIAGVA also organized an Asian-Pacific Islander American Heritage Month celebration last weekend in Norfolk in conjunction with the observance at the base. Unfortunately, I already had committed to the celebration being held the same day at Fort Bragg and could not participate.


LTCDR Iakopo Poyer of Lauli'i, known as “Jake” to his naval colleagues, also was asked to organize the entertainment for the on-base observance that I was to address. We had breakfast before the ceremony and he spoke enthusiastically about the growth of PIAGVA and the growing visibility and influence of Pacific Islanders in the state. Had it not been for the schedule conflict with Fort Bragg, many of the soldiers from there would have driven up to Norfolk for PIAGVA's May 18 event and others are expected from Fort Lee outside of Richmond.


  As it was, five different military installations helped organize the event so it was very well attended.


Iakopo accompanied me to the base where we were met by CPO Atchley and escorted to the theater, a facility that seats about 500 people. It was clear to me Iakopo is a familiar and well respected presence at the Naval Base and when something is needed for or by Pacific Islanders, Jake is the “go-to” guy in Norfolk. There were fewer islanders than I expected in the audience but CPO Atchley explained that many were deployed at sea at the moment.


 Although the base is huge, there is not a large presence of sailors at any given time because ships rotate in and out of port on a regular basis. I was pleased that the audience did include, LT Maelina "Tiale" Sakaio, a young female Naval Academy graduate of Tuvaluan heritage. Her parents are currently on Kwajalein, where her father, Mike, is Coast Guard liaison to the Army base commander there.


With Iakopo in charge of arranging the entertainment, it should come as no surprise that the performances were dominated by Pacific Islanders. After my remarks, in which I talked about the duality of our nature as both Americans and Asians or Pacific Islanders, we were treated to Samoan songs and music and a hula dance performed by Jojo Callas, originally from Hilo, Hawaii.


Jojo did three Hawaiian hula numbers and her long time dancing experience shone through.  I'm in admiration of the many Pacific islanders who continue to showcase their island heritage and culture through dance and song and one would never guess that some of them haven't been home to the islands for years. The Samoan numbers were performed by the highly talented and popular Levi Otineru, a retired military veteran originally from Savai'i and his Hawaiian-Samoan wife, Emma.


The Base Diversity Committee, which organized the APAH event, also put together an all you can eat buffet luncheon (with your military I.D. of course) consisting of popular Asian and Pacific island foods, including whole roasted ‘size 2’ pua'a, island style potato salad, chow fun noodles, shrimp pansit, sapasui, chicken adobo, palusami, lumpia and many other tasty dishes from all over the Pacific. I was really looking forward to that part of the program but with a five-hour drive ahead of us to our next stop, Fort Bragg, we couldn't linger and departed almost immediately after the island entertainment.


It was gratifying for me to know that at Norfolk, awareness of Pacific Islands will not be limited to a single observance on a single day as long as Iakopo Poyer and PIAGVA are around. I would recommend to readers in the mid-Atlantic area of the U.S. to plan on heading to Virginia Beach August 9-10. You will love it.