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Letter From Utah: Hawaiians in Skull Valley Volume 61 Number 6, November/December 2008
by David Malakoff

Archaeologists uncover a 19th-century Polynesian village in Utah

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(Utah State Historical Society)
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(David Malakoff)
Utah's Skull Valley, where Hawaiian Mormons founded the settlement of Iosepa in 1889. After its inhabitants were forced out in 1917, Iosepa became a ghost town. Archaeologists are now excavating the site.

It's not unbearably hot--yet. Mercifully, an early morning shadow still cloaks the desert floor of Skull Valley; dew still flecks the dusty sagebrush. But the sun lurks just over the ridge, and we don't have long to find what we've come to see: petroglyphs depicting a sea turtle, a whale, and tropical surf. There might be swaying palm trees and dancing children, too.


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A heart carved from mother-of-pearl shell is the only artifact found at Iosepa that might have Polynesian origins. (David Malakoff)

"Should be right around here," says historical archaeologist Ben Pykles, as some of us pause to pant in the mile-high air. He's led a group of his students and me up the rocky flank of the Stansbury Mountains in northern Utah in search of a massive pillar of black basalt, rumored to be engraved with images showing distinctly Polynesian themes. If so, the petroglyphs could be the work of Hawaiian islanders who a century ago built a thriving village in the valley below, only to abruptly abandon it fewer than 30 years later.


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Pykles examines a basalt outcropping near Iosepa that is covered with petroglyphs. (David Malakoff)

"I do get some pretty puzzled looks when I tell people I'm studying a community of Mormons from Hawaii who moved to the Utah desert in the 1880s--and then went home," says Pykles, an assistant professor at the State University of New York in Potsdam. This past summer, he began the first-ever dig at the Mormon town of Iosepa (the Hawaiian word for Joseph, it is pronounced YO-seh-pah). Behind this sprawling, 150-acre site some 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City is an improbable and sometimes troubling story.

The artifacts Pykles is uncovering--from peach pits and baby bottles to fish bones and ice skates--are providing rare insight into how people from the tropical Pacific built a new life in a dramatically alien environment. The excavation, supported by oral history and extensive archival research, is helping document the religious faith that inspired the Hawaiians to migrate to America--and the sometimes appalling bigotry and economic hardship they confronted upon arrival. And Iosepa is giving Pykles, a Mormon, a unique opportunity to add to the complex early history of his own church, and help chart a new course for Mormon archaeology.

Pykles faced some formidable obstacles as he thought about excavating Iosepa. One was getting approval from the descendants, many of whom were reluctant to disturb what they consider sacred ground. "Given the history, people had very understandable concerns," Pykles says. Ultimately, they agreed, with some descendants literally blessing the work with Hawaiian prayers at a special ceremony. "We decided Ben's dig was going to help us learn from the past, and really see the past," says Richard Poulsen, a past president of the Iosepa Historical Association.

David Malakoff is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

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