Kava, Not Java | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 19, 2007 News » Cover Story

Kava, Not Java 

Will this drink cost you your temple recommend?

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Ladies’ Night?
“It’s upsetting to see married men leaving their families,” says Meme Malungahu who, as a Salt Lake City schoolteacher, believes that extended kava use has adversely affected some of her students’ families. “[Some fathers] are just using kava as a way to get away from home.”

Some women, such as Mele Taukeiaho, an assistant principal in the Salt Lake City School District, register their discomfort with the way some men at kava clubs verbally taunt and make sexual comments to the unmarried women who serve kava at parties. The role was traditionally held by a young woman who was being courted in her family home with the permission of her father. But now, “for some people,” Taukeiaho says, “tou’a is no longer a term associated with tradition, but a degrading term for any female, young or old, desperate enough to make a few hundred dollars a night serving kava.”

While some women criticize kava culture, some younger women take the view that if you can’t beat ’em, make your own bowl of kava.

“I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about it about three years ago,” Malungahu says. Wives were getting the jump on their husbands to go out drinking kava. A rising generation of young women is also growing more vocal about taking a greater role than server at the kava parties. The more traditional men see that as simply “uppity,” and can’t conceive of the practice changing to include equality for women. That would ruin the “boys’ night out” feel, and it would never be allowed at some of the clubs. But others, particularly younger men, seem to have no problem with bringing a date to a kava-laced social event.

Some women in the community don’t see kava use as inherently wrong but feel kava clubs should not involve illicit drugs, gambling or women present other the server.

When Church and Kava Collide
One quiet ripple through Utah’s Polynesian communities concerns the LDS Church’s position on kava use. A spokesman for the church’s public affairs department, which fields all news-media inquiries, says there is no official policy on the drink.

And that unofficial treatment seems to hold up among the kava-drinking culture. Word in the Polynesian community is that ceremonial use is sometimes allowed but that drinking kava merely for recreation probably violates the church’s Word of Wisdom (the official policy, garnered from revelation, that bans alcohol, tobacco and “hot drinks” from the diet).

An attempt to find a middle ground can be seen in the BYU-Hawaii Honor Code, which does not allow “kava clubbing or party drinking,” but goes on to state, “this regulation should not be construed as anticulture, for kava has its vital place in the ceremonies and culture of Polynesia. But there is no doubt in our mind that there is a vast difference between ceremonial drinking of kava … and the party drinking of kava.”

Siaosi Fangalua, who has held many LDS priesthood leadership positions and works at church headquarters translating and editing documents in Tongan, explains: “The Tongan Polynesian LDS Church members are supportive of the ceremonial use of kava. The recreational use of kava, on the other hand, is seen as an unfavorable and unwise use of time and is considered an affront on the integrity of good, wholesome and gospel-oriented family life.”

While some are comfortable with the “ceremonies, yes; parties, no” policy, leaders of the Tongan LDS stakes in Salt Lake City have decided that, rather than determining where to draw the line on kava use, it’s better to ban it altogether. The prohibition is based generally on two talks by LDS general authorities, one in General Conference by Apostle Boyd K. Packer (which did not refer directly to kava but was taken by many Polynesians to implicitly refer to the drink) and another at a meeting of a Utah Tongan stake, in which Apostle M. Russell Ballard is said to have explicitly warned members against the substance.

Supi Ma’ilei, who, as a bishop in a Tongan ward, conducts interviews with members seeking entrance to LDS temples, says he believes kava users are not qualified to receive a temple recommend (the permit required of worthy church members who enter a temple). Ma’ilei does not explicitly ask about kava use when going through the standard temple-recommend interview questions required by the church, but when he asks as to keeping the Word of Wisdom, it is implicitly understood on both sides that the topic includes kava use.

Ma’ilei’s wife, Sini, scoffs at the notion that kava use is required for one to hold on to the Tongan culture, since both she and her husband have worked in jobs providing assistance and reaching out to the Tongan community.

“You speak his name anywhere, and everyone knows he is connected to the culture without participating in kava,” she says of Supi.

“If kava won’t take me to the celestial kingdom, then I need to find other avenues to be connected to the culture,” Supi says.

Kava, American-Style
While the traditional Polynesian cultures are adapting to the American experience, the mainstream culture is also gaining from what Polynesians have to offer. Sometimes, kava shows up in the mix. Every year, Samoan community groups host kava ceremonies and invite Utah politicians to come partake of a cup. Jacob Fitisemanu Jr. attended such a ceremony when doing research for his 50-page senior thesis on Samoan kava use at Westminster College.

“Both cultures value social drinking in one way or another,” he says. “It’s a totally foreign custom, but it’s still a very American custom. I think it provides a link between American and Samoan leadership. Both sides feel a little comfortable and a little uncomfortable. There’s cultural diffusion going both ways.”

And if that’s what’s happening, it’s certainly not a bad thing. We’d probably all be better off by adopting something from a culture where giving of oneself and helping others is expected and the worst of sins is selfishness. Whether the cultural exchange includes kava or not, Polynesians living in Utah are figuring out how to continue their traditions in the midst of larger American and LDS cultures, while still finding a way to unite as a community—differing opinions about kava and all.
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