I've been to the Polynesian Cultural Center many times. I've always known that the center was owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are sometimes popularly called the Mormons or LDS). I've always known that the majority of the people you see in the villages, at the luau and at the evening show "Horizons" are students at the adjacent BYU-Hawai'i.
What I didn't know much about for many years is the history of the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). Whose idea was it to bring students from all of Polynesia to college in Hawaii? What were the beginnings of the PCC? How did the PCC come to be the most popular paid visitor attraction in Hawaii?
Here is a brief history of the Polynesian Cultural Center as provided by the Center. I've skipped some of the more elf-promotional material in the history. What is left, however, is a pretty straight forward history of the Center.
Early Missions of the Church of Jesus Christ in the PacificAs early as 1844, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were working among the Polynesians in Tahiti and surrounding islands.
Missionaries arrived in the Sandwich Islands (Hawai'i) in 1850. By 1865, the LDS Church had purchased a 6,000-acre plantation in La'ie.
The LDS Temple in La'ie - started in 1915 and dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1919 - attracted more islanders from throughout the South Pacific. By the 1920s, Church missionaries had carried their Christian teachings to all the major island groups of Polynesia, by living among the people and speaking their languages.
In 1921, La'ie had become very cosmopolitan - so much so that David O. McKay, a young Church leader on a world tour of Church missions, was deeply stirred as he watched school children of many races pledging allegiance to the American flag. That incident is depicted today in a beautiful mosaic mural hanging above the entrance to the McKay Foyer, a BYU-Hawai'i building named in McKay's honor.
McKay envisioned that a school of higher learning would be built in the small community to go along with the recently completed Temple, making La'ie the educational and spiritual center of the LDS campus.
The Church College of Hawai'i - BYU-Hawai'iBeginning February 12, 1955, under the direction of experienced contractors and craftsmen, the "missionaries" built the school McKay had foreseen decades before, The Church College of Hawai'i. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the college, McKay predicted its students would literally influence millions of people in the years ahead. (In 1974, the Church College became a branch campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Today, BYU-Hawai'i is a four-year liberal arts school with about 2,200 undergraduate students).
About the time of McKay's visit to La'ie in 1921, Matthew Cowley, was finishing his first round of missionary service in New Zealand. There, he developed a deep love for the Maori people and other Polynesians. In time, he also became another important LDS leader who was concerned with the erosion of traditional island cultures. In a speech Cowley delivered in Honolulu, he said he hoped "...to see the day when my Maori people down there in New Zealand will have a little village there at La'ie with a beautiful carved house...the Tongans will have a village too, and the Tahitians and Samoans and all those islanders of the sea."
Origins of the Polynesian Cultural CenterThe potential of such a concept was well established in the late 1940s when the Church members in La'ie started a hukilau - a fishing festival with luau feast and Polynesian entertainment - as a fund-raising event. From the beginning, it proved immensely popular and provided the inspiration for the well-known "Hukilau" song that begins: "Oh we're going to a hukilau...where the laulau is the kaukau at the big luau." Busloads of visitors drove to La'ie in the 1950s to see Polynesian students at the Church College put on their "Polynesian Panorama" - a production of authentic South Pacific island songs and dances.
Cowley did not live to see his dream fulfilled but the vision had been planted in the hearts of others who nurtured and shaped it into reality. In early 1962, President McKay authorized construction of the Polynesian Cultural Center.
He knew the completed project would provide much-needed and meaningful employment for the struggling students in rural La'ie, as well as add an important dimension to their studies.
More than 100 labor building missionaries again volunteered to help build the Polynesian Cultural Center's original 39 structures on a 16-acre site that had previously been planted in taro, the native root used to make the staple food poi. Skilled artisans and original materials from the South Pacific were imported to ensure the authenticity of the village houses.
Next Page > The Founding of the PCC and Beyond