The Polynesian Cultural Center recently participated in a media blitz on the U.S. East coast that included our Tongan Culture Ambassador Sione Milford. We think you will enjoy meeting him, too. But first, there’s something even many native Tongans don’t realize about Sione:
All Polynesians share some ancient heritage and contemporary commonalities, but the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tongan Culture Ambassador has taken that concept to a new level.
Imagine a burly, handsome Polynesian man with curly dark hair. Add in lots of personality plus eloquence, and you begin to get a mental picture of Sione.
That’s Tongan for John. Otherwise, the PCC’s Tongan Culture Ambassador has the somewhat unlikely name of John Kennedy Milford; and, oh yes, he was born a Samoan — with some English and German genes. He grew up speaking Samoan, and learned English in school. He was raised in the Samoan village of Leauva’a on the island of Upolu, minus a few years of schooling in New Zealand. Like most Samoan boys, he cut grass with a machete, climbed coconut trees, worked in the plantation after school and on Saturdays, and his family and friends called him John back then.
In fact, it wasn’t until he came to Laie in 1999 to attend Brigham Young University–Hawaii and started to work at the Polynesian Cultural Center that he “adopted” the Tongan village. He has been called Sione ever since. “When I first came, I didn’t have anyone else, and the Tongan village became my family. That was my home.” The PCC hired Sione as its full time Tongan culture ambassador after he graduated from BYUH in 2006 with a degree in political science.
A culture of respect
He points out several aspects of Tongan culture he appreciates: “I love the respect they have for one another, and especially for the monarchy. For example, they always wear the ta’ovala as a sign of respect.” A ta’ovala is usually a short girdle-like adornment, which can be made from various materials. It is worn around the waist on the outside of clothes. The custom is said to have started centuries ago out of respect for a Tongan king.
“They are very proud of their heritage and their monarchy. They live on small islands, but those people have a lot of passion about Tonga. They always say, ‘Mate ma’a Tonga’ — die for Tonga.”
“I’ve performed in front of nobles and others, and they don’t realize I’m not Tongan.” So, what does his family there think about him “becoming” a Tongan? “They all call me Sione, too,” he said with a big smile.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to share Tongan and Polynesian culture with people from around the world who visit the Center. “People love our Tongan drumming show. It’s fun and exciting. To see them have a good time is always one of our goals, but I also love talking about the late Queen Salote III, who distinguished herself in London in 1953 during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I love pointing out Queen Salote’s ‘summer palace’ in the Tongan Village, talking about our Tongan kitchen, or helping guests understand the importance of Tongan ngatu or bark cloth in our culture.”
Passing on a proud heritage
In addition to his Tongan Culture Ambassador talents, Sione is also skilled in Samoan fire knife dancing, coconut husking and cracking, fire making, and other Polynesian arts and crafts. In fact, he’s passing these skills along to his children. For example, his son, Isaac Milford, is the World Fire Knife Champion for his age group; his son, Toa Milford, is the International Fire Knife Champion in his age category; and those two plus brother Joey all perform at the Polynesian Cultural Center Alii Luau.
For all these reasons, Sione Milford was recently part of PCC’s East coast media blitz. Try to meet him the next time you visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. We know you will like him, too, a lot.
Story and images by Mike Foley
Mike Foley is a freelance writer and digital media specialist. He started working off-and-on at the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1968. Before that, he learned to speak Samoan as a Mormon missionary — still does. He has also traveled extensively over the years throughout Polynesia and other Pacific islands. Mostly retired now, Foley still contributes to various PCC and other media.