Utah student forced to take off traditional Tonga garb for graduation

SALT LAKE CITY, Ut. — A Utah teen says he nearly missed out on walking with his classmates at his high school graduation because he chose to wear a Ta’ovala cloth made by his family to honor his Tonga heritage.

He slid off the mat, pinned his name to it so he could pick it up after the ceremony and got back in line, zipping his gown. He was now last behind 900 other students.

“It would have meant a lot to wear it,” Finehafo’ou Malohifo’ou said, reflecting on his May 31 graduation. “I know it means a lot to my family.”

In recent years, schools and districts around the state have wanted to promote a uniform look among graduates that limits distractions or special attention. At least 10 more high schools along the Wasatch Front had a ban on ornamentation, particularly calling out leis, at their ceremonies this year compared to 2017.

For Utah’s large Pacific Islander community, though, the limitations can feel discriminatory, relegating any display of their culture to outside, away from the main stage.

Traditionally, ta’ovala cloths are worn for special occasions — weddings and graduations — as a way to “carry your family with you,” said Ivoni Nash, Malohifo’ou’s aunt.

It’s offensive, she said, that her nephew was asked to remove it.

Relatives helped Malohifo’ou replace his leis and wrap the ta’ovala around his waist after he got his diploma. Westlake Principal Gary Twitchell said the staff member who told him to take it off made a mistake.