Hawaiians Come To Grand Junction For Opportunity, Stay For The ‘Polynesian Cowboy’ Culture

Listen Now
8min 47sec
Alex Scoville/CPR News
Grand Junction City Councilman Phil Pe’a (left) and Colorado Mesa University student Beau Flores laugh at Ekahi Grill on Thursday, June 20, 2019. They are just two of many native Hawaiians who now call the Western Slope home.

The landlocked, arid land around Grand Junction has attracted transplants from a very different climate: Hawaii.

Colorado Mesa University has served as a beacon for Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders looking to attend college on the mainland while still paying reduced tuition through programs like the National Student Exchange and Western Undergraduate Exchange.

Over the decades of classes of Hawaiian students, an unexpected community has formed. Today in Grand Junction, there are Hawaiians in student government, city council, and the restaurant scene.

Students at CMU only have to cross the street to enjoy food from home at Ekahi Grill, like authentic bowls of poke, chicken katsu and spam dishes.

“The food we cook here is, I want to say it's like home,” owner Dionne Puha said. “We brought home with us. It’s family recipes and things we love, and we wanted to share it with everyone.”

Alex Scoville/CPR News
Ekahi Grill owner Dionne Puha helps plate food in the kitchen on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Her family, like many others, came from Hawaii to Colorado for economic opportunities.

Puha’s family came to Colorado in search of better job prospects and cheaper housing, common reasons for Hawaiian transplants. When her father’s plan to start a construction company faded during the Great Recession, the family went into the restaurant business. 

Two Ekahi regulars are City Councilman Phil Pe’a and CMU 2018-19 student president Beau Flores. Pe’a and Flores dove into their poke and Maui chicken dishes, respectively, and occasionally broke into Hawaiian Pidgin on a cloudy Thursday afternoon.

Pe’a arrived in Grand Junction 43 years ago to play football at CMU and never left. He was one of the first Hawaiians to come to Grand Junction, and today he’s a role model to many young Hawaiians, including Flores.

“My hope is to eventually run for city council, kinda like what Uncle Phil did,” Flores said.

The two swap stories about their first experiences with snow, decades apart but on the same campus. Both recall rolling around in the freezing drifts with friends in inappropriate attire — Pe’a's friends handcrafted “Hawaiian Uggs” out of tube socks and sandals, while Flores went even barer and stripped down.

Alex Scoville/CPR News
Phil Pe'a (far left) and Beau Flores (second from right) get in line to order at Ekahi Grill on Thursday, June 20, 2019.

Flores is one of about 150 Hawaiian students attending CMU today. The college has a long-standing Ho'olokahi Polynesian Alliance, which has put on an annual lu’au for nearly two decades, where “yeehaws” from the audience mix with traditional songs.

Pe’a calls that blend of cultures “Polynesian cowboy,” and said it’s grounded in a number of similarities.

“When you think about it, Hawaiians, we’re all about the land — 'Āina. And Grand Junction, we're rural, we're ag,” Pe’a said. “So what’s agriculture? The land, right?”

Both Pe’a and Flores also find a familiar sense of kindness and friendly conversations in Grand Junction, which remind them of home.

“To me, it’s the simple things can make someone's day. So when we got here, I totally agree with Uncle Phil, the fact that it's just, ‘Hey, hi,’ small conversations,” Flores said. “It's comforting.“