ANCHORAGE, Alaska - This time of year across the country, gyms and auditoriums fill with robed students, "Class of 2013" balloons and the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." In Anchorage - home to the highest concentration, per capita, of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders on the Mainland - another unique graduation tradition has taken hold among people from all backgrounds: the graduation lei. Draping a graduate's neck with bands of candy and flowers has become as expected in many families here as watching a graduate fling a mortarboard cap into the air.
The entrance of Sullivan Arena, where high school graduations were being held last week, has the feel of a Honolulu tourist market, with five competitive vendors selling lei made of flowers, candy, shiny kukui nuts, green ti leaves and jewel tone yarn. The sweet smell of plumeria hangs heavy in the air. Sellers shout, "Flower leis! Candy leis!" over the noise of the crowds trailing in.
Wednesday afternoon, Amy Riley browsed boxed $20 orchid lei at a stand set up along the road across from the arena and decided on a couple for her son and his girlfriend, who were graduating from Service High School. Their family is Yup'ik, she said, but they like the lei as a way to celebrate graduation.
Lei are piled on Zaide Manzano after the Class of 2013 Service High School graduation ceremony Wednesday.
"Even though we're not Hawaiian, they're really pretty," she said.
Vendors Summer Prescott and Carey Ofahengaue, both Hawaiian by heritage, own the Utah-based lei business Leiaway.com. This graduation season was their first selling flower lei in Anchorage, they said. Business has been better than they could have hoped, they said. Lei are a Polynesian thing, Prescott said, but they spread the welcoming "spirit of aloha." That appeals to everybody.
"Our people migrated to the Mainland for opportunities," Prescott said. "They are bringing that tradition with them."
Their lei business tracks with what census data show are some of fastest-growing Polynesian communities.
"We've been to Washington, Arizona, Nevada, and we're heading to Oregon," she said.
Alaskans have always been connected to Hawaii. A five-hour flight away, it's a popular vacation destination. Over the last 20 years, Alaska has become popular with Pacific Islanders as well. About 3 percent of Anchorage residents- roughly 9,000 people - now identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander alone or in combination with another race, according to the census. About half of those say they are from Samoa. The Pacific Islander population in Anchorage doubled over the last 10 years and experienced similarly rapid grown between 1990 and 2000.
Sisters Maria and Evangeline Morisa of Anchorage have been selling lei, made with Halloween candy, ribbon and cellophane, for graduations since 2001. They slowly built their family's business to include mail order. Pictures of customers from around the country and the world were posted all over their lei table Wednesday. In the Pacific islands, lei might be a symbol of welcoming, part of a wedding costume, or even a funeral decoration. On the Mainland, the women said, they're most often a symbol of accomplishment.
"It's saying, 'you've done well,' " Evangeline said.
Leonee May, who isn't Pacific Islander, bought three candy lei from the Morisa sisters for her sister, who was about to graduate. Her sister insisted, she said. Other members of Leonee's family bought lei, too.
"(It will be) like, around her neck, choking her, yes," May said.
That's part of the fun.
Bobbie Hammond, whose twin daughters were graduating Wednesday, showed up at the Sullivan Arena with homemade money lei. She taught herself lei-making with the help of the Internet, she said. It isn't her family's cultural tradition, but she'd seen lei at other graduations and thought they'd be fun, she said. When I caught up with her, she was explaining to her daughters' grandmother, Liz Jones, and her boyfriend, Hal Greeney, about the Anchorage lei tradition. They were visiting from upstate New York.
"I've never heard of it before," Greeney said.
Leilani Silao sat at the largest stand in the entrance of the Sullivan, pulling needles through plumeria, carnation and orchid blossoms. Her stand is operated mainly by relatives and "church family" from First Samoan Body of Christ Church, Silao said. Most of them are Samoan and many have spent time in Hawaii, she said. Their group was the first to set up a fresh lei stand near the arena in the early 2000s, she said. They used to be at the corner of 15th Avenue and Ingra Street.
They might be responsible for igniting the lei trend in Anchorage, but the popularity has spawned lots of competition, she said. People are making their own lei now with everything from crochet to Saran wrap. There are so many vendors at the entrance of the Sullivan now, they are thinking of moving back to Ingra, she said. They expect to sell hundreds of lei this season between Mother's Day and Father's Day, she said. Exact sales numbers are confidential.
"The smell makes me miss home," she said, standing over a box of white plumeria that rode to Anchorage on a jet days before. "I was raised into (lei-making), it's from the islands, our parents, our ancestors."