Keali'i's School of Polynesian Dance put on a performance for the service members and civilians at the Asian-Pacific American Heritage lunch at the Patriot Club May 23, 2013. The Kealiis Polynesian Spectacular dance group is a Lawton-based dance group.

FORT SILL, Okla. (May 30, 2013) -- Just like February is Black History Month and March is Women's History Month, May has been proclaimed Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

214th Fires Brigade hosted this year's Asian-Pacific American luncheon May 23 at the Patriot Club.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed an extension for the Asian-Pacific celebration from a week to a month. In 1992, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month was signed into law by Congress. President Barack Obama continued the tradition, declaring May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

This year's theme is "Building Leadership: Embracing Cultural Values and Inclusion," according to mistress of ceremonies Maj. Marny Skindrud. She introduced herself to the audience by her Hawaiian name, Kamalie, which means calm.

"I am an alaka'i, or assistant instructor, with Keali'i's School of Polynesian Dance, here in Lawton. I have been dancing with the group for 10 years, so during the course of this luncheon, you'll get to see a few of our costumes that we use when we perform dances from the Polynesian islands of Hawaii and Tahiti," she said.

Skindrud said the dance students are family members of Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Field Artillery; 2-5th FA; 3-13th FA; the 77th Army Band; the Air Defense Artillery Captains Career Course and retired artillerymen. They are also Soldiers in the 696th Forward Support Company; the 168th Brigade Support Battalion and 214th Fires Brigade.

"In a true representation of diversity, the dancers are not just Polynesians, they are Hawaiian, caucasian, English, Puerto Rican, Native American, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Micronesian, Filipino, Indian and Norwegian," said Skindrud.

The Asian-Pacific American group in itself is extremely diverse. This ethnicity within the group includes the entire Asian continent and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia; which includes New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, Samoa and American Samoa and more. Any person originated or related to a person who originated from the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent are considered Asian. Asian countries include China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and India.

Keali'i Thompson, who founded the dance school, said she lives in Oklahoma to be near her children and her 10 grandchildren, but she's homesick every day. Bringing some of her culture to this part of the world really helps, said Thompson, who identified herself as Hawaiian-Chinese.

Her dancers are preparing to go to a hula dance competition in Orlando, Fla. At a competition in Houston two years ago they came home with four first place victories and a second place award.

Sgt. 1st Class Armando Astello, 214th Fires Brigade equal opportunity adviser, coordinated the event and put together a slide show for the attendees to enjoy during the luncheon.

"Being the EOA for the brigade, I try to always promote awareness of cultural diversity, reminding everyone that the Army is made up of many Soldiers who are of different race, color, gender, religion, national origin, ethnic and culture backgrounds," said Astello.

"We all need to be aware of cultural diversity, and we need to understand and respect that," he said. "I think once we do learn, understand and respect the other person's culture, we will be able to communicate better and not create a hostile environment because of not knowing or misunderstanding different norms within a culture."

This event required months of planning and coordination with different people. The first stop for the brigade EOA was getting guidance from Col. Timothy Daugherty, 214th FiB commander. The next challenge was finding a guest speaker who could attend as some are very busy. While some are honored to be the guest speaker, their busy lives have resulted in canceling within three days before previous events. Though it is an extremely hard event to put together, it is an important one.

"I believe the importance of the observances is to support the commanders' equal opportunity program, get some insight of what the observance is about and for people to go back and share the experience with their Soldiers," said Astello.

"With more than 5 percent of active Soldiers listed as Asian Pacific American, I am proud to say that we are thriving on diversity," said Daugherty, as he introduced the guest speaker, Hyunsoon Whang, a classical pianist on the faculty of Cameron University's music department.

Whang was born in Seoul, Korea in 1961 and came to America in 1978 as a teenager to continue her piano studies. During her presentation she shared some of her thoughts and stories to a large group of Soldiers, civilians and family members who attended the sold out luncheon.

She was overwhelmed by the generosity of the American people when she came over from Korea. Immediately, her high school roommate's mother took her in as though she was one of her own children and hosted her whenever school was not in session, even during the long summer break. She could not imagine why a single, working mother who already had two teenage daughters of her own would be willing to add yet another teenager from a foreign country who hardly spoke English.

"My Korean heritage has given me the foundation for who I am, and my adopted homeland, America, has provided me with the education and opportunities for what I have become," she said.

Page last updated Thu May 30th, 2013 at 16:35