Sione Milford got ‘immersed’ in Tongan culture

[Reprinted from a 2017 PCC blog story and photo by Mike Foley]

Sione Milford is currently the Samoan Village “chief,” but when he first came to Laie he worked in the Tongan Village — and some native Tongans didn’t realize that the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tongan culture ambassador at that time was Samoan.

Of course, all Polynesians share some ancient heritage and contemporary commonalities, but in 2017 the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tongan culture

ambassador had 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 actually has the somewhat unlikely name of John Kennedy Milford; and, oh yes, he was born a Samoan — with some English and German genes….

Sione Milford, was first a Tongan culture ambassador, then the Samoan Village "chief."
Sione Milford, was first a Tongan culture ambassador, then the Samoan Village “chief.”

…He also grew up speaking Samoan, learned English in school, and was raised in the Samoan village of Leauva’a (on Upolu), minus a few years of schooling in New Zealand. Like most Samoan boys in those days, 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. [Sione is the common Tongan name for John, and some Samoan “Johns” also use it, but Ioane is more commonly used in Samoa.]

It wasn’t until John 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, and started to be called Sione. “When I first came, I didn’t have anyone else, and the Tongan village became my family. That was my home.”

Sione started working full-time as the Tongan culture ambassador at the PCC after he graduated from BYUH in 2006, with a degree in political science, and he points to other 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,” he said, explaining that a ta’ovala is usually a short girdle-like adornment, which can be made from various materials, that 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 for Tonga. They always say, ‘Mate ma’a Tonga’ — die for Tonga.”

“I’ve performed in front of nobles and others, and they didn’t realize I’m not Tongan.”

So, what does his family in Samoa think about John “becoming” a Tongan? “They all call me Sione, too,” he said with a big smile.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity I had 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 people have a good time was always one of our goals, but I also loved talking about the late Queen Salote III, who distinguished herself in London in 1953 during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I loved 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.”

In addition to his various 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 — skills he’s passing 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 their brother Joey all performed at the Polynesian Cultural Center Alii Luau.

For all the above reasons, Sione Milford was part of a 2017 East Coast media blitz the Polynesian Cultural Center put on at the end of April in conjunction with a luau event the PCC co-hosted with the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame (located near the front entrance) during the National Football League draft in Philadelphia. You’ll like him, a lot.

[NOTE: In 2022, the Cultural Center named Sione as the new “chief” in the Samoan Village.]