Salesi and Mele Mounga share how they’ve built their life in Aberdeen
If you get the chance to meet Salesi and Mele Mounga, you’re guaranteed two things. The first is that you’ll be blown away by the kindness they extend to everyone around them. And the second is that their sense of humor is going to make you laugh, probably at least a few times. The couple has been married for 20 years, and they joke about the unusual location they chose for their honeymoon: Aberdeen, South Dakota. Mele remembers, “We got married in Utah on Thursday, and then that Sunday we started the long, 18-hour drive to Aberdeen.” Salesi adds, “Actually I think it took even longer than that to get here, because we got lost.”
Salesi and Mele were both born in Oahu, Hawaii. They met years later while living in Utah, and at that time neither of them imagined creating their life together in Aberdeen. Salesi attended Snow College where he graduated with an associate’s degree and was recruited to play Division I football for the University of Maryland, until an injury hindered his plans. The following season, his older brother, Peni Mounga, went on a recruiting visit to NSU that had been orchestrated by their cousin, Lisiate Otuafi, a former NSU Football All Star. Peni and Lisiate understood that Salesi wanted to go to school and play football as well, but that he would need some convincing to move to South Dakota. So a home video was produced to show him what Aberdeen was like. Sort of. “The joke is we got here on a lie,” Salesi laughs. “The video was exciting and made it appear that downtown Main Street was super busy. My cousin got down on the sidewalk and filmed the Capitol Theatre lights to make it look like it was this big city and said, ‘See it’s a big city, and they have a huge Division II football program, come out here.’”
The home video did the trick, and Salesi and Mele both enrolled at NSU, with Salesi also on board as a free safety for Coach Ken Heupel’s football team. The Moungas still remember the culture shock of seeing Aberdeen for the first time. Having never been to South Dakota, they stopped at the M & H Gas Station and thought they were at another gas stop along the way, when Lisiate pulled up. “I thought maybe he was meeting us halfway to greet us or something, but he was laughing, literally laughing. That was our introduction to Aberdeen.”
Along with finding out the town was smaller than they had imagined, and that the climate on the plains was a lot different (and colder) than the mountain region they had loved in Utah, another obstacle surfaced. People in Aberdeen were unfamiliar with Polynesians, and Salesi and Mele quickly found a routine to help avoid some of the social challenges and differences. Being newlyweds and finding those social circles on and off the NSU campus also made daily life interesting.
During their time at NSU, Salesi and his brothers also found other opportunities to share their Polynesian heritage, not only with cultural dances and food, but also with rugby. In 2000, Salesi, Peni, and four other family members and former NSU standout athletes, Naki Angilau, Tefu Bloomfield, Alema Atuaia, and Motulalo Otuafi, started a rugby club and introduced the sport the way their fathers had taught them to play in their childhood. Their club was initially recognized as the Dakota Outlawz Rugby Football Club under the Great Plains Union of South Dakota, and affiliated with USA Rugby, the national governing body for the sport of rugby in America. It continued to grow throughout the Midwest with enormous success as a respected powerhouse club, and eventually gained the support of NSU. In 2007, the club changed its official name to Northern State University RFC, and in 2009, they won the USA Rugby National Championship. Salesi says, “The body of work accomplished by this group on and off the field of play is astonishing in comparison to other teams and academies in their division.” Today, the rugby club continues with guidance from its founding members, and is supported by veteran NSU students.
One thing the Moungas still struggle with in South Dakota? The long winters. They joke, “Every year people say, ‘Oh this was a mild winter.’ And we laugh because they say that every year.” Although the NSU Polynesian Club is no longer a formal group, Salesi and Mele’s children, nieces, and nephews continue with their family’s tradition, and are the new generation performing cultural dances and outreach activities. Sharing their heritage with their children is important to the Moungas, and in everything they say it is evident that they are centered on their faith and family. Mele says, “We always celebrate our anniversary with our children, even on our 20th this year, we spent the entire day with them. They are truly our blessings.” // –Jenny Roth