Hawaiian Culture is Not a Theme
by Nicole Howley | published Oct. 14th, 2015
I have a box of plastic leis in my closet. When a friend first offered them to me after they were leftover from an event, I was ecstatic — free things! Now, thinking about that box in that closet, I feel a little less happy about it. I actually feel like a little bit of an ass.
That’s because last week I started thinking about these plastic leis, Hawaiian shirts, Hawaiian themed events with both the shirts and the leis and the Hawaiian pizza. For the first time I wondered, what do Hawaiians think about these things?
Through her interview with Deep Green Resistance News Service, activist and native Hawaiian Anne Keala Kelly was one of the first people to answer my question.
“I’d like to say, on behalf of every unapologetic Hawaiian whoever did or will live, the following: when people throw those parties and give those lei, they look like they’re eating vomit, culture vomit," Kelly writes. "It’s so clearly intended to mean as much as one of those party favor whistles you can find at a kid’s birthday celebration. And yet, it’s a specific appropriation of something traditionally Hawaiian.”
Although these leis and the like may mean little to us, the people living outside of Hawaii, our use of these things send a message to Native Hawaiians whether we intend to or not. The message is that we don’t care about their culture, but we are willing to take advantage of it in the name of cheap party favors and inappropriate event themes.
Even worse than this, our “Hawaiian” theme is a form of cultural appropriation. In an article for Everyday Feminism, writer Maisha Z. Johnson defines cultural appropriation as when “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” We, as mainland Americans, fit the profile of an oppressive dominant group to a disturbing extent.
For hundreds of years, just like we did with other native peoples, the United States mistreated, exploited, killed and stole from native Hawaiians. We even annexed the islands illegally, according to US law!
Hawaii didn’t go through the usual process for statehood. “Hawaiians, in fact, were very clear in their opposition to being annexed to the U.S. That’s why there was never a treaty of annexation and that’s why what the U.S. has done instead is conduct what may actually be the longest running occupation of a nation state in history,” Kelly writes. “For Americans that’s a tough statement because they’re comfortable lumping us in with what was done to the natives on the continent – they’re okay with the narrative of us as tragic and past … but Hawaii? That implies present tense possibility.”
So the Hawaiian Islands and people themselves were integrated into the US illegally, but Hawaiian culture was also stolen in the process. After taking over the islands, those who did so suppressed the culture through the school system, through violence and through social systems where natives had to give up their culture in an attempt to fit in and get ahead within the American system now in place in their home. It wasn’t until tourism grew and American tourists wanted to see the Hawaiian culture that it started to be socially allowable again. And all this was less than 50 years ago.
After experiencing such harsh suppression of your culture and then seeing it being commercialized, cheapened, sold as a plastic lei and party theme to the same group of people who suppressed it initially, it makes sense that there would be some resentment there. Even so, it is not something we hear about every day, or even every time there is an instance of appropriation of Hawaiian culture.
This is in part because Hawaii is so separate from us, thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland, and because we aren’t exposed to Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture (in its true form) on a regular basis. Kelly explains that these instances also go uncontested because Hawaiian activists who want to preserve the true meaning of their culture and to protect their home have a lot more on their minds than just plastic leis.
“For Hawaiians, the destruction of our world in every conceivable way is still a full-time project by the U.S. government and American settlers…it’s tough to step away from things like desecration of everything from a tiny graveyard because a millionaire wants to build a vacation home on it, to a mountain like Mauna Kea under attack by the astronomy industry," Kelly writes. "But now and then it’s important to speak to these forms of theft and make the critical links between things as seemingly unimportant as fake lū‘au and plastic lei to the ongoing theft of our land and nationhood.”
The majority of people who throw Hawaiian-themed events and who exchange cheap plastic leis do not do so to intentionally insult or harm native Hawaiians. Rather, it’s usually a decision made without thinking about its implications or the message that it sends to these people.
Amy Sanderson,a fifth year Interior Design major from Hawaii, although not a native Hawaiian, expressed her frustration with the appropriation of Hawaiian culture.
“I guess the biggest insult is that there's no understanding or respect of Hawaiian or local Hawaii culture when people throw luaus or Hawaiian-themed events on the mainland…while I don't expect everyone to know everything, especially [about] a state that is almost 5000 miles away, I wish there'd be some respect," Sanderson says.
That is why it is important that we do think about and discuss these things further, especially as we are approaching that time of year when offensive costumes of all varieties still fly off the shelves for Halloween festivities. It is basic human decency to treat every person with respect. All we have to do is make an effort to be aware.
“If people want to stand with us, it would help if they understood that cultural appropriation is what follows the physical appropriation of our land and government, and the psychological appropriation of our way of being,” Kelly says.
Sanderson suggested a place to start. “What I do appreciate is when people don't know about Hawaii, asking respectful questions to genuinely understand more about our state and culture," she says. "If luaus were put on with understanding and respect for its history, I don't think I would mind. But for now, as a gag for a theme party, I think there is a long way to go.”