By Jordyn Saito, Freelancer
In its 10th anniversary this year, the Lū’au performance is one of our oldest traditions here at Soka. The club which spearheads it every year is called, “Ka Pilina Ho’olokahi,” which means “the coming together in harmony for peace” in the Hawaiian language.
Growing up in Hawai’i, we understood how direly peace in the Pacific was needed. I watched as the place where I grew up ballooned with military bases and personnel. We watched the Hawaiian Islands bend beyond their capacity to host tourists. We saw the cost of living skyrocket and the number of people evicted from their homes turn into a crisis overlooked every year. I am not Kānaka (Native Hawaiian), and I cannot say I have experienced the same displacement and loss of agency over land as Native Hawaiians have in the last century. However, as the daughter of a Filipina immigrant, I can say I know what it’s like to hear that you will never be able to go back to your home because it is too polluted, too politically unsafe, and void of opportunity. For Filipinas, the displacement of our people was mechanized by the same forces which continue to displace and extract from Native Hawaiians. The parallels of the occupation of our homelands have been, at times, painful to compare because of their stark similarities.
So, when people ask me about the Lū’au or Hawai’i, I’m met with conflicting feelings. It touches me that people are so dedicated to planning and executing an event meant to celebrate a place I care for and want to protect. However, when people ask me about the Lū’au, I can’t help but think of my own experiences in Waikīkī, where I would pick up my cousins after their shifts working at “lū’aus.” After working in the tourism industry since I was 14, I’ve become critical of its mechanisms. In this article, I hope to unpack our involvement in Hawaii’s history of colonization, cultural extraction, and commercialization by tourism developers.
Activist, author, poet, and Professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i, Haunani-Kay Trask, wrote the essay “‘Lovely Hula Hands’: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture,” which delineated the cultural commodification mechanized by tourist industries she witnessed as a Native Hawaiian woman. She provides her analysis placed amongst the backdrop of the linguistic genocide, land theft, and unjust annexation to statehood Native Hawaiian people faced. Trask posits that the tourism industry extracts and commercializes Hawai’i and Hawaiian culture into a consumable and often times sexualized fantasy. She writes, “To most Americans, then, Hawai’i is theirs: to use, to take, and, above all, to fantasize about long after the experience…. Just five hours away by plane from California, Hawai’i is a thousand light years away in fantasy. Mostly a state of mind, Hawai’i is the image of escape from the rawness and violence of daily American Life.” In her essay, Trask argues that these fantasy-based images of Hawai’i strip it of its political history, culture, language, and people.
Other Native Hawaiian scholars such as @haymakana, a Ph.D. student with interests in indigenous education and race in Hawaii, have spoken out against the exploitation of Native Hawaiian culture through the tourism industry. Here, she explains how images and fantasy of escape come at the expense of Native Hawaiians, leading to more Kānaka (Native Hawaiian) displacement: “When you fantasize about laying on our beaches you fantasize about tearing us away from our homeland and our ‘ohana that still live there … Kānaka are being displaced by hotels, rich people’s summer homes, Airbnbs, etc.”
From the perspective of a resident, I can also attest that the overwhelming presence of tourism contributes to the rising cost of living, homelessness, environmental destruction, and sex trafficking within our communities.
Other scholars such as Gregory Pōmaika’i, a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego with interests in the Hawaiian diaspora in Las Vegas, Nevada, militarism, and queer Indigenous relations of off-island resurgence, responded to @haymakana’s thread with their own.
In this instance, Pōmaika’i affirms the sentiment originally proposed by @haymakana. They argue that the extraction of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) otherness is exploitive, but goes mostly unchecked by the usual assumption of innocence under Euro-American audiences. They expound upon the common phenomena of Asian Americans who, due to their proximity based on settlement, diaspora, or existing within the category of Asian American Pacific Islanders, reap social or material capital off of Hawaiian culture due to their proximity to Hawai’i. Because of this and the universal ideas of “Hawai’i,” which are formed and normalized by the tourism industry, most audiences are less likely to question the cultural appropriateness of demonstrations of “Hawaiian culture,” especially those led by people who consider themselves proximate to Hawai’i.
Pōmaika’i later goes on to stress the importance of solidarity, rather than extraction, when it comes to showing up for indigenous folk. As settlers within a system of settler-colonialism, which automatically defers to our protection rather than indigenous folk, how are we showing up for them? Are we still following outdated models of racism and settler-colonialism where we are only assessing our liability based on our conscious prejudices and attitudes? Or are we critically evaluating our involvement within systems which subjugate others based on race and class?
I’ve spoken to Ka’pilina members who, from the bottom of their heart, believe they are part of the preservation of Hawaiian culture. However, I think Pōmaika’i, @haymakana, and Trask would all agree that the very concept of a Lū’au pulls from tourism-based ideas of Hawaii—ideas inevitably predicated on Native Hawaiian displacement. I’ve spoken to Lū’au officials who have told me that they don’t know about the Kanaka Maoli. These interactions led me to question what qualifications officials who have either varying or no connections to Hawai’i have for culture preservation. In what way are we actively able to combat Native Hawaiian stereotypes if there is no one involved who can call them out and unpack them? To what point is our relationship to Hawai’i extractive, especially if we’re, intentionally or not, upholding fantasy ideals of what Hawai’i is? These are questions of self-reflection which I hope my article can help facilitate within our community. Images of a commodified culture, made accessible to us and which remain pervasive after years of colonization, will persist in spaces vacuous of critical thought. So from here, I hope we may critically assess, how to move forward without perpetuating the commodification of Native Hawaiian culture.
Post notes: Soka’s Lū’au will be donating a small amount of the proceeds, all accumulated through the raffle, to a Hawaiian cultural preservation non-profit. I am happy about these donations, but I hope this will not excuse us from engaging in critical reflection of our actions.