A Personal Experience With Cultural Appropriation

A Personal Experience With Cultural Appropriation

When so much has already been taken from your culture, what little you have left should still be yours, right?

Words by Maile Shanti.

Over the past few months cultural appropriation has filtered to the forefront of the media, and the discussion has finally been receiving more light. Recently Amandla Stenberg released a very educational video on black cultural appropriation, focusing on rap culutre.

There are countless essays and scholarly texts discussing cultural appropriation, and examples of cultural appropriation have been around for years, such as Native American festival wear, bindis, cornrows and even the thin white hula dancer. The list goes on. Big businesses and fashion labels take from cultures what they will, without acknowledging the significance or supporting the rights of those cultures, profiting and not giving anything back. Understanding cultural appropriation is understanding the dynamic between two powers. The more dominant culture taking and trivialising or commodifying parts of the less dominant culture, in turn further oppressing the less dominant culture. Who have commonly been culturally and socially oppressed and diminished by the more dominant culture in the first place.

Hawai’i is home to hula dancers, coconut trees and the best beaches. It’s known as paradise for a reason, and it’s why the majority of locals never leave the island.  Most people probably know it from this guy (who actually happens to be a cousin of mine).

Most of you probably identify listening to this with images of thin hula girls and coconuts. The stereotype of Hawai’i is so ingrained in us that in the main tourist parts of Hawai’i it’s all you see. Now a lot of people probably have never thought about Hawaiian cultural appropriation. For that matter, most people wouldn’t know anything about the island itself. Even more people will be shocked to hear that its story is, in many cases, considered similar to that of the British invasion of Australia.

In 1893 the US formed a committee to depose the Queen of the Hawai’i and declare it American soil. The takeover however, unlike the Australian story, went a lot smoother. With the Committee signing a document that ended Hawaiian monarchy before the Queen even was made aware, an illegal act that was later recognised. After an attempt to reclaim Hawaiian land the Queen Liliuokalani was sentenced to imprisonment. To this day many native Hawaiians still consider the nation to be illegally occupied.

Sacred traditions and cultures were stolen and now the image of Hawai’i is a thin hula girl with a plastic reed skirt. The stereotype surrounding the small little islands is apparent even in the heart of Hawaiian land. A visit to the main spots in Honolulu wouldn’t even vaguely educate you on proper Hawaiian culture, why? Because Hawai’i is seen as nothing more than a week long vacation. It is seen as a place to escape and relax for a week, not as a home to a culture that was there before the colonisation. It is way more than this fantasy land that Hollywood so easily portrays.

The ongoing appropriation of Hawai’i only makes it clearer as to why it is inappropriate for those that have no ties to Hawai’i, its language, culture and people to invoke the Hawaiian language.” - Janet Mock

Growing up in Australia, in a house that contained many Hawaiian relics, it never occurred to me that I was missing out on knowledge of my culture. I witnessed the struggles of the native Australians, also living on land that was taken from them. But I have never been able to fully empathise with that feeling. The feeling the American Indians, Indigenous islanders and African American people feel when they see their heritage and ancient traditions draped on a white westerner with absolutely no knowledge or understanding of the meaning behind their garb.

In Fremantle a new cafe has opened its doors, ‘Ohana’. A word that many Lilo & Stitch fans would know as the Hawaiian word meaning ‘family’. However, it extends beyond just the word ‘family’, it includes blood-related, adopted or intentional members, strongly emphasizing the idea of family bond and tribe. Because, in Hawai’i, family is the most important thing. It is something that I have grown up knowing, taught to me by my tutu (grandmother).

So I decided to look into this cafe, interested to see if a native had left paradise to open its doors in sunny Fremantle. I was greeted by a pamphlet, advertising their new store.

“Join our tribe today, download the app,” was the first thing I saw under the heading.

The menu was simple islander foods, native to both Hawai'i and parts of South America. Acai bowls, Spirulina, Maca, Noni... the health food supplements go on. Nowhere on this pamphlet was Hawai’i mentioned (nor was South America for that matter). A bit of cheap shot and a gimmick, I went home to Google their website and find out more.

I was horrified to discover the homepage was a white, thin, blonde, blue eyed model holding an ‘ohana bowl’ with the slogan ‘join our tribe today’. And again, nowhere was Hawai’i acknowledged, even though they were appropriating and using ancient Hawaiian motifs for their business.

Angered and upset, I emailed them, curious as to why they would be doing this. Why they could not have just called it a ‘family’ bar and moved on with their day. Where was the need to use something that native Hawaiians hold so sacred as a way to make money, without even giving them a nod.

My message was nice, I just wanted to know who the people behind it were? Had they thought about cultural appropriation? Were any of them Hawaiian?

The reply was worse, beginning with “Aloha Maile”. Most people would now be wondering why my name is spelt so strangely? It is because in fact it is a native Hawaiian name pronounced my-lee. So now these people decided to greet me with the traditional Hawaiian language and then go on to tell me no one associated with the project comes from Hawaii. I replied quickly, dumbfounded with the response. I wanted them to know that my family and I were upset with the way they were appropriating our culture. How could they not even acknowledge it? I have sent two messages, since then I have heard nothing...

Now, I never understood the feelings of those in my situation until it happened to me. I can sense that my words could annoy some people, that they would think, ‘why should she care?’. But when so much has already been taken from your culture, when the flag of your people does not even fly, what little you have left should still be yours. The thing to remember here is that Hawai'i is a lot more than a tropical holiday. The words ‘Aloha’ and ‘ohana’ mean much more than ‘Hello’ and ‘Family’.

Imagine that this place had opened its doors using an ancient Indigenous Australian word, had used a white woman to advertise it and had not acknowledged their culture. How would we feel? Seeing that, in a country where we have already taken so much from the Indigenous people, would anger so many.

I feel so alone because I know that not many will connect with me and my Hawaiian background. But I think no matter where it comes from, to see this easy, cheap, exploitation of a tribe is sickening. Why are we allowing this to happen? So much of my culture has already been taken from me. Hawaiian theme and dress-ups are a joke in Australia. Hula dancers, Leis and plastic flower garlands are dress-up props. We take what we like from these cultures and we leave behind tens of  thousands of years of tradition. This isn't just happening to Hawaiians, I see it happen all around me everyday.

This is just my first personal encounter with it and my story. And all I am asking is to be more aware, learn about that culture that you so easily take from. And if you have the time, head down to ‘Ohana’ in Fremantle and put a complaint in.