By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance News Service
Recently, the school where my wife works decided to host “luau” events throughout the state I live. When she contacted the school to tell them the events were cultural appropriation and racist, they quickly responded by transforming the event into a beach party. Calling out racism in this way can be both challenging and courageous, especially when there are so few resources available either to educate people about the lū‘au or to support the voices of those who call out the appropriation of Hawaiian culture. In order to make such a resource available, I contacted my Native Hawaiian friend Anne Keala Kelly and asked her some questions about the appropriation of her culture.
OL: What is a lū‘au and what is its importance within Hawaiian culture?
AKK: I’m inclined to reach for Mary Kawena Pukui’s basic definition:
1. Young taro tops, especially baked with coconut cream and chicken or octopus.
2. Hawaiian feast, named for the taro tops always served at one; this is not an ancient name, but goes back at least to 1856, when so used by the Pacific Commercial Advertiser; formerly a feast pa‘ina or ‘aha ‘aina
3. Greenish meat in a turtle, considered a delicacy, so named because the color of its meat suggested the color of taro tops.
4. Same as limu lū‘au, a seaweed
5. Kind of soft porous stone, as used in the ground oven.
Traditional lū‘au, before the U.S. overthrow and occupation of Hawaiʻi (which is a significant historical event that changed countless Hawaiian cultural practices), had Hawaiian food, like poi and kalo or taro dishes, coconut dishes, fish, pork. Depending on who it was for it could be a large all day affair, wherein it could take hours to get through the meal. That would be normal for ali‘i, which means royalty or chiefs.
There always seems to be some kinda lū‘au going on somewhere, but those are tourist attractions. Graduation lū‘au and anniversary lū‘au are not unusual. Far as a regular party goes, most Hawaiians would refer to that as pa’ina. But one lū‘au that has for a long time now been the normal Hawaiian lū‘au is referred to as “baby’s first lū‘au.” Dates back at least to the 19th century when if a baby lived to turn a year old it was cause for celebration. These days a baby lū‘au is a huge party. It’s not unusual to have hundreds of guests at a baby lū‘au, with live entertainment and a fabulous feast, so if you’re ever invited to one, definitely attend!
Now that I’ve answered this question I can see what a cultural signifier a lū‘au actually is, because the food is so culturally significant and the different reasons to celebrate were also significant. It was never a tourist attraction because that was not an industry and I doubt any Hawaiians from pre-overthrow Hawaiʻi would have imagined it becoming such a bastardized, commodified event that people the world over use to cannibalize Hawaiian culture.
OL: At a false lū‘au, partygoers are usually given a plastic imitation lei. What can you tell us about the traditional usage of the lei?
AKK: Another excellent question, Owen. And I apologize in advance for talking about the lei in conjunction with talking about the hula. But the two go together in some ways, certainly in the minds of people outside of Hawaiʻi. Hopefully I can explain this idea of the lei in a way that will speak to what it used to mean. It still is meaningful, but it’s odd to see it appropriated all over the place, plastic and flower lei. I mean, plenty of universities in the U.S. now have this thing about graduation lei giving. I don’t know what to make of that one.
The plastic lei phenomenon isn’t unrelated to the hapa-haole hula era, which I think was from the 1910s to the 30s—also in there is the cellophane hula era, which was a Hollywood invention. You may have seen dancers in films wearing these shiny hula skirts and plastic lei, mimicking hula moves, but I’ve never seen an actual dance in those films that meant anything. By then the hula was about young, “pretty” women wiggling around in sexual ways. Don’t get me wrong—the hula is often a very sensual, and sexual dance. Just not in the pornographic, western way, which typically portrays hula dancers as thin. The fact is that larger women dancing hula is really beautiful – it gives a sense of the power and grace of the dance. But western aesthetics are constructed around emaciated women.
In the early part of the 20th century, as tourism started to become normalized in Hawaiʻi, the lei wasn’t so much appropriated from the traditional Hawaiian use of it as it was overtly commodified and turned into a mechanized thing. Even though real people make them, it’s mostly about money now. Lei have always been for greeting people from far away, but when there are millions of them and only a couple hundred thousand of us it isn’t about aloha anymore.
Traditionally they were, and still are, for celebrations and ceremonial events. Back in the pre-invasion times, lei were involved when political agreements were reached between warring parties, and they were often worn during hula performance. There probably wasn’t an occasion that wasn’t celebrated with some kind of lei. If you look back at old photos of the ali‘i at lū‘au, you will see them wearing maile lei, a leafy vine, sometimes along with flower lei. Maile are more ceremonial, but they’re harder to get these days because there are less people willing to keep up the traditional gathering of the maile. So they are very expensive now.
Joseph Nawahi, a Hawaiian journalist, artist and statesman who spoke out against the U.S. overthrow and attempts to annex Hawaiʻi, famously said of the haole who took over the government (he said it in Hawaiian, of course) “We were expelled by trespassers who came into our house and who are now telling us to live in the lei stand they are building and planning to force us to enter.”
I love this quote because it speaks to the white supremacist vision that the haole cheaters, thieves and murderers of our culture and nation had for the Hawaiian people. I think the first years after the U.S. takeover, Hawaiians must have felt like ghosts in their own land. Because even after the Christianization of Hawaiians and Europeanization of the government, after 90% of the entire population died over such a short time, and after more than 50 years of being the first non-white nation to be an internationally recognized country on par with all the mighty whitey countries of that time, despite all the efforts to survive the American Empire’s reach into the Pacific, haole people still hated us, they still hated our aloha. That’s why Nawahi’s word’s are true. Reducing us to a lei making and giving people is a hatred for the spiritual and philosophical bones of us. Of course, they hate our bones too, but that’s a whole other level of white supremacy they enjoy unleashing on us every chance they get.
OL: What message does it send to Kānaka ʻŌiwi when non-Hawaiian people call their beach party a lū‘au or adorn themselves or others with a false lei?
AKK: 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 to be exact. Because that’s what it is. 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, so there’s a little race hatred mixed in.
When I travel to give a talk or do a screening outside of Hawaii, if there are Hawaiians there and they want to give me a lei, they give lei woven out of silk or made of soft, colorful cloth or crocheted or knitted yarn. Flower lei are not always available outside of Hawaiʻi, but the honor is still very real. Even sometimes here at home people will give a silk lei instead of flower. They’re very beautiful.
Also, when you give someone a lei, it’s an expression of socially acceptable intimacy that includes a hug and often a kiss on the cheek. I’m not sure I ever gave a lei to someone without kissing them. I don’t know if those plastic lei come with a kiss and a hug. But I hope I never find out!
OL: The false lū‘au and giving of plastic lei are widespread practices in the U.S., hosted everywhere from public schools to the White House. And yet, they’ve gone almost totally uncontested by the public. Do you have any thoughts about why Americans are so blind or passive to the appropriation of Hawaiian culture?
AKK: Embedded in every American theft is the denial of that theft, be it theft of land, culture, nationhood, all the things that define a people, all that they need to survive as a people. The exploitation and appropriation of Hawaiian identity and cultural identifiers, like lei and lū‘au is in keeping with that centuries old tradition.
One reason, though, that this goes on uncontested is because Hawaiians don’t challenge it in a clear and consistent way. What we’ve seen recently with the mascot issue has taken decades to come about. And the consistent, well articulated resistance from Native Americans has everything to do with this hard won success. For Hawaiians, the destruction of our world in every conceivable way is still a fulltime project by the U.S. government and American settlers.
I saw a t-shirt that a famous fake Hawaiian musician was wearing and it read, “Occupy With Aloha.” Here we are dealing with the U.S. occupation and we get asshole fake Hawaiians using our culture to make themselves wealthy and famous and that’s their attitude. There is nothing in our world that settlers aren’t consuming 24/7. So 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. 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 mascot issue is one way to understand what’s being done to Hawaiians with this ritual. The use of cultural identifying characteristics belonging to indigenous peoples is the celebration of white supremacy and American supremacy. It’s a way to continue the practice of cultural cannibalism, and to blithely pass it on to new generations. It’s also reminder to the native that no matter how assimilated you do or don’t become, you are not respected by the dominant, settler society.
OL: What are the political and social ramifications of these widespread appropriations?
AKK: The political outcome is linked to the social, and I don’t think the negative consequences are unintended. I mean, “history” tells us that Captain Cook didn’t intentionally unleash syphilis on my ancestors, but I don’t agree. He knew that his men were killing people throughout the Pacific with their penises and he didn’t stop them. In fact, I think that history of death by sex with haole men is something we have never recovered from because one of the characteristics that they preyed on and then condemned Hawaiians for was the freedom with which Hawaiians enjoyed sexuality. And while comparing cultural appropriation to a plague of STDs might seem like a stretch, in the Hawaiian narrative it’s all connected. Killing us off in multiple ways made it easier for haole people to encroach on everything Hawaiian. Humiliating us and our cultural traditions has been very effective in confusing and dividing us. Other forms of cultural humiliation include shaming Hawaiians for speaking their language while simultaneously banning the language from public institutions; burning Hawaiian language books; shaming Hawaiians for being too dark skinned, too fat, too… you name it.
It’s the American way to pretend that none of the events that continue to successfully undermine Hawaiian people and society and culture are related. That’s simply untrue. When American settlers come to Hawaiʻi they fly in on the genocide plane, the American privilege plane paid for by the theft of our nation, land and culture.
Okay, what does this have to do with plastic lei and fake lū‘au? If it stopped at the occasional frat party I’d say– not much. But it’s a nasty American pastime to ridicule Hawaiian culture. Making a mockery of us, and our beautiful tradition of generosity and love (and a dance called hula) undermines our sense of worth as a people. And that’s been going on for generations. At the same time it’s a twisted appropriation of our identity, and identity theft is really prevalent. I can’t count how many times I’ve met fake Hawaiians who “took” a Hawaiian name because they feel Hawaiian in their heart. Nor can I count how many Hawaiians who were too ashamed of being Hawaiian to give their children Hawaiian names and too afraid of America to challenge its presence here.
OL: What advice do you have for non-Hawaiians wishing to stand with Kānaka ʻŌiwi against cultural appropriation and colonialism more generally?
AKK: Great question! And I want to say upfront that we are dealing with a settler-colonial situation in Hawaiʻi, but it’s a prolonged, belligerent occupation under international law because we are a nation state whose citizens never consented to becoming American. 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. 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. They can talk about the occupation of Palestine, but Hawaiʻi? That implies present tense possibility.
My advice to people who want to stand in solidarity with us is to understand what is actually happening to us now. The sort of appropriation we’ve been discussing is possible because we’ve been remade, turned into a strangely passive icon that represents entertainment to Americans. Our country, our culture and our sense of who we are as ʻŌiwi is occupied by Americans and other foreigners, but mostly Americans. If non-Hawaiians want to stand in solidarity with us, it would help if they admitted that the United States is occupying Hawaiʻi and that we are not the 50th state. In addition, and equally as important, they can stand with us as we resist theft and destruction of our sacred sites, our land and our water. Non-Hawaiians can empower themselves to speak out loud about the occupation of Hawaiʻi the same way so many of us who are not African American are speaking out against police brutality against black men and boys. And when there is a protest against anything here, such as the TMT project intended for Mauna Kea, we need non-Hawaiians to stand with us either here in Hawaiʻi, or through protest wherever they live. That form of solidarity can bring the world’s attention to what is being done to Hawaiʻi.
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. Cultural appropriation is a form of settlerism—and in that sense, it’s the last frontier for America