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A Crash Course in Hawaiian Sovereignity Issues

The WSJ published this complicated editorial about the Akaka Bill — more formally know as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. Even if you don’t agree with the conclusions it’s worth a read for a look into the tangled mess that is the struggle for Native Hawaiian rights.

The bill creates a complex federal framework under which most of the nation’s approximately 400,000 ethnic Hawaiians can organize themselves into one vast Indian tribe. It endows the tribe with the “inherent powers and privileges of self-government,” including the privilege of sovereign immunity from lawsuit. It also by clear implication confers the power to tax, to promulgate and enforce a criminal code, and to exercise eminent domain. Hawaii will in effect be two states, not one.

Congress Tries to Break Hawaii in Two: A racial spoils precedent that could lead to new ‘tribal’ demands across the U.S. — WSJ

Hawaii After Dark


Honolulu City Lights by Dan Zen via Flickr

“If I were a tourist, I’m coming here for the weather, the culture, the sightseeing. But one night I might go to the casino, because what other entertainment is there to do at night?” said James Boersema, an investor of a Waikiki nightclub and restaurant. — MSNBC: Is Hawaii gambling with paradise?

That quote is from an article about the islands considering — again — adding gambling as a source of much needed revenue. Gambling might be a path towards income, surely, but it’s a willfully naive response to the question of what to do after dark in Hawaii.

For starters, there’s a staggering array of music options, and lots of them are free. Waikiki’s Kanikapila Grill hosts the stars of Hawaiian music — hang out poolside at the Outrigger and hear the sounds of island music for the price of a cocktail. You can do this at the Marriott, too, and a number of other places. The Royal Hawaiian has a newish entertainment series — it’s great fun to catch a show in this grand pink hotel by the sea. There are loads of nightlife tourist traps along Kalakaua Ave., discos and kitchy luaus, or you can book a package that includes transportation to and from the Polynesian Cultural Center to catch their big cultural showcase.

In the confines of Waikiki, it’s easy to forget that Honolulu is a real city with a university and residents that work in industries other than tourism, a place where people live and work and play after dark just like any other city. Crack a local paper — one that’s not labeled “Top 100 Things to Do on Oahu!” and you’ll find loads of other options.

There’s a burgeoning foodie scene in Honolulu — try Town in Kaimuki or, if you’re feeling flush, Chef Mavro‘s. You can attend a food event like Dining in the Dark where you’ll give up vision for taste. If you’re looking for alternative entertainment there’s Art after Dark at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and there’s Chinatown’s revival with bars and nightclubs and the First Friday gallery walk.

Admittedly, things slow down a little on the neighbor islands, but you can still dine in an amazing array of restaurants in Maui’s county seat, Wailuku, catch a jazz show at the historic Honoka’a theater on the Big Island or hear local music at the Hotel Moloka’i on, you guessed it Moloka’i.  There are nature activities too — star gazing and flashlight tide-pooling and night diving… it’s not over just because the sun is down.

What is there to do at night? Really? Pick up a local paper or look online and find out.

Tourists vs. Natives

“The Hawaiian culture that tourists see is very tourist-oriented,” according to an unidentified Native Hawaiian who was quoted in the study. “Tourists don’t see the authentic culture. They put on leis and sing Tiny Bubbles” —Don Ho‘s famous tune. — USA Today

Ouch. That quote cuts straight to the heart of the matter while also painting all of Hawaii’s visitors with the same ugly brush. It’s true, some tourists do put on leis and sing along with the trademarked song. Culture in Hawaii is a commodity, even while it’s a way of life. In the same USA Today article, Native Hawaiians said that the tourism “industry has a bad reputation for presenting Hawaiian arts authentically and accurately.” After all, real culture is kind of messy and doesn’t sell vacations.

Alternative Hawaiian Flag by Kii Girl via Flickr

Alternative Hawaiian Flag by Ki'i Girl via Flickr

Great cultural sites aren’t far from the glitzy shopping of Waikiki — the spectacular Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum and ‘Iolani Palace are both excellent places to learn a little history and the trolley that serves most of Oahu’s tourist sites will take you there. The Place of Refuge is a must see on the Big Island — with its scowling ki’i carvings (we often call them “tiki” — that’s not their correct name)  and beautiful setting, it’s an amazing place to learn about Hawaii’s traditions. Limahuli Garden has living kalo (taro) patches, as does the ‘Iao Valley State Park. All these sites offer insight into Native Hawaiian culture and history, and they’re great places to visit.

But they don’t create human connections. Sure, you can visit a museum and learn about Hawaiian culture and you can educate yourself beyond that Don Ho listening lei wearing mainlander, but does this change your sense of who Hawaiians are today? And while there are lots of volunteer opportunities, most of them are nature focused, not human focused. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with making life better for turtles, but do these activities ease the tensions between the day trippers on the road to Hana and the people who have made Hana their home for three, four, more generations?

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs maintains a Native Hawaiian owned business directory — there’s a small section called travel and tours and while it’s enough to find a few activities for your trip, it won’t help you find a Native Hawaiian owned hotel* and there are only six restaurants listed. It’s no wonder the two populations — tourists and Native Hawaiians — don’t have a lot of understanding for each other — places where we can come together over common ground are rare indeed. Ecotourism, oh Hawaii has that, but cultural tourism? Unfortunately, most of what Hawaii offers visitors is history or commodity, leaving curious visitors hungry for more.  And the not so curious? They’re perfectly content with leis and Tiny Bubbles.

Related: Hawaii Tourism Authority awards $600K for programs perpetuating Native Hawaiian culture

*There are two, Uncle Billy’s in Kona or Hilo. If you know of more, please leave that information in the comments.

“Aloha Oe” Considered

Queen Liliuokalani Statue by JMCD via Flickr

Queen Liliuokalani Statue by JMCD via Flickr

After a recent visit to Hawaii, KUOW’s Amanda Wilde has a new connection to an old melody. The last of the Hawaiian monarchs penned this tune. It was inspired by a poignant moment on top of a mountain on the Island of Oahu. Amanda spoke with KUOW’s Dave Beck about a classic tune that Sounds Familiar.

Falling in love with Hawaii will change how you feel about the iconic Hawaiian farewell tune. My friend Gregg supplied the sample tracks for this radio story. You can listen here.

Hawaiiana Live! at Hilo’s Palace Theater

Palace Theater by Eye of Einstein via Flickr

Palace Theater by Eye of Einstein via Flickr

Inspiring the audience to recognize and honor the beauty and richness of the Hawaiian culture has been one of the goals of Hawaiiana Live! Since its launch on Jan.10, 2007, it has educated and entertained 4,000-plus people; Yuen hopes many more will come.

The program spotlights various aspects of Hawaiian culture through storytelling, videos, hula, oli (chants) and mele (songs). A changing slate of Big Island artists, musicians, kupuna (elders) and kumu (teachers) is featured each week. —Honolulu Star Bulletin

It’s a Big Island battle. It’s so easy to be seduced by the beautiful beaches, by the sunset cocktail hours, by the spectacular nature away from the beach. And sure, you can sit a a long table under the palms and watch a luau where the drums pound and shockingly fit young men spin flaming knives and the hula girls are so pretty you wonder how the missionaries could stand to cover them up. Getting away from culture as commodity can be a challenge.

Hawaiiana Live! is a weekly program at Hilo’s grand old Palace Theater. “The program spotlights various aspects of Hawaiian culture through storytelling, videos, hula, oli (chants) and mele (songs). A changing slate of Big Island artists, musicians, kupuna (elders) and kumu (teachers) is featured each week.” What a great opportunity. There’s a different program every Wednesday, so just because your neighbor saw the one about native plants doesn’t mean you will, you might end up in the land of ancient myth and legend.

Most visitors to the Big Island set up base on the Kona side, zipping over to Hilo or up to the volcano for the day only. That’s a shame —  they’re missing out on all the great things Hilo has to offer. Hawaiiana Live! is one more reason to stay a little longer on the windward side.

The full calendar for Hawaiiana Live is here.

Hawaii Slam!

Henry Kapono has a new music project going — it’s called the Wild Hawaiian. You can read up on the whole thing here — there’s music and video and photos. I caught the show  in Seattle. I thought the way he started it was a little weird — he showed video footage that talked about the concept and how people felt about what they were experiencing — I’m not down with setting expectations for me to feel a certain way about art, be it musical or otherwise. It turned out not to matter, I forgot the video almost immediately when the live music started.

I loved the show; I loved thinking about Hawaiian music in a whole new way. The Wild Hawaiian tracks are rock music in a way you probably recognize, but the lyrics are all Hawaiian. I thought the percussion was crazy wonderful, the guy cranking out the exotic beats was Lopaka Colon, a  musician I’d never heard of but his dad played with Martin Denny — you might know Martin Denny as the man who popularized pop exotica in a track called Quiet Village.

More than anyone on stage, I could not tear my eyes away from Kealoha, the barefoot slam poet who danced and sang his way through the show, sometimes taking the mic to add a whole new spin to Hawaiian storytelling. I loved hearing his voice call out over the crowd, adding Hawaiian legends and slices of modern life to the music that Henry Kapono and his band created.

Kealoha founded and hosts Hawaii Slam every first Thursday in Honolulu at the Fresh Cafe Warehouse. If you want to do something completely different when you’re next on Oahu, this is it. I haven’t been, I can’t tell you first hand what it’s like, but next time I’m there, I’m psyched to go. It’s three bucks if you get there early, five if you don’t, and that’s a pretty good deal for seeing Hawaii through a whole new lens. Check it out.

Be sure to check Hawaii Slam before you go — all the details are subject to change.

Imported Labor and Hawaii’s Culture

The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest fruit and vegetable farm will plead guilty to charges of importing laborers from Thailand to force them to work, court records show. — ABC News

In this day and age, it’s shocking to learn that importing workers for forced labor — to the US, no less — could happen. There is, however a long history of imported workers for hard labor on the pineapple and sugar cane plantations throughout the islands. The influx of these workers — from Japan, the Philippines, China, all over the Pacific — that’s contributed to Hawaii’s amazing mix of cultures.

Japanese plantation worker/actor via Flickr

Japanese plantation worker/actor via gochie* on Flickr

There’s an interesting read about the history of labor in Hawaii here. The accelerated version? Native Hawaiians, who had been subsistence farmers, were not so keen on plantation conditions and eventually, walked off the job. Imported foreigners filled the gap, though conditions remained bad enough that workers overlooked their cultural differences and joined together to create a union. [Read the whole thing, this is just my summary.]

Sugar and pineapple are fading from the Hawaiian landscape, replaced the land eating monster that is real estate. Maui Pineapple managed to get a stay of execution, saving jobs and the Maui Gold brand, but Kauai’s sugar plantation shuttered last year. Even though the farmlands are struggling, the impact of those immigrants who worked the fields remains strong, on the faces of the people of Hawaii, the variety in food, and the fantastic mix of culture that makes Hawaii so appealing and fascinating.

Just a disclaimer: While I’m interested in the role that immigrant cultures played in developing Hawaii’s modern personality, I have no desire to trivialize the seriousness of the current slave labor issue. There’s a critical  look at the what happened on Aloun farms here.

The Slippah Project

From my inbox. Thanks, G., for letting me repost this here.

Flip Flops by Kudomomo via Flickr
Flip Flops by Kudomomo via Flickr

It all started a few years ago when an online friend in Hawai`i (who I have since met in person) was living in subsidized housing in a very poor part of Honolulu.  Lynn is a formerly-homeless ex-drug addict, whose first husband died of ALS.  She raised three children on her own while battling her own addictions and issues; they are all grown now and have done/still are serving in the military.  She has worked for years to turn her own life around, is now remarried, has a job and has moved out of the housing project.

But while she was still in the projects, she realized that most of the keiki (the children) in the complex had nothing to wear on their feet – not even a cheap pair of the most common Island footwear, the rubber slipper.  So she decided to do something about it, and on her own, decided to ask friends if they would contribute a few bucks to buy “slippahs” for the neighborhood kids for one Christmas.

No bureaucracy, no overhead, no promotional team – just Lynn and word-of-mouth.  One friend set up a bank account to handle checks, another friend used a contact to get a slipper-maker to provide product below cost, and so on.  That year, the housing project’s Christmas party featured new slippahs for every kid – the story made one of the Honolulu papers.

In the handful of years since, the buzz has grown, and Lynn tries to obtain slippahs and a few other basic goods for families on several of the Hawaiian Islands.  Still no big bureaucracy – just Lynn’s Slippah Project, a truly grassroots idea that continues to grow and succeed.

If you want to contribute anything, there’s now a website at www.slippah.org.

Hawaii: True Stories of the Island Spirit (Travelers’ Tales)

I checked out a pile of books about Hawaii from the library prior to my recent trip to Oahu. Unfortnately, I alternated between being so crazy busy or tropically indolent that I had little time to read. I did, however, read Hawaii: True Stories of the Island Spirit (Travelers’ Tales) cover to cover, finishing up two days ago. It’s the best thing I’ve read about Hawaii in, well, ever, really.

Hawaii: True Stories of the Island Spirit (Travelers’ Tales) isn’t a guide book per se, but it does have some guide-like information in the appendix at the end of the book. All that stuff is useful and offers the editors’ excellent insight into island travel, focusing on such critical things as favorite beaches or who makes a smashing mai tai, but that’s not what this book is for. The book is a compilation of non-fiction  essays and excerpts from longer works that go beyond the shiny outer layers of Hawaii’s cosmetic packaging. It’s a three dimensional Hawaii, one that goes from luxury private bungalows to drug dealers and dance hall girls. There’s surfing and fishing and whoring and ghost hunting and wallowing in splendor and being an outsider and, well, it’s just a remarkable collection of short reads about Hawaii from a remarkable array of angles.

Because the selections are short, it’s great for reading while you’re in the islands when you either have to skip off to meet friends for sushi or you’ve fallen asleep in your hotel room with the windows open or you’re on the plane home trying to understand why, exactly, you’re on the plane home. It’s a fantastic read, I loved it and can’t recommend it enough, even for those who think they have an educated idea or two about the islands. It would make  nice gift for those who are Hawaii lovers or Hawaii bound.

If you get yours using this Amazon link, I get a few cents and it doesn’t cost you any extra. And hey, if you have must-reads for Hawaii, I’d love to see your recommendations. In the comments, please.

Hawaii’s Museums Need You

The Bishop Museum by Cliff 1066 via Flickr

The Bishop Museum by Cliff 1066 via Flickr

With the reopening of the Bishop Museum‘s gorgeous Hawaiian Hall, it’s especially sad to hear that the facility is hurting for visitors. From the Honolulu Advertiser:

In May, Bishop Museum closed the Hawai’i Maritime Center and began closing its main facility in Kalihi every Tuesday as a way to cope with the difficult economy. The museum also cut its staff.

Last spring, when we visited the islands, we got to preview the spectacularly renovated Hawaiian Hall. They were just in the process of replacing the artifacts in the new cases — the exhibits had been completely redesigned to help place the collection in a historical and cultural context. From the Bishop Museum site:

The result is a state of the art Museum that embodies a Native Hawaiian world view, layered in meaning and authentic in voice.

Hawaiian Hall offers visitors deeper insights into Hawaiian culture and access to a record number of the Museum’s treasured collections, together with Hawaiian interpretation and perspectives.

The museum is a great place to see the richness of Hawaiian culture, to get a sense of Hawaiian history. It’s easy to get to — the trolley runs there as does the bus, and it’s not that hard to find if you’ve got a rental car, which you probably do. The collection is beautiful and the hall with the feathered standards and portraits of Hawaiian royalty is a moving and important thing to see. There’s lots of other stuff there — natural history exhibits with hands on activities for kids, a crazy volcano, a planetarium — stellar navigation plays a critical role in the history of the islands — and lots more. But more than anything, it’s an excellent starting place to get a sense of Hawaii beyond the high rise hotels and shopping malls of Waikiki.

With the museums hurting for funds, it’s more important than ever that visitors get off the sand, out from behind that umbrella drink, and go learn a little bit about the place they’ve chosen to visit. I’ll get off my soap box now, but you know what to do.  There’s lots more information online, here.