Calvin College Chimes

The Truth about Native Hawaii

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When I first heard that Kalsbeek-Huizenga-van Reken (KHvR) had the theme luau for Chaos Night, I cringed. It was an immediate reaction – native Hawaiians usually don’t take too kindly to non-Hawaiians having luaus. It’s just… not the best. As a result, I geared up to write an article on ‘cultural appropriation’. It turned out that two people who had been on my floor last year, Maia Madrid, a cultural discerner (CD), and Comfort Sampong, a multicultural activities coordinator (MAC) were in charge of the ‘cultural appropriateness’ of the theme. “Alright,” I thought, tentatively hopeful. “I know them. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

I ended up being utterly blown away.

Both Sampong and Madrid were aware of the culture behind the luau, and when they discovered the theme for KHvR, they sprang into action to ensure that it was appropriate and not offensive. They wanted to ensure that the culture of the luau was portrayed right.

“We tried to move away from the single story of Hawaii as a tourist destination for our Western eyes to see,” Sampong said. This was the goal of much of KHvR leadership, actually – they didn’t go at it alone. The resident director (RD) of KHvR, Ashley Kelver, and the resident director assistant (RDA), Michelle Guinyard, were extremely supportive and, according to Sampong, were “really great about promoting the inclusivity of the dorm.”

With Bastian Bouman and Emily Zerull, both CDs, and Molly Dedona, a MAC, on their team, along with the residence hall executive team (RHET), the group tackled four specific questions: What do native Hawaiians think about portrayals of luaus and why? What can we learn from other schools that have held luaus? How can we honor native Hawaiian traditions? How can we invite any native Hawaiians into the discussion?

The result was a dorm-wide effort to portrayal realistic Hawaiian culture in a way that wasn’t offensive. Coconut bras and grass skirts were strongly discouraged; neither is  native to Hawaiian culture, having been introduced by immigrants and the westernization of Hawaii. Many native Hawaiians actually find the usual Western picture of luau dancers – a woman in naught but a grass skirt and coconut bras – to be incredibly objectifying. RHET actually came up with a list of recommended ‘do’s and don’ts’ for the dorm with guidelines about items such as tikis, which are actually called Ki’i in Hawaii and are incredibly sacred; most Hawaiians ask that non-Hawaiians do not wear anything involving Ki’is.

Leis, however, one of the other frequent images connected to Hawaiian luaus, were encouraged. In fact, the whole team engaged in a large amount of research regarding leis. Instead of simply being attire for a luau, leis are actually garlands made to show honor and love. They don’t just have to consist of flowers, but often have objects such as fruits, shells and seeds on them. Traditionally, lei makers travelled long distances to make them, so it was a great honor to receive them.

A lot of information from a native Hawaiian perspective – such as what they don’t appreciate non-Hawaiians wearing – came from the Hawaiian Tourism Authority (HTA). While the team could not find any native Hawaiians or Polynesians on campus that could give their input, the HTA has a great number of articles that express how Hawaiian culture should be portrayed. For non-natives like Madrid and Sampong, this was a perfect resource.

With information from the HTA, a list of do’s and don’ts, and history spanning back to the first modern luau in 1819, KHvR entered Chaos Night with a more accurate luau theme — and it served them well. The dorm won the Cup of Perspective, though they didn’t come in last. Rather, it was given to them for competing the most respectfully. It’s possible to respect other cultures and have fun at the same time!

Still, that doesn’t mean the whole process was perfect. People were spotted wearing coconut bras at the event, and as Madrid stated, “One of the things we didn’t mention, but after being there, I wish we would’ve, were tribal tattoos.” There were quite a few people adorned with tattoos on their bodies – which, interestingly enough, isn’t native Hawaiian at all. They’re called Ta moko and are actually part of the culture of the Maori people from New Zealand. This art form is considered sacred, and to wear Ta moko without being native Maori is a sign of great offense.

Even though they were not Hawaiian, people wore them to a luau, for a theme that was supposed to celebrate native Hawaiian culture. “People mix together a lot of Polynesian and Pacific Islander cultures,” Sampong pointed out, and she’s correct. That’s why opportunities like this are crucial for educating each other about the different cultures of the world. KHvR had the theme of luaus, and as a result, its residents are far more informed about both native Hawaiian culture and what’s appropriate for them to wear and experience as outsiders to the group.

As Ashley Kelver, KHvR’s RD, explained, “What struck me the most was their initiative – this is what makes a good leader. They see a red flag or a concern and instead of saying it’s a problem, they stand up and say, what can we do about it?” Two people in the KHvR community stepped up to the plate to explore native Hawaiian culture and help their dorm be the best that it could – they thought the best of people going in, and it showed.

KHvR learned a lot from this, with their Cup of Perspective to prove it, and I hope that it will continue to be this way in the future. We can learn a lot from their ideas here. Native culture isn’t something to be feared; we shouldn’t be too scared to touch other cultures, less we are offensive. We also don’t want to portray cultures in a way that is offensive – they’re not our costumes. Instead, we need to do research, gain information straight from the source if we can and embrace a chance to both learn and respectfully portray a culture.

You go, KHvR!

 

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