Critical Perspectives on Soka’s Lu’au

By Jordyn Saito, Freelancer

In its 10th anniversary this year, the Lūʻau performance is one of our oldest traditions here at Soka.  The club which spearheads it every year is called “Ka Pilina Ho’olokahi” which, according to their facebook page, means “the coming together in harmony for peace” in the Hawaiian language.

Growing up in Hawaiʻi, we understood how direly peace in the Pacific was needed.  I watched the place I grew up expand with military bases and personnel. We watched the Hawaiian Islands bend beyond capacity to host tourists.  We saw the cost of living skyrocket, and the number of people evicted from their homes turns into a crisis overlooked every year. 

I am not Native Hawaiian, and I would like to preface that I do not have a claim to the Native Hawaiian experience nor culture.  I write this piece as the daughter of a Filipina immigrant, knowing what it’s like to have histories, culture, and political self-determination lost under U.S. occupation and imperialism.  I also write this as the daughter of Okinawan migrants who came to Hawai’i five generations ago, as I can say my ancestors labored in near slave-like conditions alongside Native Hawaiians to contribute to the settler- state that exists today.  In any case, while I am not Native Hawaiian, our stories can be connected through the traumas of colonization and American imperialism.

So, when people ask me about the lūʻau or Hawaiʻi, 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- however, when people ask me about the lūʻau, I can’t help but think of my own experiences in Waikīkī, where I would pick up my cousins after their shifts working at “Hawaiian Luaus and Dinner Cruise.”  In my own experience, 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 Hawaiʻi’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 an illegal 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 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, Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi, 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 Filipina-Okinawan diasporic settler, I can also attest that the overwhelming presence of tourism contributes to the rising cost of living, homelessness, and environmental destruction within our communities.  Through my own advocacy on women’s issues within governmental and non-governmental contexts, I’ve learned to connect violence against women in our community to the sexualized fantasy of Hawaiʻi upheld by tourism. Through attending conferences on issues such as sex trafficking, I know that the tourism and military presence are the primary contributors to our high rates of sex trafficking within the state.  

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 Hawaiʻi.  Because of this and the universal ideas of “Hawaiʻi,” 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 Hawaiʻi.

Pōmaika’i later goes on to stress the importance of solidarity, rather than extraction, when it comes to showing up for Native Hawaiians.  As settlers within a system of settler-colonialism, are we existing in models of solidarity or extraction? 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, class, and gender?

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 lūʻau pulls from tourism-based ideas of Hawaiʻi —ideas inevitably predicated on Native Hawaiian displacement and connected to predatory fantasies of Hawai’i.  I’ve spoken to lūʻau officials who have told me that they don’t know the meaning of “Kanaka Maoli,” nor the current status of Native Hawaiians or of women in Hawai’i. These interactions led me to question what qualifications officials who have either varying or no connections to Hawaiʻi have for culture preservation.  In what way are we actively able to combat Native Hawaiian stereotypes and orientalist ideas if there is no one involved who is qualified to call them out and unpack them? To what point is our relationship to Hawaiʻi extractive, especially if we’re, intentionally or not, upholding fantasy ideals of what Hawaiʻi is? How are we acting accountably to communities which we have no connection?  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 and Native Hawaiian voices. So, from here, I hope we may critically assess how to move forward without perpetuating the commodification of Native Hawaiian culture and the legacy of violence, displacement, and destruction which follows.

Post notes: Soka’s Lūʻau 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.

Updated 9/21/19

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