“Uuugh!” a deep breath oozes out my mouth from my deep dark guts as a lomilomi practitioner uses her feet to squeeze and twist my muscles. I’m a tourist, laying on the ground, getting stepped on by Hawaiian feet. Considering how tourists have stampeded over Hawaiians this poetic justice is way overdue.
Lomilomi, or Hawaiian massage, is available all over the world, but at Waiwai Collective in Honolulu I can support this native practice in the place it originated from. As a tourist I can be an ally for people working to stay true to their roots.
Waiwai Collective calls themselves, “a group of Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs who share kuleana [responsibility] and a passion for uplifting the lahui [tribe].” What this physically looks like is a mellow internet cafe, full of native Hawaiians working on the laptops, small groups grinning & sipping kava, a guitarist playing modern folk music, babies playing in a pillow pile, and the grunts of relieved people getting massaged.
While most tourist sat poolside, numb & drunk off the glow of their phones, I was at Waiwai Collective learning more about Hawaiian history, cultural practices that have been cartoonized, and all the struggles native people face to keep their culture alive. My mind was aglow with the stoked fire of new information.
As it turns out, dashboard hula dancers have been lying to me all these years. Their aloha is made of plastic. Their spring loaded hips are made in China. The image of Hawai’i that’s been advertised is a myth. Indigenous culture has been dismembered, redefined by settler entrepreneurs, prostituted for greed, and true aloha has been betrayed.
I was on a new kind of Hawaiian vacation, something more scholarly, yet I still came home with a sunburnt nose and sandy toes.
Decolonize the Menu
I ask the dashboard hula dancer while merging with traffic onto Honolulu’s Likelike highway, “Can tourism be a force for good and help sustain the culture by demanding more locally grown food?“. I’m driving to some of the places food and drink is grown here not flown here to answer that question. In the backyards butting up against the highway I see plants, animals, and people brought here from around the planet mixing and thriving together. Hawai’i could be fertile ground for a new era of cultural enlightenment if we could shift out obsession away from the bouncy dashboard hula dancer.
Off the highway, at the lo’i kalo [taro ponds] of Papahana Kuaola I sank my hands and feet deep into the mud that the yummy kalo batter pudding dish called poi comes from. Poi has a reputation among tourists as a yucky thing to taste while on a Hawaiian vacation. This perspective is extremely disrespectful to the culture and the sustainable farming practices that have been in place for thousands of years. To get poi on the plate means an entire ecosystem has to be in place. It takes freshly flowing spring water, interconnected ponds, hands-on weed wrangling, ancestral knowledge, countless volunteer hours, we-all-live-downstream ethics, land that could be sold for a lot of money to a developer, and the occasional fun mud fight. Poi is a symbol of sustainable living that all tourists should experience the creation of, not just the consumption of.
On the other side of the island, I’m on a dirt road less traveled by tourist driving past abandoned vehicles overgrown by plants. Feral chickens kick up sunlit dust in the gravel driveway as I pull into Ma’o Organic Farms. This organic farm in the heart of the Wai’anae valley not only grows food, but they grow growers. Their volunteer labor force works in exchange for fresh food, college credits, and knowledge that keeps their ancestral heritage alive.
A cultural renaissance is growing in the valley of Wai’anae. The largest population of native Hawaiians live here. They face poverty, depression, drug abuse, diabetes, and other challenges sadly common to colonized indigenious people throughout the world. “How do we get our community out of poverty?” is the question farm manager Cheryse Sana works to answer as she oversees the packaging of fresh bok choy and carrots going out to local restaurants and grocery stores.
“This is the Oakland of Hawai’i” laughs Kamuela Enos. As the Social Enterprise Director of Ma’o Farms he sees the deeper effects happening at the farm. “We’re taking the tools and structure of the colonizer and are repurposing them to be vehicles for our ancestral practices and prerogatives to be relevant in a 21st century context.” We weeded a row of beans as we talked about indigenizing Hawai’i as the answer to the decolonization topic.
Ma’o Farms is reteaching kuleana [responsibility] for the connection between land, people, and food. They’re indigenizing the food system, empowering the community, and giving local chefs and markets an opportunity to invest in quality food and Hawaiian independence.
Down the freeway from the farm, native sugar cane grows abundantly in an old pineapple plantation. Kō Hana rum is the only grower and rum distillery using sugar cane that was brought to the island by the first Hawaiians. Zach Villanueva takes us through the field and the distillery showing how important the source of a locally made product is.
At Mahina and Sun’s, the brilliant restaurant and bar built into the friendly Surfjack hotel, both Ma’o Farms and Kō Hana rum are on the menu. Erik Leong has been in the kitchen from the start working with local food growers as allies to create what he calls, “elevated home cooking.” Chef Erik tries to work with what’s supplied locally rather than demand all things that must be imported. When a farmer brought him cucumbers too curly for the salads he made pickles with them. He wasn’t looking for pickles, he just worked with what was available.
This type of resourcefulness comes through in the bar as well. Locally grown fruit scraps like strawberry tops and other things left over from the kitchen find their way into vibrant mixers that can only be savored here. Their beer list is all local too, so it’s really easy for tourists to order responsibly.
Eating and drinking at Mahina and Sun’s is one of the finest ways tourists can help be a force for positive change. The simple act of ordering the Monchong with 'ulu, green beans, and cherry tomatoes is a vote to replant native ‘ulu trees. If tourists consciously demand native foods, the supply will grow to serve the demand.
Decolonize the Hotel
Colonization favors what’s flown here over what’s grown here. The hotel city of Waikiki with all it’s buffets and fast food markets selling Spam and Heineken was built on ancestral lo’i kalo [taro ponds]. Native Hawaiians lived on these islands sustainably for thousands of years, but that way of life was paved over and in its place a city 99% dependent on imported food was built.
From the airport to the hotel, tourist are ushered along a vacation experience conveyor-belt, completely removed from Hawai’i. Draped in flower leis imported from Thailand. Drunk on tropical cocktails made from imported juicy booze garnished with pineapple from Costa Rica. Tourists shuffle zombie-like past the Louis Vuitton store, past people experiencing homelessness, past gas-powered tiki torches, reaching for a glimpse of the ocean through a sea of people reaching for the same view. Reaching for Aloha, but feeling only receipts in their open palms.
This is not Hawai’i, but this is what tourists unfortunately find. Hotels know this is not sustainable because the experience is meaningless, so hotels are trying to shift attention to the authentic native perspective.
The Ho’okela Hawaiian Culture Center built into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa immerses guests into the native perspective. The room is filled with artifacts, books, dusty vinyl records, and oil paintings of royal Hawaiians. I sat on a lauhala mat while Ku’uipo Kumukahi shared how deadly the colonization of Hawai’i has been and how tourists now outnumber natives 6.5 to 1. As Ku’uipo spoke the truth to this room full of tourist, tears trickled down my cheeks. Her culture has been so traumatized and pushed towards extinction, yet here she stands in the middle of Hotel City teaching us how to be better house guests rather than entitled vacation colonizers. Such a radical act of kindness.
The image of a tourist having a lei placed over their head needs to be destroyed. Traditionally leis were made with dozens of different fragrant local flowers like plumeria, but because of the tourism industries demand leis are mostly made from dendrobium orchids grown and imported from Thailand. These purple and white blossoms are plump, cheap, scentless, and completely foreign. These leis are lies and only serve to reinforce the fake image of Hawai’i.
The lei experience was redefined for me while overlooking diamond head on the Queen Kapi’olani Hotel’s Deck Bar & Grill. Local legend and haku lei-maker Meleana Estes had harvested a bunch of plants growing around the neighborhood and showed our group how to create our own lei’s. We laughed and shared stories while braiding a mix of invasive and native plants together. These leis had more aloha that any imported flower ever could.
Leaving Hotel City I’m a dashboard hula dancer bouncing around the open canopy of North Shore Eco Tour’s all terrain Swiss Military Pinzgauer. We’re driving up a red dirt road into the native forest to learn hula. Higher elevations in Hawai’i are sacred and silent places that demand reverence. As we unload from the truck the sound of our feet sinking into the wet earth seems louder than it should be, “Squooooch”.
Our group walks to the edge of a lush bluff overlooking a cloud forest. The sunlight kisses the rain drops gently and a perfect rainbow blooms before us. “What is Hawai’i?” asks hula practitioner Noah “Keola” Ryan. His answer is of course hula. Keola teaches us a series of movements that reflect the exact moment and place we’re in. Our feet shuffle and tap into the ground like roots, our fingers shimmer like falling rain, open hands trace the path of the sun-lit rainbow, and our chests reach up with the growing plants around us. Getting wind in my hair, and dirt under my toenails while practicing hula, helps me understand the native connection to the Āina [land]. Hula is not spring-loaded or made in China for dashboards. Hula is the humanization and physical expression of life on Hawai’i.
Decolonize the History
“We face the past, confidently interpreting the present, cautiously backing into the future, guided by what our ancestors knew and did.” (Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, Dismembering Lahui; A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887, P. 7)
Hawaiian history is a truly tangled and beautiful mess of storylines. One storyline that is seldom shared with tourists is the Hawaiian resistance to colonization. Hawaiian historian Noenoe K. Silva points out, “It is easier to not see a struggle if one reads accounts written by only one side, yet since the arrival of Captain Cook there have always been (at least) two sides of a struggle going on.” (Aloha Betrayed, p.2)
When colonizers control the dominant narrative their hopes and dreams become realized. Here’s the dominant narrative I learned in mainstream American elementary school; European immigrants show up with better tools, new clothes, new gods and native people were grateful to be saved. Then the natives got sick, die, or were killed off so settlers could be like “Oops, I guess we own all this land now.” Most American tourists might think this general historical narrative applies to Hawai’i, but no it does not.
The narrative is different for native Hawaiians. They were early adopters of literacy and publishing. Heck, they had the 1st printing press east of the Rocky Mountains and they cranked out tons of Hawaiian language newspapers.
Although the Hawaiian language became a printed dialect so missionaries could more easily brainwash and control the native labor force the plan backfired when Hawaiians started publishing their own thoughts.
From 1861-1863 the first newspaper printed to express the native resistance to colonization was Ka Huko o ka Pakipika (The Star of the Pacific). This newspaper printed Hawaiian chants, ancient religion stories, and cultural practices such as hula that had been outlawed by missionaries. The printed voices kept Hawaiian culture alive while it was being colonized. Even today scholars are reading and learning from those preserved newspapers.
[Translated from Hawaiian] “When the news went out that a special newspaper would be published in the native language - a newspaper not sponsored by the government, nor by any denomination - a newspaper where people could discuss the government, the churches, farming, and people’s lives, and a place where Kanaka Maoli [indigenious Hawaiians] could fully express their opinions - opposition to this was stirred up, and the shouts of the people forming this baseless opposition are resounding all around the Islands. Many bad things have been done to harm this newspaper.” Sept 26, Ka Huko o ka Pakipika (the Star of the Pacific] published 1861-1863 [Source: Aloha Betrayed, pg 69-70]
Newspapers aren’t the only proof that the native voice has been missing from the historical narrative. Between 1840 and 1845 dozens of anti-colonization petitions were submitted to the Hawaiian government.
Natives did not want the Euro-American constitutional government style that replaced the traditional Ali’i chef system in place since King Kamehameha united the island through years of bloody war.
“Below is what we desire:
For the independence of the Hawaiian government.
Refuse the foreigners appointed as ministers for the Hawaiian Government.
We do not want foreigners sworn in as citizens for Hawaii…”
(Dismembering Lahui; A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887, p. 31)
Despite native opposition the constitutional government was put into action and open to natives. Of course, it didn’t take long for the colonizers to fill the seats of a power system developed by their own people.
“The foreigners who have waited a long time to take the land for themselves were all ready, and when the doors were thrown open for natives and strangers alike they could well laugh; land was what they wanted… His [Kamehameha’s] children do not get the milk; his adopted children have grasped the nipples and sucked the breast dry.” (Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau, Ruling Chefs of Hawai’i , p.407)
Although the Kingdom of Hawai’i tried their best to navigate for alliances with kingdoms throughout the world from Britain, Ireland, Japan, etc… none of those alliances kept colonizers on the islands from seizing control of the government from the native people.
In 1887 King Kalākaua was forced by Euro-American cabinet officials and an armed militia to sign what’s called the Bayonet Constitution stripping the monarchy of much of its authority to rule. This new constitution excluded two thirds of native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups from voting due to income and property requirements. Basically, only wealthy voices and colonizer priorities would be represented.
With the death of King Kalākaua, Liliʻuokalani became queen. She was reluctant to take the position because she could see how powerless the position was. She truly was a voice for the people and when she heard her people’s petitions for independence she began drafting a new Hawaiian constitution that would restore the monarchy's authority and strip Euro-American residents of their right to vote and hold government office. In her book. Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, Queen Liliʻuokalani says, "The cause of Hawaiian independence is larger and dearer than the life of any man connected with it." The strength of her voice was silenced by the Euro-American led coup in 1895 resulting in the United States annexing and ultimately turning Hawai’i into a state. Not long after statehood the United Nations began helping native nations become decolonized. Hawai’i can’t be decolonized today with the UN’s help because Hawai’i is owned by the United States of America.
At statehood, in 1959, Hawaiians outnumbered all other people on the islands, 60 years later they make up less than 10% of the resident population. Visitors outnumber residents 6.5 to 1. (Source: Total Resident Population: 1,427,538, Native Hawaiian: 145,554. http://dbedt.hawaii.gov/economic/datawarehouse/ Over 9.4 million visitors annually, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Hawaii)
Tourists and Hawaiians may be standing on the same islands, but they are in completely different versions of Hawai’i.
For example, let’s play Queen Liliʻuokalani’s famous song “Aloha ʻoe” at the airport for tourists and at Waiwai Collective for locals.
Aloha ʻoe, aloha ʻoe
[Farewell to thee]
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
[One fond embrace,]
A hoʻi aʻe au
[Until we meet again.]
The song plays for two different audiences and has two very different meanings. At the airport it means, “Come back soon”. For native Hawaiians it’s a message from an ancestor saying, “remember your history or we won’t survive”.
History is a weapon. It’s used by people to get what they want. If tourist are encouraged to learn the authentic Hawaiian perspective they could see that there is a more pono [virtuous] way to be on vacation.
Beyond a greeting, the deeper meaning of aloha is love and respect. This one word, such a symbol of kindness, authenticity, and shared feelings, has been used to sell the islands it grew from. “Aloha” is advertised in cracked liquor store windows. “Aloha” is printed on a beach towel wrapped around a drunk man in the sand. “Aloha” is on the side of a lost flip flop rolling around in the morning surf. “Aloha” is overflowing like volcano lava out the top of a trash can in Waikiki.
In front of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, we meet up with Hi’ilani Shibata. We’re standing next to some big stones across from the public bathroom. Hi’ilani tells us who these stones are. That they are her ancestors. They were healers. They were tall transgendered wizards who transferred their life forces to these stones after bringing knowledge to this place and its people. She tells us how after being scattered around town due to colonization these stones had been brought back together here at the most populated beach in Waikiki.
It’s a big story to take in and I honestly don’t understand most of it, especially since it’s 6:30am. The sun is rising. We look out from the seashore. Aside from the aloha beach towel wrapped man who’s waking up drunk in the sand, the beach isn’t blanketed with people yet. Hi’ilani begins to oli [chant]. She is leading us in a Hi’uwai ceremony. She asks us to consider all the bad thoughts we are carrying around with us. I feel the weight of the emotional luggage on my shoulders. I feel the shame, the guilt, the mistakes, the pain I’ve caused, and the trail of tears I’ve left through the decades of my long life leading up to this exact moment in the sand.
Hi’ilani encourages us to walk into the water and immerse ourselves. She wants us to let go of our emotional luggage. My tears become one with the salty waves. As we walk out of the water facing the same direction we entered, she encourages us to focus on a better future. I see a brighter future. I feel free of guilt and shame. I feel cleansed and recharged with positive energy.
This experience is more valuable than anything for sale at the Louis Vuitton store a couple blocks away. This shared moment in the sand is aloha. We look into each other’s wet faces and see the light of a new day. We see a new way of being ourselves. Getting to know the deeper feelings of native Hawai’i might just be a tiny step in the right direction, but it’s a giant leap away from the lies tourists have been buying for generations. We can choose to be part of the problem or the solution, but we must put it into practice for it to make a difference.
We made this story with the people at these places
Waiwai Collective // waiwaicollective.com
Lo’i Kalo of Papahana Kuaola // papahanakuaola.com
North Shore Eco Tours // northshoreecotours.com
Mahina & Sun’s // mahinaandsuns.com
Ma’o Organic Farms // maoorganicfarms.org
Kō Hana Rum // kohanarum.com
Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club // surfjack.com
Queen Kapiolani Hotel // queenkapiolani.com
Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa / hyatt.com
Bishop Museum // bishopmuseum.org