Respecting Aloha: Navigating Cultural Appropriation in Hawaiian Traditions

Respecting Aloha: Navigating Cultural Appropriation in Hawaiian Traditions


Recently, an esteemed colleague whom I highly respect and admire sent a promotional email that incorporated elements of the Hawaiian language to highlight individualistic cultural principles. Initially, I felt uncomfortable as I had made a similar mistake in the past by unintentionally misrepresenting Hawaiian language. However, I have now come to realize the significance of this action and understand it as a form of #CulturalAppropriation.

Cultural appropriation specific to Hawaiian culture refers to the adoption, borrowing, or imitation of elements from Hawaiian culture by individuals or entities outside of the Hawaiian community, particularly when done without proper understanding, respect, or acknowledgment of their cultural significance.

Instances of cultural appropriation concerning Hawaiian culture include:

  • Wearing traditional Hawaiian garments like the “muumuu” or “aloha shirts” purely as fashion items, without appreciating their cultural importance and historical significance in Hawaiian society.
  • Utilizing Hawaiian symbols, such as “hula dancer” or “tiki” figures, in ways that misrepresent or exploit their cultural significance as sacred symbols.
  • Incorporating Hawaiian words or phrases without understanding their cultural context or proper pronunciation.
  • Hosting parties or events with “Hawaiian” themes that perpetuate stereotypes or trivialize significant cultural practices.
  • Commercializing or profiting from traditional Hawaiian practices, such as hula dancing or the essence of “aloha,” without adequately compensating or involving the Hawaiian community.
  • Performing hula or other traditional Hawaiian dances without showing respect for their historical and cultural roots.
  • Engaging in Hawaiian spiritual practices, such as “ho’oponopono” or “lomilomi” massage, without proper training or understanding of their sacred nature.

Cultural appropriation of Hawaiian culture can have detrimental effects as it diminishes the authenticity and integrity of Hawaiian traditions, undermines their cultural significance, and perpetuates stereotypes about Native Hawaiians and their customs. Those outside the Hawaiian community must engage with Hawaiian cultural elements in a respectful, informed, and appreciative manner. Seeking opportunities for cultural exchange and learning that are mutually beneficial and respectful is essential.

Neither my colleague nor I had any intention to disrespect or dilute the significance of the Hawaiian language. However, we inadvertently did so. It becomes challenging for us as European descendants since we lack an intact cultural identity from which we can draw wisdom, knowledge, and practices to guide us in life. This often leads to a feeling of “culturelessness” and creates a void, which opens the potential for cultural appropriation.

To my European descendant colleagues and others, I strongly urge you to delve into your lineages and learn about the cultures and traditions of your ancestors. By doing so, you will be far less likely to feel the need to borrow from other cultures. But that is a topic for next time.

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