Culture Police Ride Again

Another interesting incident in culture popped up this week, one that illuminates where our society currently stands on the relationships between cultures. Living and working in Hawaiʻi, within Hawaiian culture made this event resonate on a personal level.

A Chicago based eatery has trademarked the name ‘Aloha Poke’. No issue there, simply a legal filing. What they failed to understand is that the word Aloha contains central concept in Hawaiian culture. Thus, when the lawyers for Aloha Poke sent out cease-and-desist letters to similarly named businesses around the country, including one in Hawaii, they were met with a firestorm of criticism.

Awaiting the Sea
An outrigger canoe awaits another voyage
Attempting claim ownership of such a word, even in a limited business context, is simply total fail. Legal? Yes. A good idea? Nope.

I suspect the owners of Aloha Poke are actually figuring that out. On the other hand the management at Aloha Poke has not withdrawn their legal assertions and have made a non-apology.

The missteps of Aloha Poke aside, what is more interesting is how some in the Hawaiian community have responded to the case. There have been statements from a number of community leaders. One of the most telling is from the head of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency charged with administering state programs for the Hawaiian community.

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Moana and Polynesian Culture

The film has not even been released yet and local commentators are complainingLoudly.

Moana
Moana and Maui, the primary characters of the film Moana, credit Disney Studios
Disney’s upcoming feature film Moana features a young Polynesian girl who seeks the help of the demi-god Maui. I have not seen the film, nor has anyone else without inside access to Disney. Yet editorials have already appeared in local papers, and the conversation is already rolling in social media. Like most others all I have seen is a two minute and thirty five second trailer.

I find it somewhat questionable that such accusations can be made without even seeing the film. Editorials written not on the content of the film, but on the author’s perceived version of it based on a two minute trailer. The film simply becomes a convenient vessel into which can be poured all of the author’s pre-conceived grievances. The accusation really have nothing to do with the film, but simply become a screed against whatever they want to rail against.

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About the Jobs

Note: This is an editorial that I wrote a while back. It was originally published in Civil Beat on August 18th, 2016. It appears here in the original form (pre-editor) and with far better photos…

Ancient and Modern
A radio telescope of the Very Long Baseline Array stands in the background of an ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea
The construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has become a symbol of the many issues that swirl in these islands. It is an argument that touches the fundamental question as to who we are and where we are going.

While many frame the argument as one between science and culture, others frame it as one of development versus culture. Their premise is that somehow building another telescope is destroying local culture. They overlook the opportunity the telescopes represent, that the right economic development can support a community, preserve a culture.

Supporters of TMT highlight the jobs that the telescope will bring… “It is not about the jobs!” is the reply from opponents. Of course it is. You cannot maintain a culture in poverty. You cannot maintain a culture when your keiki leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. Leave the island behind… Leave the culture behind. Economic struggle is the greatest single threat to a local culture, a threat that cannot be overstated.

The lack of economic opportunity has an enormous impact on a local community. The stress of struggling for a living, of getting by on a low paying service industry job can be destructive to families and individuals. Drugs use, family abuse, all of the social ills so often identified in low income areas are as destructive to the culture as they are to the person. The statistics tell the story… Hawai’i Island routinely tops rest of the state in numbers that are not good…. Lowest per capita income, highest number of children living in poverty, unemployment and more.

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Making Room for the Traditional

A culture is defined by many things.. A language, a religion, a way of life, a racial identity, these and more tie together in an identity that define us. As these ideas are shared by a worldwide communications network, as so many emigrate from homelands wracked by war or economic strife these cultural identities are increasingly mixed and exchanged. Increasingly our modern world is converging on a single common culture.

While this process has been slowly occurring since the Age of Exploration and the dawn of worldwide trade, it has more recently been pushed into hyper-drive by the communications revolution created by the internet. In a historical instant almost anyone, living anywhere has access to and can interact with people across the globe. For recent generations this is now taken for granted and not just available, but a regular occurrence that is an integral part of everyday life.

Internet Backbone
The internet backbone, Wikimedia image
While many may see a set of dominant cultures developing, I would argue that there is really a single globe spanning culture that will result. There are a number of poles within this culture, driven by the major regional cultures, but increasingly there is a common set of values that are beginning to define a single entity.

The first culture to enter this new sphere was Anglo-American, home to the developing communications technologies that began the worldwide net. Being first on the scene allowed American culture to set the ground rules, to perform the first experiments in how these new communications possibilities could be used.

American culture is still dominant, but is increasing rivaled by the other major cultures. European, Latin American, and several Asian cultures have created their own spheres within the network. While somewhat isolated by language, or deliberate governmental restrictions, there is a great deal of interaction. Good, or often bad ideas that originate in one sphere spread to the entire network with increasing rapidity.

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Modern and Traditional

What is modern? What is traditional? What is different about these two words and what they mean? Is there any real difference? I would argue that there is not and never has been any real difference, except in the minds of those who want to see it. A sort of golden age idealism, that somehow things were better back whenever.

Hawaiian Double Hulled Canoe
A Hawaiian double hulled canoe awaiting a crew below Pu’ukohala Heiau
Too many seem to think there is some massive disconnect between the traditional and modern. They make an artificial distinction between our modern way of life, our current way of doing things and the ancient traditional way of living. Those who take a better look at the past know this to be false.

We are human, ancient humans were far more modern than many seem to envision. Many think of the past and see some cartoon version of people who are somehow less than we are today. A view of the past created by so many movies, so many bad historical melodramas.

If one were able to stroll down a street in ancient Rome you would see a city every bit as complex as a modern metropolis. All of the people you would meet completely recognizable in their roles. No cars or electric lights, but there are police and politicians, barbers and butchers, a world quite similar to our own.

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Cultural Misappropration

The Hawaiian islands are quite interesting in many respects. Here no single ethnicity has an outright majority. The history behind this makes for fascinating reading. The sugar industry created a need for agricultural labor that was the driving force resulting in the mass importation of several cultures, primarily Chinese, Japanese and Filipino, and to a lesser extent several others. In addition to the original Hawaiian inhabitants and later Americans immigrants the islands became quite culturally mixed.

Navigational Heiau
Upright stones of the navigational heiau north of Mahukona
The largest group now present are those of Asian decent making up 37% of the population. This is while Caucasians make up only 26% of the population and native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders represent 10% in total. The resultant cultural mix is something that many, including myself, enjoy about the islands. Throughout the year you are exposed to cultural ideas, language, the foods and festivals, of half a dozen cultures.

While there are many benefits of several coexisting cultures, there are issues as well. Hawaiʻi is in many ways ahead of much of the world. These cultures have, for the most part, learned to coexist in ways that much of the world is still struggling with. This is not to say that everything is perfect. Controversy has a way of revealing issues that otherwise often avoid exposure, and we have seen a bit of controversy as of late. There are existing issues that have long been present, but are avoided as they are neither simple nor easily resolved. It is no surprise that the issues have stemmed from the clash of cultures that have landed on these islands across the centuries.

It is the first arrivals here, the Hawaiians, that often see themselves as having lost the most with the arrival of so many immigrants from various other nations. The issues surrounding Mauna Kea have given Hawaiian activists a new rallying point and increased visibility that they have taken full advantage of to express their cause.

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A Conflict of the Sacred

Opponents of astronomy on Mauna Kea often denigrate astronomy in a way that they would find totally objectionable if the same tactics were reversed and directed towards their cause. They repeatedly use words like meaningless, industrial, and claim the observatories exist only for profit. Those who make such claims fail to understand astronomy in much the same way they accuse telescope supporters of failing to understand their beliefs about Mauna Kea.

Sunset Gemini
The Gemini telescope prepares for the night, in the background is the CFHT telescope
They neglect to think that destroying the telescopes atop Mauna Kea would be seen as an act of desecration of enormous magnitude. To millions of people across the world the great telescopes represent something far more than simple buildings and telescopes. They are a concrete symbol for hope, an indication that not all is dismal and lost in this world, that one can still dream.

Each day we watch news of war that leaves cities laid waste, brutal sectarian violence, of economic strife, the wholesale destruction of the environment. When seeing news of people killing each other for no reason beyond minor differences in beliefs, it is so easy to despair that humanity is doomed to a dismal future.

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Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea

A lot of emotion and bandwidth has been swirling around our mountain this past month. It has been unfortunate that two otherwise positive forces have collided atop one summit. Last night the local community had a chance to listen to various perspectives in a more personal and reasoned forum. The Honokaʻa Peoples Theater, located on the slopes of Mauna Kea is the perfect place for this to happen. An evening of face to face discussion.

Hāwane Rios
Hāwane Rios addresses the audience at the Honokaʻa People’s Theater
While the issues surrounding Mauna Kea have captured international attention, this conversation was all the more powerful as it was limited to those of us who live and work on this mountain, many from families who have lived for generations in the mountain’s shadow. The conversation was all the more impressive in that it was conducted in the full spirit of aloha… There was no yelling, no waving signs, just respectful listening.

The format was simple, a presentation by Hāwane Rios, explaining her perspective on growing up in the traditions of Mauna Kea. This was followed by a presentation by Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. After a 15 minute intermission there was another hour of panel discussion with questions provided by the audience. What started at 6pm went on until well after nine, with personal conversations that kept the theater a buzz until well after 11pm.

Unfortunately one of the featured speakers Lanakila Mangauli was unable to attend, having flown to Oahu for a hasty meeting with OHA and state officials. He was not completely absent, a Skype connection projected on the theater screen allowed him to give a short presentation at the start. After having watched video of his tirade (Yes, I will call it that!) at the TMT groundbreaking ceremony, I had been given a somewhat less than flattering opinion of him. The person who addressed the audience this night was much more impressive, giving an intelligent and reasoned argument to his cause. I wish he had been able to address the audience in person.

Panel Discussion
Doug Simons, Hāwane Rios, and Ruth Aloua participate in Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea, Apr 24th, 2015
Thus it was up to Hāwane Rios to present the traditional and cultural perspective, a role she filled spectacularly well. She relater her personal relationship with the mountain, whom she considers part of her family. Impressing upon the audience the importance of place, the importance of continuity to the culture. Her discussion was interspersed with song, chants composed in traditional form and a notable song with a more modern flair. I could attempt to describe her presentation further, but I do it no justice, I suggest you watch the video.

Doug Simons also related his personal connection to the mountain, having spent the last 30 years working, hunting and raising his family here in Waimea and on Mauna Kea. Starting with the great discoveries that have been accomplished by the telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Doug did an admirable job of covering the importance of the research done at the telescopes and why these great instruments belong to all of mankind.

Technical Crew
A plethora of computers illuminate the technical crew at Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea
The question and answer went smoothly, no real surprises in the questions or the answers. Asked of the future of the telescopes Doug reflected that there will probably be fewer telescopes in the future, but that those should be the best in the world, nothing else is worthy of Mauna Kea. Asked about her personal vision of the future of the summit Hāwane asked for nothing less that the dismantling of all of the telescopes.

I spent the evening listening and operating a production video camera we had brought over from Keck. CFHT, Subaru and Keck staff operated a battery of audio/visual gear, live casting the event on YouTube, recording video for later editing and managing a Skype connection for Lanakila. I expect we should have good videos up shortly, they are definitely worth watching by anyone interested in the issues surrounding our mountain. The presentation by Hāwane should be worth watching just to hear her sing. I will put the links here as soon as they become available.

Update… Check out the video here.

Astronomy and Mauna Kea

A nice opinion piece by Chad Kalepa Baybayan in the local paper yesterday. He addresses the use of the summit of Mauna Kea for astronomy. There are some in the local community that object to the telescopes. While those very vocal opponents often grab the attention, they are by no means representative of the whole community. It is more complex than that, there are those in the Hawaiian community that support astronomy, and those opposed, and probably quite a few who are somewhere between those two positions.

Using the resources on Mauna Kea as a tool to serve and benefit the community through astronomy is consistent with the example of the adze quarry. To value astronomy and its work on Mauna Kea, you have to value the importance of “Ike,” knowledge, and its quest for a greater understanding of the universe we live in. – Chad Kalepa Baybayan, West Hawaii Today, April 19th, 2013

Give it a read!