Last month an interesting article appeared in the Samoa News about how the state of Hawaii is keeping an eye on protecting its native culture.
Last year, much of Hawaii was shocked to learn a Chicago restaurant chain owner had trademarked the name “Aloha Poke” and wrote to cubed fish shops around the country demanding that they stop using the Hawaiian language moniker for their own eateries. The cease-and-desist letters targeted a downtown Honolulu restaurant and a Native Hawaiian-operated restaurant in Anchorage, among others.
Now, Hawaii lawmakers are considering adopting a resolution calling for the creation of legal protections for Native Hawaiian cultural intellectual property. The effort predates Aloha Poke, but that episode is lending a sense of urgency to a long-festering concern not unfamiliar to native cultures in other parts of the world.
“I was frustrated at the audacity of people from outside of our community using these legal mechanisms to basically bully people from our local community out of utilizing symbols and words that are important to our culture,” said state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, a Native Hawaiian representing Kaneohe and Heeia.
The resolution calls on state agencies and Native Hawaiian organizations to form a task force to develop a legal system to “recognize and protect” Native Hawaiian cultural intellectual property and traditional cultural expressions. It also seeks protections for genetic resources, such as taro, a traditional crop that legend says is an ancestor of the Hawaiian people and that scientists have tried to genetically engineer in the past. The task force would be commissioned to submit its recommendations and any proposed legislation to lawmakers in three years. The resolution has passed House and Senate committees.
Native Hawaiian experts note there’s a cultural clash underlying much of this. Modern European-based traditions use trademarks, copyright and patents to create economic incentives and rewards for creating knowledge and culture. Indigenous culture, on the other hand, is often passed on through generations and held collectively.
“They’re never going to sit nicely together in a box,” said Kuhio Lewis, the CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. It will be difficult to determine who would decide who can use Native Hawaiian culture and who would be able to use it. Limits may violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The task force will have to explore who can do what, Lewis said.
“At the least, they need to have some cultural sensitivity about how it’s used. And they need to know you can’t be telling Native Hawaiian businesses they can’t use their own language,” Lewis said.
The resolution points to potential models in New Zealand and Alaska, which both created signifiers that indigenous people may place on their art as a mark of authenticity.
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