Native Hawaiian Businesses

Finding a way to preserve culture

Native Hawaiian Businesses

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The loi and heiau of Papahana Kualoa,
a nonprofit affiliated with the Hui Ku Maoli Ola,
offer a dramatic setting where students learn about
plants' role in Hawaiian culture.
Photo: David Croxford

But retail is no longer their primary focus. Today, Hui Ku Maoli Ola largely acts as a wholesaler, supplying native plant material for large developments and government projects. In addition, the company is an important contractor for habitat restoration, providing services such as alien species removal, site planning and out-planting of special materials. Schirman points to the company’s ongoing restoration projects in Kalaeloa, Hamakua Marsh, Waimanalo Stream and Kahana Pond on Maui. “And we’re working on test plots for that Disney project that’s coming through,” he notes. “The shoreline there will all be in natives.” All this growth hinges on the efficient production of large quantities of native plants by the small nursery.

Curiously, though, the nursery isn’t really the heart of Hui Ku Maoli Ola. Its spiritual center lies farther up the valley in a wild section where Barboza and Schirman are building a kind of traditional Hawaiian village. This is the home of Papahana Kualoa, a nonprofit they created to preserve and promote Hawaiian culture and natural history. A steady stream of volunteers and student groups has constructed a heiau, an impressive structure of dry-stack stones built in broad terraces up a hillside. From its summit, you can gaze over ancient loi they have excavated and restored. Frequently, you can see small groups of children and their teachers tending the kalo.

For Barboza and Schirman, native plants have always been a surrogate for cultural practices. “If you look at Hawaii’s culture,” Schirman says, “what makes us unique are Hawaii’s plants.” He points out that, for aboriginal peoples around the world, cultural practices are remarkably similar; the differences depend on the plants available. “And we have a whole range of endemic plants that are unique to Hawaii,” he says. “That’s what sets us apart. Take something like nau (a native gardenia). No one else in the world has nau. We use it to make a certain dye, also called nau. And it’s plants like this that have determined our culture over the centuries.” For both Hui Ku Maoli Ola and Papahana Kualoa, the fundamental business model involves educating people about this link between environment and culture. In the end, Barboza and Schirman succeed because of their love and understanding of Hawaiian culture, not in spite of it.

Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii

Another fascintating example of Native Hawaiian entrepreneurship is Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, an intriguing pastiche of bookstore, art gallery, gift shop and cultural center. Maile Meyer, who opened Native Books nearly 20 years ago, has succeeded by focusing scrupulously on Hawaii — first, by offering a comprehensive selection of books about Hawaiian subjects; and, later, a variety of exclusively Hawaiian-made crafts, even when they were difficult and unprofitable to stock. It’s a business model that has taken Meyer from the old downtown cooperative, Mana Hawaii, to her big store in Ward Warehouse, to two, tiny new boutiques in Waikiki.

But, like Hui Ku Maoli Ola, Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii blurs the lines between for-profit and nonprofit. Indeed, despite the wide array of exquisite Hawaiian crafts and the state’s largest collection of books devoted to na mea Hawaii — things Hawaiian — perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the stores is the ongoing stream of cultural programs. There are free classes in hula, ukulele and the Hawaiian language. Maybe more important, Meyer allows other cultural groups to use her facilities, giving them a venue to practice and teach traditional crafts. “Turning on the lights, for them, would be really expensive,” she says. “But here, the lights are already on. I’m open for anyone who needs space, and those are easy things to do; I’m paying for them already.” But Meyer is quick to point out this is hardly the route to riches. “I’m a revenue-generating organization that’s always operated like a nonprofit.”

She also notes that this model works in reverse. “There are a lot of Hawaiian nonprofit entities that really do function in a business model,” Meyer says. “Charter schools, for example: They’re really businesses. In fact, they generate some of the best-selling books in the store.” She points out that these organizations include many of the touchstones of contemporary Native Hawaiian culture: hula halau with large and vibrant communities, and even branches in Japan and on the Mainland; a thriving Hawaiian music industry; and the Merrie Monarch Festival. “There are probably 200 to 300 small businesses that make as much as 50 to 60 percent of their income in those three days,” Meyer says. All these organizations thrive by embracing Hawaiian culture.


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