Native Hawaiian Businesses

Finding a way to preserve culture

Native Hawaiian Businesses

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At Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii it's not uncommon
to encounter cultural practitioners, like lauhala weavers,
plying their craft.
Photo Courtesy: Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii

Renaissance in Hawaiian commerce

The re-ascendance of Hawaiian culture in commerce probably has its origins in the visitor industry, particularly with George Kanahele and his campaign to bring Hawaiian people back to Waikiki. This nod to culture, though often window dressing, has nevertheless been influential in changing how business interacts with the Native Hawaiian community. Within the visitor industry, it’s resulted in a cadre of distinguished cultural practitioners — people like Clifford Naeole at the Ritz Carlton Maui, Daniel Akaka Jr. at the Mauna Lani on the Big Island, and Stella Burgess at the Hyatt Regency Kauai — who educate visitors and employees about Native Hawaiian values and culture. Frequently, they also serve as moral compasses for their resorts.

Independent consultants like Peter Apo and Ramsay Taum have also emerged to advise hotels and other organizations on culture. “I would say this has only emerged as a viable business opportunity in the last five years,” Apo says. But for those who are able to move easily between the worlds of business and culture, it’s a growing niche.

“The trick,” says Apo, “is that the person who has a handle on the culture can only make themselves valuable to a business if they have the ability to make those values operational. When you sit down and have a spreadsheet, how do these values pencil out?”

Among these new cultural consultants is Dawn Chang, whose company, Kuiwalu, specializes in building community support for development projects. Much of that work involves controversial issues like burial grounds and access rights. Chang has a broad background in social work and community service. She’s also an attorney, and founded Kuiwalu after several years as a state deputy attorney general. “I did a lot of real estate transactions,” she says. “The last case I worked on was the Hokulia case,” referring to the controversial Kona development. “I sat there doing preliminary injunctions, and I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do development in Hawaii. And it’s not through litigation.’ ”

Her strategy is to promote an early dialog between the developer and the community. “I try to educate both the developer and the community that there’s a positive way — a culturally appropriate, nonlitigious way — to do projects,” Chang says. Her view is that, by engaging the community early and often, there is a much better chance for the two sides to reach consensus. “If the community has a sense of ownership, it’s more willing to sustain the project in the long run,” she says. Recently, she worked with the University of Hawaii, other scientific organizations and numerous community groups to create a comprehensive management plan for Mauna Kea. For Chang, that process was about personal conversations with the community. “I must have met with more than 200 groups,” she says. “I do a lot of what we call ‘small talk’ conversations, going out to them in venues that they feel comfortable in — sometimes, it’s even in their homes.” In the end, she adds, “Many of them were so moved, they actually did a sign-waving campaign, saying, ‘We support the management plan for Mauna Kea.’ ”

Importantly, Chang’s model also calls for compromise from the developers and agencies with which she works. “These are very difficult, hard decisions,” she says. “So it’s not necessarily a fast process either. Sometimes you’re going to have to delay construction. But you have to be respectful of this process.”

Of course, Kuiwalu’s success depends on the support of its clients, a mix of developers, government agencies and other large organizations. This is the most important change for the new Native Hawaiian businesses: the growing market for their services. Chang notes that business is brisk. She acknowledges that some clients go through the motions simply because they have to. (“I tell them, you’re either going to pay on the front end, or you’re going to pay on the back end because of lawsuits.”) But she points out that there are also clients who are motivated by a sincere interest in community. “That also creates opportunities for companies like mine. There are people looking for the services that I can provide.”

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