Native Hawaiian Businesses

Finding a way to preserve culture

Native Hawaiian Businesses

(page 4 of 4)

Dawn Chang, principal of Kulwalu
works to bridge the differences
between developers and Native Hawaiian groups.
Photo Courtesy: Kulwalu

Conflicts remain among Native Hawaiians

Of course, despite the success of companies like Hui Ku Maoli Ola, Na Mea Hawaii and Kuiwalu, there are still real and often intransigent conflicts between the Western business model and traditional Hawaiian values. Even the idea of profit, the cornerstone of Western capitalism, runs against the grain for many Native Hawaiian business people. “Sometimes, the hardest thing is to charge people for what we do,” says Matt Schirman. “It just doesn’t seem like something that you should charge for.” This kind of internal conflict is hardly surprising in a group whose motivation isn’t fundamentally money. “Don’t get me wrong,” Schirman says, “we’re trying to make a living — but to make a living so we can continue to do this, to get this stuff out as much as possible.”

Native Hawaiian businesses also sometimes provoke conflict within the Native Hawaiian community — often because there’s real disagreement about what makes true Hawaiian culture. “There have been some who will see the work that I do as ‘selling out,’ ” says Dawn Chang. “There are some in the Hawaiian community, for example, who don’t think I should assist the university at all.” Indeed, Chang’s work has been criticized by organizations like the Kanaka Council, a Big Island cultural group that has opposed development on Mauna Kea. For Chang, the key to dealing with groups like the Kanaka Council is to maintain a fundamental level of respect, whatever their differences. “We have had some heated discussions,” she says. “But, when we walk out of that meeting, we continue to aloha each other.”

Nevertheless, the idea of growth, implicit in the Western business model, is a concept that continues to trouble many Native Hawaiian business people. For example, Rob Iopa, principal and founder of WCIT Architecture, has made a reputation for designing some of the most culturally sensitive projects in Hawaii. “Not only structures,” he says, “but programs that will invite Native Hawaiians back into the space.” Yet, despite this cultural focus, he can’t help but note an inherent contradiction in what he does. “I do personally struggle with being in a profession that looks to build,” he says. “Hospitality in Hawaii means oceanfront — and usually oceanfront areas that have been open for quite some time.” The resulting conflict between traditional use and visitor use is often intractable.

In the end, business owners come to their own terms with these conflicts. Sometimes, it simply means passing up certain opportunities. “We’ve had occasions when the type of project, or its location, or the rationale behind the project just wasn’t right for us,” Iopa says. “I don’t say that they’re bad projects or bad people; they just don’t fit our values. We’ve made it known that cultural sensitivity is extremely important to us — and not just as window dressing. If that’s not inherently important to the people that we’re dealing with, we just won’t take the project.”

There will always be some in the Native Hawaiian community who will oppose any development, people who will view the work of intermediaries like Apo, Iopa and Chang with suspicion. These cultural advisers all deal with criticism in their own way. “Everyone in life picks and chooses their battles,” says Schirman. “We get a lot of criticism because we do a lot of projects for the military and for large-scale development. I don’t support development; but what we’re doing is we’re putting native plants in the ground.”

That commitment to act on their values is what sets these new Native Hawaiian business owners apart. “We all choose different paths to make change,” Chang says. “I’m not going to apologize that this is the path I’ve chosen.

“I choose not to be stuck; I choose to move forward.”

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