Crossing the Divide

Native Hawaiians have hosted centuries of bustling commerce. It’s time for business to help sail Native Hawaiian culture into the 21st century.

May, 2006

The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s intentions were good. Titled “Aloha Aku, Aloha Mai: The Responsibility of Aloha,” the HTA 2005 conference last September focused on the increasing pressure that tourism growth was putting on Native Hawaiians and what could be done to preserve the culture that makes Hawaii unique.

The opening chant was engulfed in the murmur of small talk.As the conference opened, there was a traditional chant and dance in a large, oval meeting room in the Hawaii Convention Center. The conference program said it was an Oli Wehe and by the deep tones of the chant, it was clearly a spiritual moment. Or at least it should have been clear. As the chant progressed, people noisily shuffled to their seats. Conference attendees introduced themselves, shook each other’s hands, exchanged business cards.

Unintentionally, the conference had quickly struck a truth about Hawaiian culture in Hawaii: Many people don’t understand how Hawaiian culture fits in to a 21st-century setting. This is Hawaii’s cultural divide. People have seen the protests, perhaps sympathize with the struggle for cultural preservation, but Hawaiian culture in the mainstream today is most often viewed as a performing art filled with lilting, romantic words from bygone days. The chant was more a performance than a prayer for those onlookers. They as easily could have been tourists in Waikiki, even though they had gathered to discuss Hawaiian culture.
Hawaiian issues are most often discussed by activists in the media, in extreme, super-charged scenarios, such as the Kamehameha Schools court battle or the Akaka bill. “Because of that tension … the business community and, many times, the government seem to be afraid of Hawaiians. They don’t want to engage Hawaiians and try to tip-toe around the issues,” Apo says.After the chant, Peter Apo, director of culture and education for the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, mildly rebuked the attendees for their inattentiveness. However, Apo says he applauds HTA for trying to bring Hawaiians into a meaningful dialogue on the tourism industry’s future, on that occasion and many others.

The end result is little dialogue and, in the business community, we often find only superficial references to Hawaiian culture in place names and company literature, without a real foundation in or understanding of Hawaiian values. At the same time, the economic threats to the Native Hawaiian culture are mounting and broader action is needed.

So Hawaii Business sat down with Native Hawaiian leaders to begin expanding the dialogue about the preservation of Native Hawaiian culture beyond tourism, to the entire business community, kamaaina and Mainland businesses alike. We asked them to take us past the stereotypes, to cross the divide by tackling the complex issues of whether Native Hawaiian values are compatible with a modern workplace, why that’s important and why a bottom-line-driven business sector should care to incorporate them.


Years ago, when former King Intermediate teacher Thomas Kaulukukui–today the chairman of the Queen Liliuokalani Trust–got into law school, he told his students he wouldn’t be coming back the next year. “You know what they told me? ‘Kaulukukui, how can? No more Hawaiian lawyers.’ Translation, that’s impossible.”

Kaulukukui is talking about stereotypes. He says a possible reason you don’t see more Native Hawaiians in key business positions today is the perception that the business community has a bottom-line-first philosophy that is at odds with a community-minded Native Hawaiian value system. On the flip side, the business community holds a stereotype of Native Hawaiian culture that says it is too laid-back, too warm and fuzzy to survive in a cutthroat environment.

Native Hawaiians, Kaulukukui wants to remind people, were historically highly competitive, industrious and sophisticated in their control of resources. Business and risk taking are not foreign to Hawaiian history; nor should they be foreign to Native Hawaiians today, he says.

How To Make It Happen:
Visit the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association Web site,, or email Peter Apo at

Visit the ‘Aha Punana Leo Web site or email Luahiwa Namahoe at

Kaulukukui adds that Hawaiian values dealing with such things as community balance and respect for individuals should not be foreign to the business sector either. Communities around the world are trying to balance public good with economic growth and maintain individual dignity in a big-box-store age.

“Hawaiian values are human values,” says Kaulukukui, who also runs a nonprofit that conducts Hawaiian leadership seminars. “What makes them Hawaiian is the way we express them.” The issue of whether businesses should incorporate Hawaiian values has more to do more with whether they respect the place they do business in, he says.

“I travel to a lot of places and the first thing I want to know is what are the protocols of the place?” Kaulukukui says. “It’s about having respect for the place you are in.”

Apo, who also works with companies to incorporate Native Hawaiian values, says it is important to understand the discussion of Native Hawaiian values in the workplace is not about converting people or being divisive. “It is not about making people Hawaiian,” Apo says. “I think people sometimes misunderstand that.”

Apo says the business community nationwide is increasingly talking about enhanced corporate cultures that are more supportive of its employees, with the aim of making them happier and more productive. At the same time, the discussion of businesses’ social responsibility to communities is increasing as quality-of-life concerns increase. The corporate buzzword nationally is the Triple Bottom Line.

On the Mainland, that often requires a major shift in thinking. But here in Hawaii, those community values and goals are hardwired into Hawaiian culture. While on the Mainland, company leaders might have to wrack their brains for ways to affect that sort of behavior, in Hawaii, the system already exists.

One Hawaiian word practically covers it all.


“It’s like a curriculum that is already written,” Apo says.


Kaulana Park, executive assistant with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, distinctly remembers meeting with a top official from the Federal Housing Administration in January. Park and others from Hawaiian Home Lands were outlining the department’s regional plan for Kapolei. Park says they were explaining how traditional Native Hawaiians managed all the land from the mountain to the sea as one deeply interwoven system.

The idea, in a modern context, is to avoid developing their land in isolation–like most land is today–considering how its use is interwoven with surrounding parcels, incorporating everything from traffic issues to environmental conservation and working with all stakeholders in the community.

“We were going over the regional plan and we hit the ahupuaa concept and how it works in modern day and he [the official] became fascinated. He said, ‘How do you pronounce this word again? A-hu-pa? I want to learn that,'” recounted Park, who is also a past president of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. “So we asked, ‘Why do you want to learn that, because it is a nice Hawaiian word?’ He said, ‘No, because you’re right, we can learn from our past.”

Those are the rare moments when the divide is crossed. The ahupuaa concept is not about conjuring idyllic images of taro farming and a return to a simpler life, it’s about smart growth and land management. The central issue in an ahupuaa was managing the land in the best way, so everyone got to eat. In the 21st century, it is working together so everyone can thrive.

Every core Hawaiian value has such a modern application.

Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui, president and chief executive officer of YWCA Oahu, says too often companies simply give their values Hawaiian names and take them no further. “It doesn’t make it Hawaiian, no more than calling a residential complex a Hawaiian name makes it Hawaiian.” Lupenui believes the solution lies partly in business leaders taking a step beyond simply trying to understand the words and making them part of their lives: going from the head to the heart.

“I think that is where everything breaks down,” she says. “What has not happened in the business world is that more direct link, where business leaders set out to understand the ahupuaa system and ask, ‘What does it mean in our company today?’ That is the leap,” she says.

On the other hand, the case for Hawaiian values in the workplace often gets stuck in a general, often romantic discussion of the Aloha Spirit without clear applications and connections to business. “They [executives] will stop you mid-sentence,” says Caroline Belsom, vice president and general counsel for Maui Land & Pineapple’s land division. “Part of selling is knowing your audience, and they are looking at dollars and cents.”

Still, some companies here are trying to make the leap. Under the new leadership of David Cole, chairman, president and CEO, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Inc. (AMEX:MLP) has redefined its corporate culture, with core Hawaiian values that speak of interdependency of the work force, the importance of sustainability and superior craftsmanship. “Values any company would want. Any company that wants to conduct itself with distinction,” says Belsom.

The difference is that ML&P’s values, while rooted in the Hawaiian culture, resonate with employees, both Native Hawaiian and local people who often feel a connection and respect for the Hawaiian culture. And the results for ML&P, Belsom believes, will be far from just romantic. ML&P expects to add value in its hotel arm as staff are more apt to share the Aloha Spirit that the industry in Hawaii is famous for. The return on the farming side will be a sustainable, high-quality product, not to mention higher productivity from an energized work force.

Belsom says the fruits of such corporate culture shifts take time, but they will manifest.

It’s just a matter of connecting the dots.


For years, ‘Aha Punana Leo, the Hilo-based nonprofit most noted for running Hawaiian immersion schools, has received calls from businesses in Hawaii requesting help in being more culturally appropriate. Luahiwa Namahoe, ‘Aha Punana Leo’s media producer, says the reality is the Non-Hawaiian people who have lived here for generations and those who just arrived on the plane are invested in those things that make life unlike anywhere else.

From the sugarcane farm laborer to the newly arrived Mainland CEO, that’s why they stayed here; that’s why they came here, Namahoe says. The mix of cultures in Hawaii today, what is often called the local culture, is built largely on a rich and tolerant Native Hawaiian culture that has embraced newcomers over the years. “Throughout Hawaii, there is an unspoken agreement that there is a place for Native Hawaiian values,” says Namahoe.

Hawaii has come a long way since the 1975 launching of the Hokulea, a replica of the sailing canoes used long ago to settle these Islands, when the revival of traditional navigation symbolized the burgeoning Hawaiian renaissance and rediscovery of the value of Hawaiian heritage. Today, the issue is no longer whether Hawaiian culture is valuable. The more important question today, Namahoe says, is how to go about fully incorporating Hawaiian culture into the business community.

That’s why ‘Aha Punana Leo has secured start up money and begun developing a pilot program to help companies incorporate Hawaiian values and culture. Free of charge. From teaching newcomers to pronounce Hawaiian words to the complex issues of weaving Hawaiian values into the work place, ‘Aha Punana Leo wants to help companies large and small deal with Hawaiian cultural issues. For some companies, addressing such sensitive cultural issues can be an intimidating undertaking. But Namahoe doesn’t believe it has to be.

Namahoe adds that she understands companies are most concerned about bottom-line issues, but she urges them to also consider the intangible value that Hawaiian cultural programs have to the business community and the Hawaii community as a whole. Incorporating these values is also part of keeping Hawaii special, something that does not show up in company audits, but something everyone has a stake in.

“We are all in this together. Every business in Hawaii is a Hawaiian business,” says Namahoe. “The ‘Aha Punana Leo is doing its part. We are walking the talk.

“Walk with us.”

Six Native Hawaiian leaders’ thoughts on Hawaiian values in the workplace
Thomas Kaulukukui
Chairman, Board of Trustees
Queen Liliuokalani Trust

“Hawaiian values are human values. What makes them Hawaiian is the way we express them. Because we have a special place and because we value the way we do things here, why shouldn’t we carry those things on? Just as any other place would. Those who respect the culture and realize it is something unique here, should put it in their business.”

Peter Apo
Director of Culture and Education
Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association

“It’s not about making people Hawaiian. I think people sometimes misunderstand that. Hawaiian values are universal. The difference is the values come with a qualification system that can be acted out. But with most universal values, you are left with how are you’re going to take that universal value and affect behavior. [Hawaiian culture] is like a curriculum already written.”

Kaulana Park
Executive Assistant
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

“We were going over the regional plan [with the Federal Housing Administration] and we hit the ahupuaa concept and how it works in modern day and he [the federal official] became fascinated. He said, ‘How do you pronounce this word again? I want to learn that.’ So we asked, ‘Why do you want to learn that, because it is a nice Hawaiian word?’ He said, ‘No, because you’re right, we can learn from our past.'”

Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui
President and Chief Executive Officer

“This is not old stuff. This is very relevant to how you live as a person today. I think that is where everything breaks down. What has not happened in the business world is that more direct link, where business leaders set out to understand the ahupuaa system and ask, ‘What does it mean in our company today?’ That is the leap.”

Caroline Belsom
Vice President/General Counsel
Maui Land & Pineapple land division

“Part of selling is knowing your audience, and they are looking at dollars and cents. I don’t think we can get away from business being concerned about the economic impact of a program like this. But you can talk about added value. It would get your foot in the door.”

Luahiwa Namahoe
Media Producer
‘Aha Punana Leo

“Throughout Hawaii, there is an unspoken agreement that there is a place for Native Hawaiian values. But what is lacking is training. That is what we are trying to provide. …We are all in this together. Every business in Hawaii is a Hawaiian business. The ‘Aha Punana Leo is doing its part. We are walking the talk. Walk with us.”


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