Cultural Practitioners, Advisors Help Educate Visitors About Hawai‘i’s People, Places, History and Culture
Cultural practitioners working in the tourism industry see their roles as integral to ensuring Hawaiian culture is perpetuated accurately and that visitors treat the Islands respectfully.
The Grand Hyatt Kauaʻi Resort and Spa in sunny Poʻipū sits behind a beach that most locals know as Shipwreck Beach, but its true name is Keoneloa or Keohiloa.
Keoneloa means “long white sand,” and describes the beach when it’s full of sand after a storm surge. Keoniloa describes the beach after a period of calm weather when the sand is leaving the shore. During this time, you can see the reef and underwater boulders.
These are some things that Moani Tolentino, who has been the hotel’s Hawaiian culture manager since 2019, would talk about while leading cultural tours before the pandemic. Many visitors, she says, only know small bits of Hawai‘i’s story, such as who Queen Lili‘uokalani was. They don’t know so much about the islands’ earlier history.
“Those are the stories that we need to remember and pass along so that we don’t forget place names and so we don’t start calling it Shipwreck Beach for the rest of our lives when that’s not the proper name for it,” she says. “And that’s how a lot of places have been forgotten because we just end up adopting the nickname for it.”
Tolentino’s role is an example of how a passion for Hawaiian history and culture can turn into a career in Hawai‘i’s visitor industry. At the end of 2019, it was estimated that more than 125 people were responsible for passing along cultural knowledge about Hawai‘i at hotels, attractions and activities across the state. Ten years ago, that number was far fewer.
Other Hawaiian cultural practitioners earn money by demonstrating or teaching their crafts at hotels and events or starting their own businesses.
But some practitioners say Hawaiian culture is still undervalued. It’s frequently assumed that a practitioner will share their culture for free. And with the pandemic’s heavy toll on the state’s largest industry, including tens of thousands of layoffs, there’s also concern that some existing cultural advisor positions won’t be brought back.
The industry and community have discussed for years how to rebuild and redefine Hawai‘i tourism, which has increasingly been criticized for overcrowding and harming natural resources. Those conversations continue as Hawai‘i recovers, through the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s Destination Management Action Plans and its 2020-2025 strategic plan. One goal of the strategic plan is to support Native Hawaiian culture and community. HTA aims to accomplish this by creating more opportunities for Hawaiian cultural practitioners in the visitor industry, funding events and programs that perpetuate Hawaiian culture, and increasing understanding and respect for cultural practitioners, cultural sites, and cultural resources, among other objectives and programmatic actions.
Cultural practitioners and advisors already working in the tourism industry see their roles as integral to ensuring the culture is perpetuated accurately and that visitors treat the Islands respectfully. They do that by connecting with visitors through stories and educating them about history, culture, crafts, practices, places and people.
“Through that connection, they’ll have a better understanding of Hawai‘i as a place and the Hawaiians as a people and the locals as a people. And until they connect that way, they’ll probably never respect the Islands and the people as they should,” says John Kaohelaulii, a cultural practitioner who is trying to revitalize the Hawaiian strategy game of kōnane, and president of the Kaua‘i Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. He was also part of the steering committee that worked on the Kaua‘i Destination Management Action Plan.
Education, Not Entertainment
Clifford Nae‘ole joined The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua in October 1992 as a hotel operator doing wake-up calls as early as 5:30 a.m. He was also a student of Hawaiian chant and hula and would often advise hotel management on how to properly handle cultural issues. He did this so often and so well that management created a cultural advisor position for him.
“The key thing to me is that … management and ownership were willing to listen,” he says, adding that there were Hawaiian activity directors back then but no cultural advisors with executive decision-making power.
Nae‘ole’s job touches every area of the hotel and he’s especially well known for his mandatory “sense of place” training for hotel employees and construction workers, and weekly “sense of place” tours to the border of Honokahua, a nearby burial site that he helped preserve in the 1980s.
Hawaiian cultural advisors in Hawai‘i’s hospitality industry educate, not entertain, visitors. Their duties vary, but in addition to giving tours and hosting talk-stories with guests, they might also teach or oversee cultural activities like lei making, hula and lau hala weaving, and plan events that share Hawaiian culture with guests and the broader community.
Their educational duties also extend to their colleagues. At the Grand Wailea Maui, cultural ambassador Kalei ‘Uwēko‘olani teaches employees about sense of place and Hawaiian cultural values. She also shares a new Hawaiian word with staff each week. She’ll tell them how to pronounce it and what it means in English and provide an example of how it’s used in a sentence.
Advisors also make sure hotels use Hawaiian culture appropriately. That means that the hotel is not holding Hawaiian blessings for events that do not need blessings and that Hawaiian language is used appropriately in names and communication.
“We need these cultural experts in hospitality to make sure that they’re doing things properly, that they’re not just kind of bastardizing the culture,” Tolentino says. “It’s important that hotels show they really do care about the culture, that they are not just saying it as they have in the past, that they really do care and that they are finding people who can teach them and make sure that they are doing things properly.”
Remembers Offensive Ad
That desire to educate is partly why the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association was formed in 1997 by former state Sen. Kenneth Brown and scholar George Kanahele. They both believed that the visitor industry should be grounded in Hawaiian cultural values.
John De Fries was a founding board member and later an executive director. He recalls an advertisement featuring the King Kamehameha statue draped in lei to commemorate the king’s birthday. A company photoshopped a champagne glass in the king’s hand as part of the ad.
“People don’t start off intentionally to hurt somebody else’s culture or be disrespectful, they don’t start off to do that, and they need to be educated,” says De Fries, who is now the president and CEO of HTA. “And so the founders of NaHHA and the founding board of directors just felt that this was something we needed to do. And people over time understood in the industry that if you needed advice or you needed an opinion or you needed a referral or direction, that they could go to NaHHA and get that kind of support.”
NaHHA continues to act as a bridge between Hawaiian culture and the visitor industry by providing cultural training for hospitality employees, entrepreneurial development workshops for cultural practitioners and artisans, and cultural consultations.
Field of Advisors
Ten years ago, Mālia Sanders, now NaHHA’s director of operations, could only identify 12 people responsible for culture in the visitor industry. Right before the pandemic, she counted over 125.
Some are permanent, full-time employees who have official cultural advisor titles. Others may be volunteers, or they may work in other departments but still advise on Hawaiian culture or take part in cultural activities like lei making, hula and ‘ukulele lessons.
Sanders says it’s important that people responsible for culture in the industry have executive authority to influence culture every day. Sometimes, knowledgeable employees working the front desk or some other department are tapped to answer questions about spelling Hawaiian words or to teach ‘ukulele. That’s better than not having anyone at all, but the ideal situation is to have a dedicated position for culture.
“At that time when NaHHA was beginning, I would say that so-called cultural involvement was purely a fad or it was an amenity,” says Nae‘ole, who is a former NaHHA president and part of the first generation of formal cultural advisors in the industry. “However, today, cultural advisors are being hired as a necessity because of the reawakening of the Hawaiian movement. … So it becomes a much more serious kuleana upon the shoulder of that practitioner.”
“Hotels now have to find a liaison between the culture and the community and commercialism because if you don’t, it’ll just be a constant battle.” – Clifford Naeʻole, Cultural advisor, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
More local people are criticizing tourism: Before the pandemic, as many as 10 million visitors a year crowded the state’s beaches, trails and roads, yet visitor spending remained flat. According to HTA’s resident sentiment surveys, the percentage of residents who believe “tourism provides more benefits than problems” has declined from about 80% in 2010 to about 58% in 2019. In 2021, the number dropped to 53%.
Nae‘ole says that means hotels, airlines, tour companies and other hospitality businesses need people who can facilitate relationships between different interests.
“Hotels now have to find a liaison between the culture and the community and commercialism because if you don’t, it’ll just be a constant battle,” he says, adding that such advisors could be contracted consultants rather than full-time employees. “The waging parties will be the community versus the tourists. And then that gets out of balance and then, you know, things go awry.”
Sanders worries the pandemic might have reversed efforts to grow the field of advisors. Culture, she says, is often the first thing to get cut when times get hard.
“I’m afraid when I go to survey them in the next few weeks, that I’m going to find out that not all of them are there anymore,” she says. “That’s my worry.”
Kainoa Horcajo, who until May 2021 was the cultural director of the Grand Wailea, says there’s also a need to further define what exactly the title of cultural advisor means and the different levels within the career field.
Those titles can include ambassador, liaison, advisor and director, and their responsibilities will vary depending on the property or business and, sometimes, the individual in the role. Part of the issue, he says, is translating cultural knowledge into the Western business industry. Sometimes, people are ignorant or naïve of how hard it is to gain cultural knowledge.
“Within the Hawaiian community, within the advisor community, we say, OK, this person is sitting there because this is their lineage, this is their kumu, this is who they trained under, this is how they came to be where they are,” says Horcajo, who is also a cultural trainer for NaHHA and has his own multidisciplinary cultural advising company called Mo‘olelo Group. “That doesn’t necessarily fit into the value proposition for Western business leaders. So a lot of the struggle we have is defining that not for us but for them.”
He believes that advisors need to give themselves “greater, more important sounding titles, not for us, but for the outsiders so that they understand the value that we bring in their realm.” In addition, he says the field should have a vertical career path for cultural experts to work their way up.
In the near future, NaHHA hopes to develop and share with the industry a set of job descriptions for different levels of cultural advisors. Those descriptions would list the skills needed for each level and the salary that people in those roles should earn. Sanders says one challenge is that hotels don’t always know what to pay cultural advisors. The goal is to standardize the field while still allowing enough creative freedom for hotels to customize the roles to fit their needs.
“If you know that your hotel needs a cultural person, but you just don’t know how to write that job description, here’s this tool,” she says. “And you can actually make your own job description, but here’s a place to start.”
NaHHA also hopes to help hospitality workers with knowledge of Hawaiian culture to grow into these advisor roles and to advocate for the creation of more of these positions.
NaHHA’s goal, she says, is for every local tourism business and organization to have at least one cultural advisor or resource to help make decisions involving culture.
Guided hikes into Moloka‘i’s lush and rural Hālawa Valley begin at 9 a.m. with Greg Kawaimaka Solatorio telling guests that the next four hours won’t be a nature walk on a paved path. They’ll be crossing streams and passing under trees as they journey deep into the valley to the 250-foot Mo‘o‘ula Falls.
The Solatorio family has been leading these hikes for decades, first under Greg’s father, Pilipo. Those hikes evolved into what is now a business called Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike. Solatorio says he and his father, who was a cultural advisor at the now-shuttered Moloka‘i Ranch, were taught to share their culture with the world. Their elders, he says, “told me that our culture has been taken away once by someone else. If we do not practice and share our culture with the world today, it is us who is taking it away from ourselves, not someone else. Culture is sacred, not secret. When culture becomes secret, you do not share. When culture becomes sacred you teach the world to respect it.”
He adds that he gets pushback from parts of Moloka‘i’s Native Hawaiian community for teaching outsiders about the culture.
“What I educate a lot of the visitors and a lot of our Native people about is if you have animosity toward the visitors or if you’re mad at the visitors for not knowing anything about our culture, how do we solve that problem?” the cultural practitioner says. “By teaching them our culture, so when they come, they have respect for our people, our island, our ways.”
At the beginning of the hike, he has guests participate in a traditional Hawaiian protocol to ask permission to enter Hālawa Valley. He’ll also dismantle common myths and stereotypes; one such myth is that macadamia nuts are originally from Hawai‘i, when in fact they are from Australia. And he’ll talk about the native plants, historical structures and heiau along their trek.
“I still get people who ask me from the states if we live in a grass shack,” he says. “That’s letting me know people do not know about our culture. No, we don’t live in grass shacks today. Yes, at one point we did, but if people today in the world are still thinking we live like that, then people got to get educated about Hawai‘i.”
Need to Earn a Living
The Solatorios successfully turned their love for Hawaiian culture into a business. Kaohelaulii, president of the Kaua‘i Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce, says many cultural practitioners want to do the same but aren’t able to because they need to work unrelated full-time jobs to feed their families. It’s often not until they retire that they have more time to share their skills and teach.
NaHHA has been trying to change this through its entrepreneurial development workshops, which it has run since 2014 to help people understand the basics of legitimizing their businesses so they can enter the tourism industry. Speakers cover topics like financing, insurance, general excise taxes and more. These workshops were put on hold during the pandemic, and NaHHA is now partnering with the Native Hawaiian chambers of commerce in each county to hold virtual sessions.
But some Hawaiians are reluctant to monetize something as personal as culture. Sanders says Hawaiians didn’t even have a word for money until Westerners arrived. Instead, the society was built on reciprocal relationships between people and the environment. “We’re just a culture that’s not used to having to ask for money for something,” she says.
On Moloka‘i, guests pay for Solatorio’s hike, which he says may cause some to say that he’s selling the culture. He doesn’t see it that way. While there is a fine line between culture and making a living, he hasn’t felt conflicted because he uses the profits from his business to teach, for free, Native Hawaiian children on Moloka‘i about Hawaiian culture and farming.
Kaohelaulii also uses education to balance culture and making a living. He launched his business, hawaiiancheckers.com, in 2011 to make and sell kōnane boards. His goal is to perpetuate and revitalize this ancient strategy game by teaching people how to play through workshops and at community events on Kaua‘i. Over the years, he has taught families, students, visitors and organizations.
To learn more about Kaohelaulii’s work revitalizing kōnane, read this story by our sister publication, HAWAIʻI Magazine.
Making a living from your cultural knowledge has other challenges. One question is what to charge. Sanders uses the example of a Hawaiian priest who is asked to bless an office.
“How do you put a price on your culture?” she asks. “How do you say this blessing costs X amount of dollars, because you didn’t have to pay anything for it? How you learned all this information was by experiences that you’ve had with other people throughout your whole life that were given to you without you having to pay for that. But there’s a lifetime of knowledge that’s brought into that moment when the kahu does the blessing. So it’s like how do you commodify culture so that you can make an honest living at it?”
“You hire everybody else, you hire the speaker, you pay everybody, whether it’s an honorarium, but you always asking the hālau to come and do it for free.” – Vicky Holt Takamine, Kumu hula, Pua Aliʻi ʻIlima
Sometimes, however, culture is undervalued, or people assume it should be free. Vicky Holt Takamine is kumu hula of Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima and executive director of the Pa‘i Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to preserve and perpetuate Native Hawaiian arts and cultural traditions. She and her hālau are sometimes asked to perform at workshops, conferences and ceremonies. But they’re not paid. Instead, she’s told her efforts would provide “great exposure” for her and her hālau.
“I don’t need exposure,” she says. “My artists don’t need exposure. My artists have to pay the bills. They have to pay for their mortgage, and if they don’t have a mortgage, they got to pay rent, they got to buy food.”
She adds: “You hire everybody else, you hire the speaker, you pay everybody, whether it’s an honorarium, but you always asking the hālau to come and do it for free,” she says. “It’s like we got to make costumes, we got to make lei, we got to rehearse, and people don’t know how much work goes into that.”
On Kaua‘i, cultural practitioner Sabra Kauka is occasionally asked by hotels to teach lei making and hula. But she doesn’t just teach visitors how to string lei. She’ll also talk about the importance of the lei and the meanings of the different plants and flowers that are used to give attendees a greater understanding of the craft.
“We’re getting a new type of visitor today,” Solatorio says.
“They actually want to be involved and they want to learn. They actually want to learn. A lot of them are not coming for that mai tai, hotel lū‘au anymore. There’s a lot of people who actually want to learn our culture, be involved, see the real native food, taste the real native food.”
Through those experiences, visitors connect more deeply with the culture, places and people they interact with. The last time the Pa‘i Foundation held its Maoli Arts Movement wearable art show and marketplace was in 2019 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Takamine says those events allowed locals and visitors to talk with the featured artists.
“Having that authentic voice share a little bit about that piece makes it more valuable to the audience member or the purchaser of that or the visitor or the resident who lived here but always wanted one,” she says. “But maybe they can sit down with that weaver and weave a bracelet together.”
Solatorio says one other benefit of teaching visitors and locals about Hawaiian culture is that they may want to learn more about who they are and their own culture.
It can also lead to partnerships between visitors and the Hawaiian community. At The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Nae‘ole shows a 30-minute film by Elizabeth Kapu‘uwailani Lindsey called “Then There Were None” during his sense of place discussions with guests. It looks at the colonization and demise of the Hawaiian people, which he says stirs up emotions in the audience. But the intent is not to blame or victimize. Rather, it’s used to talk about the ways that the Hawaiian people are now trying to better themselves.
“I ask these questions and I explain these questions to the visitors so they can give me their opinion and that way they may have an answer for us that we haven’t thought of yet,” he says. “My intent with it is to create allies, not enemies.”
He adds that his favorite part about the job is educating people and helping them “find” Hawai‘i.
“They come here a lot and they’ll ask questions and I think with the more in-depth explanations of who we were and what we accomplished, their love for Hawai‘i increases and, not only that, they find themselves,” he says. “They find themselves engulfed in spirituality that finds their family and it bonds things together for them, so that they’ll always want to come back with more questions. They’ll come back with more respect at the same time.”
More than Just Tourist Destinations
Do you know the legends of these places? Their true names? Hawai‘i’s cultural advisors and practitioners do, and they’re ready to share their stories and knowledge with visitors and locals. Click on each location below to learn more!