Hawaiian ™

There's a small but skilled group of local artisans who practice crafts that were important to ancient Hawaiians. How can they make a living when foreign imitations of their work sell for much less?


(page 2 of 3)

He knows that, for a long time now, what passed for kukui nut lei have usually been just plastic necklaces from China. Same thing with puka shells. But these days, he's seeing more and more imports meant to resemble native works that require a higher level of skill—fishhooks made of boar's tusk, mats woven from pandanus and even weapons. Kai, and the artists like him, live by the double-edged sword of globalization. There's an entire world full of people willing to buy their stuff; and, there's an entire globe full of people willing to make these same crafts for pennies.

"[These foreign producers] should stick to making aloha shirts and muumuu instead of delving deeper in native Hawaiian implements," Kai says. "It's sad, and the losers are the artisans who are trying to sustain a continuation of their culture."

But Kai has no idea what he can do about it. He understands how the free market works. Making Hawaiian implements is his passion, but it's not his career. His day job is as a sales and marketing executive for a rental car company.

"If you're a tourist and all you really want is a fish hook to take back for a nephew and you have a choice between a $15 hook and a $100 one, which one would you buy?" Kai says. "Stores have to satisfy their buying public, but markups are key for them. They're usually going to bring in the $6 fish hook from the Philippines, where materials and labor are cheap, rather than pay a local crafter who wants $50 for it, because he spent four hours on it."

Nobody understands the tensions between culture and commerce more than Maile Meyer, owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii. Her store sells only locally made products, most of them on consignment from artists who don't make art for a living. The more people around the world fall in love with Hawaii, the more commercial interest there is in Hawaiian products.

"It's one thing if you're making soap or hair picks; it's another when you talk about feather lei, stone, bone and wood things," Meyer says. "These things have lineage, and there are artists in a continuum trying to perpetuate that culture.


Could you tell the difference?

A hula uli uli, a wooden calabash, a fish hook made of boar's tusk, a pandanus basket and bag, and a carved kii (statue). Which of these were made in Hawaii? The answer: None.

Under federal law, imports must be labeled with their country of origin. But those little "Made in China" stickers don't guarantee that consumers know what they're buying. In 2004, for instance, the state passed a new law to protect Niihau shell jewelry. Made of various shades of pink shells from the private island, a genuine necklace can retail for $2,500 or higher, while imitations go for a fraction of the cost. The new law prohibited jewelry from being labeled "Niihau," unless a majority of its shells came from the island (similar to how any coffee labeled "Kona" must contain at least 10 percent Kona beans). To celebrate the law, Meyer invited the public to her Ward Warehouse to have their own jewelry authenticated by Niihau artisans. 

Over three days, they verified the authenticity of more than 5,000 lei, but what surprised Meyer was that "there were plenty of people whose lei were not authentic," she says. "One of those people was my sister. It was interesting how many people couldn't tell." 

Fakes not only affect an artists' ability to make a living from craft, they dilute the value of their work, Meyer says. Buyers "need to care more, so they know what they're getting. Someone tells you you're buying a Niihau shell lei and it's $9.99—are you kidding? They have the ability to say, 'No, I'm not gonna buy that ridiculous thing you're selling me, because these shells are a finite supply, made by a small group of makers. But we live in a capitalist society that wants cheap and lots of it."
Meyer and others, including kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine and Hawaiian studies professor Maile Andrade, formed the Hale Kuai Study Group to help Hawaiian artists overcome these economic realities. The group knows it can't stop foreign imitations from being made, because  producers and sellers of these imports aren't doing anything illegal. Instead, Hale Kuai's focus is distinguishing native products from imitations, so consumers know exactly what they're buying.
 After conducting a yearlong study funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the group decided that the best answer was to create a trademark for native works. Other indigenous groups already use cultural trademarks. For more than 40 years, Alaska native artists have used a silver hand emblem to identify their works. Maori artists brand their works with the toi iho trademark. Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act passed by Congress in 1990, any item marked with terms like "Indian" or "Native American" must have been made by a member of a recognized tribe. Someone selling Hopi jewelry that wasn't made by a Hopi tribe member could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars or jailed. 

"The Indian arts market was practically on its last legs, and native artists were unable to compete against machine-made goods being sold," says Leighton Chong, an intellectual property attorney in Honolulu. "That changed once that enforcement program started. Now the Indian arts market is a billion-dollar market, because these items are no longer being sold at commoditized prices and people will pay more for the intrinsic value of an authentic object."

In Hawaii, there are already informal associations of such crafts as woodworking and lauhala weaving. There are also kumu who are recognized as leading authorities within these communities. These master artists could become the first recipients of the Hawaiian cultural trademark, Chong says.  

Hale Kuai has applied for local grants to further research the idea. That would include holding public meetings and working with existing Hawaiian organizations to answer many difficult, and possibly divisive, questions: What types of arts should be trademarked? Which artists would be eligible? Should it be reserved exclusively for Native Hawaiians or extended to non-Hawaiians who also produce quality work? Who determines what is quality work? And how?        

Subscribe to Honolulu