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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?


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Attorney Mark Bernstein represents clients in Hawaii's music industry, an area of the arts where there are already clear-cut rules when it comes to intellectual property. He warns Hawaiian artists not to make the issue of cultural trademarking an emotional one. "What is important to ask is: What is it exactly that you want to protect? And what exactly do you want to protect it from?" Bernstein says. "Until you get those answers, you can't start to address the nature of the problem. That's where it becomes important that people listen to each other."

Until Hawaiian artists can figure out a collective way to promote their works, individual producers have other options. They can't copyright bowls, weapons, jewelry and baskets—people have been making these things for ages, so they're part of the public domain. But Hawaiian artists can copyright any original designs that they add to a traditional work, such as a unique kapa pattern. Artists can also register their trademarks with the federal government, whether it's their name, their business name or a distinctive symbol like the triangles that Umi Kai carves into his woodwork.

Meyer often cites the example of Hauula artisan Buddy Makaiau, who is renowned among local hula halau for his pahu drums. He engraves the base of his instruments with three distinctive bands. "Everyone in the hula community knows that's his thing," Meyer says.

But because Makaiau had never copyrighted his design or registered his trademark, there was little he could do when an acquaintance in the Islands copied his design. That person mass-produced drums out of cheaper materials overseas and sold them at much lower prices in Japan.

"So Uncle Buddy signs all his drums now," Meyer says.

Gwen Kamisugi is a member of Ulana Me Ka Lokomaikai, a lauhala weaving club with a reputation for quality work.

IT'S 10 A.M. ON A SATURDAY IN November. The previous weekend, there had been heavy thunder showers on Oahu, but today, sunlight streams into the open-air barracks on the grounds of Iolani Palace. About a dozen women sit around a fold-up table, weaving thin strips of lauhala (pandanus leaves) into bags, baskets and hats. They pause every few minutes to squirt water from spray bottles onto their work to keep the dried leaves pliable. The women will stay there till 2 p.m., breaking only to eat a potluck lunch or answer questions from tourists, who stop by their table after buying their tickets to tour the palace.

The women are all members of Ulana Me Ka Lokomaikai, a lauhala weaving club that is well known among collectors for its fine work. Their teacher is Auntie Gladys Grace, one of a handful of people in the Islands who are considered master kumu of the craft. Now in her late 80s, Grace doesn't weave as much as she used to, but she attends the club's weekly gatherings to coach her students through their own projects.

Today, Grace shows one of the members how to weave her first anoni hat. The pattern, which incorporates both beige and brown strips to create a two-tone effect, is Grace's specialty. She won't teach it to just anyone, only to students who prove to her that they are serious about the craft. "Hats are the hardest to make, it takes a very long time," Grace says. "Once you can make that, everything else is easy."

They're also the only thing that lauhala weavers have left, Grace says. The woven baskets, bags and other weavings in Longs and elsewhere are usually imports from the Philippines, made of foreign pandanus by foreign workers. But producers abroad have yet to create comparable versions of Hawaii's distinctive hats.

That's something that Gwen Kamisugi, one of Grace's longtime students, would hate for her kumu to see. Kamisugi is a retired state worker who has followed in Grace's footsteps by teaching others, including students at Kamehameha Schools and residents at Honolulu's halfway houses. To her, foreign imitations disrespect the native people who keep these traditional arts alive. 

Kamisugi teaches more than just the mechanics of weaving. She educates her students about how lauhala was part of everyday life for early Hawaiians, who used the fiber to create fine mats and thatch their walls. She reminds them how physically demanding it is to harvest lauhala, requiring that gatherers wear long sleeves and pants to avoid thorns and bugs that reside in trees. She encourages them to replenish what they take by cultivating their own trees.

"We're not just teaching weaving, we're perpetuating a culture," Kamisugi says. "We do it with manao (wisdom)." 

It's hard to blame everyday consumers for overlooking the difference between locally made weavings and imports, Kamisugi says. She can tell whether an item is made of Hawaiian lauhala by its smell, something that's only familiar to her because of her 35 years practicing the art.
Kamisugi would like the members of her club to brand their work, maybe weave a trademark into their products so buyers know they're made by a respected local source. She mentions the idea again at this Saturday gathering, but the idea is forgotten once the women start talking about their upcoming craft fair.

Some Hawaiian artists are skeptical about using the Western legal system of trademarks and copyrights to protect their ancient traditions. It's not right in their eyes, because the two concepts appear contradictory. Hawaiians have long believed in sharing their knowledge with their communities, while Western law, to them, focuses on individual ownership.
The issue can become heated, says attorney Chong. Last summer, he gave a presentation about Hale Kuai to Hawaiians at an international gathering of indigenous artists on the Big Island. He informed the artists about the various legal steps they could take to safeguard their works—and was heckled. Audience members yelled out that he was using "the language of the oppressors," that they didn't need copyrights but kapu (taboo) rights.

"There's a deep ambivalence among Hawaiian artists about Western law,"  Chong says. "It's probably a vestige of those bad feelings from the overthrow and distrust of Western machinery."

Says Meyer: "It's like you're having conversations that don't have an intersection. But these things that we're talking about weren't of interest commercially back then. Now they are, and they're being exploited. We can't be stupid about it."

Trademarks aren't solely a Western concept. Ancient Hawaiian artists often put marks on their works, because they were proud of their creations. The appearance of Niihau shell lei, for instance, varies from one family to another, distinguishing their makers.

Woodworker Umi Kai is looking into registering his trademark-the cluster of four elongated triangles that he carves into his pieces. He knows that the individual triangle is an ancient Polynesian mark, so he wants to ensure that whatever he does, it doesn't infringe on other artists' right to use the symbol.

Kai is still uncomfortable with the idea of submitting something that's so personal to him as paperwork to the federal government. At the same time, he can't bear the thought that someone who doesn't care about the meaning behind the mark could one day steal it from him. If he registers his mark, it will always mean "Umi made it." And it will belong to his children, and their children, as long as they continue his work after he's gone.

Says Kai, "Maybe it's about time."
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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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