“Moana” is Turning Culture into Cash—Here’s Why it Matters for Hawai‘i

Movies and merchandise that make money off the myths and art of indigenous people and minority groups are on the rise worldwide. So are protests against cultural appropriation. Why the debate matters.
Disney Lilo and Stitch
Lilo & Stitch blended two actual Native Hawaiian mele inoa, or genealogical songs, to create—and copyright—its own Disney theme song. The film went on to make $245 million.
Photo: Disney


Recently defined by The New York Times as “the use of a minority group’s customs or culture by people who do not belong to it,” cultural appropriation has seemingly dominated whatever portion of the news the election hasn’t devoured, and for many of the same reasons. It’s crazy clickbait.


Maui costume
Photo: Disney

Perhaps you’ve heard the term in connection with a brown, Polynesian-tattooed skin suit Disney rolled out before Halloween. Part of the marketing for the animated film Moana, devastatingly labeled “brownface,” it was quickly withdrawn. Or you’ve read that the University of Arizona football team suspended doing the haka this year after being called out by activists for appropriating Maori heritage (the UH Rainbow Warriors have also dropped their haka). Or maybe you recall 2015’s film Aloha, which cast Emma Stone as a green-eyed, blonde Native Hawaiian. These examples illustrate the concept of cultural appropriation: It deprives the weak and disenfranchised of their own culture while allowing the powerful to make money off it.


SEE ALSO: Disney Pulls Controversial “Moana” Costume Amid Protests of “Brownface”


It’s a flashpoint and a divide. Nationally, critics have called out fashion designer Marc Jacobs for using white models wearing faux dreadlocks; white Bowdoin College students for handing out miniature sombreros at a tequila-themed event; and white Miley Cyrus for her famous twerking video. 


There have been instances of pretzel logic. In a rush to pre-empt herself from any more criticism about the lack of diversity in her television series, Girls, white Lena Dunham recently called out Oberlin College for serving sushi in the cafeteria. White female writer Lionel Shriver gave a speech in Australia while wearing a sombrero, in solidarity with the Bowdoin Boys. “The moral,” she said of critics, “is clear: You’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”


It deprives the weak and disenfranchised of their own culture while allowing the powerful to make money off it.


But if you think the controversy is recent and fashionable and limited to First Peoples, and, perhaps as a result, a little bit overwrought, a little politically correct, then pour yourself a glass of Champagne. Because the wine is one of the legal roots of cultural appropriation. Copyright protection for published writing (1710), patent protection for designs and processes (1790) and trademarks (1857) led to protecting products according to their geographical and cultural origins in 1891, with Champagne the poster child beneficiary.


Champagne and grapes
Photo: Thinkstock

Champagne, Roquefort cheese, Cognac, Havana cigars, Darjeeling tea, Pinggu peaches from China, Mexican tequila, Swiss watches, Chulucanas ceramics from Peru and Spreewald pickles from Germany are among hundreds of products protected—most in the past few decades, under the aegis of the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.


Why the rush? Because treasure hunters are trying to trademark, patent and copyright everything under the sun. A number of recent controversies surround pharmaceutical and medical corporations, including universities and hospitals, which have stealthily patented the DNA and genes of human subjects that show promise as future treatments and drugs. These same entities have been scouring the Amazon jungles (where aspirin comes from) and cherry-picking the knowledge and herbs of indigenous tribes.


And here we come back to Hawai‘i, where, as the nation’s only all-minority state, the discussion gets a lot more complicated. It’s not picking on Disney to say the company leads the world in terms of hoovering up myths, stories, legends and other loose cultural properties; a recent Forbes article puts the number of public domain stories turned into Disney movies at 50. Each one is now copyrighted by the Mouse and, if you’re going to make a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s short story  “The Little Mermaid,” you’d best have deep pockets and a legal team in place. 


One aggravating example for Native Hawaiian and Polynesian critics came in 2002’s Lilo & Stitch: charming and addictive for kids, the film features a mele inoa, a song of genealogy. 


Citing R. Hōkūlei Lindsey’s Responsibility With Accountability: The Birth of a Strategy to Protect Kanaka Maoli Traditional Knowledge, Nina Mantilla writes in “The New Hawaiian Model,” an article in The Intellectual Property Brief, of how the Disney song combines two mele inoa, one that honored King Kalākaua and the other Queen Lili‘uokalani. Disney copyrighted the blend and now owns them as “He Mele No Lilo.” 


Disney did everything “right”—but, somehow, it still rubs some the wrong way. 


Disney set about making its next Polynesian movie mindful of potential controversy. One of the four-man writing team is part Samoan, as is star Dwayne Johnson; ingénue discovery Auli‘i Cravalho of Mililani is of Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Puerto Rican and Irish descent. As the Howard Hughes Corp. did for its Ala Moana/Kaka‘ako development, Disney pulled together Polynesian experts and cultural practitioners. Clothing, song, dialogue, crafts, tattoos, canoe construction and sailing, mythical and religious elements, all were workshopped and given a seal of approval by an entity called “The Oceanic Story Trust.” Producers, writers and researchers visited Samoa, Tahiti, Moorea, New Zealand, Juri, Bora Bora and Tetiaroa. The focus was on meeting with Island people and, apparently, studying a Pacific Island music festival.


You won’t find a website or contact info for the “trust,” but it has helped achieve wide buy-in from Polynesian and Pacific Island community members. The Moana Facebook page is a scroll of Disney teasers and earnest appeals from fans, including self-identified Polynesians, to rally around the film. Writes one, in lower-case: “at least us polynesians are getting a disney princess lol…” Baby pics are compared to baby Moana pics. Maui wide-bodies strut their stuff. There are photos of cosplay, meaning fans sewing Moana costumes and posting them and wearing them at fan events including Comic Con. No bad vibes. No politics.


No, the conversation on cultural appropriation is over on the other websites. The ones not subsidized by and crowdsourced with the magic machine’s extraordinary production of images and merchandise. Tina Ngata’s thenonplasticmaori.wordpress.com is a rally point. “What is the going rate for self-destruction?” writes Ngata. “I’d like to know the going rate for ancestors too. I’d say it’s more like a package. Includes some network opps and, say, a writing role for Thor 3.”


It’s a collision of two worlds of thought, of politics, of class. Disney did everything “right”—but, somehow, it still rubs some the wrong way. Call them grouches or Grinches, but don’t dismiss them out of hand. In fact, why not protect hula like the haka, crucial mele, cultural knowledge and even certain tattoo symbols? Think about it, as you raise a glass of Champagne to the new year.



Moana Thumbs Down

Thumbs down

“This morning, I heard radio DJs harping on Hawaiian women who expressed concern and critique about the costume. I heard callers saying, ‘This is an opportunity to teach others about Hawaiian culture.’ Here are the facts of the matter: The film was not initiated nor will it be owned by Hawaiian, or Samoan, or Maori, or other Polynesian people. The story was not written by screenwriters of our communities, nor illustrated by artists of our communities. It was not written in nor will it be translated into any of our languages. The profits will not benefit our communities nor advance our languages, institutions or local economies. This is straight-up cultural appropriation.”


J. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, editor of The Value of Hawai‘i series and UH Mānoa associate professor in social sciences.


​Moana Thumbs Up

Thumbs up

“Overall, NaHHA supports the education of Native Hawaiian culture through mainstream mediums, because it guarantees an opportunity for the public and our visitors to gain more knowledge about our people and history. We, like many others, are thrilled to see a movie of this caliber take the main stage and are happy that Disney chose actors of Polynesian descent to play the characters. While we agree that the costume was a poor choice to help market the movie, we see this entire issue as an opportunity for the public to research the significance of Maui and the underlying cultural context of this movie overall. We encourage everyone to discover further the beauty of our culture and history to build a better understanding of our islands and our people.


“It is our understanding that Disney pulled the costume today and we support their decision and acknowledge that they are responding to some of the concerns voiced by people in our community.”


Pohai Ryan, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association.