What’s in a Name? Borrowing ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i Doesn’t Make It Hawaiian
Getting left out of the ‘ohana—a closer look at the appropriation of Hawaiian words for non-Hawaiian purposes.
There’s a music festival happening in California at the end of September that I want to go to. I couldn’t believe the lineup when I first saw the flyer: Eddie Vedder, Foo Fighters, The Pretenders, The Killers, Father John Misty and Amos Lee, among others. But I don’t understand the name: The ‘Ohana Festival. A comment posted on the event’s Instagram page phrased it best: “Why is this called ‘ohana fest when it has nothing to do with Hawaiians, is not in Hawaii and has no Hawaiian bands?”
Hawai‘i has a long, long history of outsiders being “inspired” by local culture, then using it to their benefit.
Pearl Jam frontman Vedder founded the music festival in 2016 and named it after the Hawaiian word for family. Vedder, who owns a home on Moloka‘i, has performed in Hawai‘i numerous times and once released an album of ‘ukulele covers, is not Native Hawaiian. His bandmate Boom Gaspar is; the keyboardist was born in Waimānalo and attended Kailua High School before joining the band in 2002. But Pearl Jam isn’t performing at ‘Ohana Festival, so that’s not much of a connection, either. A portion of the festival’s proceeds will go to several nonprofits and charities in California, so maybe the ‘ohana idea exemplifies that. Which is cool, but …
Hawai‘i has a long, long history of outsiders being “inspired” by local culture, then using it to their benefit. Sometimes, all it takes is a single word. Consider Aloha, a plant-based protein energy company whose products are made in Colorado, Georgia and New York. Austrian entrepreneur Constantin Bisanz launched the company in 2014 after spending four months meditating and doing yoga in India. Aloha initially offered whole-food powders and vitamin supplements; when current CEO Brad Charron (formerly of Chobani and Under Armour) took over as “re-founder” in 2017, the company pivoted toward protein bars and drinks.
It was only earlier this year that Aloha actually created a product with any connection to Hawai‘i: the Kona bar, made from pongamia oil, Kona coffee and macadamia nuts, with 10% of proceeds supporting youth programs hosted by the conservation nonprofit Kupu Hawai‘i. To its credit, Aloha also incorporated artwork created by O‘ahu-born and -raised illustrator Kelsie Dayna Kalohi.
But for a company whose corporate brand identity has largely rested on its Hawaiian name for nearly a decade, this tenuous connection to Hawai‘i feels like too little, too late. According to a 2023 Food Dive article about Aloha, “Brad Charron was in a beat up rented Hyundai this time last year, driving up the sides of mountains in Hawai‘i looking for family farms, trying to gain inspiration for his protein bar company’s next product.” Woof.
Maybe this sounds like a lot of complaining over just a couple of words. But imagine if the situation were reversed. What if a Hawai‘i company decided to host a music event here called the Sidanelv Festival—because “sidanelv” is the Cherokee word for family? Or if a Hawai‘i health food company named itself “Nya:wëh,” in honor of the Seneca word for “hello”? People would rightfully ask, why are these Indigenous language words being used out of context?
Many places have a rich history and culture. Instead of just borrowing Hawai‘i concepts and words, organizations in California and Colorado and elsewhere would do better by using terminology that is more appropriate to the actual culture of the event itself or where it’s being held.
I’m not saying ‘Ohana and Aloha have to necessarily change their names. But if they’re capitalizing on Hawai‘i, there should be a way for Hawai‘i to be better appreciated in return. Could 10% of proceeds from all of Aloha’s products go to Kupu Hawai‘i? Is it possible for Hawaiian bands to play at the ‘Ohana Festival?
Look at musician Jack Johnson: He and wife Kim created two organizations that incorporate Hawaiian words—the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation and the Johnson ‘Ohana Foundation—and he regularly donates the proceeds from album sales and concerts to benefit environmental education in Hawai‘i. If he can put his money where his ‘ohana is, why can’t others?