A search online for images associated with the words “aloha” and “brand” will turn up numerous businesses that associate their products, goods and services with the word “aloha.” Clearly the attractive power of aloha, and its associations with goodness, affection, charity, compassion, mercy and love have business owners convinced that connecting with this virtue most highly identified with Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture will increase revenue and foster goodwill in prospective patrons and customers.

The use of “aloha” in business names stretches at least to the 1880s when “Hale Aloha,” a clothing store located in Honolulu at the corner of Fort Street and Hotel Street, owned by Goo Kim, advertised in the Hawaiian language newspaper that it was stocked with beautiful clothes of all kinds, fashions for women and children. Hale Aloha sold allmanner of cloth supplied in a list so exhaustive that the owner teased readers by claiming that the stone building, full of all manner of beautiful things, stood at “monikahaae,” (to salivate or drool). Customers were invited to come and “nana pono e ike pono i ke au nui a me ke au iki” (to come and carefully peruse [the merchandise] that they may see for themselves both the great and small currents) consisting of clothing, shoes and accessories, a way to say that the store was stocked with everything you could imagine, while later hinting that merchandise was replenished each time a steamship anchored in the harbor.

In 2018, some 132 years after Hale Aloha advertised in the nūpepa, “aloha” as a branding concept has permeated, if not oversaturated the marketplace. And yet, given this state of affairs, the actions of Aloha Pokē Co., in attempting to coerce other business owners to strip the word “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” from their names due to trademark infringement issues, have set off peaceful yet vehement protests in Hawaiʻi, Chicago and in that virtual territory in cyberspace: social media.

The “Aloha not for sale” campaign arose as a response to Aloha Pokē Co’s claim to owning, at least for trademark purposes, the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke.” The campaign gained ground after a Facebook Live video by Dr. Kalamaokaʻāina Niheu raised questions about the exploitation of aloha, particularly through over-commercialization. The protests attended by several hundred people were subsequently coordinated by a coalition of Native Hawaiian organizations from Chicago, Hawai’i and Alaska, and led by Lanialoha Lee of the Aloha Center Chicago, a multi-media resource cultural center in Chicago dedicated to the “preservation and perpetuation of Native Hawaiian and South Pacific Arts.” The demonstrations brought international attention to the question of cultural appropriation of Hawaiian words and cultural practices, in this instance, Hawaiian customary ways of preparing food and feeding people.

In attempting to assert “ownership” over the word aloha, Aloha Pokē Co.’s actions violated for many the nature of what “aloha” has come to mean, kindness and affection given freely and unconditionally. In addressing people assembled for protest in Chicago, Kumu Hula Vicky Holt Takamine highlights how Aloha Pokē’s actions were deeply at odds with Hawaiian mores of proper behavior: “We’ve never put a limit on how you could use our words, we want to share those things with the community around us…when you appropriate my cultural practice, when you appropriate our language, and then put a trademark and restrictions on the use of it, for other future generations of Native Hawaiians, that is hewa.”

Cultural appropriation as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “. . . the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” Appropriation occurs when members of a dominant culture exploit for enjoyment, or monetary gain, the culture of another group that has been historically oppressed or colonized without proper referencing, understanding, respect or consultation with the people whose culture is the basis of use. Attempting to address concerns of cultural appropriation without looking at the underlying power structures that have historically enabled oppression and its persistence makes the subject difficult to address, and problems difficult to ameliorate.

Protestors in Chicago mobilized to support Hawaiian business owners in their use of Aloha even as I prepared this essay, by informally approaching kūpuna and mākua around me to share their thoughts on the subject. Many people I spoke with were incredulous, astounded that a business on the continent would be so mahaʻoi as to seek to trademark “Aloha.” Many found hilarity in Aloha Pokē Co.’s approach, first because of the idea that Aloha could “belong” to a company based in Chicago, and second because the actions of the company belied a deep misrecognition of what constitutes aloha. Furthermore, this misalignment between “aloha” and “Aloha Pokē Co.,” illustrates to people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities that the company does not deserve to distinguish itself with such a name. In Hawaiian custom, as in many others, names are important, given in families only after much forethought; so too in business,the hope being that a child or company will grow (hoʻoulu) in the direction and nature of a name carefully bestowed. An important question to consider moving forward is by what mechanism will sacred or treasured concepts in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, come to be seen as something material, now that we can see that these meanings in the 21st century require safeguarding?

In her critique of the behavior of Aloha Pokē Co.’s owner, Vicky Holt Takamine points out that the company’s attempted trademark of Aloha and Aloha Poke was “hewa.” In other words, the company’s actions contravened common sense and standards of correct behavior. The ethical system which gave rise to the concept of hewa was not formulated out of the need to protect property, equity, investments or profit but rather was calibrated to fine-tune relationships in community for the betterment of society through the fostering of good relations.

Perhaps we might consider then how Hawaiian customary ways of preparing food and feeding people, hoʻokipa and the deeply held virtue of aloha are intertwined. Aloha, one of the explicit virtues that conditions our behavior towards one another in community and towards malihini, is at the heart of what makes Aloha Pokē Co.’s legal action alarming and similarly comical. How then to mediate between the demands of legal culture’s way of making “property” of things in order to make them protectable — and the value of stabilizing the beauty and nature of Hawaiian language, virtues, customs, culture and people from the persistance of cultural appropriation, an effect of a few centuries of colonialism, in order that our understanding of aloha hoʻomau for future generations.

ʻAʻole nānā ʻia ka hihia i kupu aʻe
He manaʻo wale ia a ka poʻe haole.
Pau aʻela kou hana keu a ke aloha ʻole
Na kākou ka Hawaiʻi i paʻa mau i ka mole
o Lehua, Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu a Kākuhihewa,
Kahoʻolawe, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Maui, a Hawaiʻi.
ʻŌahi i kai o Pohoiki
Aia ka hopena a ka poke Kikako, he manini.

When was the first time you recall eating poke in your home, at a lūʻau or paʻina, or in a restaurant. Is poke a Hawaiian customary food or is it a newer, recently created dish? Did poke refer to the style of preparation or way to cut fish, or was it a word that referred to the entire dish? Did you or your mākua or kūpuna eat poke, and if so where were they or you raised?

If you want to share some thoughts or moʻolelo, please direct emails to onoeau@gmail.com.

Noelani Arista is an Associate Professor of Hawaiian and American History at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa in the Department of History. Her areas of interest include Hawaiian religious, legal and intellectual history, Her current project furthers the persistence of Hawaiian historical knowledge and textual archives through multiple digital mediums including gaming. Her forthcoming book The Kingdom and the Republic: Sovereign Hawaiʻi and the Early United States will be published by PENN press in December 2018. She is the founder of the Facebook group 365 Days of Aloha.