Dons Athletics is behind the cultural curve

Kalan K. Birnie is a junior double major in politics and theater.

The Dons baseball team will be hosting the University of Hawai‘i Warriors on March 25 at Benedetti Diamond. The accompanying promotion for that game is “Beach Day Lei Giveaway.” It is tasteless and should be reconsidered. 

Let me preface this by saying this is not another hit piece on Dons Athletics. I’m a sports fan,  and I spent more than a year covering sports for the Foghorn and still enjoy positive professional relationships with many in the athletics department.

I am one of many USF students from Hawai‘i. It’s the second most represented state at USF, behind California. I’m also Native Hawaiian, and yes, there’s a difference — one is a place of residence, and the other is an actual ethnicity.

USF isn’t the only one to make this mistake, but they should know better. The Lei Day promotion is just another painful reminder of the commodification of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian Snack potato chips? Made in Washington. Hawaiian Sweet Maui Onion Rings? Owned by a company in New Jersey. Kona Brewing Company beer? Brewed in Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, and Tennessee. Now, I can’t attest to the strength of the Aloha Spirit in New Hampshire, but it doesn’t exactly strike me as tropical.

I would be willing to bet a substantial amount of money that the cheap tacky lei (the plural of “lei” is “lei”) USF will be giving out were manufactured by some mainland corporations, like Imprint Items Collegiate Concepts, which sells mass-produced giveaway lei out of Minnesota. No money will go to support the culture that USF, and many other institutions, is capitalizing on.

The economic exploitation of the Hawaiian people dates back centuries. The first European settlers ravaged the indigenous sandalwood forests, compensating the natives with the introduction of guns and germs. One hundred years after the first European contact, the Native Hawaiian population was a tenth of its pre-contact size. The 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was spurned by American businessmen angling to remove a tariff on sugar exports to the United States. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army commandeered the entire island of Kaho‘olawe to use as target practice for its bombs. Over the next 50 years, the U.S. dropped thousands of pounds of TNT on the island, cracking its water table and leaving it uninhabitable for the next thousand years. As this piece is being written, a brush fire is spreading across Kaho‘olawe, burning thousands of acres. Firefighters can’t do anything about it, because the entire island is still riddled with an unknown number of unexploded ordinances, making it unsafe to battle the fire.

President George H. W. Bush discontinued the bombings of Kaho‘olawe in 1990. Three years later, President Bill Clinton signed the Apology Resolution, a formal admission that the U.S. was an active agent in the overthrow of the kingdom, and that the Hawaiian people never relinquished their sovereignty. 

Last year, the University of South Dakota told its Student Bar Association that their “Hawaiian Day” winter social was culturally insensitive. So, the student group renamed it “Beach Day” and decided not to distribute lei, because it would be “inappropriate” to distribute items of cultural significance. No shade to South Dakota or anything, but I feel like USF should be slightly further ahead of the cultural consciousness curve than South Dakota.

Some of my cousins refer to studying on the mainland as “studying abroad.” On the surface, it’s a political statement about the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. But culturally, the mainland sometimes does feel like a different country, or even world.

Being from Hawai‘i and going to college on the mainland means a lot of things. It means your family is 2,500 miles away. It means you’re constantly met with questions like, “You’re from Hawai‘i? Why the hell are you here?” or “Oh my God, my uncle took my family to Hawai‘i when I was a kid. I don’t remember where we went, but there were, like, waterfalls by the hotel. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Seriously. Those are direct quotes.

But being a Hawaiian on the mainland means a lot more. “You’re Hawaiian? Wow! I had no clue, your English is so good!” and “Oh my God, I absolutely LOVE ‘Moana.’” It means the poke here on the mainland is awful. Seriously, it’s not just the quality of the fish — it’s the entire process. Carrots? Seriously? Also, if you’re going to capitalize on cultural appropriation, at least spell it correctly. I’m looking at you, “Poki Time.”

Worst of all, being here means that you’re an ocean away from your people and your culture. Last year, Native Hawaiians protested the construction of a telescope atop Mauna Kea, a sacred mountaintop. The kia‘i, or guardians, formed Pu‘uhōnua ‘o Pu‘uhuluhulu, a community situated at the base of the road to the crater, blocking construction equipment. The movement spurred a revitalization of Hawaiian culture, language, and identity.

The last 12 months have seen dramatic growth in unity among Hawaiians. There’s been the growth of #KanakaTwitter, which has been described as “a collective of socially conscious Hawaiians across the world who were happy and eager to use Twitter as a platform to educate the larger public about Mauna Kea.” The Kū Kia‘i Mauna movement earned recognition from other sovereignty movements worldwide. Flags were sent to Mauna from Palestine, Catalonia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and countless indigenous movements. 

A global movement has catalyzed. A movement where the indigenous not only speak up, but will stand up until they are heard. But it seems USF has not listened. While a second Hawaiian Renaissance is emerging, I find myself in a place where my culture is used as a cheap marketing ploy to get butts in hard plastic seats on a Wednesday afternoon.


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