In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in the spirit of change, the intention of this article is to shed some light on the ways to which we participate in the oppression of the Indigenous people of Hawai’i. By exploring the intersections of systemic racism and the destination wedding industry, we are able to identify ways that we can be personally accountable for ending exploitation and creating a more equitable future. Read on for more information from Morea Somaoang.
It’s no secret that destination weddings are big business in Hawai’i. Perhaps on your search for wedding inspo, you’ve come across some of the many beautiful celebrations that have taken place in the islands. The Hawai’i Visitors and Conventions Bureau reports that in 2017, Hawai’i was the 4th most popular destination wedding location, trailing behind the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. This translates to an average of 140 destination weddings per day and $16 billion in annual spending.
Destination weddings in Hawai’i are a byproduct of the state’s number one industry: Tourism. Hawai’i is often framed as a romantic escape for tourists; with sun and sand and a tropical cocktail in-hand. But what you may not know about tourism in Hawai'i (which is intentional by design) is that it stems from a legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and has evolved into systemic racism. This began with the arrival of the first outsider who landed in Hawai'i, 2000 years after the earliest signs of Indigenous civilization. Though this article could never suffice alone, I will briefly summarize the history of White occupation of Hawai’i and urge you to read From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i by Native Hawaiian activist and educator, Haunani-Kay Trask, in order to more thoroughly educate yourself before considering to visit the islands.
In January of 1778, Captain James Cook and his crew stumbled upon the island of Kaua’i and became the first White people to set foot in Hawai’i. At that time, Hawaiian civilization had existed for over 2 millennia without White influence; complete with sophisticated political, religious, economic, social, and sustainable systems. Cook took advantage of the Hawaiian’s hospitality and brought Western Capitalism, Christianity, and disease in exchange; believing that it was his God-given duty to “civilize” the natives. He was followed by American Calvinist missionaries, military, businessmen, and government officials who would use their various agendas to exploit the Native Hawaiians.
As a direct result, the Native Hawaiian population that was estimated to be over 1 million pre-contact, was reduced to 4% of what it had been in a time span of just 100 years. The cocktail of events leading to the genocide of Native Hawaiians allowed for the Kingdom of Hawai’i to be forcibly - and illegally- ceded to the United States in 1894. Queen Liliʻuokalani, Hawai'i’s leader at the time, was forced to choose between the bloodshed of her people or to surrender her kingdom. She chose to protect her people having the faith that the United States government would one day make right by their wrongdoing.
The occupation of Hawai'i has had - and continues to have - devastating effects on Native Hawaiians from an ecological perspective as well. This stems from a fundamental lack of understanding of the cultural connection that Hawaiians have to their ancestral home. For Hawaiians, the islands are quite literally their oldest ancestors from which all Hawaiians are descended. This concept extends far past stewardship for the earth, and is instead a deeply rooted ethnic identity.
Throughout history, Hawaiians have vehemently resisted the desecration of their land at the hands of both the State and private development. For example, after the battle at Pearl Harbor (which was dredged to create an American naval station, destroying 36 bountiful traditional Hawaiian fishponds, and would later become one of the most polluted bodies of water in the state), the American military designated the island of Kaho’olawe, an island rich with cultural significance, as a bombing range where they would drop up to 500 tons of TNT at a time. In the attempt to prevent further destruction, a group of Native Hawaiian activists, called the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, occupied the island in 1973 which led to the end of using Kaho'olawe as bombing practice, but to this day, restoration work is being done and undetonated bombs are being cleaned up. Currently, the U.S. Navy is attempting to detonate a bomb under Molokini, an island off the coast of Maui that has been a protected marine life sanctuary for 43 years.
Another example, and perhaps one of the most well-known current events, is of the Native Hawaiian community physically preventing equipment for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to ascend the mountain of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i. This project, supported by the State of Hawaii against the wishes of its Indigenous people, would require the construction of a telescope that burrows nearly 100 feet into the mountain, which raises major environmental-impact concerns. But what is significant to note from the Native Hawaiian perspective, is that this mountain in particular is the physical manifestation of their oldest ancestors: where the sky-father, Wākea, is tied to the earth-mother, Papa. Many celebrities, including Jason Momoa, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Leonardo Dicaprio, have used their platforms to call attention to the issue; but to this day, the State intends to move forward with their plans to build TMT. I encourage you to follow @protectmaunakea on Instagram for further information on how to support this cause.
Currently, the U.S. Navy is looking to detonate a WWII-era bomb under Molokini, an island 2.5 miles off the coast of Maui that has been a protected marine life sanctuary for 43 years. If you’d like to take action to prevent this, your support is truly appreciated.
The oppression and exploitation of Native Hawaiians over the last 242 years has had very tangible, lasting effects on the community, which Tourism magnifies and simultaneously overshadows. If you look into Native Hawaiian representation in the industry, you will find that they are scarce; and that the racial composition of leadership roles is primarily White and Asian. Tourism creates a climate of servitude, where Natives are asked to perpetuate inauthentic, marketable versions of their culture commodified, while never being in charge of its perception. All while barring access to and seriously congesting some of the most beautiful parts of the islands for Native Hawaiians. Further, Tourism exacerbates disparities in Hawai’i’s insanely expensive housing market, affecting availability of affordable housing and further promoting Native Hawaiian diaspora. And all for the sake of preserving a facade, a sliver of what is the real Hawai’i.
Now ask yourself honestly, how much of this, if any at all, did you know prior to reading this? Chances are, if you weren’t born or educated in Hawai’i, this information is new to you. You may have had few opportunities to consider these facts and perspectives, simply because the information was not easily accessible. Perhaps the circle of content that you consume is not wide enough to allow for the visibility of these issues. And maybe it's just very difficult for you to imagine Hawai’i as anything other than the romanticized way it has been framed time and time again.
This is precisely the reason why choosing a non-Hawaiian Wedding Planner/Designer is a rookie move. Same as you, many wedding professionals that were not born in Hawai’i often lack the fundamental understanding of the legacy of oppression and how that perpetuates into every facet of life in Hawai’i. They lack connection and resources that come from lifetimes of familial and community networks, which translates to fewer dollars being kept within the local community. And oftentimes, they have not spent the time necessary to holistically understand Hawaiian cultural and spiritual practices; which has been proven to manifest itself as gross cultural appropriation. Your Wedding Planner is supposed to be your expert, guiding you through one of the most special days of your life. But what if your guide does not possess the tools to give you something authentic, and is only capable of a replica instead?
It’s your wedding and you are in charge;
so with this new information, I ask you to empower yourself.
If you are considering getting married in Hawai’i,
here are some tips on how to do so conscientiously:
1. Listen to a Hawaiian Perspective
- A great place to start is to read Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i by Hōkūlani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez which is a collection of essays, stories, artworks, maps, and tour itineraries which aim to illustrate the multilayered and holistic version of Hawai‘i’s culture and complex history. This will help you to decide if Hawai’i is indeed an appropriate place to have your wedding.
2. Support Native Hawaiian Wedding Professionals
- The most direct way to support the indigenous community is with your buying power. Here are some recommended questions to qualify your wedding professionals.
- Ask how long they’ve lived in Hawaii; how long their family has been here. Bring up protests for Native Hawaiian rights and what their thoughts are on the issues.
- Discuss in depth Hawaiian cultural practices such as hula, and inquire about which dances would be most appropriate for your wedding.
- Do this with your planners, designers, officiants, you name it!
- Don’t just stop at the entertainment. Get as involved as possible and ask for specifics. Your genuine curiosity is appreciated.
3. Research Your Wedding Venue
- Doing a quick news search on your prospective venues could save you from making an incredibly ignorant, culturally insensitive, and expensive decision. For example, currently, Native Hawaiians are opposing further construction on Kualoa Ranch, a very popular wedding venue on the island of O'ahu, as the area is quite literally a Native Hawaiian graveyard. Imagine not doing your research and showing up to a group of protestors on your wedding day (yikes!).
4. Reduce Your Impact
- The last thing Hawai’i needs is for you to ship something in, then leave all of your packaging waste in our landfills when you go home. Some ways to do this are:
- Request local flowers and leis from your florist. We grow exceptionally beautiful roses, orchids, protea, anthuriums, ginger, wild flowers, and greenery all within the state; so you can support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint.
- Purchase your wedding favors and decor locally. This is something that any good wedding planner can help you coordinate. There are so many great artists and artisans in Hawai’i. Plus, local products double as a vacation souvenir for your guests.
Finally, please examine your motives for getting married in Hawai’i. Do you care about the culture and making clear distinctions from authentic and replica? Do you care to support the Native Hawaiian community at large with your purchasing power? Do you care to be an ally for Indigenous Rights and an equitable future? If you find yourself unable to be accountable to any of these questions, then you don’t understand what a privilege it is to get married in Hawai'i, and how just visiting without being intentional can have adverse impacts on this special place. If that is the case, then perhaps you should reconsider coming at all. But for anybody truly wanting to learn about the culture and people native to Hawai’i, I hope I have provided you with some tools to help plan a wedding that is as respectful as it is beautiful.
Native Hawaiian Wedding Expert & Floral Designer
Events by Darren Keala