Saturday, 19 November 2016

Is Tiki "Cultural Appropriation"?

Short of the annual controversies over what are and are not appropriate Halloween costumes, there are perhaps few better candidates for accusations of "cultural appropriation" than Tiki culture. Today, Tiki is mostly a nostalgic niche interest, as evidenced by Disney's creation of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar. Tiki bars are becoming increasingly numerous across the world, but have yet to enjoy the same cultural penetration that they did in the mid-century. Rather than an example of a vibrant, vital wind of Tiki blowing through society, Trader Sam's is a deliberate thematic element in their retro-Fifties refit of the Disneyland Hotel. Its thatched roof is only a stone's throw from a replica of the theme park's original sign from 1958. The origins of that mid-century milieu - of Tiki bars, tropical drinks, exotic Jazz, and "Polynesian Pop" - are shrouded in the ambiguities of colonial exploitation, tropical fantasy, artistic inspiration, and tasteless kitsch. Tiki culture grew out of America's relationship with Hawaii and the South Pacific, which was alternately a theatre of imperial occupation and deep cultural fascination. With that in mind, Tiki becomes an interesting laboratory to examine where the line is to be drawn between appropriation, appreciation, and acculturation.

Unlike my previous articles delving into potentially controversial subjects - Feminism and the Disney Princesses and Tropes vs. Men in Disney - where I refrained from tackling the thorny issues of feminist theory in-and-of-itself, the discussion over whether Tiki is cultural appropriation requires an examination of cultural appropriation theory. Much of the question over whether Tiki is appropriate hinges on whether cultural appropriation theory is actually valid.

The website Everyday Feminism describes cultural appropriation as "when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that's not their own... a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group." Their article What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm goes on to list several ways in which these acts of adopting or assimilating aesthetic, culinary, and cultural objects from cultures in asymmetrical power relationships are perceived to cause harm. These reasons include the trivialization of historic oppression, being fascinated by a culture while indifferent to the problems facing the people of that culture, allowing people from the dominant group to profit off the products of an oppressed culture, and racist stereotyping.

Yet despite a damning critique of how harmful cultural exchange in asymmetrical power relationships is perceived to be, this one-line ends the article: "I'm not saying you automatically can't enjoy Mexican food if you're not Mexican, or do a yoga-inspired practice if you're not Indian, or use any other culturally specific practice in the US. But I am encouraging you to be thoughtful about using things from other cultures, to consider the context, and learn about the best practices to show respect." That is good advice, but author Maisha Z. Johnson offers no insight whatsoever into what "the best practices to show respect" might be. Linked to the article is another on the apparent moral minefield that is dining out. "When it comes to food, what's appropriation and what's not can be tricky to think about," writes Rachel Kuo. Like Johnson before her, Kuo acknowledges that "It might not be appropriation if you're White and you love eating dumplings and hand pulled noodles. Enjoying food from another culture is perfectly fine." and then proceeds to explain everything that is wrong with it (while using the racist epithet "White").

Nadra Kareem Nittle, in her article What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?, opens by saying "Because people from hundreds of different ethnicities make up the U.S. population, it’s not surprising that at times cultural groups rub off on each other. Americans who grow up in diverse communities may pick up the dialect, customs and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them." But adds "Cultural appropriation is an entirely different matter." Yet over the course of her article, she neglects to explain how, and proceeds to criticize musicians who "picked up" styles of music and dress from other cultural groups in the United States.

That these authors should be able to write at length about the problems of cultural appropriation and virtually nothing convincing about what constitutes healthy multiculturalism suggests that grievance-based progressive activists actually have no meaningful solutions to the problems they perceive (which is perhaps why they so frequently resort to public shaming and harassment of individuals while claiming to fight systemic problems). The purpose of it seems to be to inculcate a lingering and unsolvable sense of personal guilt. It might not be racist to eat a $1 cup of ramen, but they don't tell you how to know, likely because they themselves don't know. Furthermore, it suggests that cultural appropriation theory actually has no concept of healthy multiculturalism, wherein cultural exchanges can serve a positive function even with asymmetrical power relationships (or especially because of them). Some have argued that the modern political climate is seeing a rise in overt anti-democratic, anti-multicultural attitudes among those considering themselves progressive. Most damning of all, this oversight highlights that such cultural theorists lack a nuanced understanding of what "culture" is altogether.

Cultural appropriation theory seems to treat a culture as a rigid, defined, circumscribed unit of practices that are the exclusive property of a specific group of people which remain unchanged through time unless negatively affected by an oppressor group, who may proceed to "steal" the products of that culture. But that is just not how culture works. Some argue that it is not even technically possible to "steal" a culture, because "theft" implies deprivation of use which does not happen when somebody else indulges in a cultural practice. On the contrary, culture is extremely fluid, the sum of numerous of intersecting variables like climate and religion and government and food and music and education and economy and resources and visual arts and shared history, that combine, recombine, and adapt in myriad ways through time, innovation, and contact with other cultures. We can see a good historical example of this in the settlement of Polynesia itself.

When a tourist arrives at Honolulu and spies the statue of Kamehameha the Great, resplendent in bronze with his feathered cape and headdress, they might be forgiven for thinking that his conquest and unification of the Hawaiian Islands happened some time in the distant, near-mythical past. On the contrary, Kamehameha was sweeping across the islands at the same time that Napoleon was sweeping across Europe. Unification of Hawaii took place in 1810, due in no small part to Kamehameha's exploitation of European weapons and the sad plague unleashed on Native Hawaiians by European diseases. Prior to the conqueror, each of the islands was replete with chiefs and kings and cultures of their own. This unification mirrored the emergence of the modern nation-state out of countless feudal European duchies. The birth of nationalism sought to unite diverse peoples sharing a common language group, stories, etc. under the banner of a single, national political unit where they had previously identified with a city-state, a barony, a clan, or other smaller unit. The idea of Hawaii was essentially created in historic times.

Statue of Kamehameha the Great, Honolulu.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
2000 years before Kamehameha, daring seafarers from the Marquesas landed on the shores of the Big Island. Empty of human occupation, they quickly filled it, along with their pigs, chickens, dogs, taro, coconut, banana, and other agricultural staples. Up to 1280 CE, Hawaii appeared to remain in contact with Tahiti, with a certain degree of cultural exchange. According to linguistics, Hawaiian and Rarotongan (Cook Islands, near Tahiti) languages are closely related, in the same grouping as Maori and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Interestingly, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui mark the three corners of the "Polynesian Triangle" and may have been the last to be colonized by ancient Polynesian explorers. The languages of Samoa and Tuvalu occupy the sister branch to Hawaiian/Maori/Rapa Nui/Rarotongan, and that grouping is a sister branch to Tongan. Those languages are collectively known as the Polynesian languages, and are sister to Fijian, and on it goes.

The tradition of surfing seems to been held most strongly in Hawaii and Tahiti, with variations in Samoa and Tonga. Each culture developed its own forms, traditions, rites, and rules concerning the sport. In Hawaii, a commoner could suffer the extreme penalty for catching a wave that should belong to a king. Tattooing is common across Polynesia, but takes different forms in different cultures. Samoan tradition holds that tattooing arrived via Fiji, and its geometric designs across the back and sides tended to denote rank. The spiraling designs of Maori tattoos were placed on the face, rear, and thighs of men, and the lips and chins of women. To overcome problems of appropriation, some Maori have adopted the concept of kirituhi for Maori-inspired tattoos as distinct from traditional tā moko, with its cultural and genealogical protocols.

Maori activist Tame Iti. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Samoan tattoo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Luaus and Polynesian revues tend to feature dances and outfits from across the islands, but while these cultures have many things in common, they are not interchangeable. The symbolism, ritual meaning, and protocols of different dances vary throughout Polynesian cultures. Some deities are held in common, or in comparable form, while others are unique. Tangaroa/Tagaloa/Ta'aroa is a common supreme deity, but Pele is unique to Hawaii. Rongo, the god of Cultivated Food, represents peace to the Maori and war to the Mangaians. To those with a discerning eye, the artistic representations of those deities also differ across Polynesia. These cultures are excellent examples of how cultures migrate, transfer, evolve, and are shaped by their environments. The ongoing process of evolution is called "cultural diffusion" ("the spread of beliefs, language, and activities across different genes, ethnicities, nationalities, and regions") and "acculturation" ("cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture").

A sampling of art from across Polynesia:
Cook Islands 
New Zealand
Rapa Nui
All photos: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most rapid, dramatic, far-reaching, and disastrous forms of cultural exchange that can happen is colonization. When one culture is occupied by another, it places governmental, military, economic, and social pressures on a people to alter or entirely give up aspects of their culture, in turn adopting the culture of their occupiers. Colonialism exploits the resources and indigenous peoples of a region, and some critics see tourism as the modern extension of this exercise in Polynesia. Over 8 million tourists are drawn to Hawaii each year, whereupon they indulge cultural tourism opportunities like luaus and visiting heritage sites, against the backdrop of a pervasive tourism industry. On the one hand, commercial luaus performed at resorts across the islands (or Disney's Polynesian Village Resort) can act as ambassadors for Hawaiian culture, but on the other hand, these once-sacred rites performed for gaping tourists during all-you-can-eat buffets can commoditize and colonize the practice, divesting it of authentic meaning, and disenfranchise Native Hawaiians from their own traditions.

Haunani Kay-Trask's influential essay Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture takes the Hawaiian tourism industry to task for what she perceives as being its continuing the process of American colonization begun with the Bayonet Constitution and the overthrown of the Hawaiian monarchy.
In Hawai'i, the destruction of our land and the prostitution of our culture is planned and executed by multinational corporations (both foreign-based and Hawai'i-based), by huge landowners (like the missionary-descended Castle and Cook—of Dole Pineapple fame—and others) and by collaborationist state and country governments.  The ideological gloss that claims tourism to be our economic savior and the "natural" result of Hawaiian culture is manufactured by ad agencies (like the state supported Hawai'i Visitors’ Bureau) and tour companies (many of which are owned by the airlines), and spewed out to the public through complicitous cultural engines like film, television and radio, and the daily newspapers... corporate tourism in Hawai'i commodifies Native culture for the global tourism market.  Because the selling of Hawai'i depends on the prostitution of Hawaiian culture, Hawaiians and other locals must supply the industry with compliant workers.  Thus our Hawaiian people---and not only our Hawaiian culture---become commodities."
"In this little grotesquerie," as she describes an advertisement for resort luau, "the falseness and commercialism fairly scream out from the page.  Our language, our dance, our young people, even our costumes of eating are used to ensnare tourists.  And the price is only a paltry $39.95, not much for two thousand years of culture.  Of course, the hotel will rake in tens of thousands of dollars on just the lu'au alone.  And our young couple will make a pittance."

She further articulates the ways in which the imposition of American cultural values and the tourism industry alienate Native Hawaiians from their land and traditional culture. Yet many of the concerns she raises, while absolutely legitimate, are the same problems shared by every tourism-based economy forced to negotiate between the needs of locals and the allure of tourist dollars. For example, The economic impact of Disneyland in Anaheim is astonishing: 17 million tourists generate $5.7 billion dollars annually, employing 28,000 people, and paying out $370 million in taxes. With the additional 1 million visitors to conventions in the nearby Anaheim Convention Center, tourists vastly outnumber the 350,000 people who actually live in Anaheim. The clean, aesthetically-pleasing, well-developed resort area belies the neglect suffered by other areas of the city. The percentage of families making <$10k and $10K-$20K is higher than state averages (5.8% to 4.7% and 8.7% to 7.6% respectively), as is the percentage of families making $50K-$60K (8.9% to 7.1%). However, Anaheim also has lower than state average income in the $60K-$75K and >$200K brackets (7.8% to 9.7% and 6.6% to 9.2%). Orange County has the 9th highest cost of living in the United States. The costs of tourism are not explicitly a continuation of colonization.

Furthermore, Kay-Trask doesn't seem to consider the role of tourism in helping to recover and restore cultural practices negatively affected by colonization. Erik Cohen, in his article Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism, observes:
One has to bear in mind that commoditization often hits a culture not when it is flourishing, but when it is actually already in decline, owing to the impingement of outside forces preceding tourism. Under such circumstances, the emergence of a tourist market frequently facilitates the preservation of a cultural tradition which would otherwise perish. It enables its bearers to maintain a meaningful local or ethnic identity which they might otherwise have lost. This is particularly the case in the sphere of folk arts and crafts, many of which are in decline in Third World countries owing to the penetration of industrial goods and Western consumer tastes-but some of which have been salvaged or revived through demand by the tourist market (cf. Graburn ed. 1976). Finally, even where a cultural tradition still flourishes, its commoditization may well be emically perceived by its members as less of a change than it appears to an external analyst. While to the external observer, commoditization may appear to involve a complete transformation of meaning as a cultural product is being reoriented to a new, external audience. In many situations of commoditization, the performers themselves do not necessarily perceive that such a transformation had in fact occurred. Rather, despite the changed context, they may perceive an often astonishing degree of continuity between the old and the new situation.  
The issues are complex, with a wide range of benefits and challenges for which a simplistic theory of cultural appropriation is ill-equipped to cope. Cultural appropriation theory appears to hinge on the question of authenticity - a commercial luau is inauthentic commoditization while a traditional lu'au is authentic - which is itself a product of modernity. More specifically, the quest for authenticity is rooted in the alienation of the individual from modern society. Cohen describes this quest:
Since modern society is inauthentic, those modern seekers who desire to overcome the opposition between their authenticity-seeking self and society have to look elsewhere for authentic life... It is a quest for that unity between the self and societal institutions, which endowed pre-modern existence with 'reality' (Berger 1973:85). The alienated modern tourist in quest of authenticity hence looks for the pristine, the primitive, the natural, that which is as yet untouched by modernity. He hopes to find it in other times and other places (MacCannell 1976: lSO), since it is absent from his own world.  
The perspective brought to the quest for authenticity by an indigenous person will be different from that brought by a tourist, but the essential mechanic is the same. Modernity is perceived as an alienating system of oppression, from which one must escape into a more authentic, pre-modern culture, whether their own or someone else's. But, as Cohen goes on to note, not all people share the same feeling of alienation or ascribe to it the same causes and consequences. He also describes a new class of activity dubbed "emergent authenticity": the process by which "a cultural product, or a trait thereof, which is at one point generally judged as contrived or inauthentic may, in the course of time, become generally recognized as authentic..." He applies this to tourism and products made for foreign markets but it may be extended more broadly to an entire society as the process by which a culture shapes new authentic practices in response to modernity. Reactionary counter-culturalism is not the only possible response.

When Disney set about building a resort on the island of Oahu, their initial consultation with Native Hawaiians was disastrous. "It was so wrong that it was entertaining," recalled Maile Meyer, one of the consultants. "They spent a lot of money and they just said 'Oops, we got it wrong,'" she continues. "They hired us. They started over." Artist Solomon Enos, who had opposed resort development in the area in his youth, is among the many indigenous artists commissioned to supply work for Disney's Aulani. Of his involvement, he said "I guess the more involved you are in these kinds of developments, the more opportunities we have to create dialogue... If you're not at the table you're on the menu." Enos' final line might sound more like resignation, and may highlight the fact that Native Hawaiians have little say in whether there will be tourism in their society. They can, however, exert influence over how that tourism may look. Disney is still presenting a certain constructed, romanticized artifice of Hawaii within the seclusion of a resort that is beyond the financial capacity of most Native Hawaiians to enjoy, but is still lauded by many as having engaged Native Hawaiians to ensure that it is more representative than what one may find at the Polynesian Village Resort or Sunshine Pavilion (as well as economically giving back significantly to the surrounding community).  

The question coming out of Kay-Trask's essay is whether all Native Hawaiians agree with her point of view that tourism and the consumption of Hawaiian cultural products is necessarily a form of colonial oppression. Anticipating that question, she does acknowledge that her view is not universal, weakly ascribing the honest difference of opinion to ignorance and victimization:
Of course, many Hawaiians do not see tourism as part of their colonization.  Thus tourism is viewed as providing jobs, not as a form of cultural prostitution.  Even those who have some glimmer of critical consciousness don't generally agree that the tourist industry prostitutes Hawaiian culture.  To me, this is a measure of the depth of our mental oppression:  we can't understand our own cultural degradation because we are living it.  As colonized people, we are colonized to the extent that we are unaware of our oppression.  
A Reddit thread begun by a concerned fan of Tiki style outlines some of the most positive points of view. To their credit, the poster of the thread was wondering what Native Hawaiians thought of Tiki, especially since he was going to be moving to the Big Island. One responder said:
I live on the Big Island. I wouldn't be so worried about it. People here wouldn't take offense to your choice of decoration. They would just think its a bit cheesy. When you get here you will have ample time to take in local culture and style, and perhaps then you'll find more sophisticated, true to Hawaiian and other Polynesian culture forms of decoration. There are several great wood craft shops island wide, and many local art shops... In general, people here are very good at sharing the history and legends of Hawaii and local customs, so enjoy! And after you learn a bit more, you probably will upgrade your choice of decoration to the real deal anyway.
And another:
I can't speak for the entire native population, but personally I do not find "Americanized" tiki (or ki'i in Hawaiian) offensive. Honestly, I doubt most native Hawaiians are going to care if you collect them. It would maybe be different if those deities were still worshipped today, but very few are.
These are samples in a general attitude to be found throughout comments on the subject. Most seem to consider Tiki to be maybe a little obnoxious but not that offensive in the greater scheme of things, yet the more genuine cultural history of Hawaii and other Polynesian cultures is that much better. There is a reason for that which I will speculate on later in this essay.

Of course, a concerned party felt the need to explain why Tiki is "problematic":
The problem stems from the fact that much of the icons of classic Americana is steeped in hidden messages of white power, colonialism and racism. Ironically, we are seeing a view of that time as a more "innocent" time and thus more clean. Much of the 1950's "tiki" themed elements were a by product of a movement to make the colonization of the Pacific island nations palatable to the American public. It justified the slaughter of hundreds of people because Americans thought of it as creating a paradise for Americans. 
To which someone raised the obvious question: "When were hundreds of Hawaiians slaughtered? There was one death from the overthrow of the kingdom."

Obfuscating the question of cultural appropriation is that much of the concern does not generate from the culture ostensibly being appropriated. There is a growing trend in "cultural appropriation policing" in which the purported appropriation of one culture is conflated with the issues facing other marginally-related groups (if that). This runs the risk of enacting an even deeper and more ingrained form of appropriation where the actual culture, history, and voices of a group are being overwritten and misrepresented by those claiming to defend its integrity.

An incident at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada had the students' union come under fire from First Nations activists for holding a generically tropical-themed "Hawaiian Party." It is easy enough to see how these activists made the connection that fighting for the dignity of one indigenous group inculcated a culture of respect for their own, even in something as completely irrelevant and innocuous as a limbo party on a campus of a small university in a small city on the Canadian prairies. It was never really about Hawaiian culture.

An especially potent example happened in the summer of 2015. After a lengthy restoration process, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston toured the Claude Monet painting La Japonaise as part of an exhibit called Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, partly funded by the Japanese broadcast network NHK. The painting features Monet's wife Camille wearing a formal uchikake  kimono and a blonde wig to accent her European ethnicity, as the artist's comment on the mutual cultural exchange between Europe and Japan during the 19th century. The exhibit was first shown in Nashville, after which it toured to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nagoya, Japan. Part of the tour was a replica of the same kimono worn by Camille Monet in the painting, financed by NHK and produced in Japan, which visitors were welcome to wear. When it arrived in Boston, this concept incensed a small group of protesters, who descended on the MFA with a hew and cry was over "cultural appropriation." The group organizing the protests issued a statement saying "The act of non-Japanese museum staff throwing these kimonos on as a 'costume' event is an insult not only to our identities, experiences, and histories as Asian-Americans in America, but affects how society as a whole continues to deny our voices today."

Monet's La Japonaise.
An MFA photo promoting Kimono Wednesdays.
Having taken the initiative to speak as "Asian-Americans in America," the protesters quickly found themselves fending off criticism from Japanese people. One Japanese commenter on the protesters' Facebook page took the protesters to task for their erasure of Japanese identity and the negative effect their protest would have on perception of Japan:
We adore sharing our culture in this way, and we in no way, shape, or form want this kind of ridiculous protest to hinder American's (or anyone of any nationality's) wearing Japanese clothing because they fear they may be perceived as racist... Who are you to stop Japanese people from sharing their own culture overseas?
An article from The Japan Times expressed that "the reaction to the exhibition from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono." Japanese people in Boston staged counter-protests, holding up signs like "I am Japanese, and I am offended that non-Japanese people have hijacked a Japanese exhibit that was started in Japan and well received there." Several embarrassing photos emerged of American protesters lecturing Japanese people over how an article of Japanese culture should be represented, or on the verge of tears over being lectured to by Japanese people.

Disconnect over who can speak for what can cross regions, cultures, and even families. In her article My Indian Parents Are Huge Fans of Cultural Appropriation, Even While My Generation Finds it Appalling, Nikita Redkar expresses youthful incredulity at how her older, wiser parents could just, like, totally not get it:  
I expressed this sentiment to my parents and to my surprise, they saw nothing wrong with people of other races cherry-picking parts of Indian culture. They lauded Jillian Michaels’ yoga series, embraced Selena Gomez’s and Iggy Azalea’s respective interweaving of Indian culture with western music, and admired Kendall Jenner for adorning a bindi at Coachella. To them, it was a sign of their culture gaining mainstream acceptance. To me, it was thievery and a selfish promotion tactic... our parents' generation is bursting with pride at the thought of all the customs they accepted being embraced by the mainstream -- whether it’s being exoticized or not. Our parents see the western infatuation with select parts of their otherwise deeply rich culture less as self-promotion and more as an acknowledgement; it is a cross-cultural equalization they could have never dreamed of.
This may be why, for every activist objecting to non-Indians wearing henna and saris, there is a booth at a community multicultural festival with Indian ladies happy to put henna and saris on non-Indians. Some people do have a concept of healthy multiculturalism in which the sharing of cultural practices is designed to foster understanding, solidarity, and peace. For many of us in North America, multiculturalism is our culture: an immigrant culture quilted together from many different people of many different ethnicities freely expressing their practices, traditions, cuisine, entertainment, etc. in the marketplace and the public sphere. The superficial, blanket observation about my skin colour does nothing to describe the actual culture of which I am part, or consider how accusations of appropriation would act to deprive me of my culture by proscribing what I may or may not participate in. Just as it has no apparent concept of healthy multiculturalism, cultural appropriation theory seems not to have considered that a culture could be intrinsically multicultural.

Perhaps the best rejoinder comes from a comment by a Native American woman on Ariel Meadow Stallings' article Think Twice Before Appointing Yourself Cultural Appropriation Police:
If you are not part of a culture, but have appointed yourself the guardian of that culture, you have committed the greatest appropriation of all. You've taken that culture as your own, for the purposes of moderating its use. That is a show of power over the culture itself, and implies that the people within the culture need your help. We do not, or we will ask. If you see racism, by all means, say something- but do not take it upon yourself to police all use of culture as racism. These are different-but-related concepts, and the lines get blurred. All I ask is that people make more of an effort to curtail the cultural lording, because you are taking our culture itself away from us, not just our outfits and traditions. 
That is not ok.
The question of whether Tiki culture appropriates Polynesian culture may only be a question that can be legitimately answered by Polynesians themselves, and there is no unanimous opinion on the subject.

Nevertheless, this discourse on the complications of cultural appropriation theory is, in a certain sense, all beside the point anyways. Though Tiki culture and Polynesian Pop has pulled substantial influence from traditional Polynesian culture, it was never intended in any sense to represent it. Rather, Tiki style was a reflection of the American experience of the South Pacific, which included the American encounter with Polynesian cultures and landscapes alongside the Pacific War and Cold War experiences, nautical romance, and elements of pure fantasy. Statues of Moai and Ku were ubiquitous, and regularly supplemented with mermaids and shipwrecks. Tiki culture ostensibly began when Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened the first Don the Beachcomber bar in Hollywood in 1933, decorated with the souvenirs of his own voyages around the South Pacific. Far from appropriating Polynesian culture, Tiki culture was the manifestation of how the romance of the South Pacific colonized the American psyche.

The first "Don's Beachcomber Cafe", outside and in.
This may be why many Hawaiians can be cavalier about it. It does not and never did represent them, having lacked any pretense to do so. Tiki culture's focus has always been through - and to a large extent on - the lens of American perception. It is telling that Disneyland Paris' Adventureland lacks the Tiki aesthetic ubiquitous in the company's American parks, opting instead for references to European colonial exploits and adventure stories. It's also telling that the Enchanted Tiki Room has a bunch of birds singing Big Band hits while doing impressions of Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Tiki is a reflection of America's cultural experience, not an appropriation of Polynesian culture. It is an example of Americana, not Polynesia.

That Tiki is not about Polynesia but about America's experience of the Pacific is even acknowledged by Tiki culture's critics. In Daniel Taulapapa McMullin's scathing article Tiki Kitsch, American Appropriation, and the Disappearance of the Pacific Islander Body he recognizes that "These narratives and objects about the Pacific Islands were in fact about the West itself." He goes on, however, to fundamentally misjudge this narrative as an act of heroic mythologizing intended to recapitulate Western superiority. "The idea of a heroic West," he writes, "became naturalized like the western passage of the sun, after the historical wave that once bore it forward had passed." Reciting a self-penned poem, he asserts that Tiki mugs are rendered in "The black brown and ugly that make customers feel white and beautiful." On both counts, McMullin misses how the colonization of the American psyche by the South Pacific reflected a dissatisfaction within American culture rather than an assertion of supremacy.

In the framework of the discussion thus far, it would reasonable to argue that Tiki is an example of emergent authenticity shaped by cultural diffusion and acculturation between the United States and the South Pacific. Aspects of Polynesian aesthetics diffused their way into mid-century Americana, satisfying a longing within American culture. In contrast to the gleaming, hi-tech, fast-paced future promised by the Space Age, Tiki and other so-called "primitive" aesthetics offered a more Earthy emotional release valve. It was sensual in the full sense of the word, as that which arouses the physical senses, reflecting a connection to nature and recollecting ideals of Paradise (Tiki ran alongside a renewed interest in America's National Parks for a comparable reason). And to those living the new suburban dream, it did offer a controlled experience of the extraordinary and exotic, which are feelings mingled with wonder and curiousity. These images appealed to people because, above all else, they were beautiful and interestingOne user of the Tiki Central forum described Tiki bars as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age." Another member has these words, spoken by Hawaiian elder and politician K. Angel Pilago, as a personal motto: "You have not appropriated the Culture of Hawaii…the Culture of Hawaii has appropriated you."

The overlap - not appropriation - of Tiki culture with genuine Polynesian cultures unavoidably led to some situations of inadvertent insensitivity, misrepresentation, plagiarism, and disrespect. Tom Swiss, in his controversial article There is No Such Thing as "Cultural Appropriation" argues that these established concepts offer a more useful way of understanding these issues. "[W]e recognize laziness, dishonesty, and plagiarism as sins all on their own," he says. "We don't need to create a new category to condemn them."
In some circumstances we can fall into the lesser sin of giving insult, of failing to give a polite level of respect to something that someone else considers important... Laziness, dishonesty, plagiarism and — sometimes — disrespect are failings to be avoided. But copying ideas is not a failing. We have been copying from other groups for forever, probably since before we were human.  
Admittedly I do feel a twinge of guilt over the gods of the Enchanted Tiki Room's pre-show. While Pele, Rongo, and Tangaroa might not have too many active worshippers today, they are still an important part of Polynesians' culture and should be treated with due dignity. They just tip-toe across one of my own lines in assessing cultural appropriation: the frivolous and mocking treatment of someone else's spiritual beliefs. Following from that, I believe that one should typically steer clear of items denoting a religious conviction or a formal rank. These are things that must be earned and should be treated seriously, if not for any personal feeling of gravitas then at least out of respect for the people who do have a feeling of their gravitas.

This might explain why I like my "Tiki" at either extreme of complete fantasy or as culturally authentic as practicable... Genuine expressions of Polynesian culture or all mermaids, Disney, and Tiki in-jokes. Walt Disney World's Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar has a number of allusions to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which suits me fine as a fan of Jules Verne. But just across the resort is the Spirit of Aloha dinner show, which I felt could have dispensed with the contrived, Disney storyline and given us straight Polynesian music and dances with their cultural context. I try to exorcise some of the discomfort with the Enchanted Tiki Room lanai gods by posting articles on the traditional beliefs and stories concerning them. On the other end, while en route to Yellowstone National Park we stopped off at the Sip n' Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana, which is famous for its nightly mermaid shows. I largely credit Tiki culture with making me interested in Polynesian culture at all.

Photos from the Sip n' Dip Lounge, Great Falls, Montana.
Or as I like to call it, the Enchanted Tiki Cowboy Bar.

The ultimate problem with cultural appropriation theory is that it is a too-simplistic, too-ideological theory for grappling with the complexities of the real world. It insists on modes of human behaviour that have no historic precedent or practicality in modern, globalized, multicultural society. It seems completely incognizant of what culture even is, how it functions, and how it evolves. Before one can cast judgement on whether Tiki is cultural appropriation, they would first have to demonstrate that cultural appropriation theory is an adequate lens of discourse. As Tiki bars undergo a resurgence, tourism to Hawaii is as strong as ever, and Disney is poised to release the film Moana, the intersection between American and Polynesian cultures is only growing stronger. The question of whether or not something is "cultural appropriation" will not be able to cope. The greater questions are ones of cultural sensitivity, respect, honesty, and how this interest will reflect on the issues facing modern Polynesians, while leaving harmless Tiki fans alone to sip their Mai Tais in innocent peace.


  1. If the issue of cultural appropriation is a "minefield," it's one where the worst consequence of stepping on a mine is an earful of criticism. I think we have a responsibility as relatively privileged people to engage with the questionS, plural. It's not a one-dimensional issue, even if overzealous Tumblrites sometimes treat it as one. There's a spectrum, with "instant ramen" at one end and "white American wearing Plains Indian war bonnet as a fashion statement" on the other, and every shade of sharing and borrowing inbetween. I have no sympathy for anyone looking for a "once and done" answer that will make it okay for them to try out and discard every tradition on the planet.

    Be sensitive, be aware, never stop asking the questions and watching where you put your feet in the "minefield."

  2. Thank you for this post.

    My children were raised in Japan; my second was born there. My first child's first birthday was in Japan. Her first park experience was in Japan. She learned to walk and talk and eat solid foods in Japan. Ditto my second child. They sing more Japanese songs than English songs, watched more Japanese movies than English movies. In fact, they saw Wreck It Ralph in English for the first time this year because we had non-Japanese-speaking guests; until that point, they had only seen it in Japanese. They have more Japanese clothes than American clothes. Their first Bible is Japanese, and we read it every night. My oldest knew どうぞ and ありがとう and はみがき before she knew "have this" and "thank you" and "brush teeth." My youngest can give you the names of her body parts in Japanese, but not in English. They routinely say ごちそうさまでした at the end of a meal (more routinely even than we pray at the beginning of the meal) and we say おやすみ at bedtime. When we visited family in Germany, my second child was very withdrawn until we returned to the proper gate at the airport for our Japan Airlines flight home and found ourselves surrounded by Japanese people, whereupon she came to life with obvious relief that we were no longer among "strangers" (whites, like ourselves) and began flirting with the Japanese おばあさん.

    Japan is their culture. They may not be Japanese, but it is their culture.

    I grew up with a few friends from different cultures. For a while, my mom was convinced I would marry a certain Nigerian man who intended to return to Nigeria. I greatly enjoyed learning about other cultures from my friends. And it infuriates me to no end when people falsely cry about cultural appropriation and make me feel guilty for wanting to know more about other cultures. Had I been at the Boston Museum event with my kids (I wouldn't have, because I was living in Japan at the time, haha), I would have seriously had to bite my tongue over these SJWs trying to tell me my children cannot enjoy their own culture purely because of the color of their skin or the shapes of their eyes. Had they lived in Japan, they would have known how much the Japanese love to share their culture with others. They were speaking out of their own ignorance while condemning others for theirs. "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged..."

    I think it's important to be culturally sensitive. But it's difficult to do so when you have to be constantly afraid that your open-mindedness and curiosity will be construed as racism and you therefore have a rather serious disincentive to learning about other cultures.

    1. Thank you for sharing your family's story! Arigato gozaimasu!