Tropical night controversy brings cultural misappropriation to U of S

The University of Saskatchewan Arts and Science Student Union has come under fire from students who felt that the group’s Hawaiian night fundraiser is a case of cultural misappropriation.

The event’s theme, which has since been changed to “Tropical night,” drew criticism from students for being insensitive to Indigenous Hawaiian culture.

“They had this idea that it’s cold, it’s winter, so let’s do something to warm people up, so they came forward with the idea of ‘Tropical night’ and I was kind of uncomfortable,” said Melissa Gan, Arts and Science representative on University Students’ Council. “When the event was released to the public as ‘Hawaiian night,’ that was definitely cultural appropriation.”

The event’s posters originally featured a 1950s image of a female tourist surfing in a bikini and wearing a Hawaiian flower necklace known as a lei, a portayal which many Indigenous Hawaiians feel oversimplifies and misrepresents their culture. A second version of the posters, which replaced the original image with a palm tree, were also altered to remove the word “aloha,” a term that some feel represents a commercialization of Hawaiian culture.

Katie Kamelamela, a PhD student at the University of Hawaii, was video-called into a meeting between the ASSU and members of the U of S Department of Native Studies. Kamelamela said that these tourist images were a mechanism to erase Indigenous culture on the Hawaiian islands. The sexualization of Kanaka Maoli — native Hawaiian — men and women, is still a particularly contentious issue.

ASSU President Samantha Gauvin said the event’s theme was not meant to offend anyone.

The first poster was met with criticisms of perpetuating Hawaiian stereotypes through the depiction of a woman wearing lei and surfing.

The first poster was met with criticisms of perpetuating Hawaiian stereotypes through the depiction of a woman wearing lei and surfing.

Now changed to ‘Tropical Night,’ the ASSU was told to remove the word “aloha” to avoid cultural misappropriation.

Now changed to ‘Tropical Night,’ the ASSU was told to remove the word “aloha” to avoid cultural misappropriation.

The final poster for the ASSU ‘Tropical night’ with “aloha” removed.

The final poster for the ASSU ‘Tropical night’ with “aloha” removed.

“Our intention wasn’t to represent any minority culture — it was more of the tourism aspect of Hawaii. We did it to bring warmth to a cold atmosphere,” Gauvin said.

Erica Lee, the fourth-year political studies student who posted the original complaint on the event’s Facebook page, said the tourism aspect of the poster was the root of the problem.

“What we see of Hawaiian culture tends to be things like flower necklaces and grass skirts, but its much more complex than that and it’s a lot less touristy than that makes it out to be,” Lee said.

The original posters featuring the offensive image were replaced at the ASSU’s expense hours after Lee’s complaint was posted.

“It’s our position that we dealt with this quickly, diplomatically and fairly. Our cause isn’t to debate the issue any more; we simply want to host a fundraiser. We’ve made the changes that were requested of us, I’m not sure there’s anything left on the posters that can be seen as controversial,” said ASSU Vice-President Academic Affairs Taylor Andreas.

The ASSU met with Lee and members of the Department of Native Studies on Jan. 17 to discuss the situation and to determine the best course of action to avoid future incidents.

Adam Gaudry, an assistant professor in the Department of Native Studies, credited the ASSU for their swift action in dealing with the issue and said he sees the outcome as a positive resolution to a negative situation.

“We can create a culture where it’s OK to screw up, it’s OK to resolve things and people will respect that and we can move and do something better,” Gaudry said.

The misuse of Kanaka Maoli culture is part of a larger issue about the misappropriation of Indigenous cultures as a whole.

“There’s a high school in [Saskatoon] having this issue; there’s the Washington Redskins and it’s a big issue in the United States, so it’s part of a bigger conversation,” Gaudry said.

Each year, the ASSU chooses a charity to support. This year, the ASSU chose the Student Wellness Initiative Towards Community Health — an organization that provides after-hours medical care through a clinic on Saskatoon’s west side. All proceeds from the tropical night event will be donated to SWITCH.

Yet, Gan says that the event’s charitable connection shouldn’t protect the ASSU from public scrutiny.

“We knew that they had good intentions, but I guess the way things like this work is that even if you have a good idea in place, it can still come off as offensive or harmful towards people and their culture,” Gan said.

Lee said she and Gan have not received a lot of public support for voicing their concerns, but that many students have shown their support in private.

“We haven’t felt like we’re only representing a few voices — there have been a lot of people noting they felt the same way and we’re glad we spoke up about it,” Lee said.

However, not all students feel this way. Some have criticized Lee and Gan for taking the political correctness argument too far.

“If people in Hawaii were to have a Canadian party and wear plaid and say ‘eh’ a lot, I’m pretty sure no one would be offended,” wrote fourth-year political studies student Mike Albert on the event’s Facebook page.

Gaudry said that it’s important to recognize that not everyone is an equal stakeholder in the representation of the Kanaka Maoli people.

“It’s difficult when we’re dealing with Indigenous groups that aren’t from here in just that we’re constantly sold these images,” said Rob Innis, an assistant professor in the Department of Native Studies. “For the Indigenous people of Hawaii, these are the images that are used to oppress them.”

Yet, both sides said they see something to gain from the debate.

“We’re in a time where we can speak up for Indigenous cultures that may not be able to have a voice,” Kamelamela said. “So we just want to say that we’re appreciative that this conversation can occur.”

Gauvin said the situation is something both she and the ASSU can learn from.

“It’s alarming that we have been viewed as discriminating, but we acknowledge that the offence was made and we’re taking this as a learning experience,” Gauvin said.


Photos: Supplied by ASSU

  • ty

    “If people in Hawaii were to have a Canadian party and wear plaid and say ‘eh’ a lot, I’m pretty sure no one would be offended.”

    Although I understand the comparison, I don’t think it’s a logical parallel. A Canadian themed party and a Hawaiian themed party have different connotations – one more negative than the other – because of the level of marginalization members of that culture may feel on a historical or day-to-day basis. We’re talking about using cultural elements in a lighthearted way when at the same time, these elements may be the source of prosecution or discrimination for those who actually come from those cultures.

    I like to think that political correctness* is a process that will ultimately make society better in the long run. It’s because we’re all caught in the middle of this transition that is so challenging (and maybe annoying to some). It’s a responsibility (different than guilt or fault) for our generation to respond appropriately to such criticisms, and the ASSU has done the right thing in lieu of Gan and Lee’s comments. Yeah, for others it might seem nit-picky, but I certainly feel better knowing that if someone was in fact prosecuted or offended for being Canadian, wearing plaid and saying “eh”, then these are the same people who will stand up for you, too.

    *My definition: Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
    (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/political+correctness – not definition 2)

    • Just no

      I think political correctness is ultimately a process that will degrade people of supposed “privilege” into a collective doormat. What a wad of garbage.

    • ty

      I’m sorry, I don’t understand your argument. How is supporting positive social change to counteract years of historical injustices a process that will turn people into doormats? And who exactly are you talking about when you say the “supposed ‘privileged'”?

    • Just no

      Spare me some grace.

      Because this is YOUR change justified by YOUR GROUP’S positivist claim that people are being somehow slighted. Are you ABSOLUTELY SURE this is the right way forward? Because I’m ABSOLUTELY SURE it isn’t. This type of “marginalization” rhetoric is a monolithic self fulfilling prophecy that is breeding a generation full of impotent narcissistic rage that achieves cathexis by attacking the nearest target. Looks like it was the ASSU this time. So punk rock!

      Whatever, I was an edgy teenager once too. I grew out of it.

      What qualifies you to be defining what “positive” change is? I’m guessing its this: Nothing. Here’s a complimentary reality slap: No one with any real power to change anything would ever respect this type of arbitrary finger-wagging. I’m hoping good sense doesn’t require me to prove this.

      As for that definition, it looks fantastic on a computer screen, but so does Communism.

      “But the Hawaiians had it made before the white man colonized the world!”

      Better throw that Iphone in the trash.

    • ty

      Your very arguments apply to yourself and others, too, like the posters below, indicating a double standard. In fact, your arguments apply more to those critical of this change than Gan and Lee themselves, because what they did was not narcissistic at all.
      In principle, you’re saying that tackling past injustices breeds narcissism, and is therefore the wrong way forward. Well, those critical of Gan and Lee are certainly breeding a generation of narcissistic ragers achieving cathexis by attacking the nearest target (those who speak up about offences). Typical narcissistic comments include: “If that happened to my culture, I wouldn’t be offended”, “My intention wasn’t to hurt them, so they shouldn’t be so offended”, or “I don’t understand why they’re so upset – they need to just calm down”. Insensitivity/indifference feeds narcissism, empathy does not. So, if combatting narcissism is what you truly believe is right, then it makes more sense for you to support Gan and Lee, not oppose them.
      Perhaps I may be wrong, in which case, I ask for your definition of narcissism.

      I don’t have an IPhone – and I truly was and am confused about many of the points in your posts, and politely request clearer explanations for your arguments.

    • Just no

      lol

    • Kade

      Well attacking ty’s person rather than addressing their arguments certainly isn’t the type of rhetoric that Plato would have supported, that’s for sure.

    • Just no

      This was never an argument. Ty’s is the work of a preacher.

    • ty

      Sorry, I don’t know what that means

  • Yea.

    Racism should not be tolerated, but attempting to move in and start shutting everything down when one cultural group takes an interest in another non European one is nonsensical; this isn’t some horrible Residential School type plot to assimilate and destroy a culture. I hope people will start to relax and not be so inclined to bellow out a passionate condemnation of an innocent non-issue for level-headed people. Also, it’s worrisome that in an increasingly globalized world where cultures meet, and may in fact mix, that there are many people who seem to think they are more enlightened than their peers and appear to be jumping at any chance they can to be offended at imagined and innocent slights.

    • Kade

      I just wanted to point out that nothing was shut down – the event is still happening. Secondly, you’re making the assumption that racism is independent from taking an interest in another culture, when in fact, these can overlap. Thirdly, I certainly hope your spectrum of offence is much more comprehensive than just either “Not Racist” and “Assimilative”; there’s a whole lot in between. Fourthly, which has greater weight: 1) keeping an event in its entirety at the expense of a group’s marginalization, or 2) changing an event, having virtually no effect on those attending/others, and reconciling the issue with the aforementioned offended?

    • Graham

      The stupid thing about this whole situation is that no one involved is actually Hawaiian. You know you have a retarded issue when you have to contact someone a few thousand miles away to see if a Hawaiian party hurt their feelings. Now a days people go out of their way to be offended. Isn’t great when you see a topic that could be offensive then do research to find out if you’re offended or not. Everyone needs to grow the fuck up.

    • Graham

      Oh, let me guess, If I don’t capitalize hawaiian that is offensive too.

    • Kade

      You do realize that this issue only becomes more and more “annoying/immature” to you because students like you keep arguing with someone feeling offended? The ASSU changed the poster; things were dealt with. Gan and Lee aren’t the ones who need to calm down. The real grown-up thing to do here is to shake hands and move on.

    • Just no

      “You know you have a retarded issue when you have to contact someone a few thousand miles away to see if a Hawaiian party hurt their feelings.”

      long distance butthurt

    • $:1234

      Using the word retard is juvenile. Your intellect is clearly lacking.

  • Bob Dole

    These time-wasting PC assholes are ridiculous. Fuck the fuck off.

    • Kade

      Good argument.

  • Guest

    Technically their argument is valid. Is this cultural appropriation. Yes. But somehow, something about this whole controversy feels wrong. I think it has something to do with the fact that there is a long step between a culturally themed charity event, and overt racism through directly hurtful comments and actions that have no room for interpretation. Where is the line drawn? When does something cross over from being an appreciation of culture to appropriation? Should all cultures be kept separate in older to be correct at all times? I think that’s the real question that is being asked. The vast majority of people felt that this event was okay. But what does that even mean anyways? Just because something is supported, doesn’t mean it’s okay. Perhaps there could be some compromise though on the part of those opposing this event. Is this the most derogatory thing to ever be planned by a student union? Are there perhaps more important things that should be of focus?By saying that this is a racist event, you are saying that everyone involved in planning this event, or who supports that event has a racist tendency. Or at least that’s the implication. Some might say that’s a slippery slope argument in itself, but really that is the undertone. You’ve planned an event that included cultural appropriation, and it was wrong of you to do so. So no wonder people are offended and defensive of their actions.
    Basically, to come full circle – technically, all the arguments of those that oppose this event are valid, but maybe it takes more than just being right on paper to win an argument.

  • A.L.

    I am so sickened and turned off by that fact that people have nothing better to do than cry about this, and make an issue out of a harmless theme party. This whole culture of political correctness has gotten WAY OUT OF HAND! These students who think the ASSU was culturally misappropriating have got to get a life and remove that stick up there.
    I just got back from Hawaii this January, and guess who pimps out the Hawaiian culture the most? The Hawaiians themselves! I swear, it’s like some people (and groups/organizations, including those on the U of S who will go unmentioned) have simply made a career out of getting offended!

  • Plato

    So let me get this straight: non-Hawaiians are appropriating the culture when? When they spend thousands of dollars on a plane ticket, hotel, food, drink, entertainment, nice cotton/floral clothing, beach wear, souvenirs, and/or thousand more on a destination wedding? Or just when they spend a buck and a half at the dollar store? I am also confused about why Erica Lee and Melissa Gan think they can speak for or ‘represent’ the Hawaiian nation through their complaints. Do they actually have a member of each Indigenous nation of the Americas on speed dial for such occasions? This would be laughable if it was not so pitiful.

    • Simonnymous

      Spending money doesn’t undo the harm caused to Hawaiian culture.
      In fact, treating it like a tourist window dressing, a quaint way to enjoy a week is what is doing the harm in this day and age.

      That said, what has been said and done in the name of “political correctness” for this event is ridiculous and it has been farcical.
      More harm than good has been done to the cause of not being racist, and I hope that Erica Lee and Melissa Gan are aware of this.

  • Kaminanonymous

    Did anyone else find the fact that the Sheaf issue running this story had a line of hula girls along the top of the front page at best ironic, and at worst at least as bad as naming an event “Hawaiian Night”?

    Also, while the event was certainly opening the door to appropriation and derogatory costumes, the ASSU handled it very well and by the time the story hit the press everything had bee resolved and sorted to what should’ve been satisfaction. But rather than acknowledge that everything had been done to avoid controversy, and despite acknowledging that all was done in good faith, they’ve still been dragged through the muck.

    This is all playing into the hands of the rich and powerful who want to divide white people (and what does that even mean, Irish and Italians were not white 100 years ago) from other people in order to keep their own hegemonic control.