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.
“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