If you’re reading this, you may be a traveler. You’re also likely driven to understand and appreciate other cultures. Engaging with other cultures is, after all, one of the most common reasons people travel! If you want to be a more conscious traveler, and genuinely expand your worldview, read on. If you’re unclear on what cultural appropriation is, you’re not alone. We’ll cover that, and link resources below to help you learn beyond this post.

I open with a confession: I’m a white woman, born 1983, raised in middle class USA. English is my first language. My predominant genetic heritage is Norwegian. As a white American, it is unequivocal that I am the benefactor of centuries of racist policies, cultural appropriation, genocide, colonization, and broken treaties. It would be disingenuous and unhelpful to deny this legacy.
I also aim to help suture old, open wounds, rather than poke at them with a stick. This is why I attended Kanoelani Davis’s (Hawaiian, Molokai), of PoMahina Designs, presentation, Appropriation versus Appreciation: How to be Fashionably Responsible.

Kanoelani comes from a Native Hawaiian perspective. Her particular roots are in Molokai, a 38m by 10m island more or less in the middle of the Hawaiian island chain. Kanoelani clarified she doesn’t represent other Indigenous peoples, or even other Native Hawaiians’ perspectives. She’s here to “tell the story of her people and to continue in this humanity in this universal understanding of appreciation, of aloha, through fashion, and through design on clothing.” This is of particular importance considering the “barriers for us native folks and indigenous peoples,” often resulting from, “historical, generational trauma that came with colonization.”

Kanoelani Davis

Kanoelani took and takes this on. She is committed to the healing process, which includes doing her own personal work to confront intergenerationally inherited triggers and trauma. Having done so gives her the gumption to do the design work she does today, and share it with others. Given the potential vulnerability of this, her work reflects well-earned unadulterated strength and clarity of purpose.

As travelers and travel influencers, how can you take part in this?

First, what is cultural appropriation?

As far as slippery things go, the meaning of the term “appropriation” seems about one or two tiers below an eel freshly plucked from a mossy stream. Some only refer to the term “appropriation” to deny its existence as a phenomena. The general argument reduces appropriation to “cross-cultural influence,” arguing that in a globalized world of course all cultures will influence and borrow from one another. There are actually conceptual historical roots to this standpoint. But it’s an (out)dated concept. It comes from definitions rooted in 18th and 19th century literary conversations. The term “cultural appropriation” itself was finally coined in 1980s academic circles on colonialism. The concept gained wheels in pop culture and mainstream conversations, and here we are today very much still working it out. 

“Cultural appropriation” is beyond innocuous borrowing. It hinges on a power differential. It’s taking something from another culture, benefitting and profiting from it, and giving no credit to its source. It doesn’t acknowledge related histories of oppression, marginalization, and extractionism. It replicates colonialist dynamics. It lacks understanding.

Franchesca Ramsey, comedian and YouTube personality, nails it: “Cultural appropriation is like taking a test and getting an F. And then someone else copies off your test and gets an A, plus extra credit.”

Kanoelani turned to the Oxford dictionary and ‘Ike Hawai`i, a Native Hawaiian thought process, to help define these concepts.

Spotting cultural appropriation

‘Ike Hawai`i
MAHALO (Appreciation): 1. Gratitude; 2. Admiration, praise, esteem, regard, respect.
Kā’IHI (Appropriation): 1. To use another’s property without permission, to usurp (take illegally or by force).

In the case of Native Hawaiians, tattoos, jewelry, and motifs on clothing worn by people from outside a culture are common examples of cultural appropriation. Many people simply do not understand the meanings behind these designs. In short, they don’t do their homework.

“Motifs and patterns in Hawaiian culture identify a person, place, or thing and are a form of communication. They mark time and are a form of nonverbal communication that can travel far. They are often associated with a particular family, too,” Kanoelani explained. Turning someone’s cultural, spiritual, religious beliefs and traditions, and ancestral lineage into a cool looking tattoo can be understandably demeaning and offensive. If you want a tattoo to remember travels or time spent outside your home, consider something else to represent that time and place. Some motifs and designs you might get as a “tribal tattoo” can also carry negative associations.

Franchesca Ramsey puts the truth in under 15 words: “Be an authentic person, do your research, and know what you’re wearing comes from.” Kanoelani adds specified context: “Place, environment, habits, and singular perspectives can be a barrier. . . . We cannot move forward without entrusting the healing process. That’s why we have titles like appropriation and appreciation. We would not have these titles as being issues or something we need to talk about had there not been something wrong in the first place.” Healing is still happening, and Native Hawaiians need a voice, not to be spoken for and misrepresented.

Combating cultural appropriation

When that courage to speak and share cultural insight by someone from a culture other than your own is offered, show up. You can Google research and read books on other cultures all you want, but seeking out and listening to actual community members is more informative and creates actual relationships, as Kanoelani emphasized. Trust is a foundation for creating meaningful cross-cultural relationships of appreciation. 

So be gutsy. Show up. Do your homework. Adapt your behavior. Get out there and meet people. Hush up and listen. Don’t speak for others. Don’t talk over others. Amplify voices. And in the case of Hawaiian cultures, seek art and creations from “inspired Native” Indigenous creators over “Native inspired art” by nonnatives, a tip Kanoelani passed on from Eighth Generation founder, Louie Gong (Nooksack).

This notion of taking action once one learns is important, said Kanoelani. It’s an insight passed on from her grandparents. “My grandparents used to tell me ‘once you know, you have responsibility, and that is to carry on the education and the understanding of what this means,’” she said. She channels this through her Indigenous wearable arts and outreach. 

In her Wanderful event, concerned participants asked about missteps, mistakes, bad tattoo choices. Kanoelani emphasized, “You’re here now. That’s the important part. You are here now. We’re hearing this, we’re learning this. . . . You’re in this space now, to learn and understand and honor.”

This isn’t permission for bad behavior, but it informs on what’s helpful—investment in learning, listening, and doing better by behavior modification accordingly.

Why this is important for travelers

Travel, no matter how much you seek to appreciate and value other cultures, is historically and presently intertwined with colonization and oppression. Christopher Columbus provides the most notorious example. There are many more examples that are less stark. Ignorance, closed-mindedness, and denial are leaders in this category.

Travel can be a conduit for appropriation and reinforce global inequities, be it pernicious and willful or a case of the inadvertent not-knowing-any-betters. Many traveling entrepreneurs have propelled globalized gentrification. There are digital nomads who take little to no interest in local communities where they travel, or impact where they go. 

We know you don’t wanna be that person! That’s why you’re here. As the Wanderful Anti-Oppression Toolkit maintains, “As travel and culture creators, we have a responsibility to use our platforms to amplify historically underrepresented voices and stories.”

Through what Kanoelani teaches, travelers of all stripes and spots can increase an understanding of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. And you don’t have to be “into” fashion to learn from her. Like me, you probably wear clothes. Fashion impacts us all, whether we (or others) consider ourselves fashionable or not. 

As Nina Amhedow rightfully indicates, “The fashion industry is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to cultural appropriation in the West.” You can absolutely participate in cultural appropriation through your closet while being unfashionable. I did. Until I knew better. Take my Minnetonka moccasins, for example. They were comfortable. My feet loved them. I loved that they required no laces. I miss wearing them. Not loving waste, I resigned them to house slippers worn exclusively in my own presence as soon as I knew better.

We should all aim to understand better. To listen. To learn and comprehend in ways we cannot on our own. We need to acknowledge that, sometimes, our own history and cultural background won’t teach us. From there, we can share and amplify the voices of others. That’s how we move forward.

To help share Kanoelani’s work beyond the shores of Hawaii, you can make a donation to her nonprofit Ho’aka Mana – Native Hawaiian Organization. To check out her fashion business, head to Pomahina Designs.

Learn more about appropriation vs appreciation from Kanoelani Davis

Learn more about Hawaiian culture and support other Hawaiian creators

Learn more about cultural appropriation and travel