Speakers: Honor the culture and visitor experience will be enriched

Ramsay Taum, founder and president of Life Enhancement Institute of the Pacific, discusses how tourism needs to benefit local communities Wednesday during the 11th annual Hui Holomua Business Fest. Speakers of Native Hawaiian, Alaskan and Native American descent shared ways that native communities can have more control over how their stories and cultures are portrayed to visitors. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAIKAPU — When Ogala Lakota elder Ben Sherman visited Chile recently, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, he said. The Rapa Nui, the indigenous people of Easter Island, were protesting government tourism practices and had put up barriers to the island’s most iconic sites.

“The reason they were stopping people was so they could talk to tourists,” said Sherman, a guest speaker from South Dakota at Wednesday’s 11th annual Hui Holomua Business Fest. “They weren’t trying to disrupt the trips to these sites. They were just trying to put more control into it.”

Sherman and the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance that he chairs had come to bring the government and indigenous people together to discuss tourism. The conference they held didn’t change any policies, but it did result in tourism projects that were more inclusive of Chile’s indigenous communities.

In Hawaii, where tourism drives the economy and native culture is often drawn into marketing, Native Hawaiians have a chance to take ownership of the way their culture is portrayed to visitors, Sherman and speakers of Native Hawaiian and Alaskan ancestry said.

“Wherever we’re inviting people to come and share our cultural experiences, . . . it is about honoring the people and the place,” said Ramsay Taum, a Kamehameha Schools graduate who is now the president of the Life Enhancement Institute of the Pacific. “If we don’t do that, it’s just another brand of tourism. It’s just another marketing tool.”

Ben Sherman

In 2016, nearly 9 million people visited the islands, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said.

Last year “was the fifth straight year of record tourism growth in our state, but it doesn’t always feel like that growth helps small businesses and families as much as it should, or recognizes the value of people, place, culture,” Schatz said.

Taum said that he believes it would be “disingenuous” to say tourism is bad. However, what needs to change is the people who benefit from it, he said. More tourism ventures need to be locally owned and operated. More of the revenue has to stay in the community. And, local people shouldn’t have to change their lifestyles for visitors to experience the culture.

“Authentic is what we do whether you’re there or not,” Taum said. “I’m going to plant taro today at 7 a.m. If you want a cultural experience, be here at 7 o’clock. . . . That’s different than me coming to you, pulling the taro out of the ground, bringing it in a box to your hotel room and saying, ‘Welcome to Haloa. This is our cultural ancestor.'”

Sherman said that the key to helping indigenous communities succeed and benefit from tourism is to give them ownership of programs. If someone asked him to find some Native American dancers and singers for an event, Sherman said he would ask the organizers how they could share ownership of the event.

Kamehameha Schools Maui seniors Ariana Hurdle (from left), Kailani Kealoha and Austin Peters meet with visitors to their booth showcasing Ola Na Iwi, an on-campus club that promotes Hawaiian language and culture. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Sherman added that it’s possible to share culture without exploiting it.

“As long as indigenous people are doing it, you’ll find very little exploitation,” he said. “But if the nonindigenous people do that sort of thing, or if they benefit unequally from it, then it ends up being exploitation.”

Camille Ferguson, executive director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, has seen how tourism can perpetuate culture. Ferguson is Tlingit from the Kiksadi Clan and a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. She credits her ability to speak Tlingit fluently to tourism.

Growing up, she’d heard it spoken at home. But it wasn’t until she had to create a curriculum for tour operators and invited elders to teach the language that she really started to speak it herself.

Ferguson’s organization has been working around the country to raise awareness of Native American stories. For example, it’s partnered with the National Park Service to help educate visitors to “Indian country” about the history behind the places they’re visiting.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, the event keynote speaker, said that, fortunately, authentic stories are exactly what visitors to Hawaii want. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“We need to tell our stories, not be told what our stories are,” Ferguson said.

Schatz said that, fortunately, authentic stories are exactly what visitors to Hawaii want. The lawmaker recently sponsored a measure called the NATIVE Act: Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience. It requires any federal agency that deals with trade and tourism to include native communities in their planning. It also allows for grants to support the efforts of native communities to present their culture.

“People understand that we’re not really living up to our potential for tourism in native communities, and that we’ll only live up to that potential when native communities are the ones that are in control,” Schatz said.

Taum said some in the community are already working to share authentic experiences with visitors. He pointed to the Ka Welina Network, a group of communities statewide who invite people to participate in activities residents would normally do, from harvesting taro to restoring ancient sites to monitoring shoreline health.

“The opportunity is for us to find a way to help these communities and these individuals who really want to share our cultural assets and experiences with others, without getting ripped off,” Taum said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

* This article includes a correction from the original published on Thursday, October 12, 2017.