The Spirit of Aloha: Celebrating Thanksgiving in Hawai'i

This article was originally published in Extra Newsfeed.

LAHAINA, MAUI—Call me crazy, but I’ve been on Maui for three weeks and I still can’t bring myself to say aloha to the cashier at Safeway when I’m checking out my groceries. It just seems too contrived.

The same goes for the subtle exchange of a casual shaka (thumb and pinkie extended) exchanged by drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians at stop signs and intersections. I don’t know why, but I just can’t do it.

I thought I would totally buy into the island-chill, laid-back, surfer dude lifestyle. And I still might….but I actually want to live it first, before I start telling everyone alohaaaaaa upon arrival.

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving with a few close friends after having just returned from a three-day stint camped out at Standing Rock, covering the extensive protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I threw myself into writing an extensive article, addressing everything from the likelihood of the pipeline spilling to the history of the land treaties between the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. Federal Government. The more and more I learned about the history of our (our = American) treatment of indigenous peoples, the more shocked I was.

It’s no secret that our government has a long track record of brutally mistreating indigenous peoples, pushing them to small reservations in the middle of the Great Plains states and taking their land in the process. In recent years, this idea has gotten more “press”, and more people have become woke to the irony of Thanksgiving as a day when we give thanks for the bounty of the land and Squanto’s kindness in teaching us how to plant corn.

The coming of Western Europeans meant the eventual overrun and ruin of hundreds of Native American tribes across the U.S., and it’s hard to ignore that when you’re exploring the reasons for why the DAPL pisses off so many people.

After finding myself in the thick of Native American protests and talking to a half-dozen tribe members about their thoughts on the mistreatment of their peoples, Thanksgiving began to take on a different meaning for me. Sure, it’s still a holiday where family and friends get together to break bread, have a few drinks, and enjoy each other’s company. Yet I can’t help but think about how our country was built on the ruins of Great Nations before us.

I guess it’s just how my cynical mind works.

You might be wondering where I’m going with this because I started this piece out by saying that I can’t bring myself to say aloha to the cashier at Safeway…didn’t I? But trust me, it’s relevant. Because aloha is a Hawaiian word, and mahalo is a Hawaiian word…and these words have found themselves in the lexicon of any old retiree that steps foot on the island of Maui.

EVERYONE says aloha to each other…but I can’t help but think that it’s a term one should earn the right to use by doing something other than visiting Maui on vacation.

Of course, the Hawaiian spirit of aloha — of compassion and open-armed welcoming — is firmly entrenched on this island, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. But a part of me can’t help but think that the words aloha and mahalo are bandied about to create the atmosphere of a tropical paradise that people expect when they come to Hawaii.

In my limited experience on these islands, there are relatively few places that haven’t been developed by “western” interests, and while remnants of Hawaiian culture remain — such as the widespread use of the word aloha, or a pig roast at a luau — they are largely used to create the sense that you are in an authentic Hawaiian paradise.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get used to living at the slow pace of island life, and I suspect that once I do, I’ll be greeting everyone with a casual aloha as well. But until I d, I can’t help but think that it’s another instance of Western culture appropriating a native tradition for our own personal profit — especially on Thanksgiving.