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  • American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition
  • Alexis Celeste Bunten
American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition, by Heather A Diamond. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8248-3171-4, xv + 261 pages, illustrations, references, index. Cloth, US $55.00.

American Aloha explores the politics and poetics of cultural production through a detailed account of the making of the Hawai‘i program for the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (sff). Interlinking archival sources, conversations, interviews, and documents saved by program organizers, the author, Heather A Diamond, presents a critical, multi-vocal case study that explores tradition, representation, cultural commodification, identity, tourism, sovereignty, and nationalism through the processes and outcomes of culture brokering for public consumption. Although she was not present during the actual planning and execution of the festival, Diamond capitalizes successfully on her outsider position to analyze data from multiple viewpoints. The resulting text is a nuanced analysis of the meaning and purpose of folklife festivals that simultaneously examines the complexities of Hawaiian identity as it is naturalized, romanticized, and politicized by those who have it, don’t have it, or fit somewhere in between.

The themes presented in American Aloha begin from the premise that, from beginning to end, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is shaped by contradictions between the ideologies and practices. The annual festival promotes postmodern liberal values of difference, yet it is part of a legacy of exhibiting peoples along a continuum of savagery to civilization to justify assimilationist policies of the past. With the intent of bringing the periphery to the core, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival showcases cultures as destinations hosted by local culture brokers, but Hawai‘i cannot literally be toured on the Mall in Washington dc. The program is designed to display the cultural diversity of America under a national model of multiculturalism, but for the 1989 festival organizers hand selected culture brokers they deemed “representative” through ethnographic practices that constructed artificial ethnicities for display and denied complex identity politics that could have subverted naturalized power structures between mainland [End Page 483] festival organizers and Hawaiian culture brokers. At the festival, organizers encouraged informal exchange between participants and visitors, yet the program was formalized through interpretive signs and unwritten formal rules of intercultural dialogue. In a final ironic turn, the program itself had to be changed to fit a local context when it was repackaged and staged “at home” in Hawai‘i.

Diamond takes the readers on a journey from Hawai‘i to Washington dc and back again as she traces the politics of representing Hawaiian identities in chronological order. She begins with the sff opening ceremony, positioning the Smithsonian’s choice to highlight Hawai‘i as a “cultural hotspot” with a long history of institutional intervention—governmental, religious, academic, and private—in which traditions are appropriated, manipulated, and contested for political and economic gain. For those whose traditions are at stake, these processes have resulted in loss of lands, lifeways, and control in battles over sovereignty and statehood. Chapter 1 traces the political history of these interventions from first contact, to the rise of international exhibitions around the turn of the twentieth century, statehood, the national civil rights movement, and the selection of Hawai‘i for exhibition at the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, whose organizers made a conscious effort to reimagine an “authentic” Hawai‘i beyond a touristic paradigm. This chapter illustrates that for Native Hawaiians and other groups of marginalized peoples, control over the practice and representation of traditions is linked to power and authority. Chapter 2 expands this idea, illustrating the disjuncture between local and US continental visions of Hawai‘i’s people and their traditions through the ethnographic process in which locally hired fieldworkers were required to interview and select participants based on notions of tradition as defined by professionally trained Smithsonian staff. Complex ethnicities oscillated among local, statewide, and national categories as ethnic groups, themes, material culture, and people were selected to represent an image of Hawai‘i alternative to what the mainstream United States consumes in the media and through tourism, and the program was shaped to fit within a historical master narrative for the sff exhibition.



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