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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hawaiian artists call for cultural trademark

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser staff writer

Many Native Hawaiian artists want better safeguards against copycats, imitators and others who misappropriate local culture, but there's no consensus yet on the best way to achieve the protection, according to a survey released yesterday.

More than half the artists surveyed statewide think that fakes and simulations affect their ability to sell or promote their work at true value. They also believe a proposed cultural trademark program would not only help them individually but go a long way toward protecting Hawaiian culture, survey officials said.

"The larger picture is that artists are interested in the protection and perpetuation of the culture. It's clear that they want to be sure that art promoted as Hawaiian reflects a cultural truth and emanates from the core of the Hawaiian experience," said attorney Leighton Chong, one of the organizers of yesterday's daylong Native Hawaiian Cultural Trademark conference at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

The effort is part of a growing worldwide movement of native peoples striving to keep control over their own culture when it enters a broader economic sphere, organizers said.

In New Zealand, for example, Maori people angered by the misappropriation of their warrior images by businesses like Sony, Lego and a German conglomerate have received a government "Maori made" trademark for their traditional artwork and distinctive cultural images, said Maui Solomon, a Maori attorney who addressed the conference. The German company even went as far as trademarking the name Moana and blocking a popular Maori singer by that name from distributing her CDs in the country, he said.

Meanwhile, Native American groups are pushing for new state laws and the formation of regional organizations that offer similar protections. Arizona, Alaska and New Mexico are among the states that have such laws, but a federal law on the books since 1935 designed to protect Indian artwork from outside infringement has never resulted in a single successful criminal prosecution, said Rebecca Tsosie, executive director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University.

In Hawai'i, artists could be leaders in the protection of cultural values and even in the sovereignty movement, participants said.

"Artists and producers are a most precious resource, and art is the clearest place we have to find the vision we need in this increasingly technological, overproduced, driven world," said Maile Meyer, a co-chair of the conference and a founder of Native Books/Na Mea Hawai'i.

Empowering a proposed Native Hawaiian Cultural Arts Board to certify what constitutes true cultural art here "may be the first act of Hawaiians actually taking sovereignty into their own hands," Chong said.

The survey of more than 140 visual, creative and performing artists throughout Hawai'i produced widespread support for the possibility of establishing a trademark program, but there was much discussion and worry about how best to effectively implement the protections.

The trademark program could cover a wide array of artists, including painters, sculptors, lei makers, lauhala weavers and others. Concerns raised by survey takers included who would qualify as a Native Hawaiian artist, who would pass judgment on the art, whether the trademark would be used to evaluate the quality of the art, and whether such a program should receive funding from either the state or federal government.

"If the laws can be used in our favor, I'm good," said Sabra Kauka, a Kaua'i artist and educator. "But I'm skeptical that we need to be 'certified' as Hawaiian."

The survey and conference were an outgrowth of a 2003 gathering that discussed Hawaiian Intellectual Property Rights and ways to protect Hawaiian culture from the threat of theft and commercialization. Organizers said they hoped to emerge from yesterday's session with a strategy and action plan to develop a trademark program to protect future artists in the local, national and international market place.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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