August 5, 2018 Sermon

Tasha Kahele, a native Hawaiian living in Alaska opened a restaurant named “Aloha
Poke Stop” in April 2018. By May, she was forced to rename it Lei’s Poke Stop, investing
thousands of dollars to redo her store sign, reprinting menus, and remarketing her brand.
What happened was that she had received a letter from a Chicago-based chain demanding
that she change her restaurant’s name, to cease and desist in the use of the words, “poke”
and “aloha poke”. The restaurant in Chicago is called “Aloha Poke Company”, and is
owned and operated by non-Hawaiians. Kahele was devastated, but she could not risk
fighting a larger establishment and incur legal fees which she knew that she could not
afford.
Although Kahele was clearly hurt financially, she felt even further violated spiritually:
“I know some people are like, ‘[Aloha] is just a generic word, everyone says it. . . . But not
to our people, it’s not. Aloha encompasses everything. . . . We live aloha, we give it, we
share it. It’s not to be restricted and I think that’s why it’s so triggering to people and it’s so
offensive and it’s so hurtful. It’s hurtful– for our family it’s hurtful.”
Poke is the name of a Hawaiian dish whose main ingredients are raw “ahi” (tuna) cured
with rock salt, soy sauce, green onion, sesame, garlic, limu (type of edible algae). Poke
literally means to be “cubed”. Poke is called such because the fish are cut into cubes.
Although poke may seem to be a simple dish, it is one which rests at the core of Hawaiian
culture.
There are many Hawaiians who feel that they were robbed of their kingdom and culture
by colonization. And, these days, they are forced to endure the commercialization of their
tradition. As anyone who has lived in Hawaii knows, the words “poke” and “aloha” are
native Hawaiian words that have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, much
longer than any restaurant in Chicago that is trying to capitalize on a culture that they know
very little about. How genuine can the taste of their poke be if the chefs who prepare them
know almost nothing about what “aloha” means, or what its significance bears to the people
of Hawaii? Creating a satisfying meal for someone is an expression of love. Preparing
poke requires one to fully embrace Hawaiian culture. Yet, what the owners of the Chicago
restaurant chain seek is to monopolize on something that cannot be owned by any one
person or company. Hawaiian culture developed over many years by many people
conscientious of its significance, and should now be respected as such, to exist for the
benefit of all who truly embrace its spirit. It should not be hoarded by a few or culturally
appropriated.
To monopolize the use of traditional words such as poke and aloha against an indigenous
culture from whence these words originated wreaks of fabrication and bullying. I would be
genuinely embarrassed of making money off of another’s culture, and add insult to injury by
suing them for partaking in what should rightly be their prerogative.Ironically, the owners of
the Chicago chain do not seem to realize that they are
compromising the base to which they owe their own success. We as Buddhists must always
be reminded that we do not live on our own. Our existence and continued prosperity are
dependent upon our mutual existence and success. In Japanese, we say, ikasarete-iru,
meaning that “we are allowed to exist”. This actually originates from the Buddhist concept
of dependent association.
Our existence depends upon the grace of the spirits, the land, and its people. We are
allowed to survive and prosper because of the safety net to which we are a part. When an
individual or entity thinks and acts primarily to protect or advance oneself and only oneself,
it does so at the expense of hurting others, which in turn, amounts to hurting oneself. It
should not surprise anyone that those who veer from this invariably fall prey to the very
attack which they so dread. Ignoring or disrespecting those around you surely has
consequences that go beyond the reach of any legal action. Although Kahele who was
directly affected by the unnecessary legal action taken by the Chicago chain has not lifted a
finger, the court of the people is not so forgiving. Just take some time to examine the Yelp
page for Aloha Poke Company in Chicago.
(Eisei Ikenaga)