Hawaiian activists are bringing their objections over Aloha Poke Co. to the company’s home turf in Chicago as they plan a demonstration Friday outside the company’s corporate headquarters in the Loop. They’ve also scheduled a protest next week at the chain’s Lincoln Park location.
It’s been a week since Native Hawaiians grabbed national headlines for objecting to Aloha Poke Co.’s legal strategy of demanding poke restaurants to drop the words “aloha” and “poke” in its names. Native Hawaiian activist Dr Kalamaokaaina Niheu (who goes by “Kalama O Ka Aina” via Facebook) recorded a viral video which pondered whether Aloha Poke Co.’s branding trademarks were misguided cultural appropriation.
Dr. Niheu is working with local sympathizers in Chicago. A demonstration is planned for Friday outside Aloha Poke’s Loop offices and a protest is planned for August 15 at the Aloha Poke Co. at 818 W. Fullerton Avenue near DePaul University’s campus. She’s welcoming all Chicagoans to join.
“Aloha Poke Co. has no idea what they started,” Dr. Niheu said. “People talk about poking a bear? Well, they just poked the Hawaiian shark.”
Native Hawaiians and supporters grew angry over the sense that Aloha Poke Co. was trying to own a piece of the native culture by regulating the use of Hawaiian language. These are more than just words for natives as the battle for culture is complicated in Hawai’i thanks to the islands’ history of colonialism. That made Aloha Poke Co.’s strategy particularly hurtful to Native Hawaiians. Aloha Poke Co. was founded in 2016 by Zach Friedlander, a suburban Chicago native who is Jewish. Friedlander has since left the company, but the optics are still bad. For example, the company didn’t answer if it employed any Hawaiians.
A fourth letter has since popped up, sent to the owners of a Plano, Texas shop. Dr. Niheu is trying to give a marginalized population a voice. Her efforts have been noticed by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the public entity formed in the ‘70s to preserve native culture. Read part of the agency’s statement below. OHA could pursue a class-action lawsuit against Aloha Poke Co. as a counter measure.
“OHA is currently reaching out to key stakeholders to discuss possible solutions to this immediate controversy. However, the commercialization and exploitation of Native Hawaiian traditional knowledge has been an issue for generations. At the heart of the issue are trademark laws that present substantial challenges for protecting our culture and promoting its pono (appropriate) use.”
An Aloha Poke Co. spokesperson didn’t immediately provide a comment about the protests. Last week, the company apologized, but maintained it was defending its trademarks. The Chicago chain was founded two years ago and took off, bringing raw fish bowls to the Midwest. They received an infusion of investment money and expanded into markets like LA, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. Aloha Poke Co. claimed that the company has no intention of shutting down competitors’ poke restaurants.
For Dr. Niheu, much of the frustration stems from Aloha Poke Co. going after Native Hawaiians on the islands. There’s worry attorneys will issue letters to more Hawaiian businesses. She won’t be joining the protest later this month, but she said she’ll have future opportunities: “There’s definitely more coming,” she said.