As the Director of External Relations and Community Partnerships at the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management, Ramsay Taum believes that Native Hawaiian cultural values should be the centerpiece of Hawaii tourism. These same values guide him in his practice of hooponopono, lomi haha, and Kaihewalu lua; and they animate his work with organizations like Pacific Islanders in Communication and the Hawaii 2050 Task Force.
Q:You seem to wear a lot of hats. In addition to your position at the UH, you do a lot of consulting and you’re also active in many nonprofits and community advocacy groups. What do you tell people when they ask what it is you do?
A: In the absence of an actual title covering what I do, I would say I’m a “Life Enhancement Facilitator.” Because all the things that I do are targeted at enhancing groups, people or communities and the quality of life for the places that they’re in. It’s really about evolution. Not necessarily as defined by me, but by them or where they need to be. But, if there is a theme, it’s quality of life.
The common thread is Hawaiian culture: practices, principles and philosophies. As a result of having been mentored by a number of Hawaiian elders — kupuna — I’ve really expanded and looked at the unification or integration of mind, body and spirit — to use the Western terms. It’s hard, because I think there are Hawaiian words that describe it better. But it’s about being appropriate — in the moment, at the moment — which acknowledges that, just as the sun and the moon rise in different places every day, what was appropriate yesterday may not be appropriate today.
Being able to be centered in self, vs. self-centered. To be in the moment, and, I guess, not be paralyzed by past experience or overly concerned about future experience.
Q: That’s all pretty abstract. Where do you apply these principles?
A: It’s in everything I do, I guess. My current role as director of External Relations and Community Partnerships at TIM, for example, allows me to help integrate cultural principals and practices into the travel industry and the curriculum that’s being taught. That is, to be more relevant to the place.
Q: I guess, at least as far as the tourism industry goes, that puts you squarely in the camp accentuating the culture and focusing more on what makes Hawaii, Hawaii.
A: Yeah, this notion of a “sense of place,” that was kind of brought up by George Kanahele and the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Assoc-iation. This “sense of place” involves all the senses: How does a person know where they are? That they got to their destination? Was it a good experience? They measure their experience via the senses: sight, touch, smell — all those physical senses. But then there is also the experience of memory: Will I tell others about it? Will I come back here? Is it different from where I just left?
One of the experiences we’re seeing right now is this homogeni-zation due to globalization. In the travel industry, SOP, which is Standard Operating Procedure, is intended to provide predictable, quality experiences for particular customers: I know I’m going to get a good experience because I know where everything is; I walk in and everything is in its right place. So, everything is formulaic. But it also means a person can leave his community, travel thousands of miles, a number of hours, spend thousands of dollars, only to get to a place that looks almost exactly like the one he just left.
So, not only does the visitor not get the full experience, but the host communities tend to be diminished as well — sometimes unwittingly, because they’re just trying to survive like anybody else. What I’m exploring right now is, “How does a place retain its identity, its heritage and its cultural values at the same time benefiting from the financial, commercial benefits of that kind of industry?”
Q: Much of what you talk about is the connection between place and culture. In fact, one of the fascinating things about your work is how it highlights the relationship between traditional Hawaiian culture and the modern sustainability movement.
A: A lot of what we’re talking about always comes back to that. There’s a model — what I would call a business model — which was founded on the ahupuaa practice or principle of stewardship. And ahupuaa is really, to me, a system as much as it is a physical place, because, in the Hawaiian language, one word can mean many things. It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective. It’s contextual. So, the ahupuaa is a physical place, but it’s also a way of thinking, it’s a way of behaving. So, for many years, we perceived the ahupuaa as a resource-management system; and while it is that, it is that because it’s a behavioral-management system.
I really believe that the reason the ahupuaa system worked so well for hundreds or thousands of years was because it was tied to a set of prescribed behaviors, values. It was only when we moved away from those values and adopted those of the West — ownership and things like that — that it broke down. Stewardship and ownership are two different things. Native Hawaiians never owned the land. What they did own was a sense of stewardship, their kuleana. I’m trying to find ways to show that those values are still relevant today.