Erika Engle

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Ooh, aah, auwe for
Kahuna concept car

CONCEPT cars are supposed to evoke an "ooh," an "aah," or both, not "auwe!" Dodge introduced its six-passenger Kahuna as a concept car in January 2003 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and it has been making the rounds of auto shows ever since.

People sensitive to the Hawaiian culture are taking their own literary expression to an online petition started by former Hawaii resident John Book, who is part-Hawaiian.

"Once again, a Hawaiian word is being used to sell something that has nothing to do with the word's actual definition," the petition said.

The Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary defines kahuna as a priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, or expert in any profession. There are several types of kahuna.

"The lack of respect and disregard of Hawaiian culture has got to stop," Book said in the petition. More than 2,000 people had signed the petition by yesterday afternoon.

It calls upon Dodge to change the vehicle's name and release a formal apology explaining the reason for the name change. The company was ready for media inquiries with a prepared statement.

It was clear the company adopted the pop culture definition of kahuna.

"The use of the word kahuna of course by no means is intended as offensive, rather, the use of the name in the concept car from 2003 has always been stated in a positive term, referencing an individual who is a leader, in-charge and a free spirit," said Sam Locricchio, manager of communications for design for Chrysler Group.

"The Dodge Kahuna is not a vehicle that is being sold, as it is a concept vehicle. These are show-cars that are one-of-a-kind design studies to allow our design staff to explore techniques and materials in an experimental fashion," he said.

The controversial naming of the vehicle does not appear to reflect the company's desire for good corporate citizenship.

A portion of the Daimler-Chrysler corporate Web site discusses awareness of its social responsibility "at every location where we do business -- and in the world as a whole."

It also acknowledges a need for "greater intercultural understanding and dialogue ... DaimlerChrysler considers it a social and corporate responsibility to promote cultural exchange among people of different backgrounds."

The passages were recited to Locricchio, and he was provided with the Pukui-Elbert definition of kahuna.

"The company is looking to continue working with the various cultures. I think that's what we're doing here. It's an exchange of mutual learning," Locricchio said.

The company intended no malice in using the name Kahuna, "but folks are saying that's not necessarily a good idea," Locricchio said.

If the vehicle were to head for production, much more research would be required, Locricchio said. That work would include a review of the name, in which case the cultural issue raised by the petition would be considered, he said.

"It starts with this kind of exchange," he said.

Automotive writers drooled or reminisced about old-school Woodie surfer-cars or were otherwise playful about the updated minivan.

"Obviously Dodge designers have been spending some time in the California sun. Much of the inspiration for the Kahuna seems to have been lifted straight out of a Beach Boys song," wrote Brian Moody of

Without a Hawaiian dictionary handy, the word kahuna is left open to all kinds of interpretation. quoted Dodge exterior designer Jordan Meadows: "Kahuna means 'Master' in Hawaiian ... This car represents coastal culture, a Californian frame of mind." quoted Trevor Creed, senior vice president for design of Chrysler Group: "Active individuals, true free spirits, demand vehicles that are flexible with appropriate room for gear, but they want it with style ... The Kahuna was named for its extreme attitude and approach -- both Dodge brand attributes."

Branding expert Gloria Garvey, president of The Brand Strategy Group, predicts that such controversies will become more prevalent in the future.

She referenced the book, "Who Owns Native Culture," by Williams College anthropology professor Michael F. Brown. The book discusses "efforts of indigenous peoples to redefine heritage as a proprietary resource," according to an online synopsis from Harvard University Press.

"Probably Dodge should rename the car," she said. "They could call it the Big Surfer and probably no one would be offended.

"It's sort of a tragedy because we're all taking ourselves so seriously now. I can't speak for the Hawaiian people. With the Big Kahuna, there is ... a retro-Hawaiian culture, which is really haole Hawaiian culture," she said.

In the Oahu phone book there are listings for Kahuna Distributors, Kahuna Dog Enterprises LLC, Big Kahuna Aviation, Big Kahuna Fabrics and Big Kahuna Pizza.

Radio station KAHA-FM 105.9 calls itself "The Big Kahuna."

"We did some research before we went with the name," said General Manager Jeff Coelho.

When the word "big" preceded "kahuna," "the inference is more, The Boss, The Luna," he said.

"We're saying the station is the boss of classic rock."

"We never would have used 'kahuna' by itself because of the spiritual connotation, out of respect," Coelho said.

The concept car will not make an appearance at the First Hawaiian International Auto Show on Oahu April 15 to 18.

"We've got probably 11 either brand-new or refreshed vehicles that we are launching just this year alone. We don't want any concepts over here to overshadow the launch," said Steve Zanlunghi, DaimlerChrysler operations manager for Hawaii and Micronesia.

If one looks closely, there is an upside to the naming of the Kahuna, however it may be perceived.

It reflects that "Hawaii is something people are very interested in. That surfer culture, that kind of thing, people are highly interested in it," Garvey said.

Hawaiian studies officials at the University of Hawaii could not be reached for comment.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached at:


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