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Hawaiian convention comes to the 9th island for 1st time

Updated June 20, 2023 - 11:13 am

Amid a showroom filled with Hawaiian clothing, jewelry and specialty items, Alysa Andrade was looking to reconnect with her familial Hawaiian culture.

Andrade is a Las Vegas resident who has lived here for the last 21 years after her family moved from Oahu when she was child.

“Anything that is Hawaiian I move toward it,” said Andrade, who was attending the Western Regional Native Hawaiian Convention at the Westgate on Monday. “I appreciate Hawaiian culture much more now since I am away from it.”

The convention has a lot of Hawaii to offer. It’s a four-day event that brings together different aspects of Hawaiian culture, including sessions on Hawaiian language and genealogy as well as cultural aspects such as classes on hula dance. Over 1,000 people are expected to attend.

The convention also has a trade floor where dozens of vendors are showcasing thousands of different Hawaiian items including hot sauces, coconut cookies, paintings and children’s books. Andrade was impressed with the authenticity of the items available.

“It’s very cool to see actual things from Hawaii and not just Vegas Hawaiian items,” she said.

One of the vendors was Gale Sagucio, the owner of JJ Ohana, a shop that sells necklaces made with shells collected from the island of Niihau — the westernmost and one of the least populated Hawaiian islands. Sagucio said she came to the convention to expand access to the traditional necklaces. The shells are seen as a luxury in Hawaii, according to Sagucio, and are priced as such, with the price ranging from $1,500 to $30,000.

“People don’t come home as much as they used to, so we wanted to bring these necklaces to the mainland,” Sagucio said.

The convention was organized by the non-profit group Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and this is the first time it has been moved away from the Hawaiian islands. The change in location was meant to reflect recent population trends as more native Hawaiians are living away from the islands.

This is a trend that not every attendee was thrilled about.

“Hawaii isn’t Hawaii without Hawaiians,” said Makaio Villanueva, who lives on Oahu and was attending the convention with his fiancee Nani Peterson. The couple was attending the convention to build connections with the Hawaiian community on the mainland U.S.

But other attendees including Phillip Melendrez, who traveled from Phoenix, were glad they didn’t have to traverse the Pacific Ocean to be connected with other Native Hawaiians.

“It’s important to be with our community and share knowledge with each other,” said Melendrez, who was born and raised on the mainland but whose parents were Hawaiian. “Regardless of the time or the place, the islands connect us all.”

Many of the vendors at the convention saw it as an opportunity to connect with people looking for Hawaiian products while also introducing them to a wider range of the public. This was the case for Jalene Kanani Bell, who manages a Hawaiian luxury home decor brand called Noho Home by Jailene Kanani Bell, which had a booth showcasing comforters, pillowcases and other items.

“With more people living outside Hawaii than Hawaiians on the islands, we wanted to bring local things to the mainland,” Kanani Bell said.

David Shepard of the clothing brand David Shepard Hawaii — which makes clothing designs featuring native Hawaiian plants — also wants to get exposure for his products.

“A lot of people don’t get to see these Hawaiian items in-person,” Shepard said. “So this event can be a great segue to introduce these items to a larger audience.”

While Las Vegas is the first mainland city to host this Hawaiian convention, it won’t be the last. Organizers say it will likely rotate each year to a city in the Western U.S. that is accessible to Hawaiians living in the region.

Contact Sean Hemmersmeier at shemmersmeier@reviewjournal.com or follow on Twitter @seanhemmers34.

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