One Woman’s Entrepreneurial Endeavor Aims to Honor & Highlight Polynesian Culture

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Photo from the 2021 catalog, courtesy of NĀ KOA and Andrea Butter.



When people think of a vacation, they often imagine an island getaway. Or, some sort of resort that is in a tropical place like Hawaii. Maybe, they envision a spot in the South Pacific like the Cook Islands or Fiji. Yet few people think of the actual real culture and the history of places like Hawaii and the Polynesian influence.  Much of it on the surface has fed our romantic notions of vacations and getaways to a romantic spot on an island.

Yet, one woman’s entrepreneurial spirit for native artisan business is aiming to change that notion, Much of what people think about Polynesian culture in general can be traced as far back as the 19th Century. 
Bay Area entrepreneur, Andrea Butter, holds one of the originally designed and crafted Pahu Hao zip wallets. “Every detail has a meaning within the pattern of the design,” said Butter. She was eager to present a few samples of the work while at lunch at the Alpine Inn & Beer Garden in Portola Valley, CA (which is 45 minute drive south of San Francisco, along the Peninsula). Photo by Jonathan Farrell
“I created the NĀ KOA line to give Pacific Islanders something of quality that they can use daily,” said NĀ KOA owner Andrea Butter. In all of her travels, Hawaii and the South Pacific has been a favorite. So when she saw an opportunity to help a local business she followed it.
 
“I want NĀ KOA to be something that connects them to their roots and culture.  And, for non-Pacific islanders who are attracted by the art and what it can stand for – but in a way that I hope educates them a bit about the culture.” 
 
Attitudes about Polynesia, the South Pacific and Hawaii comes from tourism and the American influence that has been a part of Hawaii and the South Pacific for more than 100 years. 
 
Some of that can be traced back even further to the19th and even the 18th Century when British exploration and influence gave way to the emerging colonies that then became America. 
 
This is perhaps best highlighted in the writing of novelist James Michener of which the musical “South Pacific” and the epic movie, “Hawaii” is based. Ever since Hawaii became a state of the United States in 1959, there’s so much that is assumed and taken as ‘granted‘ when it has to do with Polynesian culture.
 
Butter as a traveler and entrepreneur, instinctively knew better. “My inspiration for NĀ KOA she said, is I just fell in love with how beautiful the (modern) Polynesian tattoos looked on people all over Maui and Oahu. I am the kind of person who buries herself deeply in a subject when I am interested in it, so I started reading and learning as much as I could about it, and the deeper I got, the more I loved it.” 
 
Her love and appreciation grew. “Because as she explained, I realized how significant tattoos were and are to the cultures all over Polynesia, not just Hawaii.”
 
Tattoos have been growing in popularity, according to various reports. In 2021, more that 35 percent of Americans have a tattoo. While some form of tattoo has been in existence for thousands of years, in several parts of the world, it has been Polynesian culture that has kept it alive. Even the word itself comes from the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means to write or to “mark.” 
 
Butter sees that particular and important distinction. 
 
“My interest in tattoos among native people grew from appreciating their fierce beauty to loving them for cultural significance.” She noticed that each tattoo among the various Polynesian peoples has a meaning and purpose. 
 
In traditional Samoan culture for example, a person must receive the appropriate tattoos that illustrate who that person is and the status and role that person has within the Samoan community. In many instances a tattoo represents a rite of passage or a ritual to maturity. This was featured in the PBS documentary, “Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo.”
 
As Butter continued to recognize the cultural and historical significance, she pondered as to what she could do to help preserve the authentic legacy. “Somewhere during that time of my research and inquiries, it hit me that I could do a product line in leather with tattoos,” she said.
 
“My foremost goal was to make the line for Pacific Islanders, she said. But next came the wish that the line be helpful in teaching more people about the Polynesian culture and the role and meaning of tattoos. 
And I felt – still feel – a great responsibility to do this respectfully and accurately, said Butter.  There’s huge cultural and historic significance of the tattoo art, and it would be wrong to ‘appropriate’ the art for my own monetary gain.  My responsibility included to only work with tattoo artists who are really knowledgeable and immersed in their culture and meanings of the tattoos they create.  Not the artists who are simply faking it, she said, who are using the motifs they see on other artist’s creations without knowing anything about them.”
 
In this aspect Butter was very careful and determined. “I had to really, truly earn the trust and respect of the native people I sought to work with,” she said. It wasn’t all smooth sailing like an adventure book or movie of Captain Cook. He was the one credited with discovering much of Polynesia and brought it back to England in the 18th Century.
 
Butter had to genuinely earn the trust and respect of the native community and their artists and artisans. “I really had to be sure that I was not making any cultural mistakes in developing the line,” said Butter. 
She did have to contend with a larger question in the native Polynesian community. The question of should people who are not of Samoan, Hawaiian, Tahitian or Maori descent be able to get a tattoo in the style and tradition of any of these cultures? 
NĀ KOA offers a variety of wallets. Whether it is in a slim billfold style or a clutch, zip or a trifold, NĀ KOA artists and craftsman have something for just about everyone. Photo courtesy of Andrea Butter and NĀ KOA
“I have not encountered a native tattoo artist who thought they shouldn’t, said Butter. But at the same time, the tattoo art they create for these clients is not the ‘pure’ – historically accurate tattoo of that culture. I’ve never seen a classic Samoan Pe’a or malu on anyone but a Samoan person, she said. Nor have I seen an ancient Hawaiian motif that’s seen on an engraving by the original European explorers on anyone that’s not Hawaiian.”
 
The art that is made for the NĀ KOA line of handcrafted goods is original and authentic. The reputation of NĀ KOA has continued to grow attracting customers, including celebrities like rock and roll legend Alice Cooper and film star Johnny Depp. 
 
NĀ KOA is anticipating the holiday season as any one of the handcrafted items would be a unique gift for that special someone on a holiday shopping list. To learn more about NĀ KOA, visit the NĀ KOA website.