Is it possible for a business to legally own a word from a native culture and prevent its use by members of the native community?

This question is being considered in the American state of Hawaii. Some Hawaiians were surprised to learn that an American company had trademarked a business name that includes “aloha” -- one of the most common native Hawaiian words.

The Chicago-based eatery’s full name is “Aloha Poke.”

Aloha is a native Hawaiian word commonly used as a friendly greeting. It can also mean love or kindness and is used by Native Hawaiians and others to describe the way of life in Hawaii.

The word “poke” is a traditional Hawaiian salad usually made from pieces of fish, rice and vegetables. American restaurants offering poke meals have increased in popularity in recent years.

Aloha Poke Company operates restaurants in several American cities. The company has sent letters to some other businesses that it discovered were using poke and aloha in their names. The letters stated that Aloha Poke was a trademarked name. It demanded that other businesses stop using the words or face legal action.

One of the targeted businesses was Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital. Business co-owner Jeff Sampson told Hawaii’s News Now that at first, he thought the letter must be a joke. “Because I didn't think you could trademark 'aloha' or 'poke' or them together in any shape or form."

Jarrett Keohokalole is a Native Hawaiian state senator. He said he was shocked “at the audacity of people from outside of our community” who seemed to be trying to prevent the use of “symbols and words that are important to our culture.”

Aloha Poke Company issued a statement to Hawaii’s News Now explaining its position. In the statement, business chief Chris Birkinshaw denied that his company had attempted to “own” the words aloha or poke.

However, he said the company does hold two federal trademarks for its company design logo and the words "Aloha Poke" for use with its restaurant business. The statement added that this gives the company the "exclusive right to use those words together in connection with restaurant services within the U.S."

Exercise 1


Read the following vocabulary with your teacher.

trademark – v. secure an official registration for ownership of a product or idea

greeting – n. something friendly people say to each other when they meet

audacity – adj. showing too much confidence in one’s own behavior in a way that other people find shocking or rude

logo – n. design or symbol used by a company to advertise its products

exclusive – adj. not shared with other people or organizations


Exercise 2


Answer these questions about the article.

1. What is the meaning of the word aloha?

2. Where is the Aloha Poke Company from?

3. What is poke?

4. Who is Chris Birkinshaw?


Exercise 3

Make a sentence.

Make sentences using these words.

trademark, greeting, audacity, logo, exclusive


Exercise 4


Have a discussion on following questions.

1. What do you think about this issue? Do you think Aloha Poke has the right to trademark the words aloha and poke?

2. Have you ever tried Hawaiian food?

3. Have you ever been to Hawaii?

4. What are some popular restaurant chains in your city?


This lesson is based on a news article originally published by VOA.