November 7, 2018
Most people who hear the word "Bula" associate it with its motherland, Fiji.
In Fiji, Bula means a multitude of things, from its main greeting signifying “hello”, akin to the Hawaiian term “Aloha”, to wishing someone good life and health, to being used in the word for hospital, being part of the Biblical term for “Messiah”, and being used as a marketing slogan to promote tourism.
For this reason, it came as a surprise, and reportedly offended many Fijians to learn that Florida businessman Ross Kashtan opened a chain of “Bula Nation” bars and cafes in Florida called "Bula on the Beach", "Bula Café", and "Bula Coco Beach". Kashtan has also registered a trademark of the famous Fijian national greeting.
Bula Nation has become popular for its laid back beach-bar vibe and island-styled drinks, including the kava, a traditional drink in Fiji and across most Southern Pacific islands.
Kashtan’s trademark and “Bula” bars and cafes have been criticized as being culturally insensitive and appropriating Fijian culture for purely commercial purposes.
Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told Radio New Zealand, “we would never give permission for anyone - particularly someone outside of Fiji looking to profit - to effectively claim ownership of 'bula', a word so deeply-rooted in our national identity that it has become synonymous with Fiji…. The idea that a single person could control the use of a word so dear to the hearts of Fijians is offensive, it is tone-deaf, and it is wrong”.
For many Fijians, the outrage reportedly stems from a feeling of lack of respect and acknowledgement of their country by “culture vultures”. In a similar recent case, a restaurant chain in Illinois received backlash from Hawaiians after trademarking the traditional greeting “aloha”.
Fijian academic Tarisi Vunidilo at Hawaii University told the BBC, “speaking from an indigenous persons' point of view, before we take something, we would always ask beforehand…. They should have at least made an effort to contact someone in Fiji, but they didn't.”
Fiji’s fight to reclaim Bula is just beginning. The Fijian government is reportedly prepared to fight this trademark with every power international law affords. Fiji plans to contest the trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office and to raise the matter with the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Supporters of the Bula-backlash aim to shine light on the importance of developing guidelines to question and monitor business people who want to trademark words, music, or designs that are not their own.
Author: Samanthea Samuels