My Hawaiian Culture Class took a second field trip, this time to the mother of all Parks – Volcanoes National Park. In this case “mother” refers to Pele, birthing new land. Halema’uma’u Crater in the Kilauea Caldera is traditionally known as the home of Pele. The volcano has been active every day since January 3, 1983. These days that activity is embodied in the lava flow that started June 27 from a vent in the Puna District.
We prepared for our visit by making a Hilo braid lei for Pele, this time with green ti leaves. Luckily I have a ti plant in the wrong location in my yard, so I used its leaves. I hope Pele doesn’t strike me dead for using a plastic Homer bucket to clean them.
Braiding with green leaves versus brown ones is trickier because you have to make them soft enough to work with. The green ti stems are especially stiff and tough, so you cut them out. Our teacher, Lanakila Mangauil, suggested passing the stiff leaves quickly through a campfire, or ironing them. The campfire route might work well in Waipio Valley, but Honoka‘a has rules against open fires. I wasn’t about to use my grill, much less my beloved iron bought over 40 years ago. So I went to You-Tube. Yup, I found a method made just for me – briefly cook them!
The rest of the process is much the same as creating a Hilo braid with the brown leaves. As I added new leaves, I left the ends as decorative tags rather than trimming them off. Beautiful and worthy, I thought.
The day of the fieldtrip, the class met at Moku Ola (Coconut Island) in Hilo before carpooling to the park. Lanakila told us that in the old days, Moku Ola was a place for healing (moku = island, ola = life). Legend says that if a sick person swam around the island three times, he would be cured.
It was also a place of refuge (pu‘uhonua). When a person broke a kapu, a law, his only protection from death was to get to the place of refuge before the Chief’s runners got to him. There, the transgressor could be rehabilitated by the Kahuna of the pu‘uhonua. Lanakila explained that the kapu were not arbitrary rules. Today we might think that a penalty of death for taking a fish out of season is harsh. But if the fish were spawning during that time, the transgressor killed not only that fish but the thousands of eggs that she carried, and, if over-fished, the species could be depleted for the use of everyone else.
The rehabilitation process included everyone affected by the crime. For example, if the transgressor robbed a neighbor, the kahuna made the robber and neighbor come to some resolution. Once forgiven, everyone was expected to let the matter go. (On the Kona side of the Big Island, the Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Park preserves an historic place of refuge.)
Lanakila pointed out some rocks off shore from Moku Ola. This is where bodies were prepared after death. In the Hawaiian culture, the soul resides in the bones. So the flesh was cut off the bones and placed in the ocean while the bones were placed into a basket and hidden in caves in the mountain or kept by the family. These deceased ancestors protected the ‘āina, the land.
Rendezvousing again at the Volcanoes National Park, Lanakila went over our itinerary. “Really it’s just a plan. The volcano tells us what we are going to do. The weather tells us what we are going to do.”
He explained that we would be conducting our protocol of letting the gods (and animals) know we are here, identifying ourselves and telling them our intention, and then asking permission to enter and safely so. Our lei is not a gift (makana). It is an offering (ho‘okupu). An offering has an expectation of reciprocity, that is, we want to learn more about the forest. The “asking protocol” slows us down, which has the effect of keeping us out of trouble. When we pule (pray) during this protocol, our head is not down, but eyes are looking around and noticing. We are looking for a sign that it is safe to enter this home of Pele, the spirit of creation, beautiful, but dangerous, too. Lanakila said that the origin of “island time” is this time people spent to pay attention.
Our first stop was a symbolic cleansing at the steam vents – an opportunity to mentally cleanse ourselves and prepare us for our ceremony at the edge of the caldera. This was so far from the way I have approached these vents before, even seeing them as dangerous. (See Living on Five Volcanoes, posted November 14, 2012).
But I have new eyes now. Just before our chanting ceremony, Lanakila told us, “Now you have no excuse for not knowing how to be respectful to Pele and what she represents – the birthing cycle of the ‘āina. You cannot go back to not knowing.”
At our second stop, he walked us out to the edge of the caldera, beyond the post and rope fence. The ground was rough with small sharp lava rocks. A few brave souls went barefoot as typical hula protocol requires, though Lanakila excused us from this. There, near the edge of the caldera cliff, we chanted and danced our hula, telling Pele we were here, identifying ourselves and making our intentions clear. I can see now that each chant and hula we learned played a specific part in this protocol. But at that moment, I wasn’t analyzing with my head. I was dancing with my heart.
After that, we silently lined up, women on the left, men on the right, oldest in the center down to the youngest on each end, and Lanakila made an offering on behalf of the group. Then we each walked out to the edge, one by one, and made our own offering. Gases rose from Pele’s crater, the sun peered through thin clouds, the wind blew steadily, and then a white koa‘e kea cliff bird circled overhead. A sign.
I will not forget this day.
For other essays about Diane’s Hawaiian Hula Class see:
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