Dusk, then dark. And the smell of sulfur. The gently rolling lava flats begin to glow. Little rivulets of lava bloom like veins in a great bleeding, black heart. Those are in the distance; they are what we walk toward.
When we finally reach the ocean, we can’t see it. What we can see is a firefall dropping down a cliff into a great plume of steam. That’s about 200 yards in the distance. There’s another too, right in front of us. We can’t get close enough to the edge of the cliff to peer down and watch its entry or its fall. We can only hear the hiss, see rising clouds of steam, and look upland, where fiery veins and arteries multiply as they flow towards the ocean, and us.
We are excited. Our guide gives us a brief talk on the lava, most of which I cannot hear, before letting us explore a bit. The ground about 5 yards before us erupts into slow red flows. This is the edge, the boundary of the lava field, itself composed of many small flows spread over an expanse of land and originating in Pu’u O’o vent. People pair down to their original parties, or approach the molten lava to poke it with a stick. Poking it with a stick seems to yield the predictable result, although it does allow one to gauge the texture and thickness of the lava. Yet, even after getting this information, the stick pokers continue until the tips of their sticks have ignited, piercing the flow’s white pith.
I’m watching primal human being-ness at play: the lava exits stage left, the impulse to modify the environment moves center stage. Give them any wild environment and provoke the same. It provides a number of satisfactions, the greatest of which is a sense of control.
There are others doing other things.
We are falling, more or less, into tribal divisions.
Some test and modify their environment. Others close off into romantic silhouettes grouped in twos and threes along the flow’s edge. They’re players, the lava field a scenic backdrop to their intimacy. Others begin to reach outside their groups to share, discuss, and socialize. Still others, like myself, scurry by the lava’s light, documenting. They’re the watchers.
The faces of people glow red. These faces float away, exchanging themselves for other featureless red faces. Lines blur into pockets of light and shadow. Flows quickly erupt, then cool and disappear. Voices rise, only to fall over the cliff. People flirt with protection and exposure. They approach, then fall back. The fabric of human interaction seems transparent, its warp and weft running in clear lines when held up and examined against the flows.
The guides have formed their own society on a strategically located lava rock a little behind the flow field perimeter, moon-side. They are ethnic Hawaiians from the neighborhoods over which we walk, the ones long ago incinerated beneath these flows and flats. For all intensive purposes, we are walking over a huge graveyard, and according to our guides, at least one real one. The ground buried under the lava, and by extension the lava itself, is still parsed into privately held lots. 108 of them. The guides state that the landholders have given them permission to traverse over the property. Yet, they derive their authority from a higher place.
They are native Hawaiians, and family. It is clear – crystal clear – that the land belongs to them by right and heritage, that visitors have an honored, yet tenuous place at the table. Like Pele, they demand certain respects be payed. And they are angry.
Remember those pesky Romans with their heroes and war and imperial egos? How they were on the cusp of being humbled in Europe around the time the first peoples settled Hawai’i? Our guides are the descendants of those first Hawaiians. They are also the descendants of the people who, during the great age of colonial expansion, cordially invited the first Westerners, Captain Cook and crew, to disembark on the shores of Kona, only to find themselves inundated with disease, prostitution, and worthless, rusty nails glutting the markets. That lasted 3 weeks, after which they evicted the white men, and after a skirmish involving a stolen boat, killed and dismembered the illustrious Captain Cook, distributing parts of his body to various ali’i (chiefs) throughout the island. This precedent more or less set the standard terms of the coming centuries, and like many indigenous peoples whose lands were taken, they found themselves weakened, 80% of their population dead through disease, their society in ruins, their Gods castrated, and their leaders either defeated, weak, or aligned with Machiavellian and exploitative Westerners.
Missionaries, imported to each of the islands, dealt the final death blows.
It’s not too much of a stretch to understand why some native Hawaiians might be a little pissed, a little defensive. How many years have white people been coming to their lands and disrespecting their authority over it?
The guides had been telling stories of danger on the flats all night. Implicit was the lesson of the disrespectful and unwelcome visitor. Visitors – uninvited, unguided, without the appropriate permissions and knowledge – deciding to hike the flats, visit the flows.
Visitors getting lost, getting injured, dying, falling into lava tubes, violating the property rights of land holders, requiring rescue helicopters, disrespecting the sacred lands of Pele, disrespecting her people – bleeding, shredded visitors. Even after we reached the flows, they chanted to Pele, requesting her assistance for ensuring our safety on the flats, thanking her for allowing our presence.
Here is the protocol: respect the land, respect the people, respect the Gods.
And shortly after the chant, an unsanctioned party of visitors (without guides) approached the flows. And the conflict, decades wide and centuries long, emerged in dramatic relief as our guides sighted them.
It began with warnings laced with taunts.
What are you doing here? Who are you with? You should not be up here without a guide – you could get hurt. Then we going to have to come get you — call a helicopter and come get you. Don’t you know these are people’s lands you are walking on? What are you — stupid? Go home! Go back from where you came from!
As you can imagine, much gets lost in translation. The leader of the party holds ground about 50 feet away from the flows. It’s difficult to hear his responses, punctuated by the distance and ambient noise. There is something about using GPS to follow the “state road.” This is a key defense to the charges that he violates property rights. The taunts turn darker, more emotional.
You can’t follow the state road all the way here! Stupid! Are you lying to me? It’s too dangerous for you here! Do you want to fall, break your leg? Turn back and go home!
We are supposed to be out here. We know what we are doing! We got permission. Do you have permission from the people that own this land? Our families come from here, we come from here. Where do you come from? Do you even know where you are going? Go away!
Our guide, increasingly agitated, persists. The party holds their ground, inches closer. And then, their leader sends an unforgivable message across the flats.
I don’t acknowledge your authority.
Hackles, already raised, flare violently. Our guide quickly crosses the flat, gets in the others’ face, and begins screaming. Some of it I can hear, some of it I can’t.
These are my ancestors, not yours! This is my family, not yours! You are walking over a graveyard! Do you want me to come and walk over your family’s graveyard?! People lived here! My people! Did your people live here!
The arguments, examined more closely, are flawed. Our guide argues that you cannot trespass on private property. Following a state road, even if buried, nullifies this. Our guide argues that the visitors are inexperienced and will get hurt. No one really knows what the experience level of this visitors is. Perhaps he, or one of them, has experience on the lava flats, enough to remain safe.
There is reference to a “Civil Defense” unit for Hawai’i County, an agency that monitors the safety of flows for the general public and regulates visitors. They seem to be on the walkies, in communication with our guides; their role is unclear. Their website does not seem to contain any clear description of their role in monitoring or regulating public access to the flows located on private lands. I found this later on a general website that appeared to be unrelated to the County of Hawai’i’s website:
“We ask that visitors show the greatest courtesy and respect to the local residents and property owners. Please remember never to go off the road or trail, and please dispose of all trash in the garbage cans provided. Guide/interpreters will be on hand in the viewing area to provide information and assistance. For more information, please call Civil Defense at 935-0031.”
There was also information on public access hours: between 2 pm and 8 pm respectively. But access to what? A viewing destination was not specified; same with the trails, if they exist. And, I do not know if or how the hours are monitored or enforced. It was unclear what the role of the guides would be and who they were. Watching my guides, there seems to be an unofficial relationship in which civil defense relies on the sanctioned tour companies to provide information about visitor activity on the fields, yet the guides have no recourse to enforce safety until someone is already hurt, in which case the only recourse is an emergency evacuation via helicopter State land begins at ocean’s edge and progresses inland 50 feet but this does not and cannot pertain to the ever changing flow fields.
This Google map shows the area. Green area is state land. Kilauea is officially located in Volcanos National Park. The privately owned lands appear in white. You can see Kalapana (where I had hiked from) and the flow field locations, rimming the southeast edge of the island. And you can see Highway 137. This is probably the buried “state road” our unsanctioned visitor followed. That said, it’s highly likely that one cannot help but veer off the state road, despite the best intentions.
Can you see the problems?
Kalapana is a center for Hawaiian separatists who actively support Hawaiian sovereignty and offer an alternate history of Hawai’i and U.S. engagement, one probably no less true than the mainstream one. Here is how they might describe the aina (land):
“Once a picture perfect setting and native Hawaiian village, much of the culture of Kalapana district has been lost to Pele’s fury. This area harbored some of the last refugees of the native Hawaiian way of life. Far away from Western civilization, here were true Hawaiian people living the Hawaiian way for generations. The Hawaiian way of life practiced everyday included fishing, hunting, farming, Paniolo (cowboy) life, music, and enjoying what Akua (God) had to offer.
But life in Kalapana had its changes. Our fire Goddess, Madame Pele, had her own plans for Kalapana. In a period of lava flows starting from the early 1980s through present timeshe destroyed the whole ahu’pua’a (district) of Kalapana, leaving hints of civilization behind. Homes, properties, and businesses were destroyed. Ancient ruins were engulfed in lava. But the most important thing that was lost was the culture […] generations of perpetuation was lost in one generation. A few families had been spared by the lava, which signified that not all had been lost […] we are proud to say that the next generation is reviving what has been lost for decades, and is living off of what is left of this old Hawaiian way. The love and desire of the Hawaiian way of life will never be lost in an area of true Hawaiian people. These Hawaiians have become a testament to the culture, and strongly desire to live as their ancestors did…”
As for the argument on the lava flat, our guide argued from both within and without; that is, from within the cultural group where the concept of “state land” is mutually agreed upon, as a US citizen. He also argued as a Hawaiian national, where the concept of U.S. state property was void -more than void, an insult.
Who knows the chants? Who knows how to treat the land, Pele, with the sensitivity she deserves? Who knows where the bodies and homes are buried, where the sacred sites and ruins are? Who has survived cultural death, community death, been powerless onlookers to post-colonial power plays?
Who really has the power?
In the end, the unsanctioned party turned back.
The emotional argument is more cogent, yet it’s the one least skillfully articulated. It gets lost in the wind, in the violations of civil and legal discourse, in a subjective dark that is at once historical and present, that is all but invisible to government and law. It is one of grief. Loss. Cultural demise and resurrection. And stories, stories of hope, passion, love, and righteous anger. Stories of Pele. Stories chanted, told, shouted across her lava fields, where she hears the truths and settles the debts.
Did you read Part 1 of the series? You can read Part 1 of my article here.