story by Stu Dawrs
photo by Monte Costa
Kuleana can be a difficult concept for those who like their meaning cut and dried. It can translate alternately as “right” (as in an entitlement), “authority” or “responsibility” … or simultaneously as all three. But really it’s a simple equation: Rights carry power and authority; authority brings with it responsibility. The more you possess—land, political influence, information—the greater your duty to both share and protect it.
So while most scholars would agree that they bear some professional responsibility for the subjects of their research, Dr. Kuualoha Hoomanawanui’s academic kuleana is more deeply personal. With her combination of degrees—B.A. in Hawaiian studies, M.A. in religion, Ph.D. in English literature—and her current position as the first (and thus far only) Hawaiian with a tenure track position in the University of Hawaii’s department of English, Hoomanawanui is already a singular authority in her field. The subject of her research is one of Hawaii’s most revered deities, and one whom many (including Kuualoha herself) consider to be more than a legendary figure. Pele is a family member … though it is a relationship that goes beyond human genealogy.
Born on Oahu and raised on Kauai, Kuualoha’s family tree also has roots in the Big Island’s Puna and Kau districts. These are Pele lands, beautiful and at times unforgiving—which are, not coincidentally, characteristics of the volcano goddess herself. You can never go far without seeing the remains of flows: More than 180 homes and other structures in Puna have been consumed by lava since 1983, when Kilauea began its current eruptive phase. But such destruction is Pele’s paradox: Volcanic eruptions are a necessary part of island creation. To live in their path you need to have a deep love of the land, along with a certain toughness and resilience—these, too, being aspects of Pele.
“My dad often tells a story about how my family went down to visit my auntie Daisy Pai in Puna,” Kuualoha says. “He was outside smoking a cigarette and she said, ‘Oh, you need one ashtray?’ So she goes out to where the lava is flowing, breaks off a piece and uses a beer bottle to shape it. My mom says, ‘You’re not afraid?’ She just goes, ‘Oh, that’s Tutu!’ Auntie was in her sixties when she lost her house to a lava flow. So she lived in her truck and she rebuilt her house. Who does that? Pele women.”
Such stories are common on the Big Island, where modern encounters with Pele in one of her human forms are much-discussed occurrences. But there are many other stories not meant for public transmission: deeply personal encounters, family histories, genealogies and rituals maintained by specific halau hula (hula schools). You’ll receive these stories only if you’re meant to know them and are trusted to care for them.
There is also a third set of narratives, what Kuualoha calls the noa (i.e, freed from restriction) stories: These oral accounts reach back through untold generations and were serialized in Hawaiian-language newspapers beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. And while Pele’s story has been translated, mistranslated, altered, published and republished hundreds of times since then, Kuualoha is one of only a few people who have read the originals in their entirety: Multiple versions of the same history as recorded by at least thirteen different authors, beginning in 1861 and continuing for nearly seventy years across hundreds of newspaper pages. This reading alone is an accomplishment that carries with it yet another kuleana: Pele remains to this day a sacred topic for many Native Hawaiians; one does not speak casually of her, let alone divulge information that’s considered private cultural property.
“I’ve had experiences were I walk into a room to give a presentation, and I can see that body language: arms crossed, you know, ‘Who is this person, and who does she think she is?’” says Kuualoha. “And what I typically explain is that I recognize that there are family traditions and there are halau traditions; there are all of these traditions that I consider kapu or private, which are not my kuleana to access and share. What my work is about is the publicly available, printed newspaper versions of these stories that have been freed of that kapu because the writers and editors of a hundred years ago made those decisions. I also explain that I have a family lineage, and it’s my intention to approach this with respect and aloha, with a sense of love and caring. Typically when I explain it this way, I see the body language relax.”