Issue 12.6: December 2009 / January 2010

Pele's Ph.D.

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.”



The wealth of Hawaiian-language writing regarding Pele extends well beyond the early newspapers. As Kuualoha notes in her 600-plus-page doctoral dissertation, Bishop Museum has indexed nearly 500 chants dedicated to the goddess and her sister, Hiiaka. Countless others remain private, and modern songs are still being composed. But the stories that appeared in the newspapers are exceptional in that they mark the point at which a centuries-old oral history was first widely published in its original language. And while many Hawaiian deities—Kane, Ku, Lono, Kanaloa, Maui and others—have ancestral origins elsewhere in Polynesia, Pele is purely Hawaiian; she has no cognate in the Pacific. There is no other volcano goddess (the closest equivalent being the Tahitian fire goddess Pere, whom it is generally believed came into existence later than Pele and not the other way around.)


From an academic point of view, this transition from oral history to literary text is itself fascinating. “Typically, when someone in the West writes a story, that work is copyrighted and that author makes money. Nobody is going to come out with an alternative version,” says Kuualoha. “But here we have a traditional story that has been around for millennia. In looking at all the different printed texts, it became obvious that there is not one single, pure version—there’s no ‘official’ text. We have thirteen different narratives that don’t share any of the same characters except for Pele—even Hiiaka and Lohiau [a Kauai chief and Pele’s erstwhile lover] don’t appear in every version. There are hundreds of place names, but about the only one they share in common is Kilauea. There are different olelo noeau [proverbs], genealogies of different chiefly families, different chants, variations on the same chant. So once someone was the first person to put the story in print in a comprehensive way, what compelled the next person, and then the next person, and then the next person to put a version in print?”


One answer to this question lies in the fact that each island has its own culture and history. “One story is by William Hyde Rice, a haole [white] author who was born on Oahu but spent most of his life on Kauai,” explains Kuualoha. “In the other texts, Lohiau is a kind of slow, dimwitted guy, where in the Rice version he’s the handsome, charming, wonderful chief of Kauai. So you see a reflection of the diversity of Hawaiian cultural practice within the literature. It also makes sense that a Kauai version would exalt its chief, while the intention of a story from another island—coming from, say, a Kamehameha line—would be to cut the rival chief down.”


Another impetus behind publishing the stories is that they were intended to preserve Hawaiian culture at a time when it was under extreme external pressure from those who sought to Westernize (or, more specifically, Americanize) the Islands. Over the course of more than a century, starting in 1834, approximately 135 separate Hawaiian-language newspapers were published. However, in 1896 the Hawaiian language was outlawed as a medium of instruction in public schools. As the ability to read and speak Hawaiian waned, the papers began to fold; the last of them closed in 1948. The information held in these papers—from Hawaiian resistance against American annexation to the cataloging of ancient place names—was effectively placed in a time capsule for future generations to discover.


But only one of those stories was to become the popular Pele narrative. In 1915, Nathaniel Emerson published the book Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii. Not only is it a translation of only one version of the story, but it is also severely edited. In most early versions, the basic story line (to radically oversimplify things) involves Hiiaka’s adventure-filled journey from the Big Island to Kauai to fetch Lohiau for Pele. Emerson’s version, Kuualoha notes, is largely an unattributed translation of the first of the Pele stories, published in 1861 by the writer Kapihenui. And while Emerson remained true to the story line, he edited it to make it more comprehensible to non-Hawaiian audiences. He deleted chants and compressed complex passages illustrating Hawaiian protocol—passages that would have made perfect sense to a Hawaiian audience—to keep the story moving. For example, in the original version, when Hiiaka encounters a fierce moo, she engages the water spirit in a series of entreaties that illustrate proper deference when entering someone else’s realm. Only when these entreaties fail does she fight; in Emerson’s version she simply kills the moo when it bars her path. 


Emerson took what was for Hawaiians a complex mix of history and cultural commentary and turned it into a myth in the popular sense: a fantasy. But because it was published in English (and because books last longer and carry more inherent prestige than newspapers), his version became the “official” story that most people know today. Through it, Pele has been reduced to a set of caricatures—lustful young woman, ancient crone, hot-tempered goddess—rather than a complex figure of immense power, integrity and dignity whose story is an enactment of Hawaiian ways of knowing.


So it is that Kuualoha is one of several modern scholars who have accepted as their kuleana the task of delving into early Hawaiian literature and restoring the original depth and complexity to these stories. In doing so, they are not only giving voice to a history that was largely unheard for much of the twentieth century, but also allowing that history to be reincorporated into day-to-day life. It is much more than a sterile, academic pursuit.


“The Pele family and the mo‘o family are related, but there’s conflict,” Kuualoha recalls of the period when she began her research. “I started getting spider bites; the spider is a kino lau [physical embodiment] of the moo. One day in my office, in a brand-new building that is completely sealed, right there on the floor was a dead scorpion, which is another kino lau of the moo. When I was working on my dissertation, there was a big flood on Kauai. I was living at the base of Kalalea, which is a moo mountain there; I came home from work in Honolulu to find a big puka [hole] in the ceiling right above my Pele research. All I could do was laugh: The whole rest of the house was fine, but here’s the box that’s all wet. When I mention these things to some people, they think I’m crazy, but when I talk to other indigenous scholars, they just tell me their own similar stories.”