When Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, erupted this week for the first time in nearly four decades, it wasn’t just a major geological event. For many in the Native Hawaiian community, it carried broader cultural and political symbolism and a message of respect for indigenous communities and the land.
The eruption, which began Sunday night, coincided Monday with Hawaii’s Independence Day, known as Lā Kūʻokoʻa, which commemorates the formal international recognition of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s sovereignty nearly two centuries ago.. Many Native Hawaiians draw on their mythology around Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and creator of the islands, to help assign meaning to the historic eruption.
Against the backdrop of a Hawaii that continues to grapple with the consequences of American colonization, many Native Hawaiians say the timing of the eruption is not a coincidence, but a «reaffirmation» of cultural practices and community independence, and a rejection of the colonial forces. in his land
“Natives have been saying this is no longer their place to mine and profit,” said Kaniela Ing, co-founder of the Native Hawaiian-focused organization Our Hawaii and a former state legislator. «You have no authority to shape our sacred lands.»
The eruption, Ing said, “is Pelehonuamea saying, ‘They’re right. My people are right.’”
The deity Pele, often referred to as «Tūtū Pele», or grandmother Pele, has been regarded as an ancestor who «creates new lands» as molten and hardened lava is added to the surrounding terrain.
— ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui, author of “Voices of Fire: Reweaving the Literary Law of Pele and Hi’iaka.”
Mauna Loa, on the island of Hawaii and next to the dormant, snow-covered volcano Mauna Kea, is expected to continue to erupt for weeks. So far, the lava flow has slowed down significantly and does not pose a threat to communities, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said. However, authorities expect it to eventually reach the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, which is less than four miles away, in about a week or more.
The fiery red magma that ruptures from the Earth’s crust is profound when examined through the lens of Hawaiian mythology, Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui, a Native Hawaiian scholar and author of «Voices of Fire: Reweaving the Literary Threads of Pele and Hi’iakahe told NBC News.
While Pele’s lore has often been commodified for tourists, sometimes portrayed as a vengeful god who punishes those who catch lava rocks as souvenirs, Ho’omanawanui (who lowercases his name) explained that the deity, Often referred to as «Tūtū Pele,» or Grandma Pele, she has also been regarded as an ancestor who «creates new land» as hardened, molten lava adds to the surrounding terrain. And Pele’s lava flow, ho’ said omanawanui, is associated with a cleanup that the Native Hawaiian community receives with gratitude rather than fear.
“It’s really cultivated a sense of wonder and really what we’re feeling today…it’s just a tremendous sense that the Earth is alive,” Ho’omanawanui said. “We are seeing new lands, new geographic features being born before our eyes, and there is no power, no human power, that can stop it or deter it.”
Many in the community have seen this as a warning from Pele to the military, whose presence in the area has made the islands the most heavily militarized state in the country, according to research published in Pacific Public Health.
Pelé’s symbolism is particularly significant in the context of Hawaii’s Independence Day, marked by the signing of the Anglo-Franco Proclamation of 1843. Experts point out that 50 years after the proclamation, the US illegally overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and became a colonial presence on the islands
A particularly controversial arm of US colonialism has been the military occupation of the islands. And Sharde Freitas, a Native Hawaiian practitioner, advocate and member of the Aloha ʻĀina Law Group, explained that the lava flow was heading towards the Pohakuloa Training Area, a military training ground. Many in the community have seen this as a warning from Pele to the military, whose presence in the area has made the islands the most heavily militarized state in the nation, according to research published in Pacific Public Health. Pohakuloa in particular, Freitas said, has been an active source of debate in recent years, as its lease is due to expire in 2029, and many have protested its renewal.
Similarly, Ho’omanawanui said there have been a variety of offenses, ranging from cultural to environmental consequences, caused by the military occupation. Most recently, 1,100 gallons of toxic fire suppression foam leaked from the Red Hill fuel storage facility, operated by the US Navy. The leak follows another major spill from the same facility last year that sickened families who depended on a nearby well for water.
“This is just a reminder of… at any time, nature can reclaim everything that colonial society considers wealth.”
— Kaniela Ing, Our Hawaii
“The occupation of land for military use has resulted in the destruction of the natural environment, the release of dangerous toxins, the destruction of homes and the displacement of people,” the report says.
The lava flow toward Pohakuloa is a sign, Ho’omanawanui said.
“Something says, ‘Hey, US military, we’ve been saying for a long time that you shouldn’t be here and you shouldn’t be doing this,’” he said. “We’ve had all these, in essence, warnings along the way. We have had lessons taught and yet the military continues to ignore us. So now Pele comes in.»
The symbolism surrounding the eruption can also be applied to another long-standing colonial force on the island: the tourism industry, Eng said. The industry has led to the displacement of Native Hawaiians due to rising housing costs and their forced migration and assimilation into other areas of the US
“Tourism only works when we are poor. And the people who work here and build the place are poorer than the people who play here,” said Ing.