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PUNA, Hawaii Island – Iwa, Sandy and Katrina are all feminine names of memorable disasters, but collectively they didn’t pack the power of Hawaii’s goddess of fire.
These days it’s hard to talk to anyone around here without hearing her mentioned.
Madame Pele or Tutu Pele frequently gets the credit or the blame for the earthquakes, poisonous gas emissions and molten lava disrupting the lives of thousands of Puna residents.
Her perceived impact ranges the from people simply trying to shun possible bad luck to traditional Hawaiian practitioners convinced Pele is a living deity who created the islands and continues influencing the lives of those living near her current home within the Kilauea volcano.
Some claim Pele occasionally reveals herself in the smoke plumes or lava spewing from the ground. Others craft artwork they feel accurately depict her beauty and mana, or power. Testimonials of first-person encounters, offerings and speculation about her motives are not uncommon
Iwa, Sandy or Katrina never got that level of respect. They were singular events, albeit with long-lasting effects.
Pele is different.
“For us, it’s a spiritual thing,” said Kalapana native Robert Keliihoomalu, who described himself as being 85 percent Hawaiian. “We think of her as our ancestor, because she’s right next to us.”
Keliihoomalu and his family run a popular awa bar and farmers market adjacent to the 1990 flow that cut off Highway 137 and covered the historical Queen’s Bath swimming area — and much of Kalapana.
He said some of his cousins make offerings to Pele, “just to keep her, you know, satisfied.”
“There’s a lot of people that see her, and they’re part of my family,” Keliihoomalu said while helping with relief efforts Sunday afternoon in Pahoa.
Longtime lower Puna resident Sara Steiner said she encountered Pele at Keliihoomalu’s business site.
“After 35 years (living in Puna), I met Madame Pele at Uncle Robert’s, and I stepped in a crack,” Steiner said.
Although acknowledging that Pele “can have a mean streak,” Keliihoomalu believes she is good. He also rejects others’ speculation that Pele is erupting inside a neighborhood because she’s angry about Puna’s rampant growth, increasing crime wave or a nearby industrial geothermal power plant.
“She’s always going to be part of us,” Keliihoomalu said. “She’s like our … kind of semi-protector.”
Pele is a force with whom Puna residents must live, said Bula Kajiyama, a Pohoiki resident also with Hawaiian ancestry.
“We are living on her land. She does what she wants to do,” he said.
Kajiyama said his family has been enduring lava threats for generations, noting his parents lived through the 1960 Kapoho eruption that destroyed a thriving community.
“We’ve just got to deal with it. That’s what we do,” he said. “We’ve just got to be resilient.”
Some believe Pele’s power to be so great that simply taking a lava rock as a souvenir can trigger years of bad luck. This is why Big Island rocks, sand and other mementoes are routinely shipped back to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Volcano Post Office and the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation. Some are wrapped with great care.
Despite knowing of that curse, New Jersey resident Donna Denham said she removed a small amount of black sand while honeymooning on Hawaii Island in 1983.
“We are still together after 30 years, but (it’s been) a very rocky road. We have experienced so much back luck and unhappy times,” Denham said in a 2014 handwritten note accompanying the sand she mailed back to its home.
Denham added she’s learned from the experience.
“I do hope better days are ahead for us,” she wrote. “Should I ever be able to return, I will only send home pineapple.”
Not all Hawaiians believe in Pele, whose actual existence would conflict with Christianity.
God is the creator of all, and “nobody else created nothing,” the Rev. Gladys Brigham said during Sunday services at Kurtistown’s Ka Mauloa Church.
Brigham, who delivered her sermon largely in Hawaiian, said the Hawaiian church has 25 to 50 members and celebrated its centennial anniversary last month.
“We have never, ever believed in (Pele) because we believe God created the volcano,” she said.
Nani Masaki, who said she’s been a church parishioner since 1982 and is a descendant of a former minister, echoed that belief.
“God created heaven and earth,” she said before worshiping Sunday. “Pele has no saying in all of that.”
But the blending of Catholic and Hawaiian religions has some living with a foot in each realm.
Parishioner Myrtle Zoppy likened the latest eruption to a visiting guest whose anticipated arrival prompts the host to clean up the house. That guest would be Pele.
“I believe it’s God’s work,” Zoppy said of the lava activity, “but Pele is doing her thing.”
“I’ve always just known her as Tutu Pele,” Zoppy said. “This is her land, and she’s going to do what she wants.”
Traditionalists, native believers and skeptics all await the result.
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