Descendant of the Fire Goddess | Go Hawaii

Descendant of the Volcano Goddess


Keoni Kaholoʻaʻā

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Interpretive Ranger
At first, the southern edge of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park appears otherworldly. Wind-whipped black rock stretches from the cliffs to the deep blue waters of the Puna coast, a vast expanse of lava, frozen mid-flow into long smooth ropes called pāhoehoe and sharp, jagged sections called ʻaʻā

As native Hawaiian Keoni Kaholoʻaʻā hikes down the lava flow from Hōlei Pali, camera in hand, the brittle lava crunches under his boots, shattering like fragile glass. It’s surprisingly delicate. At a glance, the landscape seems barren. But there’s life everywhere.   

As he photographs the plants he finds, Keoni thinks about the Park’s visitor center and how lush it is there. Just like it is across the entire windward side of the island of Hawaiʻi. These green islands were born of fiery lava, and the teeming plant and wildlife they now support all started in this way. 

It’s a perspective not lost on the Interpretive Ranger, who shares with visitors tales of his ancestor, Pele, the creator deity associated with the volcano, on whose land they walk.

"Our responsibility is to protect the land, is to care for the land, is to cherish what we have, the water, the elements. It's all connected."

What is an Interpretive Ranger?

My duties here include sharing the culture with the visitors, to lead them on hikes and talk about the native wildlife. But my main purpose as an interpretive ranger is to leave a sense of belonging with visitors so that they can take that home with them.

How do you do that?

Letting visitors know that, hey, you know, these things are real. Pele is a force. We need both respect and humility to live in and around Pele.

The respect has to be there because as humans, as Hawaiians, as Kanaka Maoli, we are visitors just like anybody else. You know, this is not our land. The land belongs to Pele and the land belongs to the different elements.

You need the land so that the native plants can grow and flourish. And the native birds and insects and wildlife. I am connected to the land. Our responsibility is to protect the land, is to care for the land, is to cherish what we have, the water, the elements. It's all connected.

And that mentality should be true no matter where you're from. If you think about it, any tribal people of old, they were really connected to the land and the surroundings. And as humans progress, you know, we're getting further and further away from that. And so, any opportunity that I or anyone else can share that, I think, is important. And working for the Park is a great way to do that.

What would you say to visitors concerned about coming to Hawaiʻi because of the recent lava flow event?

So this last event, down at the lower Puna area in Leilani subdivision, is a small area within this massive landscape that we call Hawaiʻi. And for most folks you would never know where it is unless you ask where it is.

This island has much more to offer than just what has happened recently in the corner of the the island. We have 11 of the 13 different climate zones on this island alone. You can start off in a rainforest and in a few hours end up in a desert.

But wasn’t the lava flow event a big disaster for people there?

It's interesting. When you talk to people in the lower Puna area that have culture connections, whether they're born and raised here or they have moved here and have grasped the concept of our culture, yeah, it's sad that they have lost their homes, but many of them are okay with it. They understand the reason behind it. And for those that are just here to make money or don't understand the culture, those are the folks that are struggling to understand, you know, what is happening and why it is happening.

And then, you know, it took out this place called Waiʻōpae (or Kapoho TIde Pools) and Kapoho Bay, which I used to frequent all the time and I love the place. It was a beautiful place. And then people were very sad that it's gone. But what people don't realize is Pele will build a beautiful place again. Now, it might take some time and it might be not in my lifetime, but things will be beautiful again. And you just have to let nature take its course and it will return. The forest will return. The native forest will return, if given a chance.

So, it's just interesting to hear people talk, especially people that are born and raised in that area and they have seen it before. And so, when I look at all of this and I talk to them, I talk to my elders, my kupunas, to me it's just a phase. It has happened before, it'll happen again. It might happen more often, you know, if we humans don't mālama the ʻāina more, respect it, we are ultimately at the mercy of nature. And we have to realize that. That's my perspective.

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