Appreciating Indigenous Ways of Knowing

It’s time we reestablish our connection to a body of wisdom that values millennia of holistic experience and subjective observation.

  • Indigenous Ways of Knowing
    Matter can’t be created of destroyed; it can only be transformed. It is a law of science. It is a tenet at the root of many religions around the world. It is at the center, the “piko,” of pele’s mythology.
    Photo by Flickr/Alan L
  • Lightning
    “The very language we use to talk about our most intimate desires makes it seem as if we’ve been having a collective identity crisis. We want to believe in ourselves. We want to have faith in ourselves.”
    Photo by Flickr/Fernando Flores

  • Indigenous Ways of Knowing
  • Lightning

When I arrive at Keikilani’s cabin, to join the hālau (hula training school) on their trip to Hawai‘i Volcano Observatory, I find a group divided. Some girls are practicing chants in a back bedroom, others are lounging on the living room floor, immersed in video games. When Keikilani directs them all out of the cabin’s warm interior into the damp night air, one semisulking teen of the gaming sect shouts, “Aw, I was killing a zombie!” She recovers fairly quickly because, really, who needs computer-generated characters when a fire-breathing goddess awaits?

Keikilani counts the kids off into the cars of various kumu (teachers). I ride with Keikilani and one of the younger dancers in a small SUV with a silk lei hanging from its rearview mirror. As she drives, Keikilani tells us about a lava fountain she saw as a youth, a spewing cone that seemed to take cues from the paint splatter of Jackson Pollock.

“Which crater erupted?” her student asks.

“Pele!” Keikilani exclaims. “It was Pele’s crater! It shot 1,200 feet into the air! I hope you get to see something like that in your lifetime,” Keikilani tells her. Such eruptions are known to throw fine crystallized jewels and stuff that looks like ipu (percussive gourd) innards. The debris is referred to—even among hardened scientists—as Pele’s tears and hair.

The parking lot of the observatory, which overlooks Pele’s crater, is enveloped in vog when we arrive. The air is cool at 4,200 feet, and a low-hanging cloud feels like menthol vapor hitting the warm membranes of my mouth, my throat, my lungs. As we walk
toward the lookout point, a stone wall that’s a full mile from Pele, we spy the crater’s glow. It looks like the sun slipping into the earth at sunset.

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Mark Twain, after witnessing Halema‘uma‘u, wrote: “Here was room for the imagination to work ... You could not compass it—it was the idea of eternity made tangible—and the longest end of it made visible to the naked eye!”

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