Kilauea Lava Flow Pahoa Village Road
AP Photo/U.S. Geological Survey, Tim Orr
This Nov. 17, 2014 photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano that began on June 27 as it nears Pahoa Village Road with the Pahoa transfer station at left in Pahoa, Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting continuously for more than 31 years.

Get Your Hot Lava! Kilauea Volcano Spares the Big Island. For Now

Steve Russell

The New York Times had a report that hit me close to home in a strange way. Some close relatives of mine, of the Teehee family as I am, moved to Hawaii. One of my brothers is still there, living on the Big Island with his Filipino wife and kids and a close by neighbor named Kilauea. The Times called Kilauea’s ongoing eruption “a disaster movie played out in slow motion.”

Kilauea is the home of Tūtū Pele, who Native Hawaiians tell us created the islands. English missionaries “abolished the old religion,” as they put it, in 1819. To make Pele go away, the missionaries destroyed thatched temples and woodcarvings, but they could not destroy Kilauea. My brother lives in a city called, no kidding, Volcano, and he’s pretty fatalistic about the slow lava flow.

Most of us learn about volcanoes either from reading about the eruptions of Vesuvius, burying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or from disaster movies. Pompeii was left under 15 feet, give or take, of ash and pumice; Herculaneum under 60 feet of mud in addition to the volcanic material. The 250 years of archaeology made possible by Vesuvius taught a great deal about normal life in the Roman Empire and much of it was popularized. That archaeology continues today.

Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii. (Wikipedia)

A notch farther down the popular culture totem pole, modern achievements in special effects have allowed disaster movies to show us the experience of volcanic apocalypse. A few of those that have erupted (sorry, could not resist) in modern times: Dante’s Peak and Volcano (1997), Supervolcano (2005), Magma: Volcanic Disaster (2006), and Pompeii (2014).

In contrast to Vesuvius, Kilauea is erupting at a glacial pace over years, such that even people in the direct path of lava flows do not react with immediate alarm. Tūtū Pele has been in a reasonably benign mood. An Otoe-Missouria enrolled (but also Pawnee and Muscogee by blood) lawyer I have known for a long time tested Tūtū Pele’s wrath and lived to tell the tale—barely.

This Nov. 17, 2014 photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano that began on June 27 with Puu Oo shown at the rear center near Pahoa, Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting continuously for more than 31 years. (AP Photo/U.S. Geological Survey)

He visited Hawaii to get married and nobody told him of the kapu against taking part of Pele’s abode, fresh black volcanic rocks, away from the Big Island. The newlyweds returned to Texas with enough shiny black rocks in their luggage to display in a small crystal container that became part of the early décor in their home.

From the time of returning from Hawaii, everything in his life went downhill, from his law practice to health issues to even the marriage that had been solemnized on the Big Island. I remember one calamity after another from those days. I sent him an email and asked for a refresher on the specifics. His considerate memory has suppressed most of it:

I'm pulling blanks on the exact things that were going wrong, but they were many, in close succession and way above the level of a flat tire on the expressway. They were so plentiful and just below horrific that my ex-wife and I started wondering, “who did we piss off?” because it felt like retribution.

The crowning blow was his mother-in-law’s death from cancer. He did what lawyers do—research—and it did not take long to turn up the kapu he had violated. What followed was a Hawaiian vacation, but to Maui rather than the Big Island. With his young son, he undertook an effort to return to the scene of his violation:

Rather than fly to the East side of the Island, closer to Kilauea, we flew into the West side and rented a car for the specific purpose of making a stop… for absolution.

He refers to puʻuhonua, the place of refuge where violators of a kapu could escape certain death. The temple representing puʻuhonua survived several years after the missionaries, as they so drily put it, “abolished the old religion.”

Lord George Byron sacked and looted the temple in 1825, leading the Native Hawaiians to remove the sources of the mana that enabled a place of refuge—the bones of Hawaiian kings—and hide them from the marauding colonists. In modern times, the temple has been reconstructed and the site turned into Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Plumes of steam, gas, and ash often occurred at Mount St. Helens in the early 1980s. On clear days they could be seen from Portland, Oregon, 50 miles to the south. The plume photographed here rose nearly 3,000 feet above the volcano’s rim. The view is from Harrys Ridge, 5 miles north of the mountain. (Wikipedia)

After the absolution ceremony, all that was left was to make an offering to Pele, delayed briefly by what he calls “the showdown with the park ranger” at Kilauea.

After we went under the rope line and walked towards the lip of the caldera, we got stopped by the ranger who asked what we were doing, so we told him straight up. He asked if we were Native Hawaiians and I told him no, but that we were Native Americans. Just by the look on his face you could tell the gears in his mind started to grind like they were unlubricated, likely pondering the question of if one Native Pagan practice was the equivalent of another Native’s participation in same, and how much trouble he was going to get in if he guessed wrong and he stopped us. So he just let us continue.

Believe what you will about the ceremony, he subsequently got his life back in a reasonable state of repair. Volcanoes are not to be trifled with, and Vesuvius remains a threat to repeat the death and destruction on the Italian mainland.

On mainland North America, the deadly eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in 1980 was small beer next to the cataclysm that would follow the eruption of the “supervolcano” under Yellowstone National Park.

A map of the Yellowstone caldera (purple border) with other calderas (green border). (

Kilauea is, as The New York Times claimed, “a disaster in slow motion,” only in the sense of creeping property damage and even then there has been plenty of time to move things that can be moved. Native Hawaiians would say this relatively slow lava flow is not something human beings can rely on unless they are very careful not to anger Tūtū Pele.

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