The Caretaker and The Descendants of Pohoiki

When my grandmother passed away, my parents desperately rummaged through our family photographs. My dad was looking for a picture of my grandmother with our family of four. It was a rare image because we were raised in California, far from my grandmother and most of our ohana.

As soon as we heard that lava was closing in on Pohoiki, I began rummaging through my own photographs. I was looking for pictures that captured my time at the little red house by the sea – known to most as Uncle Hale’s house.

 Auntie Loha arranges flowers; the Hale Ohana family tree pinned to the porch wall of Uncle Hale's House at Pohoiki Bay in Puna, Hawaii. 

Auntie Loha arranges flowers; the Hale Ohana family tree pinned to the porch wall of Uncle Hale's House at Pohoiki Bay in Puna, Hawaii. 

Uncle Hale’s house has been home to many generations of Hawaiians. My father was born under its tin roof. My aunties enjoyed the cool sea breeze on its porch. My uncles snacked on fresh opihi under the shade of its eves. My cousins fell asleep on its long benches while looking up the stars and listening for the singsong voices of kupuna long gone.

After our dad passed away, our ohana gathered for a reunion at Pohoiki. My brother and I didn't go because it was too soon for us to return home without dad. Three years have passed and now it might be too late. In many ways, it feels as if I am losing my dad all over again. Not many people understand, except for my mom. Even though we live in Texas, exactly 3,658 miles away from the place we call Pohoiki, Uncle Hale’s house is at the center of what she calls our “ancestral home.”

 Our aunties and uncles taught the keiki's about the art of being Hawaiian. Pounding ulu poi. Making haku leis. Weaving lauhala.

Our aunties and uncles taught the keiki's about the art of being Hawaiian. Pounding ulu poi. Making haku leis. Weaving lauhala.

Just as we are about to lose Pohoiki, I am thinking deeply about this place. My love for Pohoiki runs as deep as my love for my dad, the one-armed-fisherman. Well into his seventies, he did his part as a caretaker of the aina. From his childhood until his golden years, he worked alongside his cousin, and best friend, Uncle Richard, to clear the “rubbish trees” encroaching on the heiau and ponds at Keahialaka. As an old man he nimbly climbed up the ladder to meticulously repaint Uncle Hale's house in a fresh coat of bright red paint. When I meditate on his aloha for Puna, I find a measure of peace even though I hoped to share his old haunts with his grandchildren someday.

Yet, there are times when I linger too long on thoughts that give way to feeling hopeless. The erasure of the land reminds me of the erasure of the Hawaiian people. I saw that erasure with my own eyes just a couple months back on the island of Oahu. I kept thinking to myself – Where are all of the Hawaiians? Where are all of the local people?

When I think on these things, I feel anxious and angry and alone. A heaviness creeps into my body. A sourness finds a place in my belly. I scroll through Facebook thinking – Individuals aplenty have platitudes for the place known as Pohoiki, without knowing the people who have been the caretakers and descendants of her shores for six generations. This unfolding loss for the Hale Ohana eerily mirrors the unfolding story of the Hawaiian people. Many have loved our places, never knowing our people.

Yet, I am guilty of similar sins. Since moving away, I haven't stayed connected for a myriad of reasons, some mundane and others melancholy. It's hard to leave Hawaii. It's even harder to long for Hawaii. So, it seems easier to fade away until everything changes. Deaths. Births. Lava flows.

In my spirit, I knew the pictures wouldn't be enough. I needed to talk to someone from home, a kupuna. I made several calls and was relieved to hear the familiar and friendly voice of my Auntie Tia. After an hour of talking story, my anxiety lifted. Without reservation, she let me into her story, not as a distant relative living so far away, but as ohana.

Auntie Tia is one of the Hale kupuna who meet each month as the caretakers of the little red house. She, along with her brothers and sisters, are being confronted with the loss of so much with the humble dignity they have always had. She said, "We have started writing stories together." As a storyteller, I want to hear all of the the wonderful tales they are capturing about our hale by the sea, even now. As guardians of the past, they are preparing for the future, even now. When I hung up the phone, I felt at peace. I also found the pictures. 

 During my time in the islands, the Hale Ohana helped our family treat my dad to surprise party for his 65th  and  70th birthdays. 

During my time in the islands, the Hale Ohana helped our family treat my dad to surprise party for his 65th and 70th birthdays. 

Just a few minutes ago, I also spoke to my Auntie Moana. In a gentle way reserved for my hapa hide, she essentially said, "Knock it off." I had allowed despair to creep into my heart these past few weeks. In her words, "We can feel sad. We can grieve over what seems lost. We must also remember that we are only the caretakers of the aina." This is what it means to be Hawaiian.

Auntie Moana also reminded me to weigh my feelings against what is true. My dad is no more "gone" than Pohoiki will ever be. I may not see him, touch him, or physically feel my dad's one good, strong arm in this life. Nevertheless, he is with me – and the same goes for Pohoiki.

I used to believe that when a loved ones leaves, there is no going back. All the words you wished to have said, the hugs you hoped to have given, gone. I'm not sure that's true. In 2015, on May 31st, my dad died just shy of 10am. I was shocked by the finality of the moment. Never before had I experienced the physical act of leaving this life. His breath left his body and I thought – We can never go back. But then he came back, for a few hours. During those precious moments, we prayed over his body. We sang to his spirit. We held his one, good, strong arm. We said all that there was to say, and then we watched him slip into the next life. When he left us again, even then, I sensed the presence of a spirit at peace surrounding our hale.

I am praying for time. Time to go home. Time to hear more stories shared by our kupuna. Time for more memories to be made. Time to express the gratitude we share for the heritage and hospitality that has made Pohoiki a home for the Hale Ohana, and all of us. Perhaps we will be granted more time – it has happened before. Even so, someday soon, we will lose the people and places we love so dear. It's only a matter of time. If we have lived aloha, our stories will be passed down to the next generation of descendants and beyond.