The largest and oldest volcano in Hawaii, the mauna loa, began to erupt on November 27, with lava flowing for kilometers downhill. The last eruption, which lasted three weeks, took place almost 40 years ago.
It is not clear how long this eruption will last, but for many native Hawaiians it is a deep spiritual experience.
As an anthropologist, I have made nine studies on traditional Native American cultural relationships with volcanic lava flows. As in most Native American cultures, Native Hawaiian beliefs hold that Mauna Loa and other volcanoes are alive, and that their eruptions are the way the Earth is reborn. The volcano is like the mother of the Earth.
Since the volcano is alive, you have to treat him like a person with rights and responsibilities; and differently than if it were just flowing hot magma.
Not only the volcano: all the elements of the Earth are perceived as alive, with feelings, the ability to speak and the power to do the things they want.
This vision of the living Earth defines as alive the plants that grow on the volcano, the wind that passes over it, the birds that nest near it, the water that flows from it after the rains, and the oceans that it touches.
The native Hawaiians maintain that, since the creation of the Earth, the elements of the volcanoes – earth, wind and fire – They have spoken. They believe that these elements have human-like rights, such as being heard and having objectives. Crystals, obsidian, basalt boulders, and other products of volcanic activity are alive and play roles in the lives of human beings.
The interactions between the elements of the earth, the volcano and humans are perceived as continuous because living natural elements change and therefore need to adapt to new conditions together with others and people.
Native American scholar and spokesman Came Deloria Jr. convened a meeting on the native science of volcanoes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2005. Meeting attendees included this author and natives from Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Hawaii, including Elders of the Shoshone Bannock, Yakama, Owens Valley Paiute, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Nisqually, Winnemen-Wintu, Navajo, and Klamath tribes.
These speakers said that they considered volcanoes as living beings that, under certain circumstances, they would share power and knowledge with humans. According to these elders, the volcano is a place where ceremonies are held. The ceremonies are both an act of respect and a request for guidance.
The indigenous people believe that their well-being and the ecological balance of the Earth depend on their continuous and adequate interaction with this living being.
For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples have traveled to communicate with the same volcanoes during ceremonies. People traveled known physical and spiritual paths during these journeys.
Evidence shows that when pilgrims arrived at a destination volcano, they embedded rock pecks, paintings, stone cairns, shrines, incised stones, and many offerings into the landscape. They sang and documented their relationship with the volcano.
During the mid-11th century lava flows at Sunset Crater, Arizona, and Little Spring, Arizona, people placed corn and painted pots on the edge of hornitos, conical structures produced by bubbling lava. When new lava spatters were produced, the resulting stones were encrusted with traces of corn and fragments of pots. These fell off the edge before they could cool. The rocks were taken to a nearby location and formed part of the walls of a ceremonial structure.
Studies involving Native American tribes and US federal agencies have documented that Living Earth belief is widely shared in North America and Hawaii. But native peoples and their beliefs have often not been involved in land management policies and interpretations.
In my opinion, this is for three main reasons: First, over the centuries, many Western scientists have believed that only they possess accurate knowledge of natural processes. Second, federal and state land managers have been given the legal responsibility to properly manage their parks and are reluctant to share power. And finally, land managers do not have the necessary cultural knowledge to understand Native American beliefs or how to communicate with volcanoes.
The natives believe that their ceremonial interactions with the volcanoes give rise to the shared knowledgewhich some call native science. They believe that volcanoes express ideas during ceremonies about how to keep themselves, the people, and the world in balance. People can take this communication and act accordingly. But when native beliefs are not perceived as science and therefore not considered true or useful for management or interpretations, what is known as “epistemological gap”. This makes cross-cultural communication difficult.
The eruptions of Mauna Loa once again raise important questions about whether the volcano is a living or nonliving being. They also raise questions about whether the eruption is for the benefit of humans or just a threatening geological event that serves no purpose.
The answer to these questions will influence how the volcano will be interpreted in the future for visitors and how it will be managed by geologists and the environment.
(By Richard W Stoffle, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona / Article published in English in The Conversation)
High alert for Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii: lava flows approaching the main road of the Big Island
The shocking aerial images of the eruption of Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world