Puna is a moku in the South-East corner of Hawaiʻi island and is home to at least 27 smaller ahupuaʻa including: Keaau, Kapoho and Keahialaka. Puna is the home of Pele and Hiʻiaka where Kīlauea lives and burns. Some Puna come from the word kupuna and are used as an affectionate pseudonym for our grandparents and elders. Puna is also a spring, where water emerges from the ʻāina to feed its people. In my life, Puna has been all this and much more.
Puna my remaining living kupuna wahine that comes from my grandparent’s hanāuna. Puna is 92 years young and fierce but sometimes Puna forgets things. She forgets where she is, how old she is; sometimes she forgets us: her daughter, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. But there are a handful of things that Puna always holds safe in the center of her sacred spring.
A few years ago, Puna took a spill at home and ended up in Kuakini Hospital. The doctors tried to ask her a set of standard questions to asses her neurological health. They asked her about the date, their current location, about her name, about the woman standing next to her (her daughter, Leolinda). With these questions, she struggled. But there were certain questions she knew like a prayer. If you ask Puna what her nationality is she will tell you, for herself, that she is Hawaiian. And although, most days, Puna struggles to remember that she has lived in Pāoa for the last two decades; she is always quick to remind us that she is a kamaʻāina of Hilo. This is a major point of conflict for Puna. Many times she struggles with knowing she is not “home,” she wants to be back in Hilo, under the ua Kanilehua and in the Moani winds. When I sit alone with Puna in her living room, she will often ask me, again and again, “are we in Hilo?” I tell Puna, “No, Aunty, we are in your home in Pāoa.” When this upsets her, I think about lying; but instead, I comfort her with music. I find an old tape of my father singing “Ua Like nō a Like” and press play. And for the next hour, like a game we bounce back and forth naming all the Hawaiʻi island mele and musicians that we can recall. Puna always wins.
Puna longs for an island she hasn’t lived in for decades so much that she often packs a bag when no one is looking and injures herself trying to carry her belongings to the door. This cycle of trying to leave is both devastating and exhausting for our ʻohana, particularly for her daughter Leolinda. But perhaps beyond the devastation of our Puna being in physical and emotional pain, is the trauma of knowing that Puna is not trying to leave us, as much as she is trying to return to herself, her ʻāina, her home, her Hilo.
I think about what this means and what it must feel like to be so displaced from your one hānau, even while in a perfectly suitable home that you have filled with your aloha and ʻohana for over two decades. I think about our primal insistence to return to the sands of our birth. I think about how Nāwahi, the editor of Ke Aloha ʻĀina defined aloha ʻāina as a magnetic pull that one has to ones place. A magnetic pull, by definition, that could not be weakened or deterred. I think about Puna, being pulled, pulled, pulled home always and every day. I think about the ways Puna steps outside of herself to try to go home and how much aloha she must have for her ʻāina. And then I think about another kupuna of mine, a kupuna I share with Puna, Hiʻiakaikapoliopele.
Wahi a ka moʻolelo, during her journey across the Pae ʻĀina, Hiʻiaka comes to Punahoa with her aikāne Whaineʻōmaʻo and attendant Pāʻūopalaʻā. The people of Punahoa are suspicious of these newcomers so Hiʻiaka lies to the aliʻi and says that her name is Keahialaka and that she is from Puna. In a way, Hiʻiaka is saying, I am Puna from Puna. Her tie to place, unlike her name, cannot be severed or cast aside. Much like Puna’s tie to Hilo cannot be forgotten. What matters most to Hiʻiaka in this passage is to maintain her pilina to her ʻāina kulaʻiwi, Puna. And to do so, she takes on an inoa of her place and wears it like a genealogy. When Hiʻiaka finally makes it to Kauaʻi and Lohiau, she fights tirelessly to return to her home, even when home after home is offered to her along the way.
Hiʻiaka eventually survives the trip home, and lives out her days in the bosom of Kīlauea, in her home moku of Puna. My Puna will live the rest of her days here on my one hānau, Oʻahu. And I know this will trouble her until the day she is no longer with us on this honua. But there is something to cherish here; there is something to celebrate about our shared pilina and aloha for our place, for our ʻāina. I celebrate and cherish knowing that no matter the trauma of my body and mind that those pilina to my kupuna, through my ʻāina, will remain. And when I find myself forgetting, confused and lost in the many corners of my memory, I hope I am lucky enough to have the kind of ʻohana that Puna cultivated in her bosom. A punahele to sing me back home. A moʻopuna to bring fourth all the melodies of Hilo and shower me in the Kanilehua. An ʻohana to let me sing for myself, out loud, for whom and what I long for. Home. Because when Puna seems lost to herself and to us, we bring our guitars and play out the old Hilo melodies. “ʻO ʻOe nō kaʻu i ʻupu ai,” she sings; and we know exactly what she means.