In His World, Science and Culture Were Strands of the Same Cord

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Remembering Jim Kauahikaua, the First Native Hawaiian to Lead the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

James “Jim” Kauahikaua
Aug. 1, 1951 – Oct. 8, 2023

To the world, Jim Kauahikaua was the face of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) for decades. He is celebrated as the first Native Hawaiian volcanologist to lead HVO, and humbly inspired generations of scientists who followed. To his ʻohana, he was all those things and more – a dedicated father, husband, brother and contributor to cultural knowledge.

“He was a remarkable guy, and humble – you wouldn’t have known about his [accomplishments] just by talking to him,” said his brother, David Kauahikaua, a lifelong musician and Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winner.

Kauahikaua, who passed away in Hilo at the age of 72, loved music. Originally from Kailua, Oʻahu, he grew up with a mother who insisted that her children learn piano and a father who taught them to play ʻukulele.

Decades later, music introduced Kauahikaua to his wife of 34 years, Jeri Gertz. The two met while she was working as a singer at a bar called Rosey’s Boathouse. She was singing Carole King’s I Feel the Earth Move when he walked in with a group of field geologists. Kauahikaua had come to Hawaiʻi Island to study the eruption of Kīlauea that began in 1983 – to literally observe the earth moving under his feet.

“When I look back on that, after we were falling in love, [our relationship] probably began then. Something shifted in me towards him, and he towards me, and I think we both knew it,” said Gertz. “We went on to have lots of music in our lives. We were members of the Kamehameha alumni choir, so we got to sing together. He had a beautiful baritone voice.” The couple’s wedding invitations were cassette recordings of them singing together.

Although Kauahikaua became a public figure having been interviewed numerous times over the years about Kīlauea’s eruptions, he avoided the limelight. “He had a quiet way of inspiring,” Gertz shared. “He was not a shout-from-the-rooftops kind of man. But he worked hard to understand, and he wanted to convey what he understood.”

Kauahikaua contributed to science and culture in ways his family would not learn about until after his passing; he worked with the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation sharing scientific knowledge to help deepen cultural understanding of lava.

His daughter, Lilinoe Kauahikaua, recently learned that her father and her kumu, Dr. Kuʻulei Kanahele, combined their knowledge to add detail to the understanding of lava.

“He would send her newspaper clippings with words about different lava flows. She would translate them into English and then he used his scientific knowledge to share what [those] exact types of flows were,” said Lilinoe. “This allowed Papakū Makawalu scholars to update their lexicon of understanding of different lava forms.”

At this year’s Edith Kanakaʻole World Oli Festival, Kanahele and Lilinoe wrote and performed oli to honor her father using ʻōlelo noʻeau about the genealogy of their family and the parallels between the life journeys of her ʻohana.

A few years ago, Kauahikaua and Lilinoe began their own journey to learn more about Hawaiian culture. They started a two-person book club during the pandemic to read and discuss nonfiction titles. Their first read was Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaiʻi edited by Hokulani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez. Through the portal of books, they bonded over culture and family history.

“I learned a lot from him. He was an amazing father – very sweet and very kind,” said Lilinoe.

When Kauahikaua passed, his ʻohana received an outpouring of messages from people who spoke about Jim’s influence on their lives. David said he was happy to know the extent of his brother’s impact. “He inspired so many young people. The work that he did – people knew and appreciated it. It was neat to read [what] people wrote about him.”

Kauahikaua generously shared his love of Hawaiʻi’s volcanoes. Both David and Lilinoe shared stories of trying to keep up with him as they hiked over lava fields.

“He was used to walking over lava. I asked him, ʻIs this going to cave in?’ and he said, ʻNo, the weight is much more than the weight of your body, so keep going!’” David recalled, imitating his brother’s deep voice.

Lilinoe remembers a scary moment when her dad’s leg broke through the crust of the lava. He used the incident to teach her what not to do. More than anything though, he taught her reverence for Pele. “He didn’t want me to be afraid of lava. He didn’t want me to be afraid of Pele. He wanted me to see the strength and the awe.”

In Kauahikaua’s world, science and culture were strands of the same cord.

“Hawaiians were great scientists and Jim used his research to help others gain the respect he innately had about Hawaiian ways and Hawaiian culture. He had a very strong relationship with Pele. He wasn’t so much engaged in ritual. He didn’t need or crave that. But in some ways, his scientific ways were his ritual,” Gertz reflected.

“Science was his first language, but it didn’t mean that [his work] was without heart and depth. A lot of people think you’re either science or you’re spiritual. I believe he was both because of his connection to this land.”

Though Gertz acknowledges the difficulties her husband experienced after being diagnosed with cancer in 2003, she does not want his life to be defined by it. She wrote in his obituary: “He did not ʻlose his battle’ to disease. We will have no war metaphors here. Jim simply lived how he knew how to live – leading with his amazing intelligence, with constant honesty, integrity, and as the giver of the world’s warmest smiles and best hugs.”