Photo: Mural of Pele’s departure from Kahiki to Hawaiʻi
This gorgeous mural at Keonepoko Elementary School in Puna depicts Pele’s departure from Kahiki to Hawai‘i. It was painted by fifth and sixth grade students from the school as part of the Mele Murals Project. To awaken their vision for the mural the students spent a day in Wao Kele o Puna, a lowland rainforest reserve that is part of OHA’s legacy land holdings. - Photo: Kalena Blakemore

By Kalena Blakemore, OHA Legacy Land Agent – Moku o Keawe

“Ke haʻa lā Puna i ka makani
Haʻa ka ulu hala i Keaʻau
Haʻa Hāʻena me Hōpoe
Haʻa ka wahine
ʻAmi i kai o Nanahuki, lā
Hula leʻa wale
I kai o Nanahuki.”

“Puna dances in the breeze
The hala groves of Keaʻau join the dance
Hāʻena and Hōpoe are swaying
The woman
Sways down by the sea of Nanahuki
A dance of joy
Down by the sea of Nanahuki.”
– Ke Haʻa Lā Puna (traditional)

According to the late Dorothy Kahananui, Hiʻiaka learned this oli and hula from her best friend, Hōpoe. The friends spent much time together in Puna, a wahi pana beloved by Hiʻiaka.

Just as Hiʻiaka was inspired by the dancing of her friends in the storied place of Puna, the fifth and sixth graders of Keonepoko Elementary School in Pāhoa on Hawaiʻi Island were similarly inspired when they visited Wao Kele o Puna last April.

Wao Kele o Puna is the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ (OHA) largest legacy land holding. The 25,856-acre forest reserve was acquired in 2006 with grant funding from the Forest Legacy Program.

The students’ visit to Wao Kele o Puna was due to their selection to participate in the Estria Foundation Mele Murals Project. Launched in 2013 to support Hawaiʻi youth, the Mele Murals Project links appreciation for the arts to higher education by promoting youth development, arts education, cultural preservation, and community-building through the creation of murals.

The students were able to visit Wao Kele o Puna, which is a lowland rainforest located in their home district of Puna. The huakaʻi was intended to awaken their vision for creation of a large-scale outdoor mural. Local Puna artist, Nainoa Rosehill, and his colleague, Sarah Farris, guided the haumāna of Keonepoko Elementary in the process of uncovering the theme for their own school mural.

On the day of the huakaʻi, four yellow school buses bumped and rumbled up the 3-mile-long dirt road to Wao Kele o Puna while majestic ʻio (native hawks) soared above. Staff from Forest Solutions, OHA’s forest management contractor, welcomed the haumāna and led them in their aloha ʻāina work at the reserve.

Students had prepared for and practiced biocultural protocols to enter and exit the forest and to become grounded in the natural environment of Wao Kele o Puna through kilo (observation) on the 2014 lava flows of Kīlauea.

Hoʻolauna at the site was provided by Puna cultural practitioner and science teacher, Leila Kealoha, who opened the gathering with oli and hoʻokupu, led kilo activities, and shared moʻolelo of Wao Kele o Puna with the students such as ʻŌhiʻa Lehua and the Jealousy of Pele, ʻAilāʻau the Forest Eater, and Kāne and Pele.

Using only their senses, the haumāna practiced receiving information about the ao (clouds), makani (wind), ua (rain), manu (birds), and mū (insects), and from the unique audible crunching of cooled pāhoehoe (smooth lava) underfoot. This served as a prelude for their engagement in aloha ʻāina activities such as out-planting, seed collection and other preparations for cultivation of native tree and plant species.

The haumāna contributed hand-painted signs to be used for forest management and processed māmaki seeds (for future propagation). The students and their teachers also pulled invasive weeds and out-planted maile, māmaki and pāpala kēpau (a native tree species whose gum was used for bird catching) along the forest edge.

Following their aloha ʻāina, the haumāna gathered for a guided meditation and a reflection exercise to culminate their experience. Imagery of lava, stark rivers of rocks, heat, the edges of the forest and smoke from Puʻu ʻŌʻō were some of their musings.

Then, with a mahalo and farewell, the students boarded the buses and headed back to school. They began working on their mural the following school day while their experiences at Wao Kele o Puna were fresh in their minds.

Two weeks later, in early May, the haumāna of Keonepoko held their Mele Mural unveiling.

The haumāna proudly shared that the artistic theme for their mural was inspired by the oli about Pele’s departure from Kahiki to Hawaiʻi. “The iconic figure of Puna, Pele, as a traveler to this place, reflects Puna’s longstanding function as a beacon to travelers,” explained Rosehill. “I hoped that it would inspire a sense of belonging no matter where the students come from, or who they are.”

Through the Mele Murals Project, students were able to connect education, art, culture, community, and aloha ʻāina through their pilina with the wahi pana of Wao Kele o Puna. With the assistance of Forest Solutions, OHA is pleased to be able to provide Hawaiʻi keiki with a safe place to learn about their biocultural environment and moʻolelo Hawaiʻi, in the special wahi pana of Wao Kele o Puna for this generation and those to come.

Wao Kele o Puna

The 25,856-acre lowland rainforest reserve of Wao Kele o Puna was acquired by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) in 2006 with grant funding from the Forest Legacy Program. It is OHA’s largest legacy land holding.

In 2017, a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for forest management operations for Wao Kele o Puna was completed and approved by OHA’s Board of Trustees. OHA’s primary activities at Wao Kele o Puna include trail and road maintenance, invasive species removal, and small-scale forest restoration. In addition, OHA provides access to the forest of Wao Kele o Puna as an outdoor classroom for schools and community groups.

In keeping with OHA’s Mana i Mauli Ola Strategic Plan, the foundations of ʻohana (family), moʻomeheu (culture) and ʻāina (land and water) are emphasized at Wao Kele o Puna. Community-based stewardship opportunities are provided to local and private schools from within the state. Prior to the pandemic, OHA hosted monthly Hawaiʻi place-based learning and aloha ʻāina stewardship events.