Descending Into Hawaii’s Haleakala Crater

A trip to the floor of the Maui volcano still promises an encounter with the “raw beginnings of world-making”

From cinder desert to tropical forest, the 19-square-mile Haleakala Crater boasts varied landscape. In the center is a hiker at "Pele's Paint Pot," likely named for the goddess of fire and volcanoes. (Susan Seubert)
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“An array of rituals still occur on Haleakala,” says Kiope Raymond, associate professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College (and a native Hawaiian). “Celebrations of the season, the solstice, commemorations, or worship of different deities.” Visitors are unlikely to notice the goings-on, he says, because practitioners often visit sacred places alone or in small groups. One rite that Raymond says is still practiced on Haleakala is the burial of the umbilical cords of newborn children alongside the bones of family ancestors. “As with many Native American people, the bones of the dead are [considered] repositories of spiritual energy, or mana, and are revered by native Hawaiians.”

The cultural isolation from Europe of the Hawaiian Islands ended in 1778, when the British explorer Capt. James Cook weighed anchor on the Big Island. Eight years later, a French explorer, the Comte de La Pérouse, landed on Maui. European and American traders, missionaries and whalers followed, bringing Christianity and devastating diseases. The first known newcomers to ascend Haleakala were a trio of Puritan preachers from New England working at a mission in the Maui port of Lahaina. Led by native Hawaiians on August 21, 1828, William Richards, Lorrin Andrews and Jonathan F. Green journeyed from a camp at the mountain’s base to the summit. Near dusk, they gazed down at the crater floor. In the Missionary Herald the following year, they reported that the beauty of the sunset there could be reproduced only by “the pencil of Raphael.”

Another intrepid tourist eager to see the crater was a little-known reporter who called himself Mark Twain. At age 31, in 1866, Twain had tried surfing in Oahu for the Sacramento Union (“None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he reported) and marveled at the active volcanoes on the Big Island. Intending to stay but a week in Maui, he ended up staying five, missing his deadlines entirely. “I had a jolly time,” he wrote. “I would not have fooled away any of it in writing...under any consideration whatever.” One dawn, Twain joined a group of tourists at Haleakala’s summit and was awe-struck; he called the sunrise “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.” He also reported rolling giant rocks into the crater to watch them “go careening down the almost perpendicular sides, bounding three hundred feet at a jump.”

In his 1911 travel book about the Pacific, The Cruise of the Snark, Jack London urged Americans to take the six-day steamer from San Francisco to Honolulu and the overnight boat to Maui to see the crater for themselves. “Haleakala has a message of beauty and wonder for the soul that cannot be delivered by proxy,” he wrote. The naturalist John Burroughs concurred, praising it in his 1912 essay “Holidays in Hawaii.” Worth Aiken, the local guide who took him to the summit, would recall that Burroughs stood spellbound for about ten minutes at the rim, then declared it “the grandest sight of my life.” In a later letter to Aiken, Burroughs compared the crater with the active volcanoes of Hawaii’s Big Island. “Kilauea is a glimpse into the depths of Hell, but Haleakala is a view of the glories of Heaven: and were the privilege ever given to me to see again one of the two, I would without hesitation return to Haleakala.”

In 1916, Congress created the Hawaii National Park, which included Haleakala, as well as Kilauea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island, then failed to provide any funding. As one congressman noted, “It should not cost anything to run a volcano.” Few policymakers seemed to care what native Hawaiians thought about turning their sacred summit into a tourist attraction.

Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani had been deposed in a coup only a few years earlier, in 1893, by a coalition of American and European businessmen, backed by U.S. sailors and Marines. Despite a subsequent rebellion by native Hawaiians and a massive petition for a return to independence, immigrant settlers continued to pressure the United States to annex the islands.The nation did so in 1898, after the Spanish-American War convinced Congress that the archipelago was an essential springboard for Pacific influence. After annexation, the Hawaiian language was no longer taught in schools, and the native culture withered.

Initially, there was little increase in the number of haole (whites) and other non-Hawaiians who made the time-consuming journey to Maui’s new park. The first full-time ranger was not appointed until 1935, when completion of a road to the summit began to bring more visitors. In 1961, the National Park Service declared Haleakala a separate park, while maintaining strict environmental protections.

But protection of the crater’s cultural heritage lagged until the so-called Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, a resurgence of Hawaiian culture partly inspired by Native American movements. At the same time, a new generation of Hawaiians began to express frustration that their ancestral relationship to the land had been severed.

“The resentment does exist and it’s an uncomfortable thing,” says Sarah Creachbaum, the park’s current superintendent. “But the staff is working very hard to break down barriers. We’re trying to incorporate traditional knowledge into management practices.” The park now employs native Hawaiian rangers, she says, and seeks to use native oral history and environmental knowledge in its programs. New projects proceed under consultation with kapuna (family elders) and community figures, although the process is complicated by the sheer number of native Hawaiian groups and organizations. (Unlike many Native American tribes, native Hawaiians are not recognized as a distinct group by the federal government and have no single negotiating body or voice.)

“For the time being, many Hawaiians are grateful that the National Park Service is playing a protective role for the land that their ancestors once stewarded,” says Kiope Raymond. “But we also see the need for Hawaiians to get back a kind of sovereignty over their land, which was taken from them without their assent.” He points to arrangements on the mainland, where Native Americans are given a degree of sovereignty over their own land, as models for what might be done on Maui. (An example is the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona and Utah, where the Navajo are successfully managing an iconic American landscape.) “The stewardship of Haleakala should be returned to Hawaiians,” Raymond says.


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