Context and history
The original inhabitants of the islands of Hawai’i were and still are the Kanaka Maoli (also known as Kanaka ‘Ōiwi)–aboriginal people who are styled “Native Hawaiians” by the occupying U.S. “state” and federal governments. This term is also in common use, though not everyone understands its political and social implications (and I am not sure I understand these matters with adequate depth, either!). It is also important to know that the Kanaka Maoli had created a constitutional monarchy. The Hawaiian Kingdom had subjects who were Kanaka Maoli as well as legally naturalized subjects from the U.S., Europe, Asia, other Pacific countries, and so on. The Hawaiian Kingdom had fifty or so international treaties (including with the U.S.) by the time disgruntled descendents of foreign subjects, and a U.S. Navy ship, forcibly removed Queen Liliu’okalani from her throne and capacity to govern (1893).
Geography, Geology, and then some
The district is very geologically active and some of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is partially located in and/or adjacent to Puna. Most (if not all) areas of Puna are designated Lava Zone 1, 2, or 3. (These designations can make it difficult to buy or afford homeowner’s insurance.) This is a place where people may live for years, only to find that a lava flow, tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake can destroy their homes and community in far less time than it takes to drive to Hilo (the nearest city). Puna was hit particularly hard when the 2018 lava flow took out hundreds of homes and acres of land, as well as the Hawaiian language charter school, the Wai’opae tidepools, and the Ahalanui Warm Ponds.
Hawai’i Island is quite rural. Like most the other islands, it now lacks affordable homes for residents (for rent or purchase) due to all the vacation homes and other cost of living impacts. This means that Kanaka Maoli and many local people have fewer options or may even have to move away from Hawai’i to survive. There’s more to this than I can say here, but know that houselessness among Kanaka Maoli (and others) is a huge problem.
The district has many small towns, settlements, resorts, farms, and subdivisions. Kea’au and Pahoa are the largest towns.
The Hawaiian Homelands areas of Maku’u and Kaohe-Olaa are also in Puna. Explaining the Homelands is outside the scope of this blog, but suffice to say, the people eligible for these lands and homes are subject to a “blood quantum” – they must be 50% or more Kanaka Maoli. So not all people who are Kanaka Maoli can qualify for these small areas and limited resources. And of those families who can, some wait for years or even generations! Or never get in at all. This adds to the housing crisis.
The Puna district itself, and all of Hawai’i Island and the other islands, originally consisted of many land and resource management districts created by the Kanaka Maoli, called ahupua’a. This website says:
“The ancient ahupuaa, the basic self-sustaining unit, extended elements of Hawaiian spirituality into the natural landscape. Amidst a belief system that emphasized the interrelationship of elements and beings, the ahupuaa contained those interrelationships in the activities of daily and seasonal life. “From http://www.hawaiihistory.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ig.page&CategoryID=299
Compare the small areas of Hawaiian Homelands to the immense amount of land in Hawai’i Island and think about this for a few minutes. Then think about how this land was once managed and nurtured, in contrast to how it is used and abused now.
The Puna district is a place of numerous social “bubbles”: Kanaka Maoli families; “locals” (not always Kanaka, usually “local” means someone who has grown up and gone to high school in Hawai’i); retirees from the continental U.S.; vacation homeowners from the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere; people with small businesses or farms; people who work in tourism (such as those who run resorts like Kalani); visitors (including eco-tourists and yoga tourists); and people who “have always wanted to live in Hawai’i” (I was once in that category). Some of the latter include people of large means, some means, or no means at all (“coastal hippies,” new agers, visiting “woofers”–weekend organic farm volunteers, cult members, and so on). Puna is also said to have a large gay and queer community, though it is not very visible.
Sometime these bubbles, and the people in them, complement each other, sometimes they ignore each other (as best they can), and sometimes they clash. The transplants who come may either choose to ignore the history, political status, and context of this place and people, or they may try to learn about it, show respect, and align with Hawaiian values (here’s a list from one of the several Hawaiian Civic Clubs). Those who respect and align can often make reliable ally/accomplices for many of the important causes that affect Hawai’i: protection of Mauna Kea and other sacred lands, restoration of water rights to small farmers and communities, Kingdom restoration and sovereignty, depleted uranium and other hazardous military waste, invasive species, sustainable food, houselessness, and other ecological, cultural, and justice concerns.
Coastal hippies, yoginis, woofers, new agers, “deadbeats” and “druggies,” purveyors of tie-dyed clothing and incense, people who hog the outdoor tables on Taco Tuesdays at the health food store (“you can’t sit with us!”), and all those who live in intentional communities like my fictitious Hermitville, are they ALL Punatics? What is a “Punatic” anyway? Well, in 2008, the Urban Dictionary posted a definition offered by “Dev1n”:
“A deadbeat person living in Puna (An area in Hawaii) Often living on welfare and stoned into oblivion. Most punatics are unemployed caucasian jungle dwellers with open relationships.”
A more lyrical and appreciative explanation is offered on the blog Crow’s Word (June 28, 2017).
I’m using the word quite inclusively, like a Venn Diagram of overlapping micro-bubble circles, meaning everyone who is not Kanaka Maoli or local (e.g. a transplant from elsewhere), who could fall into any of those categories above. And there are more: people who make kombucha, people who attend Kalani Resort’s Ecstatic Dance (as I have done, more than once), people who come to surf and stay for the pakalolo (cannabis), people who live under tarps in the jungle, people who are actually in a cult out there in the jungle, people who think “kapu” signs (“sacred, stay out”) don’t apply to them because they are soooo spiritual, and… oh good golly, I’m getting snarky now!
I’ll stop here and end by saying that at least some of those people, even with the best intentions, may become annoying or worse when rubbing up against Kanaka Maoli people or culture. Want to include Pele in your tantra workshop? Have you asked permission from her or her descendents? No? Then don’t. You know…that kind of thing. I’m not a cultural gatekeeper (how could I be?), but witnessing such things used to make my skin crawl. More so, perhaps, because I am sure there have been times where I’ve been similarly clueless.
Two of my minor characters, Toledo Jackson and Sri Niri Nimrod, represent opposite poles of Punatic-ism. Toledo is a former tweaker who has cleaned up his act and now raises and barters goats. He’s a harmless, mostly kindly, sometimes annoying, rather addled figure on the local scene. People greet him with friendliness, however, and he might even be loved in some circles. On the other hand, Sri Niri Nimrod is my stereotype of a cultish (notice that red and orange clothing?), toxic, self-righteous, spiritually entitled bad egg that can be found anywhere, but is so much more disturbing (to me at least) when he/she/or they show up in Hawai’i. His confrontational style makes him a figure to avoid, and you really, really, really don’t want him bowing to you with a “namaste” ’cause you just know he means the opposite!
So are my Hermits of Hermitville “Punatics” or not? That’s a good question. They may very well fall into some of those micro-bubble categories. However they do try to be respectful and not annoying, and mostly act responsibly as allies/accomplices, and they are cognizant of enough aspects of Hawai’i’s history and culture to understand themselves (uncomfortably) as “settler-colonists” (thanks to the generous emotional labor of their neighbor, Uncle Iolana). But my Hermits do fly their freak flags as well as their Pride flags. They cannot help being products of their backgrounds and U.S. culture/counter-culture. Though they may wish to shed these kinds of entitlements in the lush jungle where they currently live, it may be impossible.
And when the Elves come to stay, well then… We shall see what we shall see.