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Hawaii's 'Cursed' Lava Rocks Are Driving National Park Staff Insane

Stop stealing rocks, tourists.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Portrait of Pelehonuamea from the visitor center at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Image: Flickr/Ron Cogswell

Few places are as steeped in mythology as the Hawaiian Islands. And as an archipelago literally borne out of fire, one of Hawaiʻi's most famous legends is that of Pele, or Pelehonuamea, the charismatic volcano goddess.

Sometime during 20th century, a false but pervasive superstition regarding Pele's "cursed rocks" began to creep around Hawaiʻi's national parks, especially those with active volcanoes. The story goes that if a rock, or even grain of sand, is taken from Pele's domain, a curse will fall upon you. As a result, hundreds of stolen items are allegedly returned to the National Park Service each year by people frightened of Pele's comeuppance.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea Caldera, Halema'uma'u Crater Vent. Image: Flickr/Jeff Moore

Over the last several decades, Pele's name has been corrupted by the tourism industry, according to National Park Service records obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"There is NO 'Curse of the Rocks,'" a cultural interpreter for the National Park Service wrote in a document that was circulated internally. "Many believe that the idea of lava rocks being cursed gained traction in the 1940s or 1950s when tour guides grew tired of cleaning their vehicles of lava and/or black sand after tours to Kalapana [a popular destination on the island of Hawaiʻi for viewing active lava flows]."

While the cautionary tale might seem harmless—even staving off klepto behavior (I grew up in Hawaiʻi and remember being warned about Pele's intolerance for thieves)—some residents loathe the myth for being culturally appropriative—an "ethnic" story that fits with outsiders' desires to test the will of gods with whom they have no connection. As such, National Park Service staff seem eager to put out the fire, so to speak.

"You know, in Native Hawaiian oli [chants], hula, or mele [songs], there's no saying that Pele would curse you if you took a rock from Kilauea or anywhere else," Jessica Ferracane, a public affairs specialist for Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, told me.

In an email to a USA Today reporter regarding a story on Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Ferracane referred to the superstition as "deeply offensive" to the islands' indigenous community.

The senior director of communications at the Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau, Darlene Morikawa, later wrote to Ferracane that she's heard the tale so often, she's become "numb" to reading about it.

It's true that Native Hawaiian history makes no mention of Pele's penchant for punishing pilferers. While there are many parables about her mercurial ways—according to legend, she once killed the friend of her sister Hiʻiaka for taking too long to run an errand—the goddess never had it out for greedy tourists.

Still, taking items or artifacts from national parks is against the law. "There are actual federal laws not to remove, tamper with, or destroy natural resources," Ferracane said.

Curiously, cursed rocks aren't unique to Hawaiʻi, either. A similar phenomenon has been plaguing Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park for decades, according to Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr who wrote Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs From the Petrified Forest. Sifting through the national park's archives, Thompson and Orr discovered letters from hundreds of apologetic visitors, desperate to rid themselves of the contraband that supposedly caused the death of their cat, their broken down car, or a trip to the emergency room.

There's some speculation among National Park Service staff that "tabloid" stories are responsible for keeping the myth alive. (Just last week, dozens of outlets wrote about Jennifer Lawrence's unfortunate desecration of sacred, "cursed" stones while filming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on Maui.)

The remains of a lava flow on the Big Island. Image: Flickr/Roger Meyer

While it's probably a good idea to send rocks back to where they came from, some online citizens offer an intermediary return service (for a voluntary donation), proudly publishing customers' remorseful stories on their website.

As a result, Hawaiʻi's national parks are constantly fielding returned items and guilty consciences. Letters addressed to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park are received daily, while repatriated rocks arrive at least once per week, according to Ferrante. Even local post offices receive stolen stones, sometimes simply addressed to "postmaster."

In 2015, the Hawaiian Islands saw 8.6 million visitors, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority. The fierce splendor of Hawaiʻi's still-active volcanoes attracted 1.6 million visitors to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park in 2013, generating some $113,376,400 in revenue for surrounding business.

Ultimately, the apocryphal story of Pele's curse is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But if there's one thing that people like Ferracane want, it's for tourists to explore the authentic side of Native Hawaiian culture.

"[The superstition] wasn't started in a mean way. But here, people are told that taking pohaku [stones] is a sign of disrespect. You wouldn't take something that doesn't belong to you from somebody's house," she added.

That's just good manners.

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