Kupuna – Auntie Emily

It was late July, I was struggling to breathe, feverish and fatigued. Covid had hit me hard. I barely got out of bed for three weeks and was too exhausted to communicate much with anyone. The phone rang and somehow I found the energy and inspiration to answer. It was Kupuna Auntie Emily calling from Hawaii, over 7,000 miles away. Kupuna are highly respected in Hawaiian culture. They are grandparents or honoured elders who are keepers of ancestral knowledge so when I heard Emily’s voice I listened, carefully.

“Graham” she said, “I was told by the Lord to call you.” In the slow soft ailing tone of a weary patient I gave her my Covid report and she prayed for me. The next day I made it to my feet for the first time, my recovery started happening. Three weeks later I was still very wobbly but managed to visit my 90 year old mum. Out of the blue Emily called again and shared another long distance prayer and reassured my mum I was going to fully bounce back. Her prediction – or message from God – miraculously proved correct and I’m now gardening, hiking, biking and even sailing again.

I first met Emily in 1989 when we were both arrested for protesting geothermal drilling in Wao Kele O Puna, Hawaiʻi’s largest remaining lowland wet forest, revered by native Hawaiians. We ended up in adjacent jail cells in Hilo and many life long friendships were formed that day. The eventual court case was won on the principle of Hawaiian gathering rights. U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye later obtained $3.35 million through the U.S. Forest Service, to purchase the land from Campbell Estate. He made a profound confession about the geothermal project saying, “The project failed, thank God, and I realized I’d made a bad mistake, I hope all of you will forgive me. This forest belongs to the people, and it will be for the people forever.” As a memorial of this victory Emily named her son Wao Kele O Puna.

As a community leader she started inviting my HICCUP circus troupe to perform at events at Maku’u Hawaiian Homelands where she lived. Whenever Emily was organising her grandchildren’s baby luau’s she also invited me to provide some circus fun for her guests and we always obliged. It was an honour for me, Elron, Ari and others to participate in these huge traditional Hawaiian family gatherings and thanks to Emily the credibility of the HICCUP program grew substantially amongst our host community.

Emily was always an outspoken champion of the people speaking straight from the hip. In the late 80’s marijuana growing became the target of County State and Federal agencies and the shattering sound of low flying surveillance helicopters became a weekly occurrence. The price of an ounce went from $100 to $300 and within a few years Puna had the worst ‘Ice’ crisis in the nation. The bustling businesses of Pahoa Village, restaurants, juice bars, farm supplies, video stores, real estate and night clubs, all fueled by pot money, started closing down. For the first time the sidewalks became occupied by casualties of the a crystal methamphetamine epidemic and with “ice” came crime, including violent offenses, which was a new experience for our small town.  Social services were overwhelmed with broken families, abandoned children and abused wives.   Auntie Emily went to community college got qualified and became a drug outreach worker. She insisted, “I don’t fear too many people. I’m a tita (a tough local woman). I was raised here in Pahoa. But with this ice coming here, I now have real fear right at the edge of my heart.”

Every major holiday celebration for decades Emily has set up a table outside what was ‘Pahoa Cash and Carry’ store on the mainstream. She sold things she made like incredible head lei’s, dried flower arrangements and all kine fancy stuffs to support her family and donate to local charities. Everyone in Pahoa knew Aunty Emily. Never mind if you never bought nothing you’d still get a smile and a wave from Auntie as you drove by. Emily emanates ‘Aloha’ from every ounce of her being.


One day while working at Kua O Ka La public charter school Emily told me that she was embarking “on a mission from Akua (God) to run for election to the County Council.” She had a huge Ohana (family) to support her campaign and won the popular vote to become Puna’s first native Hawaiian Council member. Colourful both in dress and spirit, Emily evoked strong reactions from both supporters and opponents. Being a grassroots activist Emily didn’t have any background in bureaucracy, especially those rules that aren’t based upon basic reason and her own Hawaiian cultural norms. Puna people elected her because she had a great heart and was always brutally honest and forthright in her views. Her style was mostly untypical of Council member behaviour and she upset the apple cart on many an occasion. One former Councilman got so rattled that he accused Emily of first-degree terroristic threatening, triggering a police investigation but it failed to produce sufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges. Apparently she had merely been expressing herself loudly and passionately, as she is used to doing.

Emily fell foul of Board of Ethics complaints several times and twice was found in violation of the ethics code, in particular rules requiring county officers to give “fair, courteous and impartial treatment.” In 2009, the Board cited her for throwing a pen during public testimony and for making thumbs-down gestures behind the back of testifiers. Emily never holds back and expresses her feelings and emotions authentically in the manner of a mother, mentor or matriarch – not with the uptight restraint and repression expected from an elected official.

She gave the Board of Ethics a piece of her mind one day after the board voted it had no jurisdiction over an ethics complaint against her saying she barely had enough gas to get to Hilo for the meeting, but she had come to assert her rights and was frustrated not to have the opportunity. She denied she’d done anything wrong. “Someone’s been trying to put me down,” she told the board, “for me to step back into the race … barely two months after I started campaigning…… and this is the kind of thing I have to put up with!”

Once elected for a second term she didn’t slack off keeping the attention on Puna’s needs – an area she traces far back in her family lineage. She was a great help getting the Isaac Hale Park funded and hoped to get some lifeguards stationed at the beach – four to be exact; two on the Shacks side, two on the Bay/dock side. She presented a Tent Bill, permitting the use of tents as accommodation on rural lots while they were being developed. She supported the ban on any tobacco smoking in cars containing children after sharing that she had close relatives who tried to persuade her otherwise. She was always true to her personal beliefs even when her constituents had other wishes.

Naeole Family

In 2004 as my daughter approached her first birthday she cornered me asking what were my plans for her baby luau. Frankly, I didn’t have any plans probably because I was a foreigner in Hawaii and it was a purely local and Polynesian tradition. This wasn’t good enough for Emily who insisted that we organised a proper celebration and we did with her input. In recognition for all the circus entertainment I had provided for her events she insisted that her family would prepare all the food for our party. The baby luau was definitely on after that. Over 100 friends attended and Emily graciously demonstrated how native Hawaiians celebrate their ancestors at such events by reciting in full her family genealogy. Well, I think it was in full because it took nearly twenty minutes and started with the Tahitian discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

After buying our land at Bellyacres I invited Kapuna Auntie Emily to come do a blessing after I learned her family lands were all around us and she still gathered mele lei material in our Kipuka. It was a traditional Hawaiian ceremony with chanting, Ti Leaves spreading salt water and communal prayers. She honoured our community arts facility with another blessing, in 2007, when we were ready to open S.P.A.C.E.

Emily sure knows how to have fun and enjoy life. A regular place to see her dancing every style from Hula to rock-n-roll is Uncle Robert’s Wednesday Night Market. You’ll know it’s her from her smile – having fun with her friends and Keli’i-ho’omalu cousins.

Emily spoke out recently on various issues during a Hawaiian Homes Commission meeting offering a pule before she testified. She started by reflecting on the Makuʻu homesteads, where she has lived for over 30 years witnessing people with lots who never come to live on them while others wait on a list and remain homeless. She also spoke against the possibility of a spaceport in East Hawaiʻi. “I no like. Aʻole,” she said. “Why are we bring all this kine hewa to our people? We no need none of this crap. It doesn’t belong to us. It’s not for our knowledge. Our people are akamai, yeah? So we no need the spaceport.” Finally, she discussed the situation on Mauna Kea, where the standoff over the Thirty Meter Telescope has been ongoing. “I’ve been up there 7 times,” she said, “because I no drive, I have to hitchhike, catch a ride, do whatever I can to get up the mountain.” She grieves hard about Hawaiians living in poverty while other people move to Hawaii and live a first rate life. Where’s the justice in that?

Over the years Emily has suffered several bouts of severe illnesses and is no stranger to Hilo Hospital. On her lastest call with me she proudly spoke about her three daughters and son. She got them all through High School and College while raising them on a humble Hawaiian homestead in a tiny house. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with them all now having leadership careers serving their communities. Auntie Emily is still seen today around Pahoa talking story, smiling for miles, sharing her mana (spiritual energy), hugging and praying with anyone she feels needs it. Her blunt style has kept her in the local news headlines but at her core she is a self-proclaimed renegade prayer warrior, full of aloha……….. and the Holy Spirit.

Aloha and Mahalo Emily I love you!

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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