Sacred and Magical Places of Indigenous Peoples: Ancient Stories of Our Homes, Shared Through the Voices of Their Young Women

Land and water on Earth have stories connected to them that extend thousands of years by Indigenous Peoples. These stories remain cornerstones to the knowledge of natural systems, create intergenerational threads within community, and protect places of great significance despite ever-changing climate challenges today.


Indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt to environmental change is based on our ancestral memory and our deep understanding of the land brought by, and transferred through, traditional knowledge. Because of these connections to place, Indigenous peoples secure intergenerational weaving of nature-based solutions and place-based stewardship through acts of preservation, resistance, and endurance.

Social scientists refer to the Greek words of topophilia to describe an emotional sense of place, often associated with strong positive affect and a healthy identity. The significance of this concept in behavioral health research underscores the bond between people and place as a primary source of resilience.

Inʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) we refer to this expression as aloha ʻāina.

In Español (Spanish) we call it la pertenencia a la patria.

As young women of color and climate justice advocates, the divine places we describe here are done so through legends of love, they are the home to our goddesses, and we are steadfast to protect their mystical qualities. They are but a few of the stories told to us since our childhoods. Being living descendants, we are rooted to each wahi pana (storied place) and ʻāina kapu (sacred site); lugares sagrados (sacred place) and geografía espiritual (spiritual area), personally and intimately. We share them through aloha (affection) and sentimiento (sentiment) to honor our ancestors, and the world’s Indigeous Peoples, as a powerful form and function of peacebuilding.

Our message is grounded in the sacred and magical places of our peoples in Hawai‘i and Mexico. These ancient sites are steeped with mythology, tradition, culture, and resilience. They exist today for many purposes and represent various forms of embodied cultural identities to draw guidance from and back toward.

The Legend of Popocatépetl & Iztaccíhuatl

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl by Ernesto Viramontes, 2010.

In the land of Tenochtitlán, amongst the skyscrapers and baroque buildings of present day Mexico City, you will find two large mountains nestled at the horizon. Tenochtitlán is the ancient home to two of the most famous volcanoes in Mesoamerica. These two sacred places are the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. Each expands the rich history of the Aztec empire into modern view.

There is a story in Aztec mythology known as the Legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, that captures a time of high taxation at the peak of the Aztec Empire through the legend of two star-crossed lovers.

In the valley surrounding the volcanoes, the Tlaxcaltecas are Nahua people who had an ancient rivalry with the Aztecs. Their chief, enraged by the taxes imposed on them, declared war against the Aztecs. Amongst his warriors was the handsome Popocatépetl, who was in love with the chief’s daughter, Princess Iztaccíhuatl. Popocatépetl made a proposal to the chief — if he were to return victorious from battle to defend the rights of their Tlaxcaltecas, he would be permitted to marry Princess Iztaccíhuatl. Reaching agreement, the chief promised he would throw them a large celebration.

As the battle went on, the princess began to worry about her betrothed. A love rival of Popocatépetl deceptively told the princess that he died during warfare. She was distraught. Run-down by the sadness and despair when told of his loss, she succumbed to her heartbreak not knowing that it was a lie meant to break their bond. Later, Popocatépetl returned from war victorious and was thrilled to be reunited with Iztaccíhuatl, but was greeted by the terrible news of her death.

La leyenda de los volcanes by Jesus Helguera, 1940.

Popocatépetl carried Iztaccíhuatl to the top of the mountain where he laid her body to rest. He crouched beside her with a torch, watching her in eternal sleep filled with grief. His grief continued until the gods turned them both into snow-covered volcanoes, the ones we see today at the horizon in Mexico City. If you look at each peak, the Iztaccíhuatl volcano is the flatter, dormant volcano where she was entombed in snow. Whereas the Popocatépetl volcano is upright, active, and remains explosive with the young warrior’s grief for his princess.

This one story is common, not only Aztec mythology, but Mexican folklore as a whole. Los mitos (myths, legends) are common ways that the history of our landforms connect to our cultural beliefs and community values. Connections forming from deep below the Earth’s surface have been preserved through oral storytelling. To this day, contando cuentos (telling stories) remains a critical cultural resource in Mexico that expands our connections to the places surrounding us throughout time. Like Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, when we experience our greatest loss and grief, we often turn to the land for comfort and release.

The Lifeforce of Pelehonuamea at Halemaʻumaʻu

Halemaʻumaʻu crater at the summit of Kīlauea volcano, on Moku O Keawe.

On Moku O Keawe (also known as Hawai‘i Island, or in slang, as the “Big Island”), the Polynesian deity Pele dwells in her home at one of the most active volcanic rift zones in the world. Kīlauea is the youngest volcano in Hawaiʻi, and one of the most generative in the Pacific. In our traditions, that home is referred to as Halemaʻumaʻu, and is also home to a lava lake that appeared in September 2021. In Hawaiian language we refer to this sacred and magical place as ka ʻāina a ke akua i noho ai, the land where the goddess dwells. For the ancient Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) this was ka piko o ka honua (the navel of the world) — the point through which the Earth itself is born and reborn. It remains among our most sacred and magical places in the paeʻāina (Hawaiian archipelago).

For many Mā‘ohi (Tahitians) and Kānaka ʻŌiwi, Pele is considered family and is revered. She is anʻaumakua (family god or deified ancestor) for some genealogies of the towns of Puna and Kaʻū. Her presence can be physically, spiritually, and emotionally felt by those who visit her volcanic domain. In Hawaiian tradition, it is customary to ask permission from Pele to travel through her land and this sacred landscape.

It is here, while journeying east and south, that the goddess Pele crossed the wide Alenuihaha channel and came to Hawai‘i, and, after exploring in all directions, she was satisfied to make her home at Kīlauea. In fact, Native Hawaiians watch the flow of lava as a natural indication of migration patterns, such as east to west, or sunrise to sunset, or Tahiti to Hawaiʻi.

As described by Dr. Kuʻulei Higashi Kanahele — a Kānaka ʻŌiwi researcher at the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation — “it is not just destruction, it is about birthing new land.” In her lecture Kanawai Pele, her wisdom of Indigenous women’s genealogies that generate life speaks to divine feminine energies, sacred sites of Pele, and the magical process she creates in the district of Puna. “Ho‘okīkī means to flow, to erupt. The function of the Pele is to flow. There is nothing we can do to stop it. The reason we have Pele is to create land. A lot of people, especially the media, like to dramatize things and say ‘Pele is destructive, and she’s destroying land, and destroying communities.’ However, we as Hawaiians know that Pele is not about destruction; Pele is about creation. It’s this eruption and the constant migration of Pele which allows us to have living islands [today].” She performed an oli, or chant, to Pele during the 2018 eruption at the site and talks about catastrophic eruptions, how they lead to new land, and how Pele changes the earth. “We train for this. We learn our chants. We chant our chants. Being able to present my chant was just life-changing,” she said.

Mural of the goddess Pele in the community of Pāhoa, on the island of Hawai‘i.

There are numerous ancient and contemporary Hawaiian oli that describe the kuleana (function) and mana (life force) of Pele. Names like Pelehonuamea (Pele of the red earth) and Peleʻaihonua (Pele the eater of the land) themselves are forms of historic accounts that describe her volcanic energy and movement.

Mele (songs) are filled with cultural data points. Likewise, oli are primary sources of environmental information and natural phenomena to be inspired from today as Indigenous women. Related to Pele, each song, chant, and name describes visible movement of lava, captures the feeling of tremors and earthquakes, and even distinguishes the types of rocks which form after the lava cools in great detail. This Indigenous wisdom is science, wherein oral traditions save the kaona (hidden meaning) of these stories we awaken at the moment we speak their truths.

The following is a portion of the epic chant describing the journey of Pele from Kahikina that has been passed down through oral song and dance by Kānaka ʻŌiwi and Mā‘ohi. It was eventually recorded in the Hawaiian language newspapers and published in print in 1909. Each line details her journey, the places she spent time at, and the elements interacting at those locations through her power. This one section in the mele is referred to as a name-song, mele inoa. The poem represents someone as lifting a name to their mouth for praise and adulation. The words direct the chanter to Kīlauea and are meant to say aloud, so that they may reecho, doubtless, from the walls of the crater at Halema‘uma‘u.

Nou paha e, ka inoa

E kaikai ku ana,

A kau i ka nuku.

E hapahapai ae,

A pa i ke kihi

O Kilauea.

I laila kuu kama,

O Kunuiakea.

Hookomo ae i loko

A o Halemaumau;

A mau na puu

E alaola nei.

E kulipee nui aia hua.

E Pele, e Pele!

E Pele, e Pele!

Huaina! huaina!

Ku ia ka lani,

Pue a huila!

Watch the documentary describing the powerful journey of Hawai’i’s revered goddess of fire in Holo Mai Pele online by the renowned dance company Halau O Kekuhi. Note how they tell the story of this epic mele about Pele’s journey through various forms of cultural expression including movement, fashion, flowers, plants, and song.

Each story and poem shared here represents something valuable within us. The voices of young women like us, from frontline communities, look at the many benefits stronger Indigenous and community land rights offer as we seek to address immediate environmental justice in line with our own traditions and beliefs. Our goals are to see all of Pele’s forms, and places she dwells, to be protected and accessed for cultural strengthening for generations to come.

The ʻōhiʻa lehua trees at Halemaʻumaʻu.

Across Oceania, Pele is associated with many natural elements from the upland forests to the sea. Her mana wāhine (female powers) are associated with volcanoes, lightning, and wind. In Hawai‘i, the way we refer to a wind name above the crater, or type of volcanic flow, carries the association to Pele and her mana. Pele is often the deity associated withʻōhi‘a lehua.

For example, ʻōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) are flowering trees endemic to Hawai‘i — thriving in the areas of Kīlauea and Pāhoa — and are a favorite of many native forest birds and insectsThis brilliant evergreen from the myrtle family plays a major role in Hawaiian culture and storytelling.

There is a cultural expression that describes the hardiness and resilience of theseʻōhi‘a lehua:

Kū ka ʻōhiʻa i ka ʻaʻā. Theʻōhiʻa that stands amidst the lava fields.

This proverb captures the resilience of life that springs up following recent lava flows. It is a hallmark of Pacific storytelling that links places to plants; the poetic aspect within these proverbs describe what makes certain places sacred to our peoples. In fact, the plants themselves are kino lau (supernatural forms in physical representation) of many Pacific deities in our ancient spiritual beliefs. In various stories, the plant is an earthside manifestation of her mana, and of several Hawaiian akua (god or goddess) including Kū, Hiʻiaka, Kāne, Pele’s sister, Kapo, and Laka, a Hawaiian akua of hula.

To evoke or inspire the akua and enhance their storytelling, dancers of hula — such as those in the Holo Mai Pele epic — traditionally wear lehua blossoms or buds in their flower garlands called leiʻŌhi‘a branches are used to create traditional kālaʻau (dancing sticks), and ceremonially to adorn kuahu (altars) when hula students are in training in reverence to Pele and these other deities. Hawaiian practitioners often note that shortly after a lehua flower is picked from theʻōhi‘a, it often rains as if the gods of these legends cry out when separated from their whole form.

The loss of this tree would be catastrophic not only to native forests and the surrounding ecosystem, but also to Hawaiian tradition and storytelling. Sadly newly identified in 2014, Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, or ‘ōhi‘a wilt, is a fungal infestation that attacks ‘ōhi‘a trees and is being closely monitored and studied by conservationists, scientists, and cultural wisdom keepers. When colonized by this fungus, the tree gets sick very quickly: Within a few days the leaves turn brown, and within a few weeks the tree dies. Today, entire canopies in the upland forest in Pele’s domain have been lost. These trees are keystones in Hawaiian forests, with this fungal infection causing major disturbances that negatively impact the ecosystem including the watersheds, cultural traditions, natural resources, and quality of life.

We know that elemental spaces like forests do better when Indigenous land rights are respected, with lower deforestation rates, and decreased carbon emissions. Protecting our lands is peacebuilding; to do so within our own culture, is legacy building.

Los Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns) of Mascota and Tequila

Templo Inconcluso by Roberto Obregón, 2017.

One of the most popular states in Mexico is Jalisco. Its capital Guadalajara is home to mariachi (traditional Mexican music genre) music and one of the most famous cities to visit in this ancient region. When you head away from Guadalajara you will find smaller pueblos, or towns. Each pueblo contains rich pre-colonial history that is sacred to us today.

One of these pueblos is Mascota–which is in the Sierra Madre of Jalisco–and is renowned as a Pueblo Mágico. Pueblo Mágico is a special type of town or village found throughout Mexico that is given this official title and designation today by the Mexican government due to its magical qualities. Pueblos Mágico possess extraordinary legends, natural wonders, architecture, and culture. Mascota in particular is known for its contando cuentos and the beautiful nature that surrounds it, such as mountains that contain the Mascota volcanic field.

One of the most sacred places there is the Templo Inconcluso de La Preciosa Sangre (Unfinished Temple of the Precious Blood). This temple is located at the heart of Mascota where it is covered by flowers and other greenery. Its origins lead up to 1897 where it first began to be constructed. The reason for which the temple was not finished remains debated. However, one of the most common stories tells of a time when Mascota became entangled in the Mexican Revolution around 1910. Due to the war, funding had run out for the temple’s completion due to intense opposition against the Catholic Church and how it treated Indigenous peoples. Though unfinished, the site holds a place of wonder, beauty, loss, and colonial histories. People seek Mascota and the Templo Inconcluso de La Preciosa Sangre today as a place of meditation, culture, and the arts.

Tepoztēcatl, Aztec pulque god and son of Mayahuel and Patecatl. Scanned by Mexicolore from Florentine Codex.

Another Pueblo Mágico in Jalisco is Tequila, located about one hour from the capital. Tequila is known for being the primary producer and importer of the distilled drink. However, the rich history of the beverage dates back through Aztec traditions. The Aztecs produced fermented agave as a ceremonial conduit to praise Mayahuel, goddess of maguey (agave), and Patecatl, god of the pulque root (fermented maguey drink).

After the end of the Aztec Empire, tequila was mass produced in the area by Spanish conquistadors who were athirst for brandy and had drained their supply. Coming to their aid were jimadores, a special type of Mexican farmer, who began to harvest agave to replace lost brandy supplies. By the 17th century, tequila was mass produced through the hard underpaid labor of the overworked jimadores, who were typically oppressed and of Indigenous heritage. This new industry could not have flourished without the Indigenous knowledge of the Aztecs who had first created the drink as a ceremonial offering, and their descendents who knew the cultivation processes.

Today, because of colonialism, the spiritual essences of Mayahuel and Patecatl are lost on most who partake in drinking tequila. Further, the sacred ritual of the Aztecs has been erased by mainstream consumption practices and systems of mass production. Across agave farms of Tequila, you can still see jimadores who embody ecological knowledge of the plant, land use, and labor history that has been passed down through generations. While some people may see tequila as a drink to party, to many here in Mexico, it is a symbol of oral tradition and Indigenous connection to nature that survives as a reminder to all that must be reclaimed.

Centering Our Stories

Love for our homelands extends endlessly as we celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2022. In each story there is magic, folklore, history, cultural lessons and themes with deep meaning to reflect upon, and be guided by, when we dream of climate-resilient futures. By perpetuating Indigenous land rights as a critical pillar of climate action, we seek just and sustainable communities.

At the Institute for Climate and Peace, we uplift the determination of Indigenous women toward the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge every day. We center this ancient intelligence as a lifegiving form of encoded information to address the greatest threats against us. Our Institute welcomes these conversations and regards them as acts of aloha ʻāina and expressions of la pertenencia a la patria.

Like many of our spiritual sisters around the world, we know that we have a sacred responsibility to help others understand the layers of meaning attached to the magical places of our peoples. Each of us carry ancient stories of our homes. Sharing them, celebrating them, and reclaiming them through the voices of their young women advances peace by elevating the inherent wisdom, power, ingenuity, and legacy of the beloved community within us.

. . .

Karen Rodriguez is an apprentice with the Institute for Climate and Peace and is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying Earth Systems and Geological Sciences. Born to two Mexican parents, she grew up learning about the country’s ecology and geomorphology in addition to its rich folklore. Inspired by her community both in Mexico and in Los Angeles, she aims to study the interrelations between the earth sciences and culture to pursue viable solutions to challenges that vulnerable communities may face amidst the climate crisis.

Kealoha Fox is a senior advisor with the Institute for Climate and Peace and is a mentor to Karen Rodriguez. A graduate of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, she is the recipient of more than 50 awards and distinctions, including being named one of the 20 leaders to follow for the next 20 years in 2022 by Hawaii Business Magazine and a 2022 candidate for the prestigious Pritzker Environmental Genius Award. As a Native Hawaiian woman, Kealoha has been deeply and purposefully trained by esteemed community elders in traditional and ancient Native Hawaiian practices and protocol such as ho‘oponopono, hāhā, and lā‘au lapa‘au.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Institute for Climate and Peace, All Rights Reserved.

Image of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. Ernesto Viramontes, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Artwork of La leyenda de los volcanes by Mexican painter Jesús Helguera (1910–1971), 1940

Image of El Templo Inconcluso de La Preciosa Sangre by Roberto Obregón, 2017