Mauna a Wākea, also known as Mauna Kea, is the piko (center) of the Hawaiʻi Island and its people. This sacred mauna (mountain) is the tallest in the world from the seafloor and a place where traditions, culture and gods live in perpetuity. It is also home to a freshwater aquifer that nourishes all of the people and ʻāina (land) of Hawaiʻi Island.

Starting on July 15, thousands of Kānaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians) and supporters assembled at the base of Mauna Kea to stop the construction of a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the sacred mountain. The stand to protect Mauna Kea from the TMT began in the court system in 2010, but the people of Hawaiʻi have been in opposition to the building of all existing telescopes on the mountain since 1968. There are already 13 telescopes on the top of Mauna Kea, a mountain grossly mismanaged by the state for decades. While only a few of those telescopes are currently operational, their observatories remain, accumulating trash and sustaining spills of toxic chemicals and sewage.

Protectors, known as kiaʻi, of the mountain disrupted a TMT groundbreaking ceremony in 2014 and later brought construction to a halt in June 2015. They successfully argued in court that the state of Hawaiʻi had issued the project a construction permit before they could voice objections. The permit was rescinded while “contested case” hearings took place. However, in October 2018, Hawaiʻi’s Supreme Court upheld the permit.

On July 11, 2019, the Department of Land and Natural Resources gave the TMT a “notice to proceed,” meaning that it could move ahead with construction. Kiaʻi responded accordingly and, once again, stood to protect the sacred Mauna.

The Mauna Kea movement has often been misrepresented as a clash of culture versus science, but that is inaccurate and a diversion from what is actually on the line. This fight is about Indigenous peoples’ land rights, self-determination, and the protection of their sacred spaces. This is about trying to prevent irreparable damage and contamination of a freshwater aquifer that sustains the people of Hawaiʻi Island. This is about a dangerous precedent that would be set by constructing a 30-meter,18-story structure on an island that, otherwise, would not allow any structure of this height.

Ultimately, this movement is about enough being enough. The kingdom of Hawaiʻi has been illegally occupied by the United States since 1898, yet the people are alive, active and are rising up to perpetuate their culture in the best way they know how: by protecting what is sacred. As activist Aunty Pua Case said, “If we don’t fight for the most sacred, what will we fight for?”

Here, images from the frontlines. 

Words: M. Kaleipumehana Cabral and Kapluei Flores for Survival Media AgencyPhotos: Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

M. Kaleipumehana Cabral (Pumehana) identifies as a queer Kanaka and child of the diaspora. She was born in Hawaiʻi and raised between the islands and the continent—with family in Hawaiʻi Island, Oʻahu, California and Washington. She finds refuge in words, film, movement and the ocean as well as (re)connecting with kūpuna and her Native Hawaiian culture. A recent recipient of a masters degree in social work, her current work includes social justice- and community building through film, project management with ‘āina-based education programs in the Koʻolau region, and creative projects with the queer/ trans/ instersex/ people of color) community.

Kapulei Flores is a 19-year-old Native Hawaiian photographer who has been involved in the Protect Mauna Kea movement with her family since 2011. She has helped organize and had her work featured in a series of exhibits, as well as working with Mauna Kea Education and Awarness (MKEA). Flores is currently working on a new film “Standing Above the Clouds” by Jalena Keane-Lee and Reaa Puri.  

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    “This is a new time for our people where we fully understand that we have a right to our cultural ways and practices” says Pua Case, one of the core kiaʻi (protectors) of the Protect Mauna Kea movement. “Aunty” Pua has been fighting for the Mauna, alongside her ʻohana (family), since 2011. “Itʻs empowering to once again stand on our sacred grounds in full power.” (Photographed on August 12, 2019)

  • Image
    : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Between July and August thousands of people have come to the base of the Mauna Kea to protect the mountain from the $1.4 billion TMT. (Photographed on July 14, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    An unexpected result of the Mauna Kea fight is that it has brought couples closer together. “[I]t’s really been a powerful thing for our marriage,” says protector Makana Needham of his experience on the Mauna with his wife. Needham’s kuleana (responsibility and privilege) at the protest site is with the Kapu Aloha team. The space where the Mauna Kea protectors gather and live on the mountain has been designated a place of refuge or Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu. The Kapu Aloha team helps ensure that the space remains a true refuge by leading protestor safety efforts and upholding spiritual and behavioral protocols. (Photographed on August 13, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Malia Hulleman has a history of being on the frontlines of Indigenous cultural and land protection, from four years ago on Mauna Kea to Standing Rock. “We don’t have a choice on whether or not we can or cannot stand,” she says. “Thatʻs always been necessary since the silencing of our voices, since the removal of our language from our bodies.” (Photographed on August 13, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    ​​​​​Kahala Johnson is Kānaka ʻŌiwi and a part of the LGBTQ+ community described in the Hawaiian language as “mana (powerful) māhū.” “Māhū are often on the frontlines of indigenous movements and Kahala also sees their role on the Mauna as kiaʻi aloha (protectors of aloha), says Johnson.”We always say ʻSee you on the Mauna,’ but I like saying now, ʻLove you on the Mauna.”

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Members of Hawaiʻi law enforcement brought sound canons, tear gas and other weapons to combat the kiaʻi of Mauna Kea, but were met only with aloha. “They don’t know what to do with a group singing a song,” says protester Dr. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson. Even as the kūpuna (elders) were arrested, the kiaʻi committed to remain in Kapu Aloha—chanting and singing, crying instead of yelling and remaining calm. (Photographed on July 17, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Yvonne Mahelona says she was called to the Mauna by her naʻau (feeling of the heart and soul), her kūpuna (ancestors), and her friends and family protesting. Like so many other kiaʻi, she flew to Hawaiʻi Island. On August 13 she said she plans to be at Puʻuhuluhulu indefinitely. “As beautiful as this experience is and has been, it has also been overwhelming and exhausting,” she says. “But I’m still grateful for it.” (Photographed on August 13, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Kaniela Ing is an activist, a father and a former Hawaii state representative. He has been vocal on social media about Mauna Kea and has used his platform to help the movement gain national and international coverage. “What started as a blockade on a road has turned into childcare, a university, cultural workshops, and the best learning place for hula, mele (song) and oli (chanting),” he says. “You have a microcosm of what society could be—not just for Hawaiians, but for anybody.” (Photographed on August 13, 2019)

  • Image
    Photograph : Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

    Dr. Noe Noe Wong-Wilson was arrested alongside 35 other kūpuna during the first week of this stand. “What we’ve done here came out of the ʻāina,” she says. “It’s a new dawn, a new age. People have to stand up for their rights, especially Native peoples.” (Photographed on July 17, 2019)