Mauna Kea
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Cultural Landscape

Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to us are kupuna [ancestors]. They're the beginning and the mole, or the taproot, for our island.

Mauna Kea is the first-born to us, like the taro was for food, like coral polyps were for food in the ocean. We have many first-borns. Mauna Kea is the first-born. And so, because Mauna Kea is the first-born, we need to malama [care for] Mauna Kea.

That's where our roots start, that's where our island begins, that's where the first rain from Wakea hits, is our mountain. That's where the first sunlight that rises every morning hits. That mountain is the first for everything we have.

Pualani Kanahele
Kumu Hula, educator
excerpt from
Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege

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wao akua - a distant mountain region, believed inhabited only by spirits (akua).

Hawaiian Dictionary (first edition)
Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert
University Press of Hawai’i

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When you move out of the forest zone and you rise above the clouds and the last trees are left behind, and you look up to shrub lands of pukiawe and other native plants, and above that to the cinder cones and the snow above that, you know you’re entering something extremely special.

And when you think about high elevation places in the Hawaiian islands, of course you have to talk about that basic dichotomy between the lower elevation places where people live.

And in old times, that would have been called the Wao Kanaka. Wao being a word that means “zone” and “Kanaka” being a person. So the Wao Kanaka is a zone in which people belong.

When you rise above that zone, you enter into a realm in which all of the living things there are not there because of human activity. They flourish as the result of the activity of the gods, or the Akua. And so that zone is called the Wao Akua. And the transition from Wao Kanaka to Wao Akua is not taken lightly.

In ancient times, and even today, not too many people go from the Wao Kanaka up into the Wao Akua. For those folks who have training and protocol, it almost demands that you mark that transition with something: an offering, a voice even, an announcement of purpose and identity. Why are you here? Why are you entering the Wao Akua when your place is in the Wao Kanaka?

Sam ‘Ohukani’ohi’a Gon III
Conservation Biologist

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Wao Akua, the place of the gods! You know, I would not just go up for willy nilly energy. I’d go up to do special things, to put the umbilical cord of my baby in there, to plant my kupuna, my mama that has passed. You know, we did holy, special, deep things up there because of the immensity of its power.

Manu Aluli Meyer
Philosopher of Education
Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege

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Early western visitors to Mauna Kea noted frequently that their native guides refused to accompany them to the very top.

Neither Mr. Goodrich, nor Dr. Blatchely and his companion, could persuade the natives, whom they engaged as guides up the side of the mountain, to go near its summit.
William Ellis (1823)

It is very unlikely that any native had reached the top of the … cones on the summit, owing to…the fact that the natives had a superstitious dread of the mountain spirits or gods.
Rev. Joseph Goodrich (1823)

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We've been asked in the past few months, “How many times do you use the mountain? How often do you go up?” Those kinds of questions. We don't have to go up anywhere to use it. We can use it from wherever we are.

And so we never came up the mountains because we didn't need to. Unless we had a purpose for being up here, we came up here. But otherwise we never came up the mountain.

Pualani Kanahele
Kumu Hula, educator
at Pu’u Huluhulu, December 21, 1998

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Mauna Kea is the piko of the island and this is another reason this area is considered sacred. This piko is the initial provider of the land mass of Hawai’i mokupuni. Hawai’i was also the first child of Papa and Wakea.

A Social Impact Assessment
Indigenous Hawaiian Cultural Values of the Proposed Saddle Road Alignments

Kanahele, P.K. and E.L.H. Kanahele 1997

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1. Navel, navel string, umbilical cord.
2. Summit or top of a hill or mountain; crest; crown of the head.

Hawaiian Dictionary (first edition)
Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert
University Press of Hawai’i

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Human anatomy also reflected spiritual relationships, such as in the concept of na piko ‘ekolu (three body points):

1) Piko po’o or manawa at the top of the person's head, also evident as the open fontanel in the infant's skull, was the opening that connected the individual's ‘uhane (spirit) or personal wailua (soul) with the spiritual realm beyond, including one's ‘aumakua, departed but ever-present deified ancestors, since the beginning of time.

2) Piko waena, or the navel, represented the remnant of the person's intrauterine umbilical connection to his parents in the contemporary world. This piko covered the na’au (gut) which was the seat of knowledge, wisdom and emotions.

3) Piko ma’i was the genitalia, which linked the person to his descendants forever into the future.

Traditional Kanaka Maoli Healing Practices
Kekuni Blaisdell, M.D.

Paper presented August 24, 1991, at a panel on Pu’uhonua in Hawaiian Culture
sponsored by Kahua Na’auao

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Is it a sacred mountain? Yes, we can use the word sacred, sacred, sacred. But just look at each place name. The fact that families still take their piko, the afterbirth, the piko of their children to that mountain, right to Pu’u ‘o Kukahau’ula. Some take it to Waiau. These are important stories that have been recorded. It's important that they be acknowledged. Don't ignore the wealth of information.

Kepa Maly
Cultural Historian and Resource Specialist
Kumu Pono Associates
testimony to Hawai’i Island Burial Council

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Jeffrey Overton, chief planner for Group 70, noted that the "notion of sacredness of the summit needs to be addressed." Overton also said contrary to what some have stated, "sacred does not mean no-build."

Final summit study out
Hawai’i Tribune Herald
January 11, 2000

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Another level of the desecration is the leveling of the pu`u, or the cinder cones. The cinder cones are sacred in and of themselves because they make up some of the kino lau, or the divine bodily manifestations of the gods.

For example, you can look up and see the image of Poli’ahu laying down. She’s the woman of the mountain. That’s her place. And when it’s covered with snow, it appears as though she’s lying on a bed of clouds, a ring of clouds. And you can see her very clearly.

Unfortunately though, Poli’ahu’s image and bodily form is being destroyed. They are altering the images of our deities because the pu’u’s are being leveled and the telescopes are being built on top of her.

Kealoha Pisciotta
Mauna Kea Anaina Hou
interview, Jan. 1, 2003

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[UH-Hilo Chancellor Rose] Tseng spoke of the thorny issue of expanded development of Mauna Kea's observatories, which has angered some Native Hawaiians who consider the mountain sacred ground.

"We should really listen to the Hawaiians; you're using land which is sacred," Tseng said. "If we don't address their concerns in the long run, it'll be no good."

UHH outlook is Rose-ier than ever
by Janet Snyder
Hawai’i Tribune-Herald

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HANALEI FERGERSTROM: This is an area that was so, so sacred that not even Hawaiians could come up here without acknowledging and administering proper protocol and understanding the sanctity.

NARRATOR: While the upper levels of the mountain have many archeological sites, no sites are found at the very summit.

REYNOLDS KAMAKAWIWO`OLE: Has anybody asked the reason why they didn’t put any building up there? Mauna Kea is a temple, a temple that no building should be on.

KEAWE VREDENBURG: You would have thought that the place to put your heiau would be Mauna Kea, where it would look over the entire world. But there’s nothing up there. It’s way beyond any other regular mountain, way beyond any heiau. It’s a heiau all by itself.

Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege

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The summit of Mauna Kea represents many things to the indigenous people of Hawai’i. The upper regions of Mauna Kea reside in Wao Akua, the realm of the Akua-Creator.

It is home of Na Akua (the Divine Deities), Na ‘Aumakua (the Divine Ancestors), and the meeting place of Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father) who are considered the progenitors of the Hawaiian People. Mauna Kea, it is said, is where the Sky and Earth separated to form the Great-Expanse-of-Space and the Heavenly Realms. Mauna Kea in every respect represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself.

Mauna Kea is a Temple or House of Worship. It is, in our cultural understanding and cosmology, a temple of the highest order. The Temple of Mauna Kea differs from other temples because it was not created by man. Akua built it for man, to bring the heavens to man. Therefore, the laws of man do not dictate its sanctity, the laws of Heaven do.

For it is here that the very life breath can be seized in a moment never to return. It is only here that the life-giving waters originate. Only here do the heavens open so that man can be received, blessed, freed and transformed in the ways of Heaven.

As kahu (religious guardians) of this place, our kuleana (responsibility) to this temple is ancient. It is our duty to proclaim its sanctity and work to protect it, so that its greatness and purpose can be shared with all of mankind. Our duty to Heaven cannot be abridged.

Mauna Kea – The Temple
Protecting the Sacred Resource

by Royal Order of Kamehameha I, Moku o Mamalahoa, Heiau Helu Elua
and Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

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The archeological sites [are] predominantly on the edges of where they want to do the [observatory] development. I see the other side, in that there’s no sites on the top of the mountain because it is so sacred. Hawaiians didn’t want to go there. They stayed on the outside. So you’re suggesting actually building in the wrong place, from my point of view.

Charles Young
testimony at public meeting on Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan
May 1999

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State Historic Preservation Department staff have recently indicated that they will be proposing a historic district designation for the summit region of Mauna Kea which they believe will meet the eligibility criteria for inclusion in both the Hawaii State and the national Register of Historic Places.

Consideration of the properties included within this proposed historic district, and their associated practices and beliefs, suggests it to represent a type of historic property best referred to as a cultural landscape.

The proposed historic district could perhaps even more appropriately be considered to be a special type of cultural landscape referred to by the National Park Service as ethnographic landscapes: "those landscapes imbued with such intangible meanings that they continue to be deemed significant or even sacred by contemporary people who have continuous ties to the site or area.

Draft EIS
Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan

Appendix H
Cultural Impact Assessment Study: Native Hawaiian Cultural Practices, Features and Beliefs Associated with the University of Hawai’i Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan Project Area
PHRI, Inc.
August, 1999

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The summit of Mauna Kea cannot be separated into historic sites, significant pu’u, management areas, management units or astronomy precincts. Call it what you will, it is still all one Mauna Kea and deserves protection in the most inclusive way.

Jalna Keala
Office of Hawaiian Affairs
testimony before University of Hawai’i Board of Regents
June 2000

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Natural resources — such as rock outcrops, a pool of water, a forest grove, an ocean current, a mountain, and even the sunrise-tinted snows of Mauna Kea — are valued as cultural properties by the Hawaiian people.

Thus, Hawaiian culture does not have a clear dividing line of where culture ends and nature begins. Cultural resources are not only things of a physical, geographic, practitioner's, or archival nature, but they are also natural resources — the earth and elements around them. Indeed, the spiritual beliefs, cultural practices and cultural landscape of the Hawaiian people were intricately bound to the natural landscape of the islands.

In Hawaiian culture, natural and cultural resources are one and the same. All forms of the environment, from the skies and mountain peaks, to the watered valleys and plains, and to the shore line and ocean depths are the embodiments of Hawaiian gods and deities.

excerpt from
Mauna Kea – Kuahiwi Ku Ha’o i ka Malie

A Report on Archival and Historical Documentary Research
Ahupua’a of Humu’ula, Ka’ohe, districts of Hilo and Hamakua, Island of Hawai’i
by Kepa Maly
©1997 Kepa Maly, Kumu Pono Associates and Native Lands Institute

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wahi pana - These are sacred sites such as heiau, shrines, sacred pohaku or stones, burial caves and graves, geographic features, and natural resources associated with deities and significant natural, cultural, spiritual or historical phenomenon or events. (Definition from Hawai'i Externalities Workbook. Hawaiian Electric Company, 1997)

The gods and their disciples specified places that were sacred. The inventory of sacred places in Hawai’i includes the dwelling places of the gods, the dwelling places of venerable disciples, temples, and shrines, as well as selected observation points, cliffs, mounds, mountains, weather phenomena, forests, and volcanoes.

Edward Kanahele
Ancient Sites of O’ahu
by Van James

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The earth is so special. If we could only realize that, we would do a lot more to protect it, to honor it and realize how sacred it is and how sacred places on it are. Native Americans and other indigenous people somehow have understood that a lot better than we tend to today. They realize that places are sacred and should be protected and valued.

One of the things that most people have forgotten is the landscape around us. How many people recognize the landscape and how it can be used?

In the pueblos of the American southwest, villages exist in places where they’re tied to that landscape. They know where the sun rises throughout the year and where it sets. And that’s their calendar.

And throughout that landscape, and we find this worldwide, these places are sacred to them. They’re places where the sun lives and comes out and goes back at night. And all of this is tied in with so many concepts of our life. And all of these concepts that come just from basic nature and observation are so beautiful.

So places like Mauna Kea are sacred. What place could be more sacred than a mountain that you can see maybe a hundred miles out to sea? And the place that the sun first touches as it comes to these islands. So easy for us to forget how important that’s been to all the people who have lived here, that trudged up to that high altitude and made places of religious significance that are still important. And we need to all understand the significance of the landscape and how it relates to all of time, to all of the earth, to all of the sky and to all of us.

Von Del Chamberlain
Astronomer, naturalist (retired)
Educator formerly with Utah Valley State College, University of Utah, University of Michigan
Former director, Hansen Planetarium, Salt Lake City and Albert Einstein Planetarium (Smithsonian Institution)

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Native American Astronomy: Traditions, Symbols, Ceremonies, Calendars, and Ruins.’ In Astronomy Across Cultures, The History of Non-Western Astronomy, Helaine Selin, ed. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Chamberlain, Von Del. 1982. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America. Los Altos, Calif., and College Park, MD.: Ballena Press and Center for Archaeoastronomy.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Navajo constellations in literature, art, artifact and a New Mexico rock art site.’ Archaeoastronomy 6(1-4): 1983.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Navajo star ceilings.’ In World Archaeoastronomy, A.F. Aveni, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Rock art and astronomy: Navajo star ceilings.’ In Rock Art of the Western Canyons, Jane S. Day, Paul D. Friedman and Marcia J. Tate, eds. Denver: Denver Museum of Natural History and the Colorado Archaeological Society, 1989.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘The Chief and his Council: unity and authority from the stars.’ In Earth & Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore. Ray A. Williamson and Claire R. Farrer, eds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.


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