Kapu Aloha: Sacred Activism and Civic Engagement grounded in Cultural Traditions

Kapu Aloha

By Kū Kahakalau, Ph.D.

In 2019, efforts to protect Mauna Kea, Hawaiʻiʻs tallest mountain, from the construction of a Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) (1), crystalised the Hawaiian movement, unlike any other Hawaiian-related issue in the past, uniting tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians of all ages, on all islands, and removing long-standing barriers between Native Hawaiian groups and organizations.  Mauna Kea not only roused Native Hawaiians already involved in cultural revival and civic engagement, but also awakened tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians previously not actively involved in the Hawaiian sovereignty struggle. Indeed, the need to protect Mauna Kea against crooked government officials’ flawed permit processes, arrogant astronomers and greedy businessmen, has not only resulted in an unprecedented exhibition of Hawaiian mana or power, but also the recognition of the sacred status of Mauna Kea, and the validation of the imperative of perpetuating our ancient value of aloha ʻāina, our reciprocal, familial relation to the environment.  

Mauna Kea also continues to empower tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians to show pride in our native heritage and actively participate in efforts to revitalize and normalize our native language and culture, severely marginalized as a result of nearly 140 years of US occupation.  For quite a few, kū kiaʻi mauna – standing up as protectors of the mountain – also means contributing to longstanding efforts to regain control and decision-making power over our archipelago and our ancestral resources.  This essay explores how Mauna Kea contributes to the normalization of cultural engagement including protocol, ceremony, hula (Hawaiian dance), the enforcement of kapu aloha, an ancient Hawaiian taboo, or code of conduct, and the popular re-classification of Hawaiian activism as civic engagement.  

On July 17, 2019, 33 native Hawaiian kūpuna (elders) got arrested as they, along with over a thousand other native Hawaiians and our supporters, blocked access to the summit of sacred Mauna Kea.  Situated at the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road, at an elevation of over 6700 feet, across a hill called Puʻuhuluhulu, this would turn out to be the longest blockade to date to protect sacred Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the Pacific, from the construction of the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. The $1.4 billion project was approved and continues to be unconditionally supported by the Hawaiʻi government, despite strong public protests from the people. So it was no surprise when Hawaiʻiʻs governor immediately issued an emergency proclamation,that would give law enforcement increased power and flexibility, and the authority to close more areas and restrict access on Mauna Kea. 

The next five months saw unprecedented support for Mauna Kea throughout the Hawaiian islands, as thousands of protectors fearlessly held the line, faced with unwarranted police threats, inclement weather and incredible diversities in backgrounds, perspectives and approaches. Within record time, an elder tent was erected directly on what was renamed the Ala Hulu Kupuna, or Road of Elders, aka Maunakea Access Road, and on the other side of the highway, the Puʻuhuluhulu parking lot became the headquarters of Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu. Named after traditional puʻuhonua, or places of refuge, or safety, which can be found throughout the island chain, Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu includes a kitchen, donation drop off, medical emergency, an information and educational tent, meeting tents and more.  Rows of portable toilets lined both sides of the main road, and a traffic light and multiple guides assured that pedestrians could safely cross the busy highway. Hundreds of protectors put up tents or lived in their cars, vans and trucks, just in case there were going to be future efforts to transport construction equipment to the summit. On Labor Day weekend, thousands of kia’i, or protectors,  were present to participate in traditional protocol, hula and ceremonies, conducted three times per day, many chanting or dancing hula for the very first time. Protectors ranged from elders who insisted on being the front line, to children as young as 2 years old imitating the motions and words of those around them. Free food was provided three times a day, thanks to supporters from around the world, including famous actors like the Rock and Jason Momoa, with the elders always served in their seats in the kūpuna tent.  

While the access road was being blocked by those who could leave their jobs and families, including dozens of Hawaiian elders who spent hundreds of days on the mountain, tens of thousands of supporters on every island participated in regular sign- and flag-waving, particularly at the capitol and in Hawaiian homestead areas. On the island of Oʻahu, caravans of hundreds of cars and trucks with Hawaiian flags caused massive traffic slowdowns on already overcrowded freeways and roads throughout the island. Mauna Kea swag was popping up not just at Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu, but throughout the island chain and Hawaiian flags could be seen everywhere. 

On December 26th 2019, an agreement was reached, after protectors received assurances by Hawai’i government officials that construction on the telescope would not proceed before the end of February. This agreement re-opened the road to Mauna Kea. However, protection of Mauna Kea has not ended. As of March 2020, seven months after the initial blockade, the kiaʻi of Mauna Kea are still there, engaging in protocol three times per day, educating those who come to learn and feeding all visitors. While the kūpuna tent is currently on the side of the access road, it is a reminder that we will not leave until Mauna Kea is no longer under threat.

Ancient cosmogonic genealogies tell of the birth of Mauna Kea, also known as Mauna a Wakea, the mountain child of Wakea, the sky father, who is also the ancestor of all Hawaiians.  According to this genealogy, Mauna Kea is not just the sacred child of our sky father, but also our older sibling, and requires to be treated as such. It is this familial relation to Mauna Kea, established in antiquity, that provides the foundations for the cultural and spiritual practices that are being normalized at Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu.  These include protocol and ceremonies that have become noa, or free of kapu (taboo), and are performed in the morning, at noon and in the evening. These protocols consist of both ancient and newly composed oli, or chants and hula, or dances (2). Tens of thousands of people learning these chants and dances in person and online and engaging in these protocols when they come to the Ala Hulu Kupuna, has resulted in removing many barriers associated with Hawaiian spiritual practices, demonized by American missionaries since their arrival in 1820.  Indeed, as these oli and hula continue to be learned through practice by thousands of Native Hawaiians and non-native supporters, a whole new attitude towards the sacredness not just of Mauna Kea, but all ʻāina, or land, has emerged. There is no doubt that Mauna Kea has resulted in an increased awareness of our cosmogonic, familial relations with this mountain specifically and the environment in general and expanded our experience and our understanding of relationships to mountains and other natural phenomena.

The ongoing protests on Mauna Kea also continue to play a huge role in normalizing traditional practices like hula, with the teaching of dances previously held by Hawaiian hula teachers as exclusive to their hālau or school of dance. Until they were incorporated into the protocols at Mauna Kea, dancing these traditional hula, or hula kahiko, was generally restricted to those who studied for many years with teachers who came from long lines of hula genealogies. Mauna Kea allowed these hula to also become noa, or free of kapu so that they can be performed on the mountain, and anywhere else by all ready to dance. Moreover, while in hula, as in everything else in Hawaiian culture, an effort to achieve perfection is paramount and one generally does not perform until one has achieved a minimal level of excellence, on the mauna, the Hawaiian word for mountain, which has become synonymous with Mauna Kea, interested participants are simply asked to follow along, even if they have no experience in hula at all and/or two left feet, as the saying goes. In fact, all continue to be welcome to participate, learning by doing, a traditional Hawaiian way of education, where multiple skilled dancers are in the front rows, while lesser skilled dancers line up in the back, following those who already know the hula.

Mauna Kea has also significantly altered the perception of Hawaiian activism among Native Hawaiians from something that was radical, certainly too radical for the majority of Native Hawaiians, to something closer to civic engagement, requiring everyoneʻs support.  Indeed prior to 2019, only a few hundred individuals, like myself and my husband, and a handful of groups labeled as radical, made up the Hawaiian movement, with most Hawaiians not explicitly and overtly supporting our efforts. Mauna Kea forever changed the notion that protecting the land was radical, and ushered in a new era of the Hawaiian movement. This movement is guided by the kūpuna or elders who have made it their priority to be the front line of the road block and advise in all matters regarding the protection of Mauna Kea. In addition, a young group of leaders, graduates of Hawaiian-focused charter schools and Hawaiian language immersion programs have taken on critical leadership roles sharing our sentiments with the media and traveling throughout the world to raise awareness for Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea was also the stimulus for the creation of Puʻuhuluhulu University, a fluid, flexible popular education initiative, providing free “classes” on the barren lava beneath Puʻuhuluhulu Hill. This popular university was the brainchild of multiple kiaʻi who organize classes that are being taught by a hugely diverse pool of teachers sharing their knowledge with anyone willing to listen. Like the protocol conducted on the other side of the road, these classes continue to remove serious barriers separating private school and college-graduates from Hawaiians with less formal education, since no prerequisites are required to attend classes. Moreover,  Puʻuhuluhulu is not just open to everyone, it is also free of charge, which further contributes to unite and empower Native Hawaiians. Classes at Puʻuhuluhulu University are held on the barren lava, below Puʻuhuluhulu and generally last for one hour with two classes held before and two classes held after the noon protocol. Topics taught by this author at Puʻuhuluhulu University include The History of the Hawaiian Aloha ʻĀina Movement; Transitioning to a Hawaiian-Speaking Family; Understanding Traditional Hawaiian Education through Hawaiian Proverbs; Learning How To Speak Hawaiian While Having Fun; Teaching with Aloha and more. Other workshops taught in the open environment include Songs of Queen Liliʻuokalani; History of the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Government; Recycling Hawaiian Style; Weaving with Coconut Leaves; Traditional Hawaiian Law and Its Implications Today; The Purposeful Concealment of Military Connections by TMT officials, clearly indicating an incredibly diverse range of topics.

Recently, Puʻuhuluhulu University joined Kanaeokana, a conglomerate of Hawaiian or Hawaiian-focused organizations, funded by the Kamehameha Schools, whose goal is the collaborative creation of a Hawaiian system of education.  Kanaeokanaʻs social media efforts continue to play an essential role in spreading the word about Mauna Kea and educating others both here in Hawaiʻi and around the world about why tens of thousands of Hawaiians and our supporters are choosing to kū kiaʻai mauna, or stand up and protect the mountain. The establishment of a Hawaiian system, that is culturally-driven, family-oriented and community-based has been expressed by Hawaiian education leaders since 1997.  However, only in recent years has there been funding to support a group of Hawaiian innovators working with dozens of Hawaiian educators and grassroots leaders from all islands to engage in a practice called kūkulu kumuhana, which means to pool our strengths for a common purpose, as we assert our right to self-determination in education.

Mauna Kea has also become a driver for the proliferation of kapu aloha and a way of life practiced by native Hawaiians for thousands of years. This way of life is grounded in the reciprocal sharing of aloha, which has many meanings including love, care and compassion.  Kapu aloha requires that all involved in the protection of Mauna Kea must purposefully choose to walk the narrow trail of honor and responsibility and ensure that all aspects of the efforts to protect Mauna Kea remain pono or honorable, and congruent with Hawaiian cultural values and beliefs. Specifically, all people must treat each other with aloha and respect and be mindful that they place they are entering is a wahi kapu, or sacred place. This sacred space must be entered in aloha, reverence and in ceremony, meaning absolutely no swearing or speaking disrespectfully, and absolutely no alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.  Since there are iwi kūpuna, or ancestral bones and delicate life forms of species found nowhere else in the world, it is also important to walk lightly and mālama, or take care of the environment, by picking up all trash.  Special attention and care for all children and assistance to all elders at all times is also a required behavior, as well as being mindful of our ancestors.

As an evolving, philosophical code of conduct, kapu aloha is culturally informed by native Hawaiian ontologies and epistemologies.  Politically, it is expressed through non-violent direct action, and ceremonially through behavioral conduct aligned with traditional cultural practices and notions of the sacred.

Kū Kiaʻi Mauna — to stand firm in our protection of Mauna Kea,  has become a rallying cry for tens of thousands of Hawaiians and our supporters, a stance to aloha ʻāina, or love the land, and to aloha Mauna Kea, to love and protect Mauna Kea practicing kapu aloha, or peaceful resistance. While the multidimensional concept and practice of kapu aloha has been used within a Hawaiian cultural context for many generations, it was the struggle to protect Mauna Kea that brought it out into a public sphere.  Kapu aloha places a discipline of compassion on all to express aloha for those involved in the issue, especially those who are perceived to be polar to our cause. Because kapu aloha honors the energy and life found in aloha and helps us focus on its ultimate purpose and meaning, it is a synonym for non-violence, and peaceful consciousness. Indeed, kapu aloha helps us intentionalize our thoughts, words and deeds without harm to others.  

Mauna Kea also links into a mana moana (ocean power) collective — a rising movement within Pasifika — and an even larger movement of Indigenous peoples around their world, sharing similar patterns of non-violent resistance to the desecration of sacred places, as we fight for our native rights to self-determination. Indeed kapu aloha, or a commitment to peaceful, compassionate and pono protection of Maunakea and other sacred land, has already been practiced since decades.  Yet, it took the events of 2019 and the widespread use of social media to make millions of people around the world aware of and supportive of protecting Mauna Kea. These events provide a powerful reminder to remain true to the meaning of kapu aloha and continue to believe in its power and its infinite capacity and potential to amplify the Hawaiian movement.  They also encourage modern Hawaiians to continue to openly perpetuate aloha ʻāina or love for the land, native intelligence, collective excellence and pono, being honorable and responsible for one another, the land and the spiritual world.  

Mauna Kea also continues to provide diverse opportunities for past and new environmental allies and supporters of native Hawaiian rights to join the native Hawaiian struggle and lend their assistance to the protection of the mountain. These non-native supporters range from local youth to local elders, to Indigenous and environmental friends from around the world. They also included two Rotarians from Canada who were eager to visit the mauna and the people on the mauna to show their support. The rain, which had been our constant companion since we left Kaūmana located in the upper regions of the Hilo rainforest, chose to stop precisely as we arrived at Puʻuhuluhulu, and we were bathed in sunshine as we walked towards the kūpuna (elders) tent. As the divine would have it, students from several Kula Kaiapuni or Hawaiian language immersion schools located on Hawaiʻi Island were on the mauna, having a Hawaiian language speech competition relating to the mauna, followed by a beautiful performance of Hawaiian aloha ʻāina songs. As someone who was told in the early 1980s that Hawaiian was a dead language and strongly discouraged from becoming a Hawaiian language teacher – which I did nevertheless – I could not have been more delighted and more proud of these youth sharing their aloha for the mauna in the sonorous language of our Hawaiian ancestors. 

Following their performance, the students participated in our noon protocol where it was quite evident that many knew the chants and hula and had been here before, possibly many times.  This was further evidence that the critical mass of activists of all ages, who are connected with the sacred and grounded in our language and cultural traditions is continuously growing.  Many of these individuals are the new generation of kanaka, graduates of Hawaiian language immersion and Hawaiian culture-based charter school, who are choosing the path of Lono, god of peace and conscious land stewardship and adhering to kapu aloha. For the two visitors, coming to Puʻuhuluhulu was truly a highlight of their trip and they were happy to not just donate to the Mauna Kea fund but also promise to sponsor 2 Hawaiian youth to participate in a future Rotarian Youth Gathering in Canada, so they can share the story of Mauna Kea with their international peers.

While business owners and state officials still push for the construction of the TMT, promising that TMT will provide jobs, educational opportunities and high-resolution astronomical imagery, as of March 2020, no plans appear to be underway to try again to commence construction of the telescope. Yet, until the TMT is completely off the table, the kiaʻi remain on the mauna day and night, rain or shine, in freezing temperatures, engaging in protocol three times a day, educating people of all social, educational, economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds about aloha ʻāina, kapu aloha, the Hawaiian movement, the implications of Mauna Kea for the Hawaiian independence movement, and much, much more. Songs to protect Mauna Kea in Hawaiian, English or both can be heard on all Hawaiian radio stations and houses and trucks flying Hawaiian flags can be seen on all islands. Indeed, not only has Mauna Kea, for the first time in modern history, demonstrated the power of sacred activism, it is also normalizing Hawaiian grassroots activism as civic engagement grounded in Hawaiian traditions.  


(1) The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is being designed and developed by the TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a non-profit international partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India, and the National Research Council (Canada). The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a TIO Associate and major funding for TMT has been provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation. 

(2) Find more on Mauna Kea protocols at https://www.puuhuluhulu.com/learn/protocol.

Kū Kahakalau, Ph.D.

Dr. Kū Hinahinakūikahakai Kahakalau is a native Hawaiian educator, researcher, cultural practitioner, grassroots activist, song writer, and expert in Hawaiian language, history and culture. Since the mid 90s Aunty Kū, as she prefers to be called, has led the Hawaiian-focused education movement, creating the first Hawaiian culture-based school within a school, and the first culturally-driven charter school and teacher licensing program. Her latest efforts center around developing EA Ecoversity, a Hawaiian-focused post-secondary program designed to transition Hawaiian youth to happy, culturally-grounded, thriving, responsible global citizens, able to walk comfortably in multiple worlds. EA, which stands for Education with Aloha, also means sovereignty in Hawaiian.
Residents of Hawaiʻi Island, Aunty Kū and her husband Nālei have been active in Hawaiian grassroots struggles for over 35 years, stopping the bombing of the sacred island of Kahoʻolawe, fighting geothermal development and as of late preventing the desecration of Mauna Kea. In 2017, Aunty Kū was the first anti-TMT expert witness on the Mauna Kea Contested Case Hearing and has been teaching classes at Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu University sharing her highly successful Pedagogy of Aloha (love/compassion), which promotes the revitalization of Hawaiian values along with Hawaiian language and culture, hands-on learning in the environment, community sustainability, food sovereignty and Hawaiian self-determination in education and beyond.
Since 2015, Aunty Kū has been part of the Ecoversities Alliance, for which she volunteers sitting as active member of its Shepherding Committee, and sharing her knowledge within this global network, reuniting more than 100 initiatives from all over the world engaged in reimagining education.

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