The lyrics rang through my headphones as I engaged in a staring contest with a gecko. It gazed up at me before licking drops of water that were trickling down the glass of lilikoi juice and forming dime-sized pools on the table. I was preparing to speak with Hawane Rios, who wrote this particular song, “Mana Wahine,” for the women in her life who have faced immense challenges but still choose to live with strength and joy. I couldn’t help but think about what Flores told me about the feminine energy in her life that has influenced her photography. This same energy flows through the music of Rios, a well-known singer-songwriter and the older sister of Flores. With the sangfroid of their mother, movement leader Aunty Pua Case, to sustain their energy, the sisters use their crafts to breathe life into the movement.
Rios has lent her voice to the Mauna through chant and song for years now. As we chatted over Zoom, she talked about the importance of taking time and space to heal. Although her work protecting the Mauna is draining, she said it is also the Mauna that brings her clarity of mind when she needs to rejuvenate. It's her lifeblood.
We shall sing into your wounds / Pray you back to might / Lift you to the light
In all of the court cases in Hawai'i’s history, music and hula had never been presented as testimony. But when Hawane Rios gave her first oral testimony on behalf of the Protect Mauna Kea movement, she sang a song she wrote about Poli'ahu, the goddess of snow whose domain is the peak of Mauna Kea.
She wrote this song after hearing the love story of Poli'ahu and Kukahau'ula, which brought her into a place of deep pina, or connection. It was the first story she had ever heard in her language that she could understand all the way through.
“I knew from then that my love and commitment for the mountain would be forever,” she said. “Just like the story about how the light shining on the mountain is Kukahau'ula, and Poli'ahu going up to the mountain every single day to love her. I knew that this eternal love is ancestral. I felt that in my bones once I heard that story, and so I've been going up to the mountain ever since.”
She wrote the song while in college, around the same time her family first testified against TMT. She had been working as a singer at the Imiloa Center when she first heard about plans to build the telescope.
When her sister, Kapulei Flores, had the vision of Mo'oinanea, there was no doubt in Rios’ mind that it was real.
“We all come from a long line of seers, people that can connect to the ancestors and the spiritual realm,” she said. “I believe her, and I know and trust in what she sees. Just like she knows and trusts what I see or what my mom sees. It’s very much like that in our ohana.”
Some of her earliest memories are of listening to her mother, Pua Case, sing. She credits her musical style to the teachings of Case, a kumu hula who has dedicated her life to oli (song) and hula.
“She is an incredible composer, an incredible choreographer, talented and connected in every single way to the magic of hula and the medicine of hula,” she said. “Because I'm born from that, my songs are reflective of the way that she really danced me through my life. And so that's the foundation of who I am. And my life, the way that I move, comes from that place of knowing that our communication with the earth comes from our voice, our chant and our dance.”
At the time of their first testimony, Rios didn’t realize the commitment that her family would be making and what it would entail, not to mention how long the battle would go on for. But she knew that it was something her family was being called to do, so she didn’t have any reservations.
Since the beginning, Rios has used her music as a tool to raise awareness. This wasn’t hard for her to do, as she said that the mountain is the center of why she writes music and has helped her to deepen her own revelations about her connection to different people and movements.
“My music primarily speaks of different issues that we face here,” she said. “And they're all connected back to this one huge movement that we have, that has brought attention to so many of the other problems that we face here in Hawai'i.”
After recording her album in Germany, she traveled around Europe and even to Japan and New Zealand to share Mauna Kea’s story through music. To her, oli has a vibration of connectivity that transcends everything that people think separates them from others.
Traveling around North America, Rios stood in solidarity with other movements like Standing Rock and the Shasta Dam. It was powerful for her to experience unity with these movements, as they are tied together all over the world by their fight to protect water and land rights as well as indigenous rights.
“It's amazing to see how many other people are doing the same thing in their own way, and how many other musicians are creating resistance music in their languages,” she said. “I've collaborated with so many other indigenous artists that are doing the same things for their homelands. It's an incredible time to be alive and to see it.”
During the protests in July 2019, protectors were on the mountain at the 9,000-foot level and the 13,000-foot level. Many of the kupuna, the elders, weren't at the top because of health reasons. So a lot of the younger kiai, protectors, were up at Puʻuhuluhulu while the kupuna blocked the Access Road.
“We watched the kupuna take that role, saying, ‘No, it's our time. Nobody young gets arrested, it is our time. We've done this for our whole lives—let us take this line,’” Rios said. “It was emotional for people to see family members standing to support them in the back, people flanking the sides in oli and song.”
Even though she said it still makes her cry just thinking about it, she remembers that the kupuna still had joy because they made this decision together to protect the young people from getting arrested.
“They were all smiling and laughing with each other,” she said. “They kept everyone else together by the way that they cared for one another. And I feel like it really settled the hearts of everybody in that first stance.”
Thirty eight kupuna were arrested that day. Even the most prestigious of the elders, those who are knowledge keepers for entire communities, were handcuffed.
“I remember crying like somebody died when they arrested Uncle Billy,” Rios said. “It's called the 'eha kūmākena, when you cry from the deepest part of yourself. I saw it happen in all of our people. It looked ancestral, because it's a deep pain that we're still here in this place where we still have to stand to protect the land that we come from.”
It was a struggle for Rios to witness people in law enforcement arresting people they were related to (It is common for people on the island to come from the same genealogy.) But she also got to witness how much people truly love and honor the kupuna.
When the kupuna came back, they were smiling and laughing. They told the kiai to keep the stance and to not leave the mountain. It was this example, Rios said, that provided a strong foundation for the following eight to nine months people remained on the Access Road.
Although the pandemic halted gatherings on the Mauna, protectors continued their advocacy work through Zoom meetings, panels and conference calls. Because TMT construction was pushed back and there was no need for a front line on the Access Road, the focus of the movement shifted to raising further awareness.
This period was also a time of reflection and healing for protectors. A lot of their conversations were centered around holding deep and intentional space for rest, as the work of this decade-long fight has been taxing for those involved.
"We really shouldn't have to do it," Rios said. "We are of this land, so 'no' should have been enough. We shouldn't have to continue to fight in a court system that was never set up for us to be successful."
Throughout the turbulence of the pandemic and the movement, Rios has always been able to ground herself by going to the Puʻuhuluhulu and being close to the land. Even though it is a place where so much of her trauma has happened, she deeply believes that “we don't always have to heal from the work, but that we can heal through the work.”
Rios was arrested on the Mauna in 2015 while in prayer. She said that her hands were ripped apart in the middle of a deep ritual prayer. Although she still has layers of compounded PTSD, she has gone to this same place to ask for healing.
“Just yesterday my family went outside and we did a circle and brought out our salts and our sacred water and cleared ourselves off because, like in any movement, it's deeply spiritual,” she said. “It's calling upon those same prayers to help us in the healing from what we've seen, to prepare for what we have to do next.”
Rios always gives thanks to the people who kept these Hawaiian rituals and traditions alive throughout colonization and illegal acquisition. Through the movement and through her music, she wants to give future generations tools and medicines to call upon so that they can individually and collectively heal.
"This trauma is intergenerational," she said. "It's so heavy for us because our ancestors have felt that through the generations, and we're trying to make way for the next ones to come so that they have less to heal from, and more aina to be free on."
Rios knows that the vibrations of the movement are going to be felt for a long time by many generations to come.
“Even if people don't remember our names, they're going to remember that Mauna Kea was protected from TMT,” she said. “I still believe with my whole soul that TMT will not be built on the mountain because of the strength of our people and the strength of our allies.”
“We really shouldn't have to do it. We are of this land, so ‘no’ should have been enough. We shouldn't have to continue to fight in a court system that was never set up for us to be successful.”
“This trauma is intergenerational. It's so heavy for us because our ancestors have felt that through the generations, and we're trying to make way for the next ones to come so that they have less to heal from, and more aina to be to be free on.”
Listen to Rios' song, "Mana Wahine"