I got hopelessly lost in my search for the home of Hualalai Keohuloa. The 26-acre farm and orchard, situated at 500-feet elevation, was completely off-grid and filled with fruit trees, gardens, bamboo and wildlife. My feet were caked in dried mud from earlier in Pololu Valley when I sank ankle-deep in a bed of spongy earth (I am now afraid of quicksand again, for the first time since I was five years old).
I finally turned down a half-circle of road to find Keohuloa flagging me down, wearing grey shorts and a t-shirt that read: “Keep Your Change, We Want Our Kingdom.” He led me down a pathless area to his surf shack home where his children were running around a sprinkler. A surfboard rested against the house under a rainbow banner, and just around a hedge of palm trees, a few bunches of green bananas hung from a wooden beam.
Stepping into his home and looking around at the books, guitar, pots and pans and jars of spices, I was seized with a wave of zen. Members of his family drifted in and out, all barefoot and all welcoming. Coming from a long line of canoe builders who have been on the island for generations, he has a deep-rooted love of the earth and the sea. He doesn’t see the Protect Mauna Kea as a fight to solely protect land, but a fight to protect the identity of Native Hawaiians. Holding onto who they are and what they believe in, he said, is the real fight, and it’s been going on ever since the United States annexed Hawai'i.
The sound of rattling silverware overpowered the sound of Keohuloa’s children laughing outside through the screen as he opened and closed drawers in the kitchen. He was busy cooking pasta with pineapple, something he said is a result of mainlanders coming to Hawai'i.
“They tried to colonize us, which led to marriages,” he said. “So it's a Hawai'i thing. What happens is this: extremes come together.”
Keohuloa is a living example of Hawaiian culture prevailing through years of annexation. His favorite word to describe Native Hawaiians is “badass” because he said they could never really be colonized.
“At any point in time, we've never been taken over, our minds, hearts and bodies,” he explained. “So for us to actually allow what's happening, people should see the power in that.”
The “what” he’s referring to is the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Keohuloa was born into a family of canoe builders. Reflecting back on his younger years of “sitting across the channel three to five hours, being introduced to these really big, simple, powerful concepts that will liberate you,” he recalled how his uncles, who were part of the Hōkūle'a voyage in 1976, taught him about navigation.
“We pass on that practice of celestial navigation,” he said. “No compass — just migratory animals, birds, fish, whales, colors of the sunrise, sunset, heights of the clouds above the horizon, all that kind of stuff.”
When talking about Hawaiian history, Keohuloa likes to compare it to a movie called 300, which is about Persians showing up to an island he said is a “sparkling kingdom.” The Persians were there to negotiate with the Spartans, and said that they wouldn’t take over the island as long as the Spartans allied with them. But the Spartans refused to sacrifice their identity and culture, and stood up to the Persians.
“We're just like the Spartans, but we surf,” he said. “Imagine that kind of warrior. All of our royalty surfed. We’re ocean people. We swim. Our worldview is very different. In tidal waves, cataclysmic snowstorms, most people freak out. Surfers don’t, and that's kind of how we look at problems like COVID-19 and war."
As a child, Keohuloa got to visit Mauna Kea often. He was raised by a single mother who rode horses with her friends and checked the cattle’s water from Mauna Kea all the way down to the ocean.
“She and her friends would go up and just have a good time. They’d often enjoy unbelievable sunsets and snow,” he said. “In the old days, it was different. Hawai'i was very empty. So it was just another place, another beautiful, untouched pristine view. That was my first introduction to Hawaiian culture. It was the access to beautiful places.”
Flash forward to adulthood, and Keohuloa was arrested on that same mountain during the Protect Mauna Kea movement.
“Getting arrested is like getting your heard broken," he said. "Your heart gets broken and you try to wrap it up.”
His daughter, who was patiently waiting for her pineapple pasta, chimed in and said it’s also hard for the people watching it happen.
It was traumatic for everybody, according to Keohuloa. He said the police just started grabbing people, including elderly women.
“I went up there during the movement to help as much as I could, as far as using what I was taught by my family, our ceremonies and our values, to keep the most powerful people, women and children, not at bay, but to cultivate that power and not have it obstructed.”
He took a step back from the front line not after his arrest, but when he saw people bringing alcohol up there. The movement is still very important to his family, but the environment is no longer somewhere he feels he and his five children belong. He still respects the people who go up there and is ready to help in any way he can.
“If it ever gets serious, I can be of great assistance,” he said. “But you just need a few good people for some big changes.”
He described the conflict between TMT and Native Hawaiians as “a pretty good poker game, man.” The telescope was supposed to be completed by now, but the Protect Mauna Kea movement has slowed it in its tracks. Keohuloa doesn’t see the movement being defeated any time soon.
“Plus to us, government is kind of a joke,” he added.
He said that Mexicans, Native Americans, Latinos and other people who have had to go through way worse don't have annexations — they have straight up colonialism. Dual citizenship, he explained, comes into play in Hawai'i, where people come in and have to strategize how to become citizens of Hawai'i to then overthrow their own nation.
“It wasn't overthrown by Hawaiians, it was overthrown by a very well plotted out group, a corporation,” he said. “They came in. They were like, ‘Oh, we gotta be careful. There's no way anybody finds out [Hawaiians] are some of the most literate people on the planet. They had a color printed newspaper nearly three decades before the United States did.’
“And you know what picture was on the first color newspaper in Hawai'i? Our flag. Red, white and blue. We had the British Jack and American stripes, and then Kamehameha was smart enough to parallel these flags with his values. The British Jack and American stripes dare the world to look at the Hawaiian strategy: make enemies brothers.”
He told his daughter that the pineapple pasta was ready, and she scurried over to grab a bowl. He began scrubbing the pot in the kitchen sink.
“We held our breaths, boarded their ships with no weapons. Kamehameha said ‘Send me your captain. Before you throw your spear, are you hungry? Here, eat. I want to be your friend. Show me how you view the world.’”
He described TMT and Protect Mauna Kea in a similar way, saying that there are good people against good people. After considering it for a second, he said he wouldn’t even say they were against each other, because it's just difficult with them all being in the same community, with teachers and cops, children, elders, families and friends.
“I believe what I do is good,” he said. “But if I came to your house, uninvited, if I forced my way to your house, and I planted my organic garden in the backyard — you might be like, ‘Wait, that’s sick,’ you know, because some people like the telescope. But I think most people don’t want trespassing in the first place.”
His daughter sat in the corner rereading her books about Kamehameha. She said that she didn’t learn about Hawaiian history in school, but learned about the mainland American history. All of the Hawaiian history, she said, she learned at home.
Although Keohuloa is not a formal teacher, he does work in schools. He is also in charge of a Protect Mauna Kea photo exhibit at Starseed Ranch. We drove over to the small wooden-floored room that resembles a yoga studio, quiet and peaceful with light spilling through a row of windows. The walls were covered in photos and quotes from the Protect Mauna Kea movement.
“We have a lot to lose,” Keohuloa said. “You don't lose a language by accident, somebody has to force it out of you. Hawaiian’s not a bad language, it’s a beautiful one. Why would anybody want to get rid of it? Just like they do with anything different. Different sounds. But why?”
He and other Hawaiians keep their language and culture alive by passing down stories. He said that there are entities living on Mauna Kea that take form in different states of water such as fog, rain, snow and hail. He said their father is Wakea, the sky father, and Mother Earth is Papahānaumoku.
“So there’s Papa and Wakea, the sky and the earth, and they give birth to a stillborn child, which is buried into the ground, and out comes the taro plant, Ho‘ohokukalani. And then from Ho’oho comes the first child. And we always ask kids, ‘What is the family made of?’ Sunlight, water, dirt. And it's the same thing with sky father and earth mother and then taro. The symbiotic relationship that we have to sustain it is like the secret of everlasting life. That’s why they call it aloha — everlasting life. Forever breath, or a long breath.”
It’s from passing down stories and the idea of aloha that Hawaiians have already won, Keohuloa said. It’s not from fighting against TMT, but from holding onto themselves and who they are.
“It's the things that Kamehameha did,” he said. “He probably slept on the grass under stars, not in the castle. Solid people don’t need much. I'm a farmer. We're not starving for food. There's tons of food and there's tons of places to grow food. We’re not here begging. It's not, ‘Give it back or we're gonna take it back.’ We're holding space. We’re still standing on the Mauna, it's not swept from under our feet. But if you look at what's happening now, they’re trying to make it impossible for us to live here. I'm just showing people that I never had to live by that system. We run this place."
Everyone, he said, is just going through a healing process. Hawaiians are learning and growing, as opposed to allowing themselves to be ripped in pieces. Either way, he said, Hawaiians have won. In 2015, they won. At the time, nobody knew what was going to happen.
“But they did know that in Koho’olawe, young people went missing, and many made it back with nothing but the stars to help them navigate. But they stopped the bombing.”
He smiled, leaning his head back on the stone wall. “We stopped the freaking bombing.”
A quote on the wall of the photo gallery, from Keohuloa himself, describes it best:
“The reality of the movement is that people are going up the Mauna with their families regardless of the outcome, and would rather be together.”