You know that joke that asks why the chicken crossed the road?
Well, as I sat behind the wheel of my tiny red rental car, muscles in my foot aching from pressing on the brake for the past five minutes while a family of chickens clumsily congregated on the pavement ahead of me, I found myself in one of life’s rare moments in which we discover the answer to a question that’s stumped generations. The chicken crossed the road for no purpose other than to prevent me from making it to Mauna Kea in time for sunset.
I swore I recognized one of them: the weakest link, the one in the back. It was without doubt the same chicken who had dawdled around the picnic table where, just a couple hours before, I was sitting with Kapulei Flores, the Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) photographer and activist.
I had followed her car over to this little park in Waimea, a gold Toyota pickup adorned in stickers, from “Yotas are for Girls” to “See you on the Mauna.” She was excited when she saw “uncles” playing with model trucks over on a hill (Later that week, I would come to learn that “Aunty” and “Uncle” are terms of respect used for elders. "No, we’re not all related," a kind woman in a shave ice shop would sympathetically explain to me.)
Flores wore a camouflage fleece and jeans embroidered with lyrics to “Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani,” a song written by Queen Liliʻuokalani during her eight-month imprisonment in ʻIolani Palace during the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. At only twenty-one years of age, Flores spoke with a clear, soothing voice about Hawai'i’s history she’d learned from her elders, the history that still hangs over the island like a fog.
On May 13, 2011, the family of Kapulei Flores testified in court on behalf of a deity. It was the first public case in which people could testify against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. The family entered the courtroom as a sixth petitioner party and said that Mo'oinanea, the spirit of Lake Waiau, prohibited building the telescope.
This occurred shortly after Flores, who was nine years old at the time, had a vision. She said she saw Mo'oinanea at Manaua, a rain rock in Waimea.
“She basically asked my family if we could try again, or if we could try to stop something,” Flores recalled. “She said, they’re going to try to build something up there.”
Her family didn’t understand the message at first, but after doing research, they found out about the Thirty Meter Telescope. The rain rock was special to her family, as they had a kuleana, or a responsibility, to it.
“A long time ago, there was a big drought in Waimea,” Flores said. “My papa worked on the ranch as a waterman, and he remembered the story of Manaua the rain rock. He, my mom and her sisters went to the forest, picked offerings and made leis and gave these offerings to the rain rock in hopes to get water. A few days later, they got the biggest downpour. Ever since then, my family has dedicated ourselves to taking care of that place because it took care of us when we asked for help.”
This was ten years ago, and since then, the now twenty-one-year-old has grown up right alongside the Protect Mauna Kea movement. She can’t remember a time before Mauna Kea was a significant figure in her life, or a time when the mountain wasn’t connected to the movement.
Her first introduction to Mauna Kea was through stories that her family told. One of her and her sister’s favorites is the story about Kukahau'ula and Poli'ahu.
“Basically, Kukahau'ula has a dream of Poli'ahu and decides that she’s the love of his life,” she said. “She’s so sacred that there’s a kapu on her by her father so that no one can be with her. No one is good enough. She has to stay on Mauna Kea.
“Every time Kukahau'ula tried to go up the mountain, all of Poli'ahu’s sisters — which are the elements, so the mist and rains — threw everything they had at him to try and stop him. But Mo'oinanea, one of the main reasons we got involved in Protect Mauna Kea, saw that he really loved her, so she gave him some tips to get past the sisters. He finally meets Poli'ahu, and the father sees that he really does love her. So he lets him come up to the mountain to see her and be with her during sunset and sunrise. So the colors represent them being able to come together. It’s their love together. This story has always had a special place in my heart.”
Flores described herself as the one behind the scenes keeping everything together. She’s the one who knows where the car keys are and where food and water is.
Her father, Erik Kalani Flores, is the one who keeps an eye out for anything suspicious or dangerous. Flores described him as a guardian figure for everyone.
“You just know he has it covered,” she said. “He’s got you if you need anything.”
Her father is also the person who taught her about photography, which is now a major role of hers on top of the practical things. Throughout her teenage years, she has offered her skills to the Protect Mauna Kea movement as well as other movements around the world, especially those that put her on other front lines protecting indigenous land and culture. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Buzzfeed News, Vox, Ms. Magazine’s 25 Under 25 and more.
Her work tends to carry a feminine energy, which is reflective of Flores being surrounded by a majority of women.
“I feel like it is a feminine thing, being more aware of yourself and understanding why things are the way they are for you and the world,” she said. “It’s not even maternal. It's just more compassionate. We understand. We care. We've probably been through more emotionally, mentally, and we’ve processed it more than a male may have.”
Growing up watching how much her aunties do for the community and their families, she has seen what they've been through and how they've handled it. She described them as “such genine, sweet, caring people, even after everything they've been through.”
Having so much responsibility at such a young age has not always been easy for Flores. She went through periods of anxiety not just from the big crowds at protests, but also from things like standing in the lunch line alone at school. It was difficult for her to balance these two worlds while avoiding burnout from fighting for the same cause since childhood.
“It hurts a lot,” she said. “It’s heavy.”
Being on the Access Road also pushed Flores and others past their physical limits. Flores said that they would dance on the ala (road) three times a day or sometimes two. Her back would feel sore from doing backbends after sleeping in the van or the tent, and her feet would burn from dancing barefoot on the pavement under the twelve o’clock sun.
Being a Native Hawaiian with a deeper understanding of what she photographs and the spiritual significance of these ceremonies and rituals has helped her to ethically and respectfully document the movement in a way that is helpful rather than harmful.
“I was raised in ceremony, where you really only took pictures if you had permission,” she said. When she raises her lens, she always asks herself: “Is this a special moment that deserves privacy? Or is this a special moment that they would want me to capture?”
As she’s grown up with the movement, she said she’s become more sensitive to spiritual feelings and energies that so many associate with the Mauna. She views Mauna Kea as the piko, or center, of the island, but not in a physical sense.
“It's like the sacred areas on our bodies,” she explained. “You have the top, and then there’s your umbilical cord and then there’s your private. Those are our three pikos that we have. And in Hawaiian culture, those are treated very sacredly. The umbilical cord represents where you got life from. Your private is where you can give life and the top is where you can receive from above.”
Mauna Kea, she elaborated, is all three pikos in one.
“It’s a volcanic source that can give life if it chooses to, but also came from something else,” she said. "But it's also the home of some of our greatest goddesses, elements, spirits, all of those things that really have a monumental impact on the way that life is here and how the weather is here and how our environment and our climate is here."
She understands now why the kupuna would only rarely go all the way to the top of the mountain for rituals.
“It’s not just a high altitude, it’s a high vibration and energy, and there are so many spirits up there. I can’t stay on the top too often because I just can’t be in their realm for too long,” she said. “This is for them.”
Flores parents, both teachers, didn’t doubt her vision because this wasn’t the first one she’d had. They used to bring students to Manaua, and Flores went with them one day when she was very young. She said she saw Manaua, the deity for whom the rain rock is named. They believed her because she described things that she couldn’t have known anything about.
Because the family had no luck testifying on behalf of Mo'oinanea in court, they filed again, just for themselves. They received some backlash from the Hawaiian community, as there was an unspoken stigma against being “too Hawaiian.”
"I know it took a lot for my family to brave that, knowing they were going to get some comments, some looks, some talk amongst the community," she said. "But it was worth it for sure."
Everyone in her family has their own role in the Protect Mauna Kea movement. Her mother, Pua Case, is the leader and has been a central figure in the movement. But when Case isn’t there, Flores’ older sister, singer-songwriter Hawane Rios, takes on a leadership role. Rios is the one who chants and sings at ceremonies and protests.
“Having someone who’s chanting the whole time, or someone who’s singing, it really changes the atmosphere and helps keep the vibration going,” Flores said.
“I know it took a lot for my family to brave that, knowing they were going to get some comments, some looks, some talk amongst the community. But it was worth it for sure.”
“But it's also the home of some of our greatest goddesses, elements, spirits, all of those things that really have a monumental impact on the way that life is here and how the weather is here and how our environment and our climate is here.”