InsurMOUNTable: The Conviction of the Mauna Kea Encampment

Sunday December 1, 2019

By: Naiia Lajoie

In has been five long grueling months. Five months since the first arrests of 38 Kupuna (elders) were made in Puʻu Huluhulu, at the base of Mauna Kea. Five months of banging ceremonial drums in the beating sun. Five months of revering sacred grounds in the pouring rain. Five months of local and international news coverage, seemingly stagnant political chatter, and relentless native Hawaiians accumulating en masse to comprise the Kia‘i (protectors). Five months…and counting.

It all began on July 15th 2019, the day construction was slated to recommence on the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea – given the project had encountered numerous stops & starts since its inception in 2013. Mauna Kea had been shortlisted and eventually selected from several proposed locations for its stable, dry, and cold climate, as these characteristics are important for producing the clearest images. Mauna Kea is a million-year-old dormant volcano, the highest point in the state of Hawaii, and when measured from its underwater base to its peak 13,803 feet above sea level, it is the tallest mountain in world at over 33,000 feet. While these figures are as immense as they are impressive from a geological standpoint, the mauna is also considered a heiau (sacred site); its summit dubbed the “region of the gods” in Hawaiian mythology.

This sacred regard for the mountain is not solely reserved for its ancient Hawaiian inhabitants; its cultural significance resonates today in those who feel the plight of those who Ku Kia‘i Mauna (guard the mountain). 34-year-old Camissa Hill, a Kamehameha Schools alum of Hawaiian, Chinese, and English descent working as a live event showrunner and TV producer in Los Angeles, California, is one such individual. The Bachelor of Fine Arts grad majoring in Acting from Syracuse University spends her time producing shows like “American Idol”, “MasterChef”, and “Dancing with the Stars”. As such she is accustomed to springing into action – yet despite such a busy schedule, even she felt compelled by a different call to “Action!”:

“I was back home with my family on Oahu when the Kupuna were being arrested. My family and I sat in the living room all day watching the Facebook live streams on TV. [We] all cried watching how awful it all was.”

She goes on to describe the event as a very sad day for Hawaiians; police officers were having to reluctantly arrest elderly family members blocking access roads despite their thoughts (and support) of the demonstration. A few weeks after the arrests were made, Kamehameha Schools put out a call to its alumni, inviting anyone who wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mauna Kea to represent the institution. Camissa grasped at the opportunity, “[I] was able to be a part of the largest organized/collective group there and ‘present gifts’ to the Kupuna. It was a very, very special moment and day for me”. She describes her experience firsthand and touches upon the misrepresentation of the encampment in the media:

“Kia‘i on Mauna Kea have created a fully functioning community. There were rumors that it was full of trash and unclean, all of which were completely untrue! You get a true sense of community there. Everyone WANTS to help. Everyone WANTS to have a purpose and pitch in, helping the community run smoothly and safely. Everyone is kind to each other and truly living Aloha.”

This collective reverence felt by Camissa spurned her on to do something more for her ancestral home; once back on the mainland she contacted her likeminded friend and coworker Cassandra Bohe. The 33-year-old Historical & Political Studies major from Chaminade University comes from a Filipino-German-American household, and is no stranger to cultural repression:

“I lived in the Philippines until I was 4 when my family was evacuated during the Mount Pinatubo eruption. As I grew older, I learned more about Filipino history and the fight to maintain the language despite over 300 years of Spanish colonization. People before me fought that fight for me. They stood up and did the work so that I could keep my language. It’s time for me to pay that forward and help another culture with their current needs. The culture that took my family in when we escaped disaster.” Cassandra was visiting family in Oahu during the last round of arrests. Like Camissa, she sat on her bed and wept upon seeing the imagery. She made the trek to Mauna Kea by carpooling with a friend of a friend. Her initial impression of the encampment upon arrival – after having traveled with a complete stranger – was that of familiarity rather than fear. “I felt a tap on my shoulder: [there stood] a friend from Oahu I’ve known for over a decade. There was something comforting about expecting to be in a situation full of strangers, and seeing someone I knew”. She echoes the camaraderie expressed by Camissa:

“Everyone was respectful, courteous, and peaceful. Hungry? There are kitchens for you with hot food. Thirsty? There are places to fill your reusable bottles. Sick? There’s a place to get better. Need childcare? There’s a place for your kids. Want to learn more? Classes are held multiple times a day for everyone to join. The dancing, the music, the chanting were inspiring. I could feel the energy not just from the people there, but from those who came before, and also people sending their energy to the mauna from all over the world.”

The aloha (love, compassion)-fueled and mana (spiritual power)-driven duo quickly set to work. Wanting to show the folks on Mauna Kea that the people of Los Angeles were behind them and their cause, they set forth to create a sign-waving event to raise awareness on the issue. “As TV producers, Camissa and I have planned events all over the country and the world, so we figured this was something we could take on” Cassandra explains. “It started with one event and 50 people. We’ve since had 2 events and doubled our numbers”. Camissa continues, “I can’t believe how many people stopped to ask us questions about what it is we were standing for. So many curious people that wanted to know more and wanted to know how to help. Because of that, we created little flyers & handouts for the second event that listed more resources and gave more info about next steps, how to donate, support, etc”.

After two successful Santa Monica-based sign-waving events and realizing how many wonderful Kia‘i there were across California, “California for Mauna Kea” was born. While still very grassroots in nature, in order to continue raising awareness, both the Instagram account @caformaunakea and the website are useful resources for those interested in keeping updated on their efforts. is a comprehensive site for all things support and Mauna Kea-related as well. “The protectors are still on Mauna Kea, and it’s looking like they will be there for at least another 2 years, if not longer” Cassandra predicts. “Protecting Mauna Kea is definitely a marathon– not a sprint. The outcome of this will be felt around the world now, and for future generations to come. We are the future ancestors taking a stance for those to follow”.

As a personal anecdote, I come from Filipino-Syrian-Quebecois (French Canadian) ancestry. As such I feel a heightened awareness when it comes to disappearing & misrepresented culture and the bastardization of one’s heritage. My husband’s Swedish paternal grandmother was born on Kaua‘i, HI. Her father was L. David Larsen, manager of the Kilauea Sugar Plantation Co. from 1918 to 1930 and eventually became one of the “Big Five” sugarcane corporation C. Brewer and Co.’s vice president of plantation and ranch operations. In learning this family history I expressed an apprehension about penning this article, fearing a conflict of interest.

My husband reassured me, “In my family there were colonizers. My grandmother wasn’t a colonizer. My father isn’t a colonizer. I am not a colonizer”. In that moment I realized that one can rectify the transgressions of a past generation to mitigate any further repercussions. My retired father-in-law now turns bowls from found wood, creating works of island art and never harming the indigenous fauna. My mother-in-law is a Department Manager at the Wilcox Medical Center in Kaua‘i. Thus proving haoles (individuals who are not native Hawaiian or Polynesian) can become respectful kamaʻaina (residents of the land, regardless of their racial background).

So too can you. For those of you traveling to the Hawaiian Islands for the holidays, Cassandra offers up some advice: “Don’t leave trash. Make sure you use sunscreen that won’t further damage the coral reefs. Do some basic research about how Hawaii came to be a state – Hawaiian history is painful, but full of strength and resilience. You’ll have a deeper understanding & better appreciation of the land you’re going to for Mai Tais and sunshine”. Camissa adds, “Hawaii is paradise, but it is also home to so many people fighting to preserve a culture. We want you to enjoy the sunshine, the beautiful scenery, and the Aloha spirit, but do so with respect. If you take a moment to educate yourself about the places you intend to visit, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of their significance which will hopefully lead to a greater appreciation of our land, and a more meaningful vacation”.

While media coverage of actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Momoa, and Nicole Scherzinger visiting the mountain may have ceased, those on Mauna Kea fight on. Share their story, spread the awareness, further your education, and while traveling remember to maintain Aloha ʻAina (love of the land) always. The concept of Aloha is so much more than a trendy catchphrase on a hat or T-shirt. It is a way of life. And to those still on the mauna, Mahalo Nui Loa (thank you very much).

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