My Turn: Maunakea visit changed me forever

By Christian Kunz / My Turn | Thursday, August 15, 2019, 12:05 a.m.

Screen Shot 2019 08 18 At 2.18.33 Pm

I recently had the opportunity to spend four days on Maunakea as a legal observer. My role as a legal observer was to help ensure that the rights of the kupuna and kiai to peacefully demonstrate were respected. In the event of arrests, I was to document the names of those arrested, where they were being taken, and if they needed assistance with representation or bail. Thankfully, there were no arrests during my time on Maunakea.

As a social work professor, I have studied social action tactics and witnessed social action movements. A common theme of most movements is non-violence, which is embraced by the kupuna and kiai at Maunakea, but this movement goes far beyond with their adherence to the concept of kapu aloha.

Before arriving at Maunakea I was familiar with the word “kapu” and understood it to mean “forbidden,” but I quickly learned that another translation is “sacred.” The kupuna and kiai standing in protection of Maunakea have bound themselves by a sacred duty to act only with kindness, empathy, and love, and they take that charge very seriously.

When I first arrived I was a bit nervous about how people would respond to me — a white male with the words “legal observer” written across my chest — but I was met with nothing but aloha and acceptance. At times that aloha was overwhelming. A “puuhonua” or city of refuge has been set up at the base of Maunakea and all are welcome. At the puuhonua I was embraced as ohana in every way. I have never felt a similar atmosphere anywhere else in the world. It was truly extraordinary.

The day-to-day operations of the puuhonua are incredible. I would estimate between 1,000-2,000 people were present at any given time while I was there. There were crossing guards, a meal tent serving three hot meals a day, and a medic tent. There was a “kanaka Costco,” where you can get just about anything you need as long as you bring back what you don’t use, and a “kanaka Uber” offering free rides to various parts of the island. There were dozens of portable toilets, cleaned twice a day, and garbage was sorted, recycled, and hauled away daily. There was even the Puuhuluhulu University offering classes on Hawaiian history and culture. Amazingly, everything at the puuhonua is provided by donations.

At the puuhonua it is easy to forget that these are people fighting desperately to protect that which they hold sacred. It is easy to forget because their weapons in this war are not of violence but of aloha. At the same time, it is impossible to miss the feeling that the people have for Maunakea and that feeling rubs off.

When I arrived at Maunakea, I knew I was in the shadow of a mountain that Native Hawaiians believe is scared. I never thought I would return sharing that belief, but I do — completely.

I would urge all decision-makers involved in the Thirty Meter Telescope project to visit the puuhonua. Spend at least 24 hours there. Sleep in the back of your rental car like I did. Don’t identify yourself, just go and volunteer to help wash dishes or serve food or sort garbage. Sit on the lava rock and learn.

Listen to the music and watch the dance. But most of all, just feel. Feel who these people are and what this mountain means to them. Feel what you have the power to help them protect. I promise if you do, you will return a different person.

Christian Kunz is a social work professor at Brigham Young University – Hawaii, part-time student at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson Law School and resident of Laie, Oahu.