In the Realm of the Gods

Molly Peters

2019 - Ongoing

Hawaii, United States

A Wao Akua, or realm of the gods, encompasses the summit and land surrounding Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawai’i. Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) believe that it’s inhabited only by spirits; humans were never meant to live there. They consider it the most sacred place on Earth. The summit, at 13,882 feet above sea level, stands above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Weather conditions are extreme, harsh, and constantly changing.

Though this land was never inhabited, it has become a temporary home to many kia’i (protectors), who are preventing construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope at the summit. There’s a complicated history surrounding the existing telescopes and the years-long battle against TMT. Key issues include: the often-ignored rights of indigenous people to control their land; corporations and scientists questioning whether land can be sacred; and the necessity of protecting the unique ecosystem on Mauna Kea, already zoned as conservation land.

The community of kia’i, while predominantly indigenous, includes people of all backgrounds from all over the world. Population at the encampment varied from nearly 7,000 last summer to low double-digits in the winter months. Everyone sacrifices something to be there – work, family obligations – yet Mauna Kea gives back tenfold. The spiritual power of the land is tangible, but the threat of police action looms constantly. The camp was officially closed recently, due to the threat of COVID-19, but everyone is staying vigilant, ready to return at a moment’s notice if necessary.

I went to Mauna Kea intuitively and plan to return once safe travel is possible again. My work often deals with spirituality and human connection to the natural world. As the daughter of a conservation lawyer, efforts to protect land are close to my heart. The kia’i are like family to me now; their determination, resilience, and resolve to protect the sacred has inspired me profoundly. Everyday moments, seasonal ceremonies, and the raw beauty of the land come together in the photographs, offering a glimpse into life in this temporary village, in the realm of the gods.

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  • Pu’u Poepoe (front) and Pu’u Mākanaka (behind) are enveloped in clouds and mist at dusk on the Winter Solstice, seen from the summit of Mauna Kea, Pu’u Wekiu, at 13,803 feet above sea level.

  • Flags line the Mauna Kea Access Road near Pu’u Huluhulu in the encampment of kia’i, protectors of Mauna Kea. All flags are gifts from supporters around the world.

  • Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I stand near the ahu (altar) in the Pu’uhonua o Pu’u Huluhulu immediately following a ceremony to welcome the season of Lono.

  • The full moon sets shortly after sunrise in the camp.

  • Early morning light bathes the ground and lava flow just east of the camp.

  • A fogbow, or white rainbow, is just one type of ho’ailona (natural omen) that appears regularly on Mauna Kea. They can occur during the day, like this one, or at night, created by moonlight.

  • Stefon brings supplies to an elderly woman in her tent. The single star cut out of the American Flag on the left references the illegal occupation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i by the US Government.

  • Stacy pauses while rebuilding her tent. This lava ledge initially seemed like an ideal place to settle, but unfortunately, due to the direction of high winds, she was forced to move again just a couple of days later.

  • A child wanders out on the lava flow.

  • A rainy day in November. When I first arrived in the camp, I was told to park by the bus. I stayed near it each time I returned, until it was moved at the end of December.

  • Protocol (ceremony) takes place four times daily in the camp: sunrise, 8am, noon, and dusk. In bad weather, kia’i move under a large tent during protocol, but Alaka’i prefers to dance the hulas in the elements.

  • Kia'i play Makahiki Games in November. The games are an annual tradition to honor Lono, the god of peace and agriculture.

  • As the camp population shrunk in size in winter months, the location of the daily protocols sometimes shifted. For a brief period in late December 2019 and into early 2020, protocol took place near the ahu.

  • Aunty Kekuhi sends prayers up to Mauna Kea at the end of protocol one day.

  • Uncle Sam, a fisherman from O’ahu, is a beloved and dedicated kia’i who helps with all aspects of life in the camp.

  • Aunty Clare, a midwife, works on carving a drum near the Kūpuna tent. Aunty Scarlett and Uncle Jon chat in the background.

  • Uncle Kaliko leads people up to the ahu on the summit of Mauna Kea, Pu’u Wekiu, in the final stop of the day-long ceremony to mark the Winter Solstice.

  • Ali’i Sir Paul K. Neves KGCK, Ali’i Noeau Loa of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, stands on the edge of Pu’u Huluhulu, overlooking the camp down below. The Royal Order is an order of knighthood established by Kamehameha V in 1865.

  • One receiver of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a system of 10 radio telescopes which extends across the United States, ending in the Caribbean, points toward Hilo, seen from the ahu on Pu’u Wekiu.

  • A fogbow appears to extend from the ahu at the Pu’uhonua o Pu’u Huluhulu in early March.

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