Maunakea Is Us


The list of songs about and referencing Maunakea is a long one (note: I am using the spelling “Maunakea” as it has become an accepted convention based on recommendations from the University of Hilo College of Hawaiian Language¹). This mountain being the sacred piko of the Hawaiians and Polynesians it has been held in special reverence within the cultural and spiritual belief systems of the people here throughout Polynesia from the beginning of their known history. With the recent events taking place gaining world wide media attention there has been an increasingly passionate and sophisticated (at times) debate emerging concerning the issues surrounding the impending construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. As this is a music blog, I wanted to use a song as a vehicle to offer some reflection.

The song that I am interested in discussing is “Mauna Kea” by Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii (note: when referencing the song I will use the spelling “Mauna Kea” as that is the spelling found on printed copies of the album²). You can click here to hear a sample. Also you can click here for the entire song through Spotify.

Here are the words as sung by Eddie Kamae: (translation by Robert Lokomaika‘iokalani Snakenberg³)

E aha ‘ia ana ‘o Maunakea
Kuahiwi ‘alo pū me ke Kēhau‘Alawa iho ‘oe iā Mauna Loa
He moa uakea i ka mālieKū aku au, mahalo i ka nani
Ka hale a ka wai hu‘i a ka manuMahu‘i ho‘i au la e ‘ike lihi
Ka uahi noe lāo KīlaueaKe hea mai nei Halema‘uma‘u
‘Ena‘ena i ke ahi a Ka Wahine.Wahine kui pua lehua ‘Ōla‘a
I ho‘oipoipo no ka Malanai.

Aloha ‘ia nō a‘o Hōpoe
Ka wahine ‘ami lewalewa i ke kai

Iho nā Puna i ka hone a ke kai
Ke ‘ala o ka hīnano ka‘u aloha

Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana
No Puna ke ‘ala i hali ‘ia mai.

What is being done, Maunakea?
O mountain sharing with the dew-laden KēhauYou glance down to Mauna Loa
A mist-white chicken in the calmI stand and appreciate the beauty
Of the house of the chilly water of the birdsI also expect to catch a glimpse
Of the misty smoke of KīlaueaHalema‘uma‘u is calling
So hot with the fire of The WomanThe woman stringing lehua flowers of ‘Ōla‘a
In order to woo the Malanai wind

Hōpoe is beloved
The woman swinging her hips in the sea

Puna’s people descend to the soft sound of the sea
The fragrance of hīnano is what I love

The summary of the story is told
From Puna the fragrance is wafted.

So before I begin I must make note that much of my information and reflection is based on the work of scholar Kīhei de Silva, and at the bottom of this paragraph is a link to his essay specific to this song. I recommend that those interested should read his own words. I draw inference to some of his points, but no where will I use or reproduce his words. These are all my own personal opinions and reflections. But what you will find if you read his essays is that he has conducted thorough and academically sound research on this topic and is much more of an authority than I in the specifics of Hawaiian lyrical composition and the historical context of the mele I am analyzing. You can read his essay titled “Maunakea”by clicking here.

Also, to expound upon and offer deeper insight into the specifics of Hawaiian cultural history I will reference another essay by Kīhei and Māpuana de Silva, in which the entire series of eight chants that the song “Mauna Kea” is drawn from is analyzed and discussed. That essay titled “E Ho`i ka Nani i Mānā” is linked here. And finally a third essay titled “A Maunakea `o Kalani” will be referenced that looks specifically at the final chant of the eight part series. That essay as well is by Kīhei and Māpuana de Silva and can be linked here.

On the surface this appears to be a simple straight forward mele extolling the beauty of the land from a perch atop Maunakea. But the depth of this imagery is put into a broader perspective in Mr. de Silva’s essay “Maunakea” where he directs the intention of the imagery by stating that the song represents a sense of balance and order to the world and the elements. This is reflected in the various references to the elemental characteristics of the places the song is referring to. The breezes of Maunakea, the fiery heat of Halema`uma`u, the lehua blossoms of`Ola`a and the fragrant Hinano from Puna are all used to direct the listener to the balance and relationship that exists within the landscape. Each piece is properly placed and able to co-exist with its surroundings, not interfere or overwhelm it.

That is an important sentiment if we look at it in the context of the telescopes that have been built on the mountain and the one in particular that is to be built there (note: more info about the Thirty Meter Telescope can be found here and here). Does it occupy its proper place? Does building this observatory on Maunakea represent a balance in which the world is in order and it feels complete? These questions will frame this blog post, through the lens of the song “Mauna Kea”.

What is interesting as you dig deeper into the song and into Mr. de Silva’s analysis of the mele and the related chants is that this balance and order is being addressed to a specific person on a very particular journey. That person would be Queen Emma, for whom these chants were composed for. (note: I think the Queen’s Medical Center biography of Queen Emma is a great source for who she is if you are not familiar. That is linked here.) So what was her journey for and what did it represent?

This is where the essay “E Ho`i ka nani i Mānā” by the de Silvas becomes so significant. In this essay the song “Maunakea” is placed back to its place of origin as a chant and as being part of an eight chant series that describes a journey taken by Queen Emma to the top of Maunakea. Here the perspective is presented that her journey to the top of Maunakea and her subsequent swim across Lake Waiau was one of spiritual rejuvenation in which she reconnects with her inner spirit (note: refer to the chants “Hau Kakahiaka Nui ‘o Kalani” and”Kō Leo ka Ma‘alewa” from Puakea Nogelmeier, He Lei no ‘Emalani). Most thought provoking though is that the de Silvas contrast this journey to the top of Maunakea with King Kalakaua’s journey around the world. And those aware of the politics of the time would understand the historical context of this statement as it relates to King Kalakaua’s victory over Queen Emma in the 1874 election⁴.

As King Kalakaua looked to see and experience the world “out there”, Queen Emma focused her interests in finding out what was going on with the people and spirit right here in her home Hawai`i. But where the de Silvas describe the King’s intentions as seeking acknowledgment from the outside, I see Kalakaua’s journey as more of a means to bring back to Hawai`i all the things that were part of the outside world’s cultures. And in my perspective this contrasts with Emma’s desire to look into herself through her own personal journeys and then bring that back to her people. This is covered in detail in the de Silvas essay titled “A Maunakea `o Kalani”. Which I would like to reinforce I highly suggest you read using the link provided above. But to summarize, what the two royals do share is a strong desire to, in the end, strengthen and lift up their people. But the question being posed is, do we look in or look out? And more importantly, what allows us to live in balance with our world and the elements?

And here lies the duality of our present situation as it relates to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea. What I would like to do though is broaden the issue of how we strengthen and lift up the spiritual and cultural consciousness of people to humanity as a whole, rather than exclusively to the Hawaiian people. And I say this because from my perspective we have entered a global society, with global issues, with global consequences, calling for a global consciousness, or a spiritus mundi, as expressed by William Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming⁵”.

Here is where I would like to humbly offer a different line of thought than the commonly held narrative. For me the duality is not science versus spirituality, it is not haole versus Hawaiian and it is not development versus preservation. It is inside versus outside. To move forward and progress as a human race, should we look out to find the answers, or look in? And from my perspective what I see happening is people are doing both and both are equally valid because more importantly people are looking. They are seeking.

So to answer my original question, I believe this observatory can represent a balance to the world around us and the elements, because it has offered us an opportunity to look out or to look in, and both at the same time as well. But, for it to occupy its proper place, it must be constructed with balance at the forefront of its intention.

A wise Hawaiian shared with me that regardless of all the issues, regardless of what side you stand on, we have to remember, the mountain will survive. The mountain is bigger than all this, or us. She has the power to take care of herself, she doesn’t need us to survive. She can go on and on for as long as needs be with or without us. For this particular individual though, being a Hawaiian, at the end of the day, there needs to exist a sense of balance with the surrounding world. The idea that the universe cannot exist without this sense of balance is the perspective that Hawaiians offer, regardless of what side you stand on any of the issues.

This brings me back to the mele. To reemphasize, the song “Mauna Kea” speaks of a balance and order to the universe through the poetic imagery of the various elemental characteristics found in different areas. And so at this point I hope your eyes are open up to a new perspective, and that the meaning of this song can reveal itself to you in a new way. Now the song’s opening line “what is being done Maunakea?”, should be the guiding question to any individual, whether you are looking in, or seeking out.

What I hope to see happen, is that the construction of this observatory will bring people together through the fire that has been lit inside of all of us. Whether you are someone looking out deep into the heavens to find the origins and meaning of life, or one looking inside, deep into your own past and your own history, you are doing the right thing, you are seeking.

And in our seeking, which was birthed from deep inside our inner most being, we have heeded the call that Maunakea makes in full confidence, and we have found ourselves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the meeting point between earth and sky.

And then as we look up towards her peaks and then into her piko, and then back out into the heavens again, we continue to seek, and we ask ourselves, “E aha ‘ia ana ‘o Maunakea?”. What is happening? What are we doing? Where are we going? How did we get here?

Maunakea beckons all of us, astronomers, spiritualists, activists, citizens, chanters, hula practitioners, scientists, actors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, singers, journalists, to come sit at her feet. And in her bold declaration of survival based on a humble understanding of her own sustenance and confidence in her own power, she tells us to come and to ask this question, what is going on?

We come, and we ask, because the mountain tells us to…

And so to conclude, I say we need to reverse our perspective from “We Are Maunakea”, in order to better demonstrate a proper understanding of the balance of the earth, our land, our honua, our `aina, our moku, our wa`a and the elements…and let her speak to us.

And so again we ask “E aha ‘ia ana ‘o Maunakea?”, “what is happening Maunakea?”.

And she responds, “I am you”.

Maunakea is us.



¹See this link

²See this link 

³See this link

⁴This is a good starting point Ralph S. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. II. 1854-1874: Twenty Critical Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1953

⁵For full text of the Second Coming and more info on Spiritus Mundi see this link


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