- Special Projects
Editor’s note: Read a related story about the long history of Native Hawaiian protests.
MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Mahi’ai Dochin and Kamuela Park follow long-time activist Walter Ritte up Mauna Kea Access Road in the dark, early morning.
Dochin can only make out the silhouette of the summit against the night sky. Ritte is leading the group of eight to a cattle guard, where they’ll soon be chained for much of the day to buy time for protesters to organize by distracting law enforcement officers.
Temperatures are in the 40s, and Dochin and Park are some of the youngest in the huddled group, which includes Ritte along with some of their kumu, or teachers, such as Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua and Kaleikoa Ka’eo.
Dochin crawls under the cattle guard, and his wrists are soon bound to the grate. He has a unique perspective on the whole enterprise — he’s the only one chained below the cattle guard.
“You think we’re getting arrested?” Park asked, looking down at Dochin.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re getting arrested,” he said.
Meanwhile, one of their fellow protesters Kawena Phillips is busy working with a quickly assembled media and legal team to track possible arrests and monitor law enforcement. The Oahu native had flown in the night before. Without a ride to Mauna Kea, he reached out on Twitter, and within hours he found a lift.
None ended up being arrested that day and the three young men were free to return to the protests on the mountain and all that it represents.
This is the story of how they ended up making a stand at Mauna Kea. Their paths, in some ways, are representative of the hundreds of other young Hawaiians drawn to the protests — raised in families not all that concerned with those issues, with only stirrings of identity as children, they each had early experiences that jolted them awake to what they came to see as the denigration of their culture.
But those paths each had their own unique twists and turns.
For Park, the moment came as a student at the University of Hawaii when he watched a video on social media of one of his professors crawling under a truck to keep it from delivering a mirror to a telescope on Maui.
For Dochin, it happened when he volunteered to help build a traditional Hawaiian hale on Maui, lashing together beams in the hot sun and realizing that work was not just about money but about connection with his fellow Hawaiians.
Phillips was not even in Hawaii, where he had grown up, for his pivotal moments. Instead, he was living in the Middle East, watching the protests of the Arab Spring on television, dreaming about the possibilities of non-violent protest in his own home halfway around the globe.
Long before Park was moved to tears by the video of his professor crawling under a truck, he had been interested in Hawaiian culture and history.
In a high school social studies class at Kamehameha Schools Maui, the class debated whether Hawaii could maintain its independence as a country.
Park stood on one side of the room, alone, arguing that it could. Some of his best friends stood on the other side. But he didn’t budge, and kept detailing all the ways Hawaii would survive on its own.
Despite his attraction to the culture, his family didn’t grow up speaking much Hawaiian at home. Nor did they practice traditional culture. His dad fished, and his mother’s family was adept at growing plants — that, he said, was their way of keeping the culture alive.
Meanwhile, Park excelled at golf.
A three-time state championship qualifier, he earned a golf scholarship to attend Chaminade University in Honolulu. He played just one year, and didn’t shoot at or below par even once. After a disagreement with his coach, he left the team and lost his scholarship.
Park transferred to UH Maui. He knew enough Hawaiian from Kamehameha to place into an upper-division class. But his sister, also a Hawaiian studies major, told him to start from the beginning.
“Make sure your kahua (foundation) is really solid,” she said. “And then from there, you just build on it.”
It turned out to be fateful advice. His entry-level class was taught by Kaleikoa Ka’eo, a former UH football player with a tattoo running down the left side of his face who had been teaching at the university for two decades.
In those classes, Park nailed down his Hawaiian language skills. Ka’eo taught him how words relate to each other, their roots and how they were formed. Before finishing his associate’s degree at UH Maui, Park ended up taking all his classes.
“It’s our world view, it’s based on how we think,” Park said of Hawaiian language. “It’s the closest way to link with how you feel.”
Ka’eo had other lessons to impart. He’d been involved with many of the protests against telescopes on Mauna Kea and Haleakala. While Park was taking summer classes at UH Manoa in 2017, Ka’eo and several dozen protesters were getting ready to block the road leading to the summit of Haleakala, where the Daniel K. Inouye International Solar Telescope was being built. Early one morning, Ka’eo and the others sat in the middle of the road to stop the vehicles from advancing.
They sat while dozens of protesters stood on the side of the road, yelling at the advancing vehicles, one carrying the primary mirror for the world’s largest solar telescope.
For days, Park felt terrible he couldn’t be there. Then in class one day, his teacher played a Facebook video of Ka’eo being arrested.
The protesters had already been removed. The truck carrying the mirror began to move, and in a last-ditch attempt to stop it, Ka’eo crawled on his forearms to slide under it.
Park began sobbing. His classmates asked if he was alright.
Now, Park is back at UH Manoa, pursuing his master’s degree in Hawaiian Language. He hopes to have a career like Ka’eo’s and pass on what he knows.
“I ulu no kalala i ke kumu,” Park said. “The branch only grows because of the trunk.”
After high school, Dochin decided he wanted to become a landscaper. But a trip to Hana changed all that.
He volunteered with a group of other Native Hawaiians to construct a traditional hale, a Hawaiian thatched-roof dwelling, in just one weekend.
Beams to construct hale are long, unwieldy and usually unmilled. The structure is typically held together by lashings bound by hand. Construction could last for months. Dochin’s group had to do it in days.
The group first erected a scaffold beam by beam in the hot sun. Volunteers stretched out to hold the beams steady while others lashed them together. Once the frame was up, they scaled the half-built structure, often in bare feet, to start building the rest of the hale. Others stayed below to steady the ladder-like steps. Volunteers on the ground made sure all the beams were laid straight.
“No one was paid to labor,” he said. “They all came out of the goodness of their own heart.”
Dochin started to reevaluate the meaning of work. It stopped being about just making money, and more about benefitting Hawaiian people.
“It wasn’t what money you could make, but who you can surround yourself with,” Dochin said. “How you can build these relationships with them and build these networks.”
He’s had a chance to do just that at the protests. A week before construction on TMT was set to begin July 15, he got a text from protest leader Kaho’okahi Kanuha asking for help to set up the Pu’uhonua O Pu’uhuluhulu, the protest camp at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road.
Dochin arrived on Mauna Kea with Park, and after learning of the plans to block the roadway, asked Park if he wanted to join.
“When you’re in those things, you want a partner,” Park said. “Because if one person backs out the other person is just left in the rain. There’s no Plan B.”
The group of protesters bundled up in the early morning against mountain chill. As the sun came up, some helped those chained to the cattle guard shed layers of clothing and set up shade for them.
At some moments, while looking up at his friends and kumu and the sky, Dochin thought it seemed almost normal. They talked about this and that. Someone offered him chicken katsu through the grate.
But then, law enforcement officers were there, discussing if they should arrest them. Reporters huddled around with their microphones and cameras trying to interview or shoot footage of the eight tied to the cattle guard.
Being alongside his UH kumu made him think of a scene in one of the “Harry Potter” books in which the young wizards ward off evil forces alongside their Hogwarts teachers.
“These were people I learned from, read papers from, sat in their classrooms, listened to their lectures. And suddenly, I was alongside them working together,” Dochin said.
Like Park, Dochin hopes to become a teacher. He teaches a Hawaiian language class at Kapiolani Community College while pursuing his master’s degree at UH Manoa.
But this semester he has responsibilities both on Oahu and Mauna Kea. He plans to teach his regular Monday to Wednesday class schedule and spend the rest of the week on the mountain, where he’ll work in the Pu’uhonua and jam out lesson plans.
It’s a lot, he knows. But he thinks of his community college students, who may be at a crossroads like he was. If so, he wants to be there to help.
“I want to do everything within my power to help them feel empowered, to carve out a path for themselves that they find meaningful,” he said. “Not to have a path sort of determined for them, to feel boxed in.”
Back home, Dochin’s parents have been influenced by the protests and the focus on Hawaiian traditions. They’re starting to speak more Hawaiian — on his trips home, Dochin fields questions from his father about sentence structure. Once, he overheard his father speaking Hawaiian with Park.
“My whole household has been transformed by it,” Dochin said. “Now, we’ve kind of come together to get back into those things as a family.”
Kawena Phillips was born in Ewa Beach and spent much of his life in Kailua, though like Dochin and Park, he wasn’t raised in what some would consider a traditional Hawaiian household. He didn’t speak Hawaiian or carve wood or dance hula.
His dad was always skeptical of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and his mother, of Filipino and Hawaiian descent, grew up in a westernized household herself.
Both parents worked for Aloha Airlines, his father as a pilot and his mother as a flight attendant, but lost their jobs when the company folded in 2008.
Eventually, Phillips’ father found a job with an oil company based out of Saudi Arabia, and the family moved to there when Phillips was in middle school.
Like Park and Dochin, he had an interest in Hawaiian culture, but didn’t pursue it much when he was younger.
Far from his homeland, though, he found himself drawn to his roots.
“This is where my ancestors are from,” he said. “This is the land they were born in, that they died in. It’s the land my family is in. All the history I care about took place here.”
In nearby Bahrain, uprisings in early 2011 were centered around an area of the city called the Pearl Roundabout, which protesters occupied for days in camping tents. Saudi Arabia rolled in tanks over the causeway to help disperse the protesters.
The government eventually tore down the monument in the middle of the roundabout. Phillips knew several people who couldn’t return home to Syria because of the ongoing conflicts there as well.
“Seeing those people stand up against a government willing to use deadly force against them made me reevaluate how I saw uprisings and movements as a whole,” he said.
He drew parallels between what people in the Middle East were doing — facing down tanks and armed police with guns and shields — with what some of his childhood heroes like Walter Ritte did on Kahoolawe, occupying the island to force the U.S. Navy to stop using it as a bombing range.
“There’s a long lineage of resistance in Hawaiian history and culture,” Phillips said. “That’s partly why we’re so good at it. We’ve had a lot of practice.”
But Phillips lacked access to the cultural resources that a student in Hawaii would have. And in the Middle East, he also lacked any teachers. While abroad, he devoured any online information he could find, and picked the brains of knowledgeable family members on breaks at home.
“For me, it was more finding that piece that was missing. Being away from it helped me find it. Not having that cultural immersion made me hunger for it more,” Phillips said.
After returning home to attend Chaminade several years ago, he fully immersed himself in the culture. He compiled his family’s genealogy using records in the state archives, practices hula and lua (Hawaiian martial arts), laau lapaau (traditional healing arts) and studies the language.
He can’t talk about specific lua techniques because, in ancient times, they were secretly taught to a select few who were to become warriors. His cousins, who first got him into the martial art, wouldn’t tell him anything until he began.
One lesson he brought home from the Arab Spring was the importance of social media.
That’s an aspect Phillips has a chance to control as part of the kia’a media team, which has produced slick videos for social media and is responsible for much of the movement’s messaging and influence.
“That’s the kuleana I found for myself,” he said. “It’s appropriating Western technology for traditional uses.”
Phillips believes that social media has allowed the protesters to wrestle away the narrative from the state.
“They have guns. We don’t have guns,” Phillips tells a small class gathered one afternoon. “We need to fight with things where they can’t shoot us.”
As Phillips speaks about his experiences on the mountain, some of his listeners, a group of about eight, need to hold their hats to keep them from flying away in the wind. Many are teenagers.
Phillips, an international relations major at Chaminade, is not sure what his career will look like. But he suspects it will be something that can affect the public policies he cares so much about.
“There’s plenty more fights to come,” he said, “and I don’t think we’ve seen the last fight to push for Hawaiian rights.”
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?