Photo courtesy ʻŌiwi TV
The Hawaii Independent (HI): How did you become a protector of Mauna Kea?
Kuʻuipo Freitas (KF): I was born and raised in Kailua-Kona, Hawaiʻi. I was blessed to attend a Hawaiian immersion school as a child, and to learn the language and culture of my ʻāina. I am a fluent speaker of the Hawaiian language and I graduated with a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies from the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) at Hilo in 2012. I am currently in the Hawaiian Language and Literature Master’s program, writing my thesis on the current movement for Mauna Kea. Because of my upbringing and knowledge of Hawaiian culture, I have found that the protection of Mauna Kea is a kuleana for me as a kanaka of this ʻāina. And not only the mauna, but all of Hawaiʻi.
We are living in a day and age where the natural resources that we rely on for survival are constantly being unnecessarily developed. It’s important to protect what we have today so that our future generations will survive. With the rate of development today, there will be nothing left by the time we get to seven generations from now. Aloha ʻāina is not only a phrase I say, but also a way of living; of conducting oneself. It doesn’t only mean love for the land. It has kaona to it that most people don’t realize. When we say ʻāina, we don’t just mean land. It means all things in relation to the land that we live on and survive on. It is the love we have for our language, culture, resources, aliʻi, chants, stories, legends, people and more. It is the encompassment of everything to do with our culture and history as a people of Hawaiʻi. You must show aloha ʻāina through your actions, not just your words.
That is how I got deeply involved with the Mauna Kea movement. I’ve been a preschool teacher at Pūnana Leo o Kona, a Hawaiian immersion school, for the past three years. I had a big responsibility to uphold everything I taught the keiki, and Mauna Kea is where it really came together for them. They understood 100 percent.
HI: You’re a kanaka maoli student in the UH system and the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) project is supported by the university. You’ve taken time away from your studies to try and stop the TMT project, and were even arrested for it. How do you balance that?
KF: I see my role as a student of a university system who is actively working to keep that system in check as very important. The university is a very important part of Hawaiʻi, and the decisions made by its leaders impact a lot of people, to say nothing of the land. To challenge that system that I’m a part of and to say to those leaders, “this decision you’re making is wrong,” is a big statement. As a student who was arrested twice on Mauna Kea and left her job to hold vigil and protect the mauna, it was hard for me. I wasn’t focusing on school and I had no income. I honestly didn’t know how I would manage my master’s work and still be a part of the movement to defend Mauna Kea. My original thesis was to be a focus on Hawaiian surfing, but I saw how important the aloha ʻāina movement was and I realized how critical it is to document everything that goes on within this movement. This will go down in history as one of the biggest movements for Hawaiʻi, as well as for other oppressed indigenous cultures around the world. I felt I had an even bigger responsibility in that sense. So I changed my thesis two weeks into the movement on the mauna.
I know the university has been keeping tabs on me throughout the movement. I think there were four of us students who got arrested on April 2, 2015, on Mauna Kea. The university must understand that its students are speaking up because we know the truth. I find it a little humorous at times to think a student from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is doing her master’s work on the protection of Mauna Kea from developments like the TMT, and from the general mismanagement of the mauna that the university has been committing for decades. It’s interesting. I’m excited.
HI: Could you explain the slogan “EAducate” for us?
KF: Kahoʻokahi Kanuha came up with the slogan “EAducate” for one of his shirt designs that he made to raise money for the Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina Movement. Since then it has been developed into a free Hawaiian educational series that aims to overcome the indoctrination, denationalization and Americanization of our people that has been occurring ever since the illegal overthrow of our queen Liliʻuokalani on January 17, 1893. It is comprised of various presentations and lectures on anything related to Hawaiian history and culture.
There are many meanings to the word “ea.” These include sovereignty, life, air, breath, to rise and to swell up. All of these meanings are goals for Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina, to raise awareness and knowledge that the history we thought we knew was in fact all lies. We are in a time of great change, and so I believe the meaning of this slogan “EAducate” is to educate in the Hawaiian way; to see things the same way our kūpuna saw things. It’s an amazing time to be witnessing this.
HI: You are very active both on the ground and with social media, where a lot of community organization takes place these days. What was it like documenting the movement on the mauna? What difficulties did you encounter?
KF: Toward the beginning of the movement, I came up with a name for all the daily documentation that I would been doing on the mauna: Mauna Media. It started off as just a hashtag and just a little inside joke between a few of us on the mauna because I constantly had a camera in my hand, but it eventually evolved into something bigger than I ever expected. It became widely known as the place to go to for any Mauna Kea and TMT-related updates. I would just post daily from my personal Facebook and Instagram account. I did eventually create a separate page on Facebook, but because my name was already well known, people still followed my personal account.
I felt that I had a kuleana to update and to make sure everyone watching the movement sees the truth about what’s happening. I needed to keep everyone in the loop, so I would post daily pictures about what groups came up the mauna, or if the work crews tried to sneak up, and sometimes just scenic pictures of the beauty of the mauna. I also put together some videos of certain events or important interactions between defenders and state agents, mostly to counter false or misleading accounts that TMT officials or the state were disseminating in press releases and through mainstream media sources.
Mauna Media simply states facts and realities that we, as oppressed people, face on a daily basis in our own homeland. That method appeared to work and I believe I gained the trust of many people of Hawaiʻi, as well as people in other countries around the world who were watching and standing in solidarity with us.
It was an amazing experience to be a part of and I don’t regret a thing about it. I had media outlets from foreign countries contacting me to use my footage or get interviews, and that has opened so many doors for me as an individual, as a kanaka, as a wahine in a world that challenges the power of women. I don’t think I had any major difficulties over the months. It was just time- and energy-consuming to document, edit, produce and post videos. I’m not complaining, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exhausting at times.
HI: Reflecting on the past year-plus, how do you see the progress of the movement? How do you feel about the outcome of the court cases this past December?
KF: I was on Mauna Kea on October 7, 2014, at the attempted groundbreaking ceremony for the TMT. They did not break ground because we were there. In Hawaiian culture, you can’t fulfill anything without properly starting it. From that very day, I think I already knew that the TMT was not going up. In March of 2015 we saw how sneaky the state could be, closing the road overnight to take construction machines up without any notification. So we made our way to the mauna and stopped them again, because we knew the TMT issue was still in court. They had no right to begin construction. We held our vigil for months.
In August, 2015, I went to the state supreme court on Oʻahu to witness the five court cases against the TMT permit. On December 2, 2015, the state supreme court ruled the Conservation District Use Permit for the TMT was invalid. It was an amazing day. To see justice being served in the all-to-often unjust world that we live in, especially as kānaka of this ʻāina, was special. On December 16, 2015 the construction machines were taken off the mauna, and I was there to document and celebrate that victory too. We know it’s not over, but it is a huge milestone along the road to justice here in Hawaiʻi. The State of Hawaiʻi needs to acknowledge their wrongdoing, especially with regard to the 58 people who were unjustly arrested on Mauna Kea.
HI: What are your plans, after graduating, to “EAducate” further?
KF: After graduating with my master’s degree, I plan on seeking a Ph.D. in Pacific Studies. I traveled to Tahiti in July, 2015, as part of a required master’s class. It was hard for me to leave the mauna, but that trip has opened my eyes to other oppressed cultures around the world. There are other oppressed people around the Pacific that are still trying to revive their language and culture for future generations as we have managed to do. I want help those people find their way back to their roots as we have done.
HI: Lastly, for students who dream of a semester or year abroad in Hawaiʻi, what would you like for them to know beforehand?
KF: Anyone who comes to Hawaiʻi—whether it be for school or to visit and enjoy the beauty of this unique place or to become a resident here—should have some sense of the history and the people of the islands before they come here. Simple research can play a big role in how you uphold yourself here in Hawaiʻi. A lot of people come here thinking they will see grass huts and grass skirt hula dancers. It’s good to research each island, the political history of Hawaiʻi; learn about the eight different monarchs we have had, and also the history of the language itself. You don’t hear Hawaiian being spoken in the community a lot and by researching, suddenly you discover that’s because the language was banned for more than 50 years in the school system, making it hard for future generations to learn. I’m lucky enough to be a part of the generation that was able to re-learn our language in our school system.