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How Lanakila Mangauil came to Mauna Kea

The first installment of a three-part profile of Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, based on interviews conducted over several weeks.

Ka'iulani Milham

Photo: Lanakila Mangauil (center) walks alongside fellow activist Hāwane Rios at the Aloha ʻĀina Unity March on August 9, 2015 | Lynette Cruz

April 14, 2015; Kūkiaʻi Mauna Camp, Mauna Kea

I first sat down with Joshua Lanakila Mangauil on a chilly mid-April morning at the encampment where protectors of Mauna Kea have been holding down a construction blockade of the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). The charismatic 28-year-old has become a leader of the now global movement to protect the sacred summit.

In the brisk morning air, 9,200 feet above sea level, we sat among a bright assortment of lawn chairs, tents and hand-painted signs lining the Mauna Kea Access Road, just in front of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, the “mid-level facilities” place known as Hale Pohaku, or “Stone House.”

Nearly two weeks had passed since 31 protectors had been arrested on the mountain, the first of them in the crosswalk just up the road. The week-long construction time out, called by Governor David Ige, had just expired and the mood in the camp was uneasy.

Earlier in the day, Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) officials, in a punitive fit of harassment, had measured the setback of the encampment from the Mauna Kea Access Road.

And then, as if to show the upstart protectors who the real protectors of Mauna Kea are, they inspected the protectors’ newly erected hale pili (thatched hut), speculating that ants in the palm fronds used for the thatched roof were an invasive species introduced into the fragile summit ecosystem.

None of this seemed to particularly ruffle Mangauil’s feathers, however. As we began our interview, an ancient chant rising from the tents on the other side of the road, he was calm as can be.

Ranging over the landscape of experiences that molded this peaceful warrior, our first interview explored the contours of his youth, education and gender, and the forces that drew him to protect Mauna Kea. The interview ended with the pivotal moment on Oct. 7, 2014, when Mangauil famously crashed the TMT groundbreaking ceremony—minutes after being struck by an OMKM ranger’s SUV.

The Wild Boy of Honokaʻa

Mangauil’s boyhood was spent in Ahuloa on Hawaiʻi Island’s Hāmākua Coast.

His mother, Maureen McGraw, ran a daycare out of the family home. Sometimes, Mangauil says, he would help out with the babies. More often he was with his “wolf pack.”

“A lot of time it was just me and my dogs, running around in the forest,” says Mangauil, the youngest of six children.“My mom used to call me Mowgli.”

The rainforest surrounding his home was his playground and he knew it like the back of his hand. It was there that Mangauil’s innate connection to ʻāina blossomed. In the solitude of the rainforest, he says, the ʻōhia trees and manu (birds) were his companions; the kupuna (ancestors) he spoke with.

“I no more neighbors. I was smack-dab in the middle of the forest… everyone was scared my house because it was the boonies. But I’ve always been tight with the forest.”

Growing up among the ferns and flowers proved an excellent medium for Mangauil’s early exposure to Hawaiian cultural education.

Ironically, it was his Scottish/Irish mother who fostered this; beginning with putting him in Kukulu Kaumana, the summer program he attended with his sister in Waipiʻo Valley. This was where Mangauil had his first taste of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and met the first of many influential kumus he would have.

“It really started in the Valley [Waipiʻo] for me,” says Mangauil. “My mom, she was really instrumental in getting me to learn my culture because I didn’t have it at home. She understood sense of place and that it would be best for us to understand that. So she got us to these places to learn.”

When Kanu o Ka ʻĀina Hawaiian Charter School opened in Honokaʻa in 2000, Mangauil, a 9th grader, was among its first students. Under the tutelage of kumus “Aunty Ku” and “Uncle Nalei” Kahakalau, Mangauil deepened his connection with ʻāina and Hawaiian culture.

It was also at Kanu o Ka ʻĀina, that he first met Aunty Pua Case, the long-time Mauna Kea advocate and kumu hula of Hālau Hula Kealaonamaupua, who occasionally taught hula at his school. Mangauil soon became a haumāna of Case’s hālau and danced with her for several years.

Indigenous Experience

Mangauil came to a turning point in his young life when, at age 18, he was chosen as one of four Hawaiʻi boys to participate in a Native Youth Cultural Exchange program, a boys’ leadership program that took them to live among the Hopi of Northeastern Arizona and the Pit River Tribes of Northern California. The month-long cross-cultural program provided Mangauil and the other Hawaiʻi boys a rare and intimate introduction to the ways of other indigenous peoples. Over the countless hours of traveling together in a 15-passenger van, the boys, he says, became a “band of brothers.”

“Every nation I’ve ever met with and learned from, you can still see similarities, because we’re all Earth-based people, we all from this honua, we are children of this land. We have humble respect for this land. We understand our role,” says Mangauil.

The cross cultural experience also gave Mangauil a sense of support, through “examples of other indigenous people, how they view kanaka māhū,” as well as an “understanding what’s my role as a man for my community.”

But it was back in Hawaiʻi that his burgeoning understanding of his role as a kanaka māhū was galvanized by the findings of cultural practitioners like Hina Leimoana Wong-Kalu, showing that māhū were an integral part of traditional Hawaiian culture.

“That really gave me more confidence … [to] see, here at home and throughout Polynesia, we did have a role. It wasn’t that we’re some out-of-the-norm thing. We were actually part of the norm.”

Mangauil also found support in nature and the creation chant, Kumulipo. Hawaiʻi’s native hāpuʻu ferns, which grow abundantly on the east side of Hawaiʻi Island, provided a biological analogy for his own gender identity.

In observing the three sub-species of fern—the female energy of the soft-golden haired hāpuʻu pulupulu, the male energy of the hāpuʻu iʻi, the thick, towering variety known as “walking ferns,” and the hāpuʻu meu, a hybrid with attributes of both—Mangauil perceived a natural parallel to his own “in the middle” sexuality.

ʻWhen you see the meu, it really looks like a blend of the two…That’s balance. Three points. You have the kāne, the wahine and the center…It’s a triangle. No matter which way you turn it, it’s balanced.”

Mangauil’s awareness and appreciation of these opposing ways of knowing, have also come to inform his own process.

“I noticed that when I have to make decisions, I consciously go, ‘Okay, I going to try look at perspectives from both sides.’ I’ll think more in my Kū. I’ll think more in my Hina. And then I think in this balance. And that’s where I find my level of compassion and tolerance … little more that’s where my Hina coming in, but [also] my understanding of being firm.”

Photo: Mangauil offers testimony in opposition to the TMT at an Office of Hawaiian Affairs hearing in late April, 2015 | Will Caron

A “Kupuna” Before His Time

With such foundational influences coming from his Hawaiian cultural education, it’s not surprising Mangauil would himself become part of the Charter School movement.

After a brief stint as director of the YMCA youth center in Waimea, he was hired as a Hawaiian Studies teacher in the Department of Education’s “Kupuna Program” at his old school in Honokaʻa.

To be a “kupuna” at 19, was unusual, but with a shortage of actual kupuna (elders) willing and able to teach, Mangauil saw a need.

“One thing I was really taught was, as we looked to where we want to go with our lives, it’s not always a matter of pursue what you want. It really is also a question of, ʻWhat do your people need?’ Then you’re actually moving into something that you know you’re going to have a purpose in.”

Although his students came to call him “mākua (parent) kupuna,” the relationship, he says, was more like that of hiapo (elder sibling).

“I really took on that kuleana being an example for them,” says Mangauil. 

Included in that kuleana was being forthright about his sexual orientation.

“What I found was, truth was the best way. Just be solid in who I am. Yeah, you know, I am kāne, I have my Hina [goddess] side. But hey, ‘And what?’

“I remember some of my high school students one day, they were like, ‘E Kumu, you māhū?’  I was like, ‘yeah.’ They were like ‘Okay.’ So I was just like, ‘Yeah. And?’ Because, you know, it’s about kuleana, too. It’s like, I still gotta fulfill my kuleana. So I don’t have to separate myself from anything. If anything, I can step in two roles. And in between if I got to,” Mangauil says.

“However we turn out in our life, we have kuleana and we are given that way of being as a tool to pursue our kuleana. So I think I’ve been able to find that, the balance of my Kū and Hina. I’m not going to be hiding it. If they have plenty questions, or anything, maikaʻi (good). But it’s also the perspective of looking at the concept through indigenous eyes. It’s much different than the Western World that demonizes it.”

Coming to the Mauna

For Mangauil, that essential cultural clash of Western and Polynesian perspectives came to a head on Mauna Kea.

“I’m, first of all, of Hāmākua. That’s my mauna,” explains Mangauil.

But it was also the influence of Case, and the rest of the Mauna Kea Hui—Case’s husband Kalani Flores, Kealoha Pisciotta, Clarence Kūkauakahi Ching, Paul Neves, Deborah Ward and Jon Osorio—and the legal challenges they’ve consistently presented to telescope development on the summit—that spurred his involvement.

“I was always really tight with Aunty Pua [Case]. And then, just knowing about the case, hearing about the mauna—I’ve been following with them as much as I can and showing my support of what they’re doing.”

For Mangauil, the blatant disregard of the law, the failure of the TMT to meet the eight criteria required for an exemption under the Conservation District Use Permit, was unconscionable. 

“I look at the eight criteria and I’m like, ‘We don’t have to worry about it. There’s no way these guys are going to be able to meet these criteria. It’s completely illegal.’ Then all of a sudden, Boom! We hear it got past them. We’re like ‘What?! How in the world?’ It’s like, any 3rd grader can look at the criteria and tell you these constructions do not meet the criteria to build in the conservation zone.”

This hypocrisy, the idea of building an 18-and-a-half story telescope in a conservation district, came to a head at the TMT groundbreaking ceremony on Oct, 7 2014.

That is where Mangauil’s path veered from teacher to activist.

“Aunty Pua and them had organized pule (prayer) to have ceremony. But there was a few of us who just were like, ‘you know, I don’t know if I can just sit there and pule. I’ve gotta move.’ Just seeing it, your nāʻau (gut) is pushed. It was just like, ‘I cannot sit here and not do something, and let them just go through it like everything’s all hunky dory”

What Mangauil described next, was anything but.

At the blockade set up by police, Mangauil and several others walked along the caravan of vehicles carrying dignitaries and TMT representatives until he reached the vehicle of Hawaiʻi County Mayor Billy Kenoi. After speaking with him at length, it was clear the conversation was at an impasse.

“The mayor said, ‘Okay, you know what? We don’t want anything happening today and we don’t want no one get arrested. We’re gonna go. We’re gonna go.’ And so we’re like, ‘Okay! Right on. They’re gonna leave.’”

But before the caravan departed, Mangauil noticed several people had left the vehicles. Initially headed to some portable toilets, they had continued past the toilets and were now walking toward another caravan of vehicles, beyond the roadblock, that was coming down the mountain.

Suspecting deception, Mangauil and the others headed up the mountain on foot.

“Quite a ways up the hill, there was a girl walking kind of a little bit behind me on the other lane, and she had a little daughter with her.

“I hear, ‘Vroooooom!’ and I turn around. I see a ranger’s 4Runner come flying up the hill. I got two things on my mind. One: they’re going to try cut us off. Two: there’s a girl with her kid walking.”

As the vehicle sped towards them, Mangauil positioned himself in its path. Instead of stopping, the 4Runner roared forward before jerking to a halt a couple of feet before impact.

“Before I could even step to the side, he gassed it and he hit my legs,” says Mangauil.  “I jumped up and I ended up, froom!, on the hood. I went, ‘Hewa!’ And right there he started gassing it. I was stuck on the hood and he starts going.”

With Mangauil on the hood, and other protectors rushing in from the sides, he figures the ranger drove another 30 feet, stopping only after another protector lay down in the roadway in the direct path of the SUV. 

“That’s the only reason he stopped. I was fuming at that point! I just got hit by a car. And I just told him, ‘Close the road!’ And that’s when I just started hauling butt.”

According to Mangauil, there were several witnesses: the woman and her daughter, the “braddahs” including Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, as well as another ranger who was in the 4Runner’s passenger seat.

It was this attack that fueled the passionate rebuke Mangauil leveled as he burst onto the scene minutes after being struck.

Video of the intervention shows the bare-chested, malo-clad Mangauil, his head shaved Mohawk-style, striding barefoot into the midst of the ceremony wrapped in kapa, scowling as he denounced the deception: “Hewa loa … like slithering snakes!” he says in the video.

“I donʻt even remember getting down there,” says Mangauil. “For me, it’s all a blur.”

Although Mangauil, who was not seriously injured, also mentions the incident in the video that was aired on local media, no reporters followed up on the incident.

“I told every media outlet. No one talked about it.”

In the ensuing weeks, not one of the news articles published worldwide about the TMT groundbreaking interruption mentioned the assault.

Unwilling to let the incident hamper his availability during the crucial weeks ahead, Mangauil declined to report the incident to police. Since then, he’s seen the ranger around the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.

“I don’t know if he doesn’t remember, or he’s just like, ‘Oh shit! That’s the guy I hit with my car.’”

As we would see in the months following the groundbreaking ceremony, even in the face of the repeated charges by TMT supporters of threats and harassment of construction workers on the part of the protectors, Mangauil and his fellow kiaʻi have continued to maintain kapu aloha on Mauna Kea.