The Sacred History of Maunakea

As protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island stretch into a fourth week, we look at the history of the summit and why it is considered sacred to the Native Hawaiian community.


Maunakea telescopes

Photo: David Croxford



We pored through historical references, oral histories, testimonies and archaeological reports to help give you a better understanding of the profound reverence given to the wahi kapu (sacred place) of Maunakea. A shield volcano rising 13,796 feet, it’s one of the most prominent landforms in Hawai‘i, but the sacredness of the mauna in Hawaiian culture goes far deeper than its physical features.


First, a note about the name. We use Maunakea as a single word as suggested by the UH Hilo School of Hawaiian Language. While Mauna Kea means “white mountain” and works as a description, Maunakea is used by UH, the Office of Maunakea Management and the Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names. Read on for more about the meaning of the single-word name.



In Hawaiian traditions of creation, the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wākea, created the Islands, with Hawai‘i Island being the first. “Mauna Kea is considered to be kupuna, the first born, and is held in high esteem. In native traditions, Mauna Kea is identified as ‘Ka Mauna a Wākea’ (The Mountain of Wākea—traditional god and father of Hawai‘i—whose name is also written as Kea),” described Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele in a 1999 oral history study by Kumu Pono Associates. Because Maunakea was the first-born child of Papa and Wākea, it’s considered the piko (navel, or center of a beginning or ending) of Hawai‘i Island. The reference of Ka Mauna a Wākea is also seen in mele hānau (birth chants), like this one for Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) as written in the book The Echo of Our Song: Chants and Poems of the Hawaiians:


O hānau ka mauna a Kea,
‘Ōpu‘u a‘e ka mauna a Kea.
‘O Wākea ke kāne, ‘o Papa,
‘o Walinu‘u ka wahine,
Hānau Ho ‘ohoku he wahine,
Hānau Hāloa he ali‘i,
Hānau ka mauna, he keiki mauna na Kea …


Born of Kea was the mountain,
The mountain of Kea budded forth.
Wākea was the husband, Papa
Walinu‘u was the wife.
Born was Ho‘ohoku, a daughter,
Born was Hāloa, a chief,
Born was the mountain, a mountain-son of Kea …


Lake Waiau

The water of Waiau is associated with the god Kāne, and it’s been documented that its water is used in ongoing practices by native healers. Its water is collected and used for ceremonies and for healing. In 1881, Queen Emma visited Waiau and swam across its waters “on a journey of spiritual and physical well-being.” Interviews have also been conducted with residents who reported that it was a practice to take a child’s piko (or umbilical cord) to Waiau.



In the uppermost zones of Maunakea, one pu‘u, or cinder cone, has been confirmed to contain burials—Pu‘u Mākanaka, which literally means “hill crowded with people.” Four other pu‘u are also considered likely to contain burials. Oral histories passed down through families have also shared that there are burials on the slopes of Maunakea. Alexander Kanani‘alika Lancaster in the 1999 oral history report by Kumu Pono Associates mentions that he went up the mountain “for ceremonial. They go up there bless the whole mountain for all our ancestors who’s buried up there… the old folks always said, ‘Our family is up there.’”


Piko deposition also occurs in the form of a burial on Maunakea, and it’s become a practice for some people to scatter the cremated remains of loved ones on the mountain.


Map of Maunakea showing historic properties from the final Environmental Impact Statement

The map from the final environmental impact statement in 2010 which shows historic properties, indicated by triangles, and sites of manmade remains, marked with red circles. Source: 2010 Final environmental impact statement for TMT



Gods and goddesses

Within the Maunakea Science Reserve (roughly 11,215 acres centered around the summit), there are “263 historic properties, including 141 ancient shrines,” according to the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the TMT Telescopes. While the intended purposes of each historic property is unclear, the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Archaeological Inventory Survey speculates that they could be related to gods and goddesses on the mountain. “It now seems likely that the simple shrines were built and used by small family groups as originally thought, but that the larger, more complex structures were built and maintained by a priesthood. … First, on the assumption that each upright stands for a separate god, the larger number of uprights on these sites points to a larger pantheon of gods (major and minor gods) that probably most Hawaiians would not have known.” The AIS report also suggests that some of the historic sites mentioned could be related to “astronomical phenomena” and uses the above photo of the shrines facing out towards Haleakalā on Maui as a theory that needs to be investigated further.


Place names on Maunakea, like the many pu‘u, are also named after these gods and goddesses. Westervelt, in his book Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes, mentions that Poli‘ahu was one of four snow goddesses. Līlīnoe was her younger sister and Waiau is also mentioned in legends as a goddess. The summit area is also called Kūkahau‘ula and is referenced as being the name for the husband of Līlīnoe.


Maunakea telescope rendering thirty meter telescope

A rendering of where the thirty meter telescope (bottom left) will be located in comparison with current telescopes. The new telescope is planned for the slope instead of the summit, where it will not be as visible. Courtesy: TMT



The summit of Kūkahau‘ula

Early accounts from the mid-19th century by William Ellis, James Jarves and James Macrae say that their Hawaiian guides would not go near Maunakea’s summit due to “superstitious dread of the mountain spirits or gods.” The Maunakea Science Reserve’s AIS supports references to the top of the mauna as being kapu and only accessible to the highest chiefs or priests by noting the lack of evidence of human activity at the summit in relation to lower elevations.


In the 1999 Kumu Pono Associates’ oral history and consultation study, Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele stated: “Mauna Kea was always kupuna to us … And there was no wanting to go to top. You know, just that they were there … was just satisfying to us. And so it was kind of a hallowed place that you know it is there, and you don’t need to go there. You don’t need to bother it. … And it was always reassuring because it was the foundation of our island. … If you want to reach mana, that [the summit] is where you go.”