Hāwane Rios’s artistry and activism are guided by her ancestral connection to Maunakea.
Text by Kylie Yamauchi Images by Kapulei Flores
When Hāwane Rios was 19 years old, she heard a mo‘olelo that would inform her life forever. It was the love story of Poliʻahu and Kūkahauʻula. In a brief telling, Kūkahauʻula, who manifests in the red of the rising sun, yearned for Poli‘ahu, the snow goddess of Maunakea, after dreaming about her.
Traveling to the mauna, or mountain, in the sun’s rays, he encountered Lilinoe and Lihau, spirits of the mist, who warned that Poli‘ahu was off limits to men in order to preserve her sacredness.
Regardless, Kūkahauʻula battled winds and rains to reach her. Mo‘oinanea, the guardian of Lake Waiau on Maunakea, noticed Kūkahauʻula’s efforts and advocated for him to Kāne, sky god and father of Poli‘ahu. Convinced of Kūkahauʻula’s sincerity, Kāne gave permission for him and Poliʻahu to be together at sunrise and sunset until the end of time.
This mo‘olelo (story), passed on to her by her aunty Kuʻulei Keakealani, was the first story she fully comprehended in ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian), her second language.
The legend also held a spatial connection to Hāwane, who grew up in Waimea on Hawai‘i Island in view of Maunakea.
Touched by the history of her homeland, she began to observe the reunions of Kūkahauʻula and Poli‘ahu, when the couple cast shades of pink and orange on the gentle slopes, marking the beginning and ending of each day.
Inspired by this mo‘olelo, Hāwane began to learn as many Hawaiian mele, or songs, and oli, or chants, as she could about the snow goddess.
Each verse and lyric brought her closer to Poli‘ahu and deepened her love. According to Hāwane, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i is a language that transcends human communication.
For several months after college, she volunteered on Moku Pāpapa, also known as Kure Atoll, the most remote atoll in the Hawaiian chain and is a locus for various birds and marine life.
It was then, ensconced by nature, that Hāwane understood ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i as a living language—one that not only reflects the natural elements but is inextricable from them.
“When it was quiet, I could only hear the call of the birds, the shifting of the wind, the coming of the rain,” she recalls. “I could hear the way our ‘ōlelo was shaped, because all of nature’s sounds sound like our words … This [Hawaiian language] is our direct communication, not just with one another but with everything around us.”
Hāwane, who is a Nā Hoku Hanohano Award winner, composed her earliest songs in dedication to Poli‘ahu.
She presciently wrote “Poli‘ahu I Ke Kapu” before she embarked on a decade-long battle to protect Maunakea from desecration. The song, completely sung in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and accompanied by an ʻukulele, personifies Poli‘ahu.
This [Hawaiian language] is our direct communication, not just with one another but with everything around us.
Hāwane compares the stars above Maunakea to the goddess’s eyes; the slopes of the mountain to her body; and the rain and mist to her breath.
Hāwane explains that the song was “an ode to our kūpuna,” who brought these elemental stories to life as she was now doing. Through mele, she says, “we could connect to the deities like we connect to one another. So we could love them like we love one another.”
When composing the song, Hāwane felt guided by Poli‘ahu who instilled the melody in her almost instantaneously.
In 2013, “Poliʻahu I Ke Kapu” took on new significance when Hāwane performed it in front of a Hilo courtroom as testimony against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Maunakea.
Since 1968, astronomy organizations have pushed to build telescopes on the sacred Hawaiian landmark, much to the resistance of Native Hawaiian activists. In 2013, with already 13 telescopes on Maunakea, the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources granted a permit for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. The building of TMT would further desecrate the mauna, considered by Native Hawaiians to be the piko, or center, of the Hawaiian Islands.
Hāwane, along with her mother, Pua Case, her sister, Kapulei Flores, and her stepfather, Kalani Flores, decided as a family to petition against TMT after Kapulei received a spiritual request from Manaua, guardian of Waimea’s rain rock, and Mo‘oinanea.
The Flores-Case ‘ohana petitioned on behalf of the spirit world, an unprecedented act in the Hilo court system. With other kia‘i, or protectors, they performed hula, oli, and mele. Hāwane’s performance of “Poliʻahu I Ke Kapu” declared to the court that Poliʻahu exists and is in need of protection.
Outside the courtroom, Hāwane spent more time at the mauna at the frontline of protests, often disrupted by police officers. In September 2015, she was arrested while in prayer at the sacred space.
A similar incident occurred four years later, with the arrests of 38 kūpuna (elders) in nonviolent protest, the images and videos of which emboldened international support for Maunakea.
In those painful moments, as kia‘i grieved their elders’ ignominious treatment, Hāwane recounts feeling Poli‘ahu’s presence. The goddess made herself known through the mist that seeped in, a chill that spread across the land, and a light rain that fell with the tears of the kia‘i.
Although kia‘i no longer block Maunakea Access Road and construction remains on hold due to Covid-19 safety measures, the fight to protect the mauna is ongoing.
“Loving [Poli‘ahu] and protecting her are the same thing,” Hāwane says. “That’s aloha ‘āina.”
It’s been over a decade since Hāwane deepened her ancestral connection to Poli‘ahu, a moment that influenced her artistry, activism, and identity. She encourages all residents of Hawai‘i to develop their own pilina, or relationship, to land, regardless of one’s belief in the Hawaiian deities.
“What’s the name of your mountain? What’s the name of your river?” she asks. “If you don’t know, find out. You’re going to care about the places you come from and know by name.”