Four months later, Maunakea camp is a ‘well-oiled machine’

  • MICHAEL BRESTOVANKSY/Tribune-Herald Although the population of the camp varies from day to day, it remains much the same organization of tents and pavilions as it has since the early days of the ongoing protest.

After the four-month anniversary of the creation of the camp at Maunakea Access Road, some things have changed but more have stayed the same.

From the outside, it might appear as though little has changed at Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu since it formed in July. Although the population of the camp varies from day to day, it remains much the same organization of tents and pavilions as it has since the early days of the ongoing protest by Native Hawaiians and others against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.


But on the inside, volunteers continue to make adjustments and changes to the camp, refining their practices and adapting as the days go on.

“I think we’ve matured a bit, we’ve become more efficient,” said protest leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson on Friday. “For example, we’ve refined our recycling processes to manage our waste better and ensure that our footprint is as light as possible.”

But even as the camp evolves, attendees remain on guard, waiting for police action that could happen tomorrow or months from now.

Ever since the arrest of more than 30 kupuna, or elders, on July 17, police and the protesters — who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors, of Maunakea, which they consider sacred — have existed in a state of detente, with neither side making a move or backing down.

The most significant interaction between the two parties in the four months of protests against the $1.4 billion telescope project was in early September, when state personnel dismantled an unpermitted structure at the camp that was to be used as a library.

Although the kia‘i decried the removal of the library, it spurred no further confrontation between the two sides.

With more than two months having passed since that confrontation, an ever-revolving group of kia‘i return to the mauna each day to help manage the camp, to celebrate their heritage, or to simply wait for the next call to action.

“We try to go to the protocols, we do highway cleanups,” said Buku Gamayo, who returns to the access road whenever his taro farm allows. “A lot of the time, we’re just killing time.”

Gamayo occupied a small tent with fellow protector Nicole Oamilda on Thursday, where it marked the easternmost edge of the camp on the north side of the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. Those borders change as campers spread out or contract; Gamayo said he plans to move the tent closer to the center of the camp to better respond to any potential call to stand and block the access road.

Volunteers in the camp have long since settled into familiar routines — or, what Wong-Wilson described as “a beautiful rhythm.”

“We’ve become a well-oiled machine,” Wong-Wilson. “And it all happened organically. There wasn’t any meeting where we decided what to do.”

Everyone just came together to make sure everything worked, she said.

Lily Ahnee, who volunteers at the Pu‘uhonua’s medical tent, begins each day by “roving” a simple perimeter of the camp to check in on the well-being of the campers.

“And we want to check on camp morale, which is usually pretty high,” Ahnee said Thursday, as other medical tent volunteers assembled a makeshift floor for the tent out of wooden pallets.

Fehren Jones, who works at the camp’s information tent, said the high spirits in the camp are partly because the end of the year marks the time of Lono Makahiki, a season of harvest and celebration that has no place for Ku, the Hawaiian god of war. Fittingly, the camp hopes to expand entertainment options for the kia‘i soon — the Pu‘uhonua already holds karaoke nights but will begin screening movies in the coming weeks with the aid of a projector.

Thrice daily, the kupuna lead kia‘i in protocol, with dozens of attendees coming together in song and dance to recommit themselves to the defense of the mountain. These protocols have gone on for nearly the entire duration of the more-than-120-day-long protest, rain or shine, putting the total number of protocol sessions close to 400.

Even as the number of kia‘i at the camp has dwindled to a couple hundred on weekdays, compared to the thousands in attendance during the first weeks of the protest, donations of food and supplies are still more than sufficient, Jones said. However, a common refrain among kia‘i was concern for the coming winter.

“I don’t own any winter clothes!” Jones laughed.

Although the TMT protests in 2015 endured far worse weather conditions, given that they took place much closer to the summit, Jones said she has heard stories of driving winds and rain so powerful that icicles would form parallel to the ground.

“I’m expecting it’s gonna get cold,” Ahnee said. “We’ll have to make sure everyone’s warm enough when we check in on them,” adding that the tents will likely consolidate closer together to better retain warmth.

Most of the tents are either store-bought camping tents or pavilions made of tarps. However, the rules of the Pu‘uhonua prohibit the use of fire, due to the extreme risk of wildfire in the dry and windy environment. During cold days early in the protest, the camp made use of propane-fueled heaters.

Ahnee said she does not hesitate to call emergency responders if necessary, but that only happens about once a week these days. In the early days of the protest, EMS was called every day, but most people seem to have acclimatized to the area, she said.

Wong-Wilson said she believes the camp has enough resources to endure the winter, and noted that the rainy weather of the winter hasn’t even begun yet. The National Weather Service has previously predicted a wetter and warmer winter for Hawaii, but such predictions can be unreliable.

Among the kia‘i, most agreed on two things: None expected to stay for as long as they have, and all intend to remain for far longer.

“I was like, ‘Ugh, I’ll give it a month,’” Ahnee said. “But then it felt like the right thing to do to stay.”

Jones said she returns to her home on Oahu periodically to continue working, and added that part of her was hoping to be able to return for good by now. But, she said, the wealth of cultural knowledge at the Pu‘uhonua is worth the stay.


“I thought it would last only two weeks,” Wong-Wilson said. “But we’ll stay here for as long as we have to.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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