Hawaiian Culture and Connection to Mauna Kea

Big Island Guide Travel Guide

Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in Hawaii is also one of its most revered.

Mauna Kea, standing high above the Big Island’s landscape, is an important cultural site for the Hawaiian people. The grandiosity and beauty of the White Mountain has long attracted human beings to its sacred summit. Towering 13,803 feet above sea level, the mountain encompasses roughly 23% of the Big Island’s landmass and can be seen from shore to shore. The quiet power of the dormant volcano is still perceptible, though the last eruption occurred an estimated 4,500 years ago.

Mauna Kea Origin Story

Mauna Kea, the White Mountain is also known as Mauna a Wakea, or Mountain of the Sky Father, and named after Wakea, the Polynesian god of the sky. Legend tells that Wakea married Papahanaumoku, the Earth Mother, and together they are the parents from whom the ruling chiefs of Hawaii are thought to have descended. The mountain is therefore thought of as the origin spot or Piko (the Hawaiian word for the navel) where life begins.

Because of the connection between heaven and earth, Mauna Kea is also seen as a place of great spiritual power, bridging the two realms. In ancient times, only chiefs and priests of the highest status were permitted to visit the summit of the sky father and it was kapu (forbidden) to all others. Under special circumstances, Hawaiian Ali’i (royalty) were sometimes allowed to make the trek to the top. Queen Emma was the last to do so in 1881 to visit the sacred Lake Waiau.

Poli’ahu, the Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea

The sky father isn’t the only deity with connections to the sacred summit of Mauna Kea. When snow falls on the mountain, it’s said that Poli’ahu, the snow goddess of Mauna Kea, descends to sit on the cliffs overlooking the Hamakua Coast. She is sister and rival to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, who resides on Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Both display their power throughout the year, with Pele offering fire and lava and Poli’ahu giving snow and ice in the distance.

Cultural Sites on Mauna Kea

In several locations on Mauna Kea are lele, stone and wooden altars. Hawaiian cultural practitioners use the altars to show reverence and to honor the mountain’s spiritual significance. There are also several historic burial sites, a stone quarry, and a sacred lake that make up the most sensitive cultural sites on the mountain. Guests are encouraged to respect the ancient relationship between the island’s original residents and the symbol of power that still holds importance to Hawaiian’s today. So when you are on the mountain and encounter a sacred site, take a moment of silent reflection, say a prayer, or quietly enjoy the moment, but remember to walk with respect and care in this sacred place, as with all sites of Hawaiian significance.

Mauna Kea Today

The power of Mauna Kea is alive today and inspiring awe in people from all cultural backgrounds. Visitors come from around the world to observe the stars from the great height of Mauna Kea. There has been controversy surrounding the mountain in recent years due to the proposed construction of a large telescope (the TMT) on Mauna Kea. While some may think this is a simple disagreement between cultures or a science verses native belief issue, the controversy runs deeper than that.

Even among the Hawaiian people, there are differing views, as some see the astronomical research at the summit of Mauna Kea as similar to how ancient Hawaiians explored the earth by studying the heavens and they believe future generations should be able to continue exploring, while others believe that building an additional telescope on the sacred mountain is allowing further desecration of Hawaiian culture and traditional sites. Hopefully a peaceful resolution will be reached that allows for both parties to be heard and honors the spirit of exploration that brought the Polynesian Voyageurs to these islands while respecting the cultural significance of Mauna Kea.

James “Kimo” Kealii Pihana, a Hawaiian Cultural Practitioner and Mauna Kea Ranger, embodies this balance as he welcomes visitors to the mountain, but reminds everyone to respect the land and culture, “Here you may experience and enjoy beautiful sunrises, sunsets and evening stargazing under the northern and part of the southern sky. But here, too, are preserved many magical wonders of the Hawaiian nation. We all need to continue to perpetuate and protect this land, as well as the legends and mythology passed down through the ages, for our own and future generations. We must all continue to be good stewards of this sacred mountain.” Read more from James here.

Mauna Kea Summit Map

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