The Wao Akua, or realm of the gods, encompasses the summit and land surrounding Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawai’i. Native Hawaiians believe that it’s inhabited only by spirits; humans were never meant to live there. They consider it the most sacred place on Earth. The summit, at 13,882 feet above sea level, stands above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Weather conditions are extreme, harsh, and constantly changing.

Though this land was never inhabited, it has become a temporary home to many kia’i (protectors), who are preventing construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope at the summit. There’s a complicated history surrounding the existing telescopes and the years-long battle against TMT. Key issues include but are not limited to: the often-ignored rights of indigenous people to control their land; corporations and scientists questioning whether land can be sacred; and the necessity of protecting the unique ecosystem on Mauna Kea, already zoned as conservation land.  

The community of kia’i, while predominantly indigenous, includes people of all backgrounds from all over the world. Population at the encampment varied from many thousands in the summer of 2019 to low double-digits in the winter months. Everyone sacrifices something to be there – work, family obligations – yet Mauna Kea gives back tenfold. The spiritual power of the land is tangible, but the threat of police action loomed constantly.

The kia’i are like family to me now; their determination, resilience, and resolve to protect the sacred has inspired me profoundly. Everyday moments, seasonal ceremonies, and the raw beauty of the land come together in the photographs, offering a glimpse into life in this temporary village, in the realm of the gods.

"In the Realm of the Gods" is an ongoing project that is currently unpublished. To see more or inquire about licensing, please contact molly@mollypetersphoto.com.

Molly Peters Photography

Molly Peters is a Los Angeles-based photographer working in working in fine art and documentary photography.
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