Kapulei Flores on keeping her culture and tradition alive in Hawaiʻi

Kapulei Flores is from the Moku ʻo Keawe, also known as Hawaiʻi Island. She is a 21 year old Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) photographer focused on capturing authentic moments and showing a perspective of Hawaiʻi through native eyes.


Her goal is to use photography as a tool with activism and perpetuating the culture of Hawaiʻi.


I was raised in a very culturally based family where every element of our daily lives and mindset is affected by our connection to our culture. My family has always been very culturally, spiritually, and mentally connected to our culture and that continues to grow throughout the years. A lot of my childhood consisted of going to ceremonies with my family, always dancing hula, and honoring the beautiful and sacred places throughout the Hawaiian islands. I'm very thankful for my family's connection and involvement with our community and the importance of the land in our lives. I was shown and taught by my family and culture the importance of ʻāina (land) and how we as Hawaiians are geologically connected to the earth. Being able to learn from my kupuna (ancestors) the ways they lived in balance with the earth, both taking care of eachother.

Something I think many indigenous and native people around the world can relate to is the way that being an activist comes naturally to us as native people because we don't necessarily have a choice. You either stand by and watch foreigners take over your home, people, land, and resources. Or you stand for your people, stand to protect your home and natural resources because you understand the importance of land and culture everywhere. For as long as I can remember my family has been involved with movements throughout our communities to try to protect our land and people to the best of our abilities, doing what we can to protect the places and people who raised us.

When I was young my dad was the one who documented the ceremonies, huakaʻi (trip, activities), and community events we were a part of, always with a camera ready to take pictures without disturbing the situation. When I was old enough he started to give me the camera and have me document the things my family did, the places we went, and things we were apart of. I was able to learn how to document with a cultural foundation that helped me understand photography etiquette, especially in cultural settings. From there photography and the things that my family did went hand in hand for me and I became the one who documented what we did and the things we were involved in.

The Protect Mauna Kea movement is a collective of people around the world who are trying to protect Mauna Kea from further construction and desecration. Mauna kea is the tallest mountain in the world from the sea floor up and is located on the island of Hawaiʻi. It also happens to be a hotspot for astronomy with 13 telescopes and a visitors center already on the summit. From the beginning the main goal has been to stop the thirty meter telescope (TMT) from being built on the northern plateau of mauna kea. Despite years of opposition from the people of Hawaiʻi through marches, protests, court cases, testimonies, to multiple frontline stances to protect Mauna Kea; TMT is still trying to be built on mauna kea in this present day. My family first got involved with this movement in 2011 when we entered as the 6th petitioner party against the proposed TMT. Ever since we have been involved with protecting Mauna Kea through the legal system, frontline actions, and spreading awareness all while having a cultural foundation with everything we did.

Throughout the 10+ years of being involved in this movement with my family I have been able to be a part of numerous aspects of this movement, being able to see what it really takes to maintain a movement and stand for the land. From the unfair legal systems to the many frontline stances and marches all the way to the sacred ceremonies I was able to experience while being a part of this movement. When I was younger I wasn't as involved in every aspect of what my family did but I remember chanting and dancing hula all the time with them. During our marches, our protests, our frontline stances, and our ceremonies chanting was always a key element. It helps to stay grounded and focused on the reason we are all there, to protect Mauna Kea. As I got older I was able to be more involved and continued the role of documenting my family and the aspects of the movement I could. My family also created the @protectmaunakea account on instagram in 2015 and have been running it with a small group since.

Our involvement has only grown as the years have gone on with my family still in the legal systems trying to stop TMT while my mom, sister, and I continue to spread awareness and form connections with other movements around the world. These past few years my main role has been running our social media instagram as well as working for Mauna Kea Education and Awareness. I have the privilege of being able to share my story and the Protect Mauna Kea movement through my photography and speaking at different events. I now get to use my photos to show a native perspective of Hawaiʻi on a larger scale through different projects, exhibits, and being featured by organizations around the world. 

I think photography is a key aspect to storytelling because it has the ability to transport someone to that time or feeling that is captured in the photo. It is able to show perspectives, to show emotions, and to tell a message. I think photography is a great way to show the truth and native perspective for indigenous people and our movements. With many, if not all of native movements, there is always misrepresentation and misinformation from mainstream media. During our frontline stance in 2019 to stop the TMT my main goal was to take as many photos of everything that was happening to do my best to show a native perspective of someone who was there. To be able to capture the atmosphere of the camp and all the aspects and elements that made it happen. To show the intense moments with police while also documenting the beauty and joy of people standing together for the love of the land. To show our people practicing our traditional hula, chants, and practices together and how much our culture was interwoven with how we conducted ourselves.

Photography gives me control of the narrative and message I want to share through it. You can get very creative with photography and how you want to frame your message and story you want to tell. It is a way to take your power back and tell your story, your history, and your home from your perspective. It is also more practical for situations like movements because it's faster to export and upload while taking up less space than videos. I think it's very important to document cultural practices and movements throughout communities to show the future generations that we stood. That throughout the years, before our time and after our time people were standing for their culture, land, and people. 

There are many photos that have become favorites for me over the years due to their meanings and what they represent. Currently one of my favorite photos is one that I took in March of 2021. It is a photo at Puʻukohola Heiau on the island of Hawaiʻi that was taken towards the end of a Lono to Kū ceremony. This ceremony signifies and acknowledges the changing of the seasons from winter to spring, but also the shift between the times of our Hawaiian gods. Lono is associated with the season of winter, agriculture, growth, and peace. Kū is tied to spring and known as the time of strategy, strength, and perseverance. In the photos are hula dancers facing the Royal order of Kamehameha and the Heiau. The Royal Order are descendants of our Hawaiian King Kamehameha and have different chapters throughout the Hawaiian Islands. This photo is my favorite and I'm proud of it because it reminds me of a different time. It takes me back to the time of our ancestors, during the wā kāhiko (ancient times). It represents how our culture and traditions are still being continued, our ancient practices are still being done, and our Hawaiian gods are still being honored and a part of our lives. 

My main goals are to help my people, my home, and land to truly thrive in a way that provides space to be Hawaiian in every way desired. Doing everything I can to protect our native species, plants, and the beautifully diverse ecosystems here. Trying to restore and protect our natural resources and find ways to live in a more sustainable balance with the land. Most of the time this work includes testifying on behalf of the land and people to try to urge those with the power to do the right thing instead of doing things for profit. Listening to what's going on in our communities and doing what I can to help spread awareness and resources. As I get older I find myself getting involved in more aspects of my community and preserving our natural resources. I have a strong love for our native birds and plants and plan to get more involved in the preservation and protection through nature conservation work.

As well as working more with our native species I want to learn as much as I can about my culture, my home, my ancestors, and the ways to cultivate our traditions from those who have practiced them for generations. I want to explore the different ways to stand for my people and land, the different ways to perpetuate my culture, and all the aspects that come with being Hawaiian in Hawaiʻi. I know my photography will always play a role in my life no matter what I'm doing and I'm thankful to have it as an outlet to tell stories and express myself. Not only is it documentation for my family, but it is a way to keep our culture and stories alive and share for generations to come. It's hard to say what exactly I'll be doing in the future, but I know it will always be connected to the land and my culture in some way because that is a part of me and the foundation of what I do.