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Koa Ell Joins Hilo Outreach Office

Aminta Danette Kahalelaukoa Kaahanui Omphroy Ell
Kahalelaukoa (Koa) Ell has worked on Mauna Kea in some capacity for seven years. In May she joined IfA's Hilo-based Office of Science Education and Public Outreach (SEPO) as the community outreach assistant. She sees herself as a bridge between the Native Hawaiian community and the astronomers who work on Mauna Kea. "Hawaiians have always been kilo hoku (stargazers)," she explains. "Now we have an opportunity to do it with modern technology." For her, the astronomy being done on Mauna Kea is an honor and is sacred in its own way.

Ell was born in Panama to a Hawaiian mother and a Panamanian father. She grew up in New York and later Los Angeles, where she studied hula and learned about Hawaiian culture. A pivotal moment in Ell's life occurred when she attended a winter solstice ceremony on Mauna Kea in 1998. She experienced for the first time a deep spiritual connection with the mountain and its gods, and with her ancestors. She also met Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott's Lodge and Hiking Adventures, and soon began leading tours of Mauna Kea for his company.

It was while she was working for Arnott's Lodge and driving Subaru astronomers and telescope operators up from their Hilo base facility to Hale Pohaku that she first came to know some of the astronomers and operators who worked on the mountain. They "helped me to understand that the astronomers were good people" who happened to have expertise in astronomy. Five years ago, she started working as a guide for the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, and in January 2005, she began giving planetarium shows with Gemini Observatory's portable planetarium. In March, she joined the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center on a Women in Technology internship sponsored by the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She created an interactive presentation to teach students over the Internet about both the sacredness of Mauna Kea and the scientific work being done there.

Ell calls the sacred mountain Mauna O Wakea, mountain of Wakea. According to the traditional Hawaiian religion that she embraces, Wakea is the sky father (god of the heavens). He and Papa (the earth mother) are the progenitors of the Hawaiian people. She also honors the four goddesses associated with Mauna Kea, Poliahu (snow), Lilinoe (mist), Waiau (Lake Waiau), and Kahoupokane (lightning and the master maker of tapa cloth).

Since Ell joined the IfA staff, over 1,500 people, including schoolchildren, Hawaiian elders, teachers from the U.S. mainland and American Samoa, and people in Canada, New Mexico, and Arizona, have heard her presentation about Mauna Kea. Her talk begins with her reverence for Mauna Kea. She explains the numerous ancient sites used by the Hawaiians and talks about the many uses, both past and present, of this sacred mountain. The subjects she covers are geology, archaeology, the flora and fauna, and how the ancient Hawaiians navigated using the stars. She also shares information about modern astronomy and explains the similarities between the traditional Hawaiian culture and what the astronomers are doing today. Finally, she explains why it is important to her that everyone work together toward the common goal of learning more about the heavens, for as a Hawaiian proverb says, "Pupukahi i holomua" (Unite to move forward).

If you are interested in having Koa Ell speak to your group, you may contact her by phone (808-932-2399) or by e-mail (