For the last two weeks, Kānaka Maoli protectors (called Kia’i) have blocked an access road to Mauna Kea, located on the island of Hawaii, in a peaceful protest of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The resistance camp, named Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu, emerged the first day of construction on TMT and has since halted any progress on the development. With occupants now numbering in the thousands, the stand at Mauna Kea has gone viral across social media and attracted the support of celebrities, including Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jason Momoa.
Mauna Kea means “white mountain,” as its top is covered in snow during the winter. At 13,796 feet above sea level, the Mauna is the highest peak in the Pacific and the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its oceanic base. Its summit has a long history as an altar to the Polynesian sky god Wākea, known as the “union between heaven and earth”.
To the common viewer, the Mauna Kea movement may appear to be Indigenous peoples protesting scientific development. The crux of the issue is much more complex.
As the central sacred site to the Kānaka Maoli people, Mauna Kea holds an immense amount of significance to their spirituality, heritage, and astronomical knowledge. Not only is the mountain the zenith of Kānaka creation, it is also home to ancestral burial sites and traditional practices passed down through generations. For these reasons, the issue extends far beyond TMT being a simple telescope. The 18-story, $1.4 billion project would occupy 10 acres on the peak, if completed, and would require ground drilling and intensive construction—an act deemed as desecration by Native Hawaiians.
The relationship between settlers and Kānaka Maoli is a tangled history, Mauna Kea included. Since Hawaii’s forceful annexation by the U.S. in 1898, Native Hawaiians’ spirituality and culture have been sidestepped, commodified, and appropriated for American imperialism and tourism. The act of protecting Mauna Kea is crucial to Indigenous sovereignty and essential in demonstrating respect to the first peoples of the islands.
For decades, Hawaii residents have protested the construction of observatories on Mauna Kea with little resolve. In 1968, the University of Hawaii (UH) promised stewardship of Mauna Kea in exchange for the right to build an observatory. Reports over the years, however, have cited UH’s failure to properly manage the mountain.
“We are not anti-science. We are against the building of anything 18 stories over our watershed, water aquifers, on our sacred mountain. It could have been anything; it just happens to be a telescope.”Pua Case, long time Kānaka Maoli activist and petitioner against TMT.
Today, there are already 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea. In 2002, the University submitted a proposal allowing for 40 new telescopes and support structures to be installed over time. The Board of Natural Resources and Land of Hawaii authorized the construction of TMT in 2013, subsequently met with multiple challenges in court.
TMT’s website states that developers engaged the Hawaiian community via a “community-listening process” in a newspaper poll, but does not explicitly detail any direct consultation with the Indigenous population. Some Kānaka people argue that the approval process for TMT is indicative of the larger trend of denying Indigenous people the right to self-determination over land use.
“There’s a certain fatigue that the Native Hawaiian community has about outreach,” Kaniela Ing, a former Hawaii state representative, told VICE News. “You talk to a few consultants that will be sympathetic, incorporate names and stories, do a blessing and cut some ti leaf when you groundbreak, and all is good. But I think that era is coming to a close.”
While momentum has been building for years, only now has the movement for Mauna Kea progressed from a local scale to a national and international story. For some Native Hawaiians, this signals the dawn of a new era.
The Kia’i at Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu emphasize that their stand is bigger than just one issue or development. Protecting Mauna Kea is not about resisting astronomy, but opposes continued colonial control over a sacred site; it is about reclaiming Indigenous values and disrupting the degradation of their spiritual place, land, and water sources.
“We are not anti-science,” stated Pua Case, a long time Kānaka Maoli activist and petitioner against TMT, in an interview with Democracy Now!. “We are against the building of anything 18 stories over our watershed, water aquifers, on our sacred mountain. It could have been anything; it just happens to be a telescope.”
On the third day of the protest, military personnel and law enforcement arrested over 30 people at the summit, including many Kūpuna (elders). Despite the presence of law enforcement from the state, the Kia’i community has created spaces for free healthcare, food, childcare, and even a university offering workshops on the Hawaiian language and culture.
Heavily armed police at the site of a spiritual protest is not new to Indigenous communities, especially Hawaiians. In the late 1800s, Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate to settlers without a treaty in place in order to spare her people from bloodshed. Not only did it change the structure of Hawaii, the annexation also altered the terrain due to farming, largely impacting Kānaka Maoli livelihood. Fervent governmental protection of TMT harkens back to the colonial era, when Indigenous islanders were criminalized, dislocated, and removed from their cultural practices.
Hawaiian Governor David Ige’s recent emergency order meant to thwart the protests is an example of the endurance of American imperial will, with its usual proximity to money and “progress.” The emergency order gave law enforcement authority to arrest protectors on Mauna Kea, make deliveries to the construction site, and close roads. The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ige over the emergency proclamation, claiming that Ige’s intent was to enable the construction of TMT and prevent Native Hawaiians from exercising protected free speech rights.
As of Tuesday, Gov. Ige has rescinded the emergency order, citing changed conditions atop the mountain. While the governor said that equipment would not be removed at the current time, the deadline for construction has been extended to Sept. 26, 2021.
The Pu'uhonua o Pu'uhuluhulu camp affirmed the withdrawal a victory, but called the move “a stall tactic” in an online statement.
Currently, a motion to grant a temporary restraining order to halt construction has been denied. The governor recently visited the summit protectors, however, and stated that he was looking forward to discussion and wants to find the best way forward.
“I am hopeful his leadership would be much more understanding,” said camp organizer Kahookahi Kanuha in a segment on KHON2 News. “We have a better path and a better chance of moving forward that is beneficial to all through his leadership.”
Similar to the Oceti Sakowin camp in Standing Rock during the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the protectors conduct themselves in accordance with their spiritual practice. All things must be done in compliance with “Kapu Aloha,”which means, “sacred mountain...sacred conduct.”
Kānaka Maoli have stood up to keep the inherent spirit of their island alive. It is important, if long overdue, that other Indigenous communities and their allies stand with them. If we don’t protect the sacred now, what we will stand for in the days to come?
How Can We Do Our Part?
Whether you are Kānaka Maoli, Indigenous, or non-Native, where you choose to place your energy can be extremely important in supporting the preservation of the Mauna. As of right now, Kānaka Maoli are the only ones called to physically protect Mauna Kea. If you are not part of the Kānaka Maoli community, Kia’i are asking protectors to support from your own location at this time.
Learn more and donate:
Donate to the Hawaii Community Bail Fund. This will support the cause by helping any protectors that have been arrested so that they won’t be burdened by bail costs.
Support organizations on the frontlines:
- Kahea: Hawaiian Environmental Alliance: a Hawaiian-led environmental justice organization. Check out the organization’s educational resources to learn more about the history, environment, and culture of Hawaii.
- Mauna Medic Healers Hui: frontline medical personnel providing preparation and treatments for protectors.
- HULI: nonviolent direct action training and frontline action support for Puʻuhonua o Pu'uhuluhulu in defense of Mauna Kea.
Show your solidarity: show your support online to spread awareness! It is absolutely crucial that Kānaka Maoli gains recognition and that the call to protect Mauna Kea accelerates. Posting updates to viewers is impactful because major news outlets may not. Keeping this relevant is a call to action for us all.
- Add your name to a petition to halt the construction of TMT. Over 190,000 signatures and counting!
- Make comments to the State of Hawaii and Governor Ige sharing your perspective on this document.
- Take a photo and share on social media with the hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea to signify your solidarity. If #NoDAPL taught us anything, it’s that social media campaigns CAN make a difference.
- Lastly, follow the hashtags and accounts associated with the Kia’i and share their content.
We must stand together to protect Indigenous sovereignty, until the very last Aloha ‘Aina! Mahalo.