Kanaka Maoli — Native Hawai’ians — are engaged in a historic fight to protect their sacred Mauna Kea and stop the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project from being built there.
There are already 13 telescopes atop Mauna Kea, the highest point in all the Hawai’ian islands, and Kanaka Maoli have been opposing telescopes there since the first one was built by the U.S. Air Force in 1968.
The $1.4 billion TMT would be 18 stories high and take up an area as big as four football fields. The project could be built elsewhere — La Palma in the Canary Islands would welcome it — but the state, the University of Hawai’i and other forces have been insistent on forcing it through at Mauna Kea despite opposition from Kanaka Maoli.
Mauna Kea is a place of ceremony and contains the bones of many ancestors. Native Hawai’ians have a sacred relationship with their land ― a cultural value known as aloha ‘āina, love of the land. But for more than a century, the government of colonial Hawai’i that sits on stolen land has consistently overridden the Kanaka Maoli right to consent to or refuse development on their lands.
Arrest of Kupuna (elders) galvanizes struggle
After years of going through hearings and courts, construction on the TMT was scheduled to begin on July 15. The Kanaka Maoli were prepared and set up a Pu’uhonua (refuge or camp) and road block at a site called Pu’u Huluhulu at the access road at the base of Mauna Kea so they could block construction equipment.
On July 17, some protectors bravely put their bodies on the line by locking down for hours onto cattle guards along the road.
That day, 38 kia’i (protectors) were arrested at the base of Mauna Kea – most of them Kupuna (elders) who volunteered to be the first arrested, even though many of them were quite frail. At the Pu’uhonua and around the world, Kanaka Maoli and other Indigenous people wept at the sight of the elders being taken away. The courageous actions of all those involved galvanized the struggle.
Among those arrested was Onaona Trask, who told Indian Country Today that one of the arresting officers was a former student she had known since birth. “It was kaumaha (with a heavy heart),” she said. “I talked to her in Hawai’ian, and told her that I love her. I said, ‘I carried you as a baby, so it’s okay for you to carry me now.’
“That’s what colonization does to us,” she said. “It divides and pits us against each other. But being colonized doesn’t mean we aren’t Hawai’ian. The Thirty Meter Telescope is the colonizer trying to exterminate our identity and our sense of self as Hawai’ians. But this mountain is so sacred to us we must protect it. In the Kumulipo (Hawai’ian creation story) Mauna Kea is where our akua (gods) dwell.”
Throngs of Hawai’ians gathered outside Gov. David Ige’s office. For two days, traffic was slowed on the H1 highway. On July 21, more than a thousand marched in Honolulu. On July 22, when there was a march in Honolulu to support the popular uprising in Puerto Rico, some tourism workers also stopped work for a day to support the protectors at Mauna Kea. The access road camp has grown to over 2,000 people on some days.
There have been solidarity actions throughout Hawai’i, on the U.S. mainland and worldwide. The many expressions of Polynesian solidarity and unity have been inspiring.
This outpouring of support has pushed back Gov. Ige, who had declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard and a militarized Honolulu police department. Ige, a proponent of the TMT, publicly smeared the Pu’uhonua camp as being disorderly, drunk and disorganized, and refused to meet with the protectors for several days. He was widely criticized and as a result backed down and came to visit the camp on July 23.
Kanaka Maoli culture leads the way
Some media, university officials, scientists and others have falsely painted the Kanaka as being anti-science. But Kanaka Maoli were observing the stars and functioning as scientists on their own lands long before the Europeans showed up.
The Mauna Kea struggle has brought to the fore the issue of the need for scientists to decolonize themselves from colonialist and racist values and beliefs. Science needs to stop disrespecting and running roughshod over the rights of Indigenous, Black and other impacted communities in the name of “progress.”
While many people are noting the similarities to the #NoDAPL defense at Standing Rock in 2017-2018, it is important to emphasize that the Mauna Kea defense is in another time and place and reflects distinct Kanaka Maoli history, practices and cultural values.
The youngers have been studying with the elders who have been in the struggle for decades, and have also clearly studied past and current struggles in other places, as well, while bringing deep cultural knowledge to bear to make the essence of the resistance align with Kanaka values and beliefs.
The camp at the access road is beautifully organized, with many youth leading the way. In just a short period of time, protectors have set up free classes, cooking facilities, security, sanitation, childcare, trainings, medical care and much more. Everyone’s work is valued. Being there is the first true taste of freedom on sovereign land that many participants have ever experienced.
Many non-Native people in Hawai’i, fed up with the ongoing disrespect for Native Hawai’ians and by the way in which the government and institutions have run rampant and have been in thrall to developers, are supporting the movement.
While the defense of Mauna Kea is Kanaka-led, the support is very multinational, including Filipino, Chinese, Okinawan, Japanese, Samoan, Puerto Rican, Black, white and many other nationalities. Hawai’i has a very multinational population, in part because workers from around the world were brought to Hawai’i for decades because the plantation and other bosses hoped that national divisions would prevent them all from organizing together as workers.
In Hawai’i and around the world, from the Philippines to Mexico to British Columbia, Indigenous peoples are defending their land and insisting that nothing should be built, extracted or developed without their consent.
The heroic defenses of land and water in Hawai’i and elsewhere are in some ways a reawakening and in other ways a continuation of the Indigenous resistance that began with invasion. Understanding this resistance can also open non-Indigenous people to the possibility of honoring the land.
Capitalism, colonialism, racism, misogyny — all of these forces alienate humans from their attachment to the land and all living beings on the land. Under capitalism and colonialism, nothing is sacred; land is something to be conquered and exploited. Recovering a proper relationship with the land, water, air and life are key at a time of unchecked climate catastrophe.
Theft of Hawai’i
As with any Indigenous land defense, the present cannot be fully understood without understanding the colonial poison that bubbles just below the surface.
From the time of Captain Cook’s arrival on the Hawai’ian islands in 1778, invaders sought to leech profits from Hawai’i without regard for the land or population. Missionaries quickly set up shop to suppress Kanaka Maoli culture and Christianize humans they considered to be inferior and uncivilized.
By the late 1800s, the settlers passed a law mandating English-only instruction in the schools as part of an intentional effort to make it difficult for Hawai’ian culture and language to be passed from generation to generation.
In 1887, a militia made up of white businessmen increased their power by forcing Hawai’ian King David Kalakaua at gunpoint to sign a new “Bayonet Constitution” limiting Kanaka Maoli power and control. Soon after, in 1893, a group of U.S. capitalists and sugar barons, backed by Washington, overthrew the Hawai’ian Kingdom by forcing Queen Liliuokalani to relinquish control. The U.S. finalized its imperialist land-grab when it imposed statehood on Hawaii in 1959.
In 1993, the U.S. Congress formally apologized for the overthrow of the Hawai’ian Kingdom in 1893 — but the apology came with no reparations or return of the stolen lands.
In 1976, two protesters were killed when there were protests at Kaho’olawe, the smallest of the main islands, to oppose its use as a military bombing range.
“This mountain [Mauna Kea] represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give to them,” said longtime activist Walter Ritte.
Living conditions of Native Hawai’ians
U.S. imperialism has extracted immense wealth from Hawai’i.
Tourism is a key industry. The beautiful culture of the Hawai’ian people — suppressed by colonialism in many ways — is often commercialized and stereotyped. Native Hawai’ians themselves are considered acceptable if they are entertaining the tourists, but not if they are defending their ancestral lands.
Military bases such as Pearl Harbor abound since Hawai’i is a strategic military outpost of the U.S.
Kanaka Maoli experience disproportionately high incarceration rates, and around 1,500 men from Hawai’i — most of them Kanaka — are imprisoned far from home at a for-profit prison in Saguaro, Ariz. Native Hawai’ians also experience health disparities and earn lower incomes.
For decades, Native Hawai’ians have been shoved off their lands to make way for tourism and homes for the wealthy. According to 2016 statistics, 42 percent of homeless people in Hawai’i are Kanaka Maoli or other Pacific Islanders.
Agriculture such as sugar, pineapple and macadamia plantations has led to unhealthy mono-cropping. Heavy use of pesticides has caused extensive damage to land and water and health impacts.
On Kaua’i, the state has been dumping millions of gallons of pesticide-contaminated water in an area where families gather. On Maui, the state has handed over water rights to corporations for decades. On O’ahu, leaking underground military fuel tanks lie above water aquifers.
How can the colonial state, the settlers and the corporations possibly be trusted to do what is best on Hawai’ian lands? They can’t. Mauna Kea and more must be returned to the Kanaka Maoli as the rightful caretakers.
How you can support
At this time, allies who are not Kanaka Maoli or from Hawai’i are being asked not to just show up at Mauna Kea but instead to find other ways to support the struggle. Here are some suggested ways to help:
– Dozens of universities across the U.S. support the TMT project. Demand that they stop.
– Call Governor Ige’s office at 808-586-0034.
– Support any solidarity actions near you.
– Spread the word!