By Kēhau Lyons
Nearly ten years ago, a multibillion-dollar international collaboration led by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology planned to build the largest telescope in the Northern hemisphere on the summit of Mauna Kea, a sacred Hawaiian mountain. It is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the ocean floor; higher than even Mount Everest. In 2015, kiaʻi, protectors of the mountain, prevented that work from starting and Hawaiʻi’s Supreme Court repealed the telescope’s permit.
But the battle didn’t end there. On October 30, 2018, a ruling was handed down by the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court allowing Hawaiʻi’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to issue a highly-contested conservation district use permit, allowing the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to move forward with construction this year. On July 10, Governor David Ige announced that construction on Mauna Kea would begin on the week of July 15.
As a result of Governor Ige’s announcement, a major gathering of kiaʻi have gathered on sacred and once-pristine Mauna Kea and demanded that the TMT International Observatory abandon construction of the TMT, which is slated to stand 18 stories tall with two stories gouged underground and has been designed as one of the largest telescopes ever built-in existence. That it is situated on environmentally sensitive, sacred, Indigenous land seems almost like an afterthought to its creators.
Since the beginning of our history, Kānaka Maoli, the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi, have traveled up the smooth, graceful slopes of Mauna Kea to honor our sacred and most cherished Mauna a Wākea, the piko (umbilical cord) and location of our origin story. The mountain is within an environmentally sensitive and fragile conservation district and is a part of ceded lands, which are crown lands from the Hawaiian monarchy that were stolen and given to the U.S. government when Hawaiʻi was illegally overthrown in 1893 and annexed into the U.S. in 1898. Years later, when Hawaiʻi became a state in 1959, the federal government gave those crown lands to the newly established State of Hawaiʻi via the Statehood Act, with the condition that they must be held in trust specifically for the benefit of the Native Hawaiian people.
Yet even with the handful of organizations dedicated to helping Native Hawaiians, the state of Hawaiʻi and the United States federal government has made it extremely difficult for Native Hawaiians to thrive and prosper in our homeland. In the case of Mauna Kea, they are benefitting off a history of imperialism and white supremacy and trampling over Indigenous rights in the name of science.
Hawaiians are not anti-science, we are anti-desecration. “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,” Hawaiian kiaʻi and organizer Pua Case told Democracy Now.
The TMT is a $1.4 billion endeavor and has become a symbol of modern-day colonialism. The University of Hawaiʻi, regulated by the BLNR, manages the lands on Mauna Kea, and pays the state of Hawaiʻi $1 a year to lease the land, then subleases to the observatories for $1 a year. The practice began in 1964 when the school signed a 65-year lease with the state of Hawaiʻi with the intention of building a single observatory, but a long history of mismanagement soon followed. This ignorance and willful apathy has become a devastating pattern in which settlers and haoles (non-Hawaiians) in positions of power disregard the will of Native Hawaiians, the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi.
Why are Native Hawaiians continually ignored, cast aside, and devalued? Why should we stand aside when other people commodify and monetize our language, culture, traditions, and land? Why can't non-Hawaiians understand us when we say Mauna Kea is sacred to Native Hawaiians? Why do we have to prove why the mountain is sacred and how it is sacred to us?
Ultimately, our language and culture exist for us and by us, and it’s up to us to ensure its preservation. Mauna Kea is where our aliʻi (royalty) are buried, their bones in the ground; it is where Hawaiians generation after generation, a long and surviving lineage, have gone to gather and sing, to chant, to dance hula, to pray, to be within the living presence of mauna. As native people, we know and recognize that our mountains, water, and air are all connected on this earth. Where is your mountain? Where is your river? What are you doing to protect her?
When word spread that Governor Ige would be announcing the construction of the TMT, organizers quickly discussed plans over encrypted messages — they planned to arrive at the intersection of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Access Road on Friday, July 12, with only a few cars at first. Soon, the crowd would swell into the thousands. By Monday, July 15, the kiaʻi assembled peacefully from the early hours of the morning in the freezing cold with ti leaf lei draped gently between each of them. The kūpuna (elder) line, three rows deep, volunteered to be on the frontline.
DLNR and heavily-armed Hawaiʻi Island police, including officers flown in from the City and County of Honolulu, were present the first two days of the stand-off; neither police nor kiaʻi budged. On July 17, the third day consecutive day, the arrests started amid tears and heartbreak. Following an emergency proclamation by Governor Ige, who granted himself more immediate powers to dispatch Hawaiʻis National Guard, 33 of the kūpuna were systematically detained and arrested, each taken to a nearby police vehicle and driven away. “Some willingly walked, but others were in wheelchairs and had to be pushed out. At least one man was lying on the ground and had to be lifted by police,” KITV4 reported. Tiare Lawrence, a community organizer from Maui, said on Instagram that many of the protesters who were arrested on Mauna Kea“were also on Kahoʻolawe fighting the same fight over 40 years ago. Their commitment to aloha ʻāina (love of the land) is unwavering.”
The arrests haven’t stopped others from gathering, as thousands of people began showing up at the sanctuary site, Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu, with their cars lined up along Daniel K. Inouye Highway (known as Saddle Road). Protecting the land cannot fall to Native Hawaiians alone, either. The upswell of support for kiaʻi on Mauna Kea has been a steady growing wave; Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruno Mars, and Bretman Rock have all expressed support for Native Hawaiians and called for a peaceful non-violent resolution. The Rock, who is of Samoan descent and has ties to Oʻahu; singer Jack Johnson; and Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa have all traveled to Mauna Kea to join the joyful, emotional blockade where there has been a steady stream of hula, mele (singing), ʻoli (chanting), and jam sessions.
Things seemed to quell on Wednesday, July 24, when the Hawaiʻi Island city council passed a moratorium for a 60-day break from construction to ease tensions. Subsequently, Governor David Ige took back his emergency proclamation but he also instructed his state agency, the BLNR to grant the TMT project a two-year extension to start construction.
But the fight isn’t over, and protesters will undoubtedly need help from allies — and there’s plenty of ways to help even if you don’t have the time or money to travel to the island and protest in person.
If you can, support by donating.
All kiaʻi are ultimately at risk for arrest on Mauna Kea. You can donate directly to the Hawaiʻi Community Bail Fund to help protectors with cash bail, to HULI for nonviolent community organizing, logistics and training, or to the KAHEA Aloha ʻĀina Support Fund, which prioritizes frontline logistical support for non-violent direct actions taken to protect Mauna Kea from further industrial development including supplies, transportation, technical services, bail, and community meetings. You can also donate any extra Hawaiian Airlines Miles to help other kiaʻi travel to Mauna Kea, or buy a flight directly for a Native Hawaiian eager to join kiaʻi on Hawaiʻi Island.
Support by contacting the decision makers.
The state of Hawaiʻi is currently asking for comments supporting or opposing the Thirty Meter Telescope to be submitted through a Google Form. You can also contact key decision-makers including Governor David Ige, Hawaiʻi Island Mayor Harry Kim, and folks at the University of Hawaiʻi to express your support for Mauna Kea and the kia’i and encourage them against supporting the TMT project. You can also contact the people at the TMT directly and encourage them to relocate the project.
Support by using your voice.
Join an event in your community to show your steadfast support or email firstname.lastname@example.org to start your own. If you are a student, alumni, or affiliated with one of the schools made up of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), you can sign this petition facilitated by Stanford Hui O Nā Moku to “meaningfully object to AURA’s support of the desecration of indigenous sacred land masquerading as a pure, innocent form of science.” You can also join the more than 200,000 Mauna Kea supporters opposing “any construction made on sacred land without the free, prior and informed consent of Kānaka Maoli,” and calling for the permanent halt of construction by the TMT.