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The pandemic hasn’t stopped Native Hawaiians’ fight to protect Maunakea

Despite the pandemic, protectors are still working to prevent the construction of a massive telescope.

Native Hawaiian protectors at Maunakea.
Kai’i, or protectors, form a line blocking the access road to Maunakea on the Big Island of Hawaii on July 15, 2019, the day TMT was to begin construction of one the largest telescopes in the world. The mountain, sacred to Native Hawaiians, is known as “where the gods reside.”
Kapulei Flores

“It almost seems like it never happened,” Pua Case tells Vox about her time in the encampment at the foot of Maunakea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii and the tallest mountain in the world. While she lives only a 30-minute drive away, she says, “I have to go back and look at videos or pictures to remind myself that we were really up there.”

For nearly nine months, she and other kiaʻi, or protectors, were sleeping in a parking lot over a lava field that marks the beginning of the access road up to Maunakea’s summit. From the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu camp, protectors kept watch for construction crews for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) — planned to be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere — through windstorms, hail, and overnight temperatures that dipped well below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Hawaiian traditions of creation, the mountain is an ancestor and shares genealogical ties with Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli. It is one of the most sacred sites — if not the most sacred — in Hawaiian culture. For kiaʻi, protecting the mountain from desecration is more than a cultural responsibility; it’s a lineal duty to those who came before them and the generations who will succeed them.

overhead view of encampment at Maunakea
For nine months, kia’i encamped on Maunakea, watching for TMT construction crews. Their Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu camp was equipped with a kitchen, solar trailers, and even a “university” grounded in Native Hawaiian science and culture.
Mauna Media

When the pandemic hit, kiaʻi were already assessing the threat of construction and considering the impact on resources. After determining that there was no imminent threat, they decided to pack up their site, which hosted anywhere between 30 and 3,000 people at any given time. Should an attempt be made to initiate the project, they knew they could be back up there in half an hour. Still, their departure from the mountain was marked by emotional exhaustion and trepidation for what was to come.

It also presented familiar challenges. Before the latest standoff on the mountain, many kiaʻi had spent years tirelessly writing letters, submitting testimony to city council meetings, combing over management plans, and trying to monitor the movements of multiple parties with vastly more power and resources than they’ll ever have. Today, they continue that labor from their homes.

At least on the mountain, they could offer their physical presence to inspire supporters, who could be shielded from the invisible — and, certainly, less romantic — work kiaʻi had been doing behind the scenes. The movement has a robust social media presence that acts as a direct line of communication between the front line and its supporters abroad. The Protect Mauna a Wākea Instagram account, one of two accounts that had been operating from the camp, has 136,000 followers who rely on photos and videos of kiaʻi to draw inspiration and feel plugged into the action. Under lockdown, the movement is challenged with keeping supporters, who are used to seeing dispatches from the mountain, engaged and connected to it.

“It’s constant,” Case says. “You have to be a presence or you’re going to disappear. And you can’t afford to disappear when you’re talking about your lifeways, your culture, and the very continuance and protection of the places that are connected to you.”

A timeline of resistance

Kiaʻi have opposed the telescope’s construction in a string of legal challenges, petitions, and protests over the past decade. But the fight for Maunakea gained national attention a year ago, after Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced that construction would be cleared to begin on July 15.

That morning, kiaʻi awaited the construction crews. Some had locked themselves to a cattle guard that was built into the Mauna Kea Access Road — the only road up to the summit. But then, a line of elders, or kupuna, formed farther down, at the start of the road. It was their blockade that inevitably became the front line.

“I saw them sitting in lawn chairs and folding chairs on the road, all bundled up with blankets and sleeping bags,” said Andre Perez, one of the kiaʻi and a nonviolent direct action trainer for the Hawaiʻi Unity and Liberation Institute. He was the acting police liaison that day. “I knew that something powerful was happening. The elders were stepping into the fray and taking charge.”

They held that line for two days before Ige issued a state of emergency on July 17, clearing a path for law enforcement to begin making arrests.

A line of law enforcement at Maunakea
Law enforcement on Maunkea on July 17, 2019. That day, 38 kupuna, or elders, many in their 70s and 80s, were arrested for blocking the access road.
Kapulei Flores

Multiple agencies arrived on the scene; there were officers brought in from other islands, three state agencies, and the National Guard. It wasn’t long before kiaʻi, hundreds of whom had gathered there around their kupuna, were sitting in front of a massive militarized police presence dressed in riot gear and armed with chemical dispersants and a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) — a sonic weapon developed for use by the US military that emits high-frequency sounds at extreme volumes to disperse crowds.

Whatever aggression law enforcement expected from the crowd that day never materialized. Kia‘i sat in purposeful silence as 38 of their kupuna, many in their 70s and 80s, were arrested and escorted — and, in several instances, carried — away to awaiting police vans, crying but resolute. The air above the crowd was periodically punctured by sobs, singing, and chanting. “We didn’t want to give the police any reason to escalate,” said Perez. “Our discipline was our safety.”

Images and video footage of the arrests sparked public outcry across the island chain and overseas. It was the stark, visible disparity between the resistance and the state response that galvanized a native movement and brought supporters from around the world to their cause.

For nearly nine months after, kupuna never left the spot they first occupied. A tent was erected to shelter them as they sat on the road, and a volunteer village formed overnight, equipped with a kitchen, solar trailers, and even a “university” grounded in Native Hawaiian science and culture. They hosted locals and musicians from neighboring islands, curious tourists, relatives from other Indigenous movements — the camp flew flags gifted to them from Palestine, Tibet, Guam, Standing Rock, Cherokee, and Navajo, Aotearoa, and the Indigenous Australian people, among others. Even Hollywood celebrities like Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who felt connected to the movement through their Polynesian heritage, came to pay their respects.

A team of medics was also on hand to assist kupuna, some of whom experienced altitude sickness and even mild strokes while keeping watch over their sacred mountain. Many kupuna had preexisting health conditions that made their taking a stand challenging — and yet, they stayed.

After five months and $15 million spent on officers and supplies to manage the conflict, Ige withdrew state and county law enforcement from the mountain. At the same time, he requested additional funding from the House Finance Committee as a “contingency amount for any upcoming projects that may attract community activism, including but not limited to Maunakea.”

In late December, kiaʻi reached a temporary agreement with Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to clear the access road with his assurance that TMT would not attempt to begin construction until the end of February 2020. They caught a break when the deal expired; the observatory’s leadership had yet to determine when construction could begin.

In the midst of the pandemic, the future is uncertain. Kiaʻi don’t know when or if they’ll return to the mountain to resume their standoff. Since the lockdown, some have returned to the mountain to stand at the ahu, the altar erected alongside where their camp once stood, and for years where many have offered prayers. It is ground that they hope someday to only have to hold in prayer, rather than resistance.

A battle for the heavens

The new giant telescope promises access to “the very edge of the observable Universe,” an opportunity to discover places that were previously unreachable to humankind.

“It will enable a new frontier of discoveries about the contents, nature, and evolution of the universe, including the search for life on other planets,” the University of California, one of the project’s funders, said in a statement to Vox. “The potential for scientific discoveries is truly unlimited.”

But kiaʻi say it’s precisely this argument that gives cause for opposition: There are some places that humans aren’t meant to go, and the summit of Maunakea is one of them.

The summit is firmly the province of the gods. Historically, only select individuals — such as the kahuna, or priests, or the ali‘i, high chiefs — were permitted on the mountain in order to perform ceremonies of affairs, and they wouldn’t stay long. It is sacred not only in its religious capacity but also because of the lack of oxygen.

At 13,796 feet, there is 40 percent less air pressure at the summit than at sea level. Visitors are advised to heed signs of altitude sickness and pulmonary and cerebral edemas. Even employees at existing observatories have reported feeling fatigued working at that elevation.

“It’s a place where humans don’t belong,” says Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the kupuna arrested that day. “Where gods reside.”

Maunakea protector Noe Noe Wong-Wilson in a police van with handcuffs
Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the 38 kupuna arrested for blocking the access road to Maunakea, on July 17, 2019.
Kapulei Flores

The area between Maunakea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai volcanic mountains are sensitive environments and culturally significant landscapes. Roughly 20 miles from Kona to the west and almost 30 miles from Hilo to the east, the area is extremely remote.

The only other substantial activity in that area is at the Pōhakuloa Training Area, the largest military installation in the Pacific, where the US Army conducts live-fire training a few miles down the road. On those rare nights when the harsh weather conditions would relent, kiaʻi still had to fall asleep to the sound of machine gun fire carried over the camp by an eastward wind. And as they laid their heads down in their tents, they could feel tremors underneath them from the impact of explosions. “It feels like a little earthquake,” says Wong-Wilson. “Every time, it just hurt our soul.”

TMT proponents say they don’t understand why Kanaka and locals would go through the trouble to contest a telescope, an instrument of science that beckons humankind to reach for a higher purpose. Many have reasoned that the telescope must represent other longstanding issues for the Hawaiian people — such as the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by American and European businessmen, aided by the US military, which paved the way for US possession of the islands and, eventually, Hawaii’s induction into statehood. “I understand that talking about TMT is a way to express some frustration over these issues that have not been addressed in the past,” Gordon Squires, vice president of external affairs for the TMT International Observatory, told Hawaii News Now.

It’s a position those in the movement have heard repeatedly from their opposition, and to Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a longtime advocate for the preservation of Maunakea and an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa’s School of Law and School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the argument is entirely dismissive. “Trying to say, ‘Look, we’re sorry [about] the overthrow, but don’t make us hurt for it’ is so dislocated from the reality of the situation. The scale, the amount of degradation, and the density of the existing telescope facilities on Maunakea — it’s all too much.”

Squires, meanwhile, has called the project — whose budget has now climbed from its initial projection of $1.4 billion to $2.4 billion — “a bargain for the people of Hawaii and the people of the world as we understand our place in the universe.”

But what many onlookers find perplexing, and what opponents of the telescope certainly find frustrating, is that TMT already has the licenses and land required to develop on a backup site: La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. It is a far less contentious option, and yet Maunakea remains TMT’s first choice for the project; the summit’s higher altitude and cooler temperatures make it a “slightly better” site to capture infrared light, Harvard’s astronomy department chair, Avi Loeb, told the Associated Press, thereby enhancing the telescope’s imaging capabilities.

“I think we can all agree that Maunakea is a great place to view the stars,” says Beamer. “But that’s not all Maunakea is.”

TMT leadership and proponents have also vehemently denied that the project’s presence would disturb any cultural resources or sites at the summit. But historical mismanagement of the summit’s natural and cultural resources has been well documented since the first observatory was constructed; kia‘i have no doubt that the addition of an 18-story building — slated to be the largest building on the Big Island — will be any different.

“In the Western perspective, people want to draw a line in the dirt and say, ‘It’s only sacred in this spot here, where you stand; therefore, we can build 500 feet to the left of that because that’s not sacred anymore.’ And we say that the landscape of the summit, which has no line drawn around it, is a spiritual landscape,” says Wong-Wilson. “Once they dig two stories into the ground and put in all the roads and outbuildings, and then the five-acre structure, they’ll have done damage that’s irreparable. The way that it looks now will never be recovered, and that, to me, is unacceptable. All the money in the world will not make up for that.”

The fight ahead

There’s no telling what the fight ahead looks like for the movement, other than that it will be difficult.

While the TMT International Observatory has announced that construction will not likely begin until 2021, the project is pursuing significant funding from the National Science Foundation, which would present a new set of federal regulatory obstacles that could further postpone construction by at least another three years. Still, Squires says it isn’t a question of “if” construction would happen, but “when.”

“We’re absolutely committed to finding a way forward in Hawaii,” he said to Hawaii News Now on July 15, exactly one year since the most recent standoff began. The University of California also doubled down on its commitment to the project, saying, “TMT remains committed to integrating science and culture, providing the best possible stewardship of Maunakea, enriching Hawaiian culture and heritage, and supporting educational opportunities as it enables this global scientific collaboration centered in Hawaii in the interest of humanity.”

The governor’s office did not respond to Vox about the state’s involvement in the private project’s progress in the future. But in February, Ige traveled to Japan — one of two countries investing public funds into the project — and met with key TMT stakeholders there, signaling his commitment, as he stated in his emergency proclamation a year ago, “to seeing this project through.”

As far as kiaʻi are concerned, though, they still have a job to do: protect the mountain; stop the project for good. In July, to commemorate a year since this latest standoff and the kupuna arrests, a slew of online events and actions was organized for their supporters to participate in “#TMTshutdown week,” including topic-focused talks via Zoom, film screenings, and a letter-signing campaign to TMT’s board of governors, project partners, and other affiliated stakeholders urging them to halt any further attempts at construction. Kiaʻi also recently submitted testimony at a UC Board of Regents meeting on July 30, where its chair John Pérez concluded that the board would continue discussions of the telescope at a later date. Meanwhile, charges against the 38 kupuna still stand.

While kiaʻi can’t afford rest, they might spare a moment to marvel at what has transpired over the past year. “I think most people thought we would get squashed. We were up against a billion-dollar project,” says Beamer. “And yet we were able to turn the tide. Despite all that it takes to stand against something like this, to risk what we’ve spent our lives building, people did it anyway. And we did it out of courage.”

On July 15, 2019, construction for TMT was scheduled to begin. One year later, it still hasn’t broken ground.

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