Not since the United States forced annexation of Hawaii in 1897 have traditional Hawaiians come together in such solidarity. On Wednesday, June 24, 750 activists blocked police and construction crews from reaching the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest and most sacred mountain. Construction was to begin that day on the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would have an eight-acre footprint on the mountaintop. The telescope project is under the management of the University of Hawaii.
Construction has been halted in the area designated as conservation land. However, Cindy McMillan, a spokesperson from Governor David Ige’s office, confirmed that TMT has applied for and received all the necessary permits to begin construction.
The resistance to the telescope is based in cultural preservation and ecology. Keala Kelly, documentarian of “Why The Mountain,” said two million cubic feet of earth would be removed from the mountaintop. Kaho’okahi Kanuha, considered by many to be a leader in the movement, said commercial buildings on the Hawaiian islands cannot exceed seven stories, yet, on land designated a conservation area, “they have approved an 18-story telescope that will be at least two stories below the ground. The telescope will be 34,000 square feet, and the construction footprint is 64,000 feet. You could fit a 50,000 capacity stadium on the construction site—I don’t see how that is conservational.”
Why the Mountain
Kaho?okahi Kanuha, Mauna Kea protector and leader who has been Living on the Mauna Kea for 91 days.
Kanuha described Wednesday’s protest as peaceful and prayerful, until the arrests began. “It did not get out of hand on our end. It did not get violent, it did not get hostile. It just got tense,” he said. According to the Hawaii Tribune Herald, 12 people were arrested and charged with obstruction. Those who were arrested were released after posting $250 in bail. They each face a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail.
In response to charges filed against the activists, who call themselves protectors rather than protesters, the Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison told ICTMN, “Our overarching goal is to ensure public safety—and certainly if there are laws being broken, they will be arresting them as they did on Wednesday. Our primary goal is to ensure public safety for the protesters, the workers, the staff and visitors who are going to the mountain.”
Why the Mountain
After he was arrested, Mauna Kea protector and aloha ?aloha ?aina patriot Hualalai Keohuloa hand symbols Mauna Kea with bound wrists as he is loaded and shuttled away while Hawaii DLNR police continue to arrest others.
The DLNR arrived at the mountain at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, leading the way for an estimated 20 trucks loaded with construction workers and gear. Kelly described the scene at the Visitors Center, 9,000 feet up the mountain, saying that at least 200 people were gathered there. “Our kapuna [elders] were just walking across that crosswalk, walking really slow. After 2-1/2 to 3 hours, the DLNR started to push through, and inch-by-inch they started to make their way up.”
Kelly reported that every 20-30 yards, there was another line of between 5 and 15 people stretched across the width of the road to block the oncoming trucks. One was a line of women, praying, chanting, and together holding tightly to a thin, green, braided rope woven from the ti plant, long noted in Hawaii for its protective and healing properties. . A similar rope was held by many in the lines organized to keep the trucks from passing, Kelly said, “and they would hold it together for as long as they could,” until the police and the trucks finally broke through.
Alohi Lani Keohuloa was one of the women who stood in that line, face to face with the DLNR. “I felt like nothing could touch us. There are no English words that explain how powerful we felt.”
Keohuloa brought her four young children with her. “We have babies to seniors here. It shows we are doing it for them and their future, and it sets a tone for the movement,” she said.
The children offered leis to the police. “It was a very powerful thing. We did it to show we understand the situation they have been put into, and there is no judgment, we just want to give our highest love and respect to them,” Keohuloa said.
The children offered leis to the police in a show of respect and understanding.
After three hours, the trucks had barely gone one-quarter-mile. As the trucks approached each line, the person deemed the “leader” of that group was arrested.
Once the police and trucks made their way through 24 lines of people, they encountered hastily made but substantial rock structures—some as high as three feet. There were boulders and traditional stone altars, which Hawaiians have always built upon Mauna Kea. The structures were assembled across the width of the road by those who had watched the unfolding events from the summit above.
Upon reaching the rock structures, the police and trucks retreated and made their way back down the mountain. The governor called for construction to be halted “until further notice,” but offered his support for the building of the telescope.
In response to halting construction, the Office of Mauna Kea Management through the University of Hawaii has closed the visitors center, which had been the source of the activists electricity, running water and bathrooms. There are portable bathrooms, but the protectors believe it is only a matter of time before they, too, are removed.
A small camp of perhaps 20 of the protectors remain on the mountain. They and others have agreed to remove the stone structures that blocked the road.
Pua Case, a respected elder and protector of the mountain, said she believes the situation has captured international attention because “it is a familiar story. People don’t believe we have these kinds of issues in Hawaii, and now come to find out, yes, we do. We are doing our best to have guidance through this, in the values and protocols of our ancestors, in a manner in which we need to conduct ourselves. It is a way in which Native people understand. There are many of us that make that commitment to follow the direction of our ancestors who said when annexation (in 1897) was at our doorstep, ‘Until the last patriot stood, never give up.’ We are doing our best to stand in the best way possible; for as long as it takes.”