The legacy of colonialism on public lands created the Mauna Kea conflict


Public lands are often the only places where Indigenous sacred landscapes still exist says Rosalyn LaPier

Rosalyn LaPier

If you spend much time in the American West, you’re likely to see someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Public Land Owner.” It’s an assertion that public lands are owned by everyone and that their management is of critical importance to us all. In Hawai’i, a battle over public land and Indigenous rights has complicated that sentiment for many, as Native Hawai’ians find themselves forced to defend their homeland.

For weeks, thousands of Native Hawai’ians have been blocking the only access road to Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in Hawai’i, to oppose the construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at its summit. After 10 years of fighting its construction, Native leaders began demonstrating after Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a “notice to proceed” allowing the University of Hawaii, the permit holder for the TMT, to begin building.

The conflict on Mauna Kea — between Indigenous people and the state of Hawaii — illustrates not only the issue of how public lands are managed but also an emerging debate over how Indigenous rights to those lands are addressed. What we see in these conflicts are two ways of viewing and using public lands in the American West: as places for development and as culturally important landscapes.

As an Indigenous person, I can identify with Native Hawai’ians who want to save what is left of their sacred mountain and their right to access it, before it is overdeveloped. As a scholar, however, with an undergraduate degree in physics, no less, I understand and even sympathize with scientists who want to build one of the world’s largest telescopes in order to better understand the mysteries of our universe. A telescope on top of a mountain is ideal — but perhaps not on this mountain.

As governments push to further develop public lands, places Indigenous people see as their last refuge, conflicts between Native people and federal or state governments will only increase and intensify in the coming years.

Colonization of Hawai’i began in the late 18th century. American businessmen continued the process of dispossessing land and resources when they overthrew the Native Hawai’ian monarchy in 1893, later ceding their “public lands” to the U.S. government via annexation in 1898. Native Hawai’ians have always contended that their land was illegally taken, a view that President Clinton codified in his 1993 apology. When Hawai’i became a state in 1959, the U.S. transferred what was left of these public lands to the new state. Today, Mauna Kea is no longer owned by the Native Hawai’ian community. It is now on state public lands.

Mauna Kea’s story, unfortunately, is not unique.

Twenty years ago, the Apache in Arizona tried to stop the construction of the Mount Graham International Telescope on their sacred mountain in the Coronado National Forest. More recently we have witnessed similar struggles at Bears Ears in Utah and the Badger-Two Medicine in Montana, where, despite Indigenous protests, protections for important Native lands have been removed or put into question.

Thirty Meter Telescope 3D rendering, TMT, Mauna Kea
Pictured: Thirty Meter Telescope 3D rendering.(Image:

Public lands are often the only places where Native American sacred landscapes still exist since so much land was lost to conquest and colonization, and they are among the few places where Native people can practice their religions, hunt, fish or gather their sacred medicines. Hawai’ian leaders have consistently stated that the demonstration at Mauna Kea is not about “science vs. religion.” It is about development on public lands and the Native people’s right to steward those lands.

“This mountain represents more than just their building they want to build,” Hawai’ian activist and elder Walter Ritte told the Hawaii Tribune Herald. “This mountain represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give them.”

Mauna Kea is named for the god Wakea or “sky father,” one of the nine gods or goddesses connected to the mountain. Mo‘olelo, the narratives passed down through generations of Native Hawai’ians, tell the histories of these sacred landscapes.

But what is their future on public lands?

William Pendley was appointedthe acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, formerly president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, has a long history of advocating for development on public lands — including Native American sacred landscapes. Most recently, he defended an oil and gas company’s lease in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine region — on my ancestral homelands and the sacred lands of the Blackfeet. Earthjustice and a coalition of Native American groups have asked the Department of Interior for Pendley to recuse himself as the attorney of record for all matters concerning that lease. To date, he has not done so.

I went to Mauna Kea when the demonstrations began to stand with Native Hawai’ians because we face a similar foe, which 30-year old Native Hawai’ian leader Kahookahi Kanuha, passionately described, “Our aina (land) is in danger. Our lahui (nation) is in danger. ... If we want to stop this, if we want to beat this settler-state system that is forcing itself upon us, we need to rise up and stand together.”

It is time for “public-land owners” in the American West to stand with Indigenous people to protect public lands from development, because these conflicts — like the fight over Mauna Kea — will only continue to grow.

Rosalyn LaPier is an award-winning Indigenous writer and ethnobotanist with a BA in physics and a Ph.D. in environmental history. She is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and Métis. 

Note: originally published at High Country News.

High Country News logo
(Image: High Country News)
Comments (1)
No. 1-1

I support the sovereign Indigenous nations and the restoration and return of their homelands. I support the restoration of Native culture, tradition, customs and languages that are specific to each nation. I firmly believe that Native society is the truest and most fulfilling human experience, everything being done for the love of the people. The people were truly free and there was respect for all life and a profound responsibility for all life that was secure for many generations to come. I firmly believe that the people were once very happy and lived a fulfilling life and the white European life has never and will never be compatible to a true way of life for Native people as it is not a sensible way of life and only leads to separation of self and a plethora of problems that was not an Indigenous way of being as these problems had been solved milenia ago through intelligence and wisdom. The land has been ravaged and left to death where nothing can live. The water that was so pure has been used as a dump and for toxic waste. People are sick from contamination and no longer have the beautiful air to breath. Either the animals are beaching themselves because they are deafened and bleeding from the bombs that are being exploded in the ocean or they are becoming extremely agressive because so much land has been taken from them that life has become so impossible to live that they are striking out in anger and frustration. People are insecure and are possessing and are possessed. Native life was free of possession and the people had endless time to enjoy each other and to be happy loving and being loved and living a full human life. This non Native way of life imposed has caused nothing but unhappiness, loneliness, isolation, and suicide and homicide. It is unbearable. The Iroquois Nation was the first and only true United Nations and they had accomplished what no United Nations could ever do today, they achieved peace and cooperation. A prophecy for the future is that all nations will have peace and cooperation. Only the six nation have that experience and are capable to lead the future, that is in North America. I read also that another Indigenous nation had accomplished 800 years of peace which is astonishing in that the creator has promised in time that there will be 1000 thousand years of peace on the earth and here was a nation that did everything to match his gift. I pray for the return of the true Indigenous nations so that the people will be happy once again.