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Standing up for Hawai’i’s Most Sacred Mountain

You might think Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, but the distinction actually belongs to a Hawaiian mountain called Mauna Kea. The dormant volcano reaches 33,500 feet from sea floor to summit and is where Native Hawaiian culture places the origin story of the universe. It’s also where a consortium of universities and scientists plan to construct one of the largest telescopes in the world.

Proposed TMT: with a massive 9 acre footprint atop the Mauna Kea summit. Photo Credit: The Associated Press
Proposed TMT: with a massive 9 acre footprint atop the Mauna Kea summit.

Construction on the observatory project, known as Ten Meter Telescope or TMT, was set to begin in mid-July, but came to a halt when masses of protectors (as they prefer to be called) appeared on the access road to the mountain’s summit. Now, thousands of protectors have occupied the road, effectively blocking construction. Since the demonstration began, more than 30 people have been arrested, primarily elders who chose to put their bodies on the line.

Kupuna Kanaka (Native Hawaiian Elders) blocking access to Mauna Kea
Kūpuna Kanaka (Native Hawaiian Elders) blocking access to Mauna Kea

The protectors’ willingness to serve jail time attests to the immense cultural and spiritual significance of Mauna Kea. The mountain has, at times, served as a sacred burial ground, containing ancestral bones that TMT’s construction would undoubtedly disrupt.  

“Mauna Kea is our family connection to the earth,” explains Paul Neves, a Native Hawaiian activist and Ali’i ‘Aimoku of the Royal Order of Kamehameha. “The earth we see as family, creation we see as family, not as things we just push around, cut down, bulldoze.”

Paul Neves, Ali'i Aimoku Of The Royal Order Of Kamehameha and long time Native Hawaiian Activist, Pictured Center
Paul Neves, Ali’i Aimoku Of The Royal Order Of Kamehameha and long time Native Hawaiian Activist, Pictured Center

The Other Side

Those who support the telescope claim the benefits will reverberate back to the community in the form of increased revenue and jobs. One doesn’t need a telescope, however, to see how the project primarily benefits the same scientists, researchers, and employees who want the project on Hawaiian soil.

The struggle to keep telescopes off Mauna Kea has been a long and complicated one. “When they started building telescopes back in the ‘60s… our people questioned, ‘Why would they do that up there? That place is not supposed to have any structure like that,’” Neves explains. “But we went back and forth and the Kūpuna (elders) at that time said, ‘Okay: one.’ Since then, they’ve built 13, most of them without permits, and now this one is the biggest in the world. It’s 18 stories tall. It’s 3 or 4 football fields wide. It’s huge, and it’s put right on the summit. And that was too much.”

While it’s true 13 telescopes already exist on the sacred mountain, it’s also true that TMT will create new impacts on the land. Neves believes scientists should build in another location, such as the Canary Islands, or opt for satellite telescopes instead. “Land-based technology is going to be obsolete by the time they finish [TMT],” he says. “And then all we have is this monster sitting in our temple.”

What’s happening on Mauna Kea is about more than just Mauna Kea. In many ways, it’s also about tensions that have long existed between Hawai’i’s government and native population. “We have a lot of corruption,” Neves explains. “When it comes down to policies regarding native people, who are the land base for the state, you’re not going to hear many people going, ‘Wow, Hawai’i is doing a fabulous job.’”

On the Mountain

When asked to describe what it feels like on the mountain right now, Neves paints a picture of an organized, upbeat community of people taking great strides to care for one another. “There’s 2,000 people there every night, every day,” says Neves. “That’s pretty impressive.”

Protectors showing support to their Kupuna while blocking access to Mauna Kea
Protectors showing support to their Kūpuna while blocking access to Mauna Kea

He describes young people, old people, children, and families all holding upside-down Hawaiian flags as far as you can see. (The upturned flags symbolize that Hawai’i is a land in distress.) He describes a kitchen serving “the best Hawaiian food available,” a fully stocked medical tent, and workshops where people can learn about topics such as civil disobedience. “There’s no trash on the floor, there’s no drugs in the air, there’s no alcohol abuse,” Neves says. “It’s a sight to see… I think it’s the tip of the iceberg.”

America has seen this kind of demonstration before, and recently. Standing Rock is one comparison — Native people and allies defending sacred land from moneyed interests. Neves credits the younger generation for much of the energy behind recent activism. “You have a lot of young people who are educated, young, and then are seeing things in the society around them that they’re going, ‘No, we’re not going to do that…we want to change the world.’”

Local Solidarity

People all over the world are standing in solidarity with those camped on Mauna Kea. If you want to join them, a walk will take place this upcoming Saturday, August 3 in Marysville at the #200 Exit overpass. The event will begin 10:00 a.m. in the parking lot of the 88th Street Haggen. From there, everyone will walk to the overpass to show their love and support.

All solidarity gatherings are peaceful, including the one on Mauna Kea. “We will not lift a hand, we will not pick up a rock…we will organize this under a sacred vision,” Neves says. “People might think: You’re not going to win by loving. But we do. We believe that.”

#AoleTMT #MaunaKea

Thank you to Kimo Miranda for his work as liaison between Bellingham Alive and Paul Neves

Photo Credits: Copyright 2019 Associated Press, and Kimo Miranda