After 14 days, neither side in the standoff on Mauna Kea appears remotely near victory, and paths to resolution seem dim even with Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim agreeing to be a mediator.
Yet there’s useful insight in a different clash where indigenous people blocked construction of a billion-dollar project over claims of harming public land they view as sacred.
This other struggle points to the prospect that the battle over building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii’s tallest mountain may be an opening scene in a months-long slog.
Standing Rock, where protests erupted about three years ago over an oil pipeline slated to run through a Native American community in North Dakota, is this other battleground.
The Standing Rock uprising included resistance camps filled with thousands of people, lasted about a year, led to 761 arrests and was led by demonstrators calling themselves “protectors.”
Though there are significant differences between demonstrations and defiance at Standing Rock and Mauna Kea, some elements are deeply entwined.
LaDonna Bravebull Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has a tattoo representing Mauna Kea above her wrist between one representing her children and one representing man.
“When did a people who are indigenous to their land have to ask the state or any other entity what is sacred?” she asked while standing on Mauna Kea Access Road last week close to where 38 Native Hawaiian kupuna, or elders, were arrested July 17.
Allard got her Mauna Kea tattoo in Hilo two years ago, and calls one TMT opposition leader, Pua Case, a special friend.
Case and Allard first met in June 2016 when the Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule‘a stopped in New York City during its worldwide voyage, Allard said.
Allard had brought water from the Cannon Ball River near her home and gave it to Case to take to the summit of Mauna Kea. This was after TMT opponents in 2015 used rocks to block an initial attempt to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain, and just two months after Allard had begun enlisting support to block the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sacred Stone Camp she started next to the river by her home.
Later in 2016, as Standing Rock protests expanded, a delegation of Native Hawaiians went to North Dakota where they helped support and learned from events there. Among these visitors were TMT opposition leaders, including Andre Perez, Earl De Leon and Case.
Perez, a “nonviolent direct action” expert, said he left his job as Leeward Community College’s Hawaiian student services coordinator and spent four weeks at Standing Rock providing training and front-line orientation to between 100 and 300 newcomers daily.
Perez said one of his takeaways from Standing Rock was that TMT opposition organizers needed to build up their training capacity locally, which they did.
“I knew that in order to be powerful and successful we needed to understand theories and principles of nonviolent direct action,” he said.
Case brought back something else.
Allard said a special fire burned continually at Sacred Stone Camp, and the flame represented life in the fight against the pipeline. Case, according to Allard, carried coals from that fire back to Hawaii and threw them into the Kilauea Volcano where they were absorbed into the island.
“We made a commitment to stand with Mauna Kea,” Allard said.
Years of planning resistance
Well-laid plans are part of the reason Mauna Kea’s “protectors” have so far frustrated state and county intentions to have TMT construction proceed.
The resistance camp started with about a dozen vehicles in a parking lot. A couple of 40-foot shade tents for storing and distributing food and supplies expanded with two much bigger professional-event tents last week. The population of the camp, where most people sleep in their cars parked alongside Daniel K. Inouye Highway, swelled from 200 in the first couple days to an estimated 2,500 during the first weekend and then subsided to around 1,000 last week.
Portable bathrooms are well maintained. Deliveries of water and other supplies are so flush that organizers use a storage facility in Hilo. Hawaiian studies professors regularly hold classes at the outdoor “Puuhuluhulu University.” Efforts to rally supporters and deter TMT construction are being applied through social media, press conferences, political advocacy and campaigns targeting entities connected with the project.
Allard said she’s not surprised.
“They’ve had (years) to plan,” she said. “They got it.”
Of course the state also had years to plan after the 2015 blockade was followed by legal challenges ultimately lost by TMT opponents.
Officials representing Gov. David Ige and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources would not specifically say whether they studied Standing Rock.
“What we can generally share is that the state prepared by examining other enforcement actions,” a state spokesperson said in an email. “Law enforcement trained so they would be able to handle these difficult situations in a professional manner.”
When law enforcement carried out the 38 arrests, it was a caring and procession-like scene. But later the same day, tensions spiked when a line of police equipped with riot gear and batons advanced into an area where hundreds of protesters gathered. Police, face to face with and flanked by demonstrators, withdrew.
Then a week later on Tuesday, Ige announced that Mayor Kim would take over coordinating state and county efforts to reach some kind of common ground.
Kim on Thursday said in a statement that he is a “mediator” with no authority to intervene or make any deal regarding TMT, though he will try to help opposing sides achieve a peaceful resolution.
“I’m here to see where we can go, and I’m hoping we can establish a relationship so we can all join hands together, to move forward to making it better,” Kim said.
In response, the main spokesman for TMT opponents, Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, declared that anything short of TMT canceling the project won’t be accepted.
That could raise the prospect of more law enforcement action, which is what happened at Standing Rock where, ultimately, pipeline opponents were defeated.
A different situation
At Standing Rock, which included multiple resistance camps, the population grew to about 10,000, according to media reports. The encampments included living structures along with facilities for food distribution, legal services, medical treatment and school lessons for children.
Some violence occurred at Standing Rock, including activists burning vehicles and police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds. Law enforcement also used fire hoses to maintain control, and in another incident protesters interrupted bulldozers that led to construction security personnel using guard dogs and pepper spray to repel protesters, some of whom said they were bitten. Protesters in that incident also were witnessed throwing objects at security officers and jabbing sticks at dogs.
Leaders of the TMT opposition have worked hard to instill a code of “kapu aloha,” or using only peaceful actions, in demonstrations and resistance.
On Friday, Malia Hulleman was helping train about 300 people on Mauna Kea in nonviolent actions and ways to uphold kupu aloha, including instructions on acceptable and unacceptable chants.
When asked where she learned the subject matter, she replied: “I’ve been on the front lines many times. I was at Standing Rock.”
Hulleman, a Native Hawaiian and Hawaii resident, was even arrested there in 2016.
Still, for all the crossovers, there are also big differences between Mauna Kea and Standing Rock.
For instance, the $3.8 billion pipeline running 1,172 miles through four states was nearly complete. Standing Rock protesters largely opposed a portion they said would destroy cultural resources and could foul a lake serving as their freshwater source.
TMT construction hasn’t begun, and the $1.4 billion project is projected to take 10 years.
Though both the pipeline and TMT are billed as being technological advances — one carrying oil more safely and the other searching the heavens more clearly from the best vantage point on the planet — the pipeline was built by a company for profit while a nonprofit development consortium plans TMT.
Another difference is that Standing Rock involved federal land and approvals. North Dakota’s extremely cold winter also was a factor and makes the chill at the mid-mountain Mauna Kea camp look mild.
The pipeline was completed in mid-2017, after 46 remaining protesters were arrested.
Krystal Two Bulls, a Standing Rock organizer, predicts a different outcome for Mauna Kea.
“We learned a lot of really good lessons at Standing Rock,” she said from the mountain last week. “I’ll be here till we win this.”