MAUNA KEA >> As they enter their fourth week, the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope are beginning to look like something new and powerful in Hawaii politics, a magnetic and growing movement that has captivated thousands, including even some committed Hawaiian supporters of the TMT.
Some establishment politicians including Democratic House Speaker Scott Saiki describe the TMT controversy as a pivotal shift for Hawaii as an educated new generation of activists rallies at the base of Mauna Kea, finds its voice, and demands to be recognized.
“It’s a defining moment for our state,” said Saiki, a top political leader in the Hawaii and a longtime supporter of the TMT project. “I really believe that the way we deal with this will set the character and soul of Hawaii.”
There have been very large Hawaiian demonstrations in the past, such as the gathering for the Onipa‘a event at Iolani Palace in 1993 to mark the centennial of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. But this protest is different, Saiki said.
“I think it’s different because it’s now a generational movement. You have protectors on the mountain now whose parents and grandparents may have been at Iolani Palace years ago, but the younger generation has come forward now, basically to vindicate the mistreatment of their parents, grandparents and great- grandparents,” he said.
One experienced Democratic political operative declared, “What they have going is stronger than any current political party in this state.” Several politically connected people agreed to discuss the situation on Mauna Kea only on condition they are not identified because the standoff on Mauna Kea remains divisive, tense and fluid.
Another political veteran who asked not to be identified said the Mauna Kea movement has tapped into Hawaiians’ spiritual values in ways that no protest has since the demonstrations in the mid-1970s against the military’s target-practice bombing of Kahoolawe.
Those Kahoolawe protests eventually led to an end to the bombing, and were a harbinger of what is often called the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” the grassroots rebirth of Hawaiian language and culture fostered by Hawaiian-language immersion schools, charter schools grounded in Hawaiian culture, and expansion of college-level Hawaiian studies programs.
Today, the students and graduates of those programs are very well represented in the protests on the mountain, along with many of their instructors and professors. The daily activities of the protest camp are steeped in protocol, prayer and chant in Hawaiian language reflecting the deep religious component in the resistance to the telescope.
The protests represent a direct challenge to the existing power structure. Development of world-class observatories on Mauna Kea has been a goal of the ruling Democrats for decades, including the most powerful Hawaii Democrat ever, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
To many in the party, the observatories are a “clean” industry that provides jobs and a toe-hold in high technology development. Astronomy is one of the few things that can be done better here than anywhere else, and Mauna Kea telescopes such as those at the W.M. Keck Observatory have produced astonishing discoveries that changed the way scientists think about the universe.
But many Hawaiians consider TMT to be a desecration of a sacred mountain, and there is a long history in Hawaii of building on sites that have cultural or religious significance. Many examples are almost forgotten today, such as construction of a Pearl Harbor dry dock in 1909 over submerged caves that Hawaiians believed to be the home of a shark goddess.
“I believe that what we’re looking at here is probably the first greatly significant religious issue that has arisen,” said Mililani Trask, a lawyer and cultural practitioner who has been involved in many Hawaiian causes and protests. Trask was among 38 people, mostly kupuna or elderly Hawaiians, who were arrested July 17 on Mauna Kea for blocking the Mauna Kea Access Road. That sit-in was an effort to prevent heavy equipment from reaching the summit area to start construction on TMT.
“When you look at the vast diversity of people who have come over a very short period of time without having a central organizing body or organization…what we’re seeing with Mauna Kea is significant support from all islands, all groups,” she said. “There’s isn’t one or two groups steering this, but several, and I think it is because Mauna Kea is such an issue relating to religious expression. It is also something that is particularly under the care of Hawaiian women.”
John De Fries, a Hawaiian and former CEO of the controversial Hokulia luxury housing development in Kona, calls this a “huliau” or turning point, a moment of transformation. He even compares this to pivotal historic moments such as Kamehameha’s drive to unify the islands, or the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.
“What’s going on there is a demonstration of what Native Hawaiian potential is all about as a leader in a kamaaina society,” he said of the protests.
Decades in the making
TMT has followed the land use and permitting processes in Hawaii, and De Fries maintains TMT has a legal right to proceed with the project. However, “for whatever reason, TMT hit kind of a nerve here that was festering, and now is expressing itself.” He added: “This has been decades, maybe centuries in the making.
“We have not been here before,” said De Fries, who has friends he loves and respects among the kupuna or Hawaiian elders protesting on the mountain. “There is an evolution of public protest happening here, something that has transcended previous forms of protest in Hawaii. Emotions are being channeled through aloha and ohana and kuleana, and not through anger.”
A road is blocked in violation of the law, but “law enforcement has been neutralized by this spiritual power and this code of conduct,” he said.
The movement on the mountain also incorporates issues far beyond land use law and telescopes, which makes it much more difficult to resolve the dispute and find a compromise short of banishing TMT to its alternate site in the Canary Islands.
“As many of the protesters have said, this is not about TMT or science,” said Gordon Squires, TMT vice president, external relations. “TMT has become a platform for larger issues within the Hawaii community such as Hawaiian sovereignty and past injustices.
“We respect those who express opposition and understand the pain they feel. However, TMT is a bystander in that larger conversation that has been going on for many years. We’re concerned that those who oppose TMT are now combining the issues into one. Fortunately, there are other conversations about these larger issues that are taking place with the Mayor (Harry Kim) and others, and we support that.”
Saiki agrees. “This dispute is not just about TMT, but is about historical wrongs perpetuated by government and institutions such as the military and tourism,” Saiki said. “TMT is about achieving social justice. How do Native Hawaiians achieve social justice? The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom is an unresolved issue.”
And Saiki, De Fries and others are concerned that the protesters refuse to accept the legal processes that gave TMT permission to start construction, and are illegally blocking Mauna Kea Access Road to prevent construction from starting. The protesters say they will not compromise, and the telescope will not be built.
What’s at stake
Saiki asked, “Is it OK for people who disagree with a law or a court decision to take matters into their own hands? This is a concern not only for the governor and the Legislature, but also for the Judiciary. The Judiciary is irrelevant if the general public believes that it does not have to follow the law.
“At stake is Hawaii’s reputation and stability. Our population and economy will shrink if people do not believe that they can invest here,” he said. “It is easier said than done, but there must be an immense effort to reconcile past wrongs and to achieve social justice.”
Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, a prominent leader in the protest movement, replied at a press conference on the mountain last week that “legal does not always make it right.”
“There was a time when slavery was legal. I think we could all agree, that never made it right. There was also a time when women did not have the right to vote. I would hope that we can all agree that never made it right,” he said. “It was through actions like this that got those things overturned and changed so that those legalities could eventually become pono and become right.”
For Kanuha, the protests on Mauna Kea fit into a larger picture of politics and political action in Hawaii. The immediate goal is to stop the TMT, and Kanuha hopes all telescopes will one day be cleared off of Mauna Kea, but “I think it goes way beyond that. We’re building up our nation, our people,” he said.
“The existing political process is the problem. Mauna Kea is not the problem. Mauna Kea is a symptom of the problem. The sickness, I believe, is occupation, is the fact that kanaka have never consented to the taking of our lands and our country, and since that time we’ve been marginalized, and we’ve been cast to the side,” he said.
“I think in order for us to truly fulfill our destiny and to fully have control of our future, we do need to address the political system,” Kanuha said. “That’s a huge task. I don’t think that’s going to come out of this movement directly, but I think this movement will contribute toward the unifying of our people that will allow us to begin to take steps forward to that larger goal.”