A weekday at the base of Mauna Kea, where kia‘i have been keeping construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope at bay for close to three months, can be relatively quiet. The massive crowds that have been there on weekends aren’t there every day, but all the infrastructure is in place, like the field kitchen and medical tent, the recycling bins and rows of fastidiously cleaned portable toilets.
It is quiet, but it is not deserted. The core group is there, the group of stalwart kupuna who have been sitting across the access road since the beginning; the elders, some in wheelchairs, who got arrested and carried off by police, paid their bail and came right back. Some of the kupuna are in their 80s and have health concerns. Their kako‘o — aides who help them with things like medication and mobility — stay with them, day and night.
Though there are fewer people on the mauna, the number of supporters has swelled and the reach of the movement has spread far beyond the encampment. A recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll showed that public support for TMT has dropped significantly.
At the United Nations last week, Native Hawaiian movie star Jason Momoa ended his remarks on climate change by lifting his hands to form a triangle, a symbol of Mauna Kea, and saying “Ku Kia‘i Mauna” — a call to stand firm to protect the mountain. On national television, the Maui baseball team that made it to the Little League semi-finals would score a run and then hold up that triangle with their hands for the ESPN broadcast cameras to see.
Thousands marched on Waikiki this weekend. The crowds may not be on the mountain on a Thursday afternoon, but they’re out in the community and in the world in numbers greater than before.
Some support of the movement is kept quiet. There are people “on the inside” who pass along information about possible enforcement actions. A member of law enforcement who had made arrests on the mauna in the past comes on his own time to do training on nonviolent resistance and police tactics.
On Thursday last week, during the daily noontime protocol at the base of Mauna Kea, Kauila Kanaka‘ole, grandson of Pua Kanahele and great-grandson of Edith Kanaka‘ole, spoke about change — huliau, a time of change; hulihia, which describes something turned upside down. Kanaka‘ole talked about the way the lava changes the earth, the way knowledge changes a people, and the way change can happen inwardly, as in a change of heart or a change in thinking.
Kaleikoa Kaeo, a professor at the University of Hawaii Maui Campus and one of the leaders of the kia‘i, talked about change, too.
As a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1991, Kaeo pressured the student newspaper, Ka Leo, to print an article written in Hawaiian. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language in Hawaii and was taught on campus.
This came at a time when a professor of Hawaiian studies defended her use of the word “haole,” the president of the university responded by launching an investigation into the professor’s rhetoric, and there was heated discussion on campus about who was marginalized, who was racist and which groups had access and agency. Hawaiian studies students felt that the campus newspaper wasn’t including their voices and their views, and staged a protest outside the newspaper’s office.
Mark Takai, the late congressman, was a UH student at the time and editor-in- chief of Ka Leo. Takai refused to run Kaeo’s Hawaiian language column.
In April 1991, Kaeo met with Takai and framed the standoff this way: “You can either be the last editor of Ka Leo to keep the Hawaiian language out of the paper, or the first editor of Ka Leo to print a Hawaiian language column. Which side of history do you want to be on?”
Kaeo’s column ran in the paper the very next week, and he and Takai became friends. They found a way out of the stalemate where both sides won.
“Some may call it giving in to pressure, some may call it another dubious victory for political correctness,” Takai wrote in an editor’s note. “but hopefully several will call it an important turning point … Ka Leo has rethought its policy not because of the political wind, though at times it seemed more like a hurricane, but because it’s right.”
“It’s a good example where people on opposing sides can realize there is a more positive path into an inevitable future,” Kaeo said.
So what if there was a huliau, a moment of change, and what if that moment required Gov. Ige to have a change of heart? What if the state had to compromise rather than demand the huge, untenable compromise at the heart of Harry Kim’s little pamphlet that assumes TMT will be built no matter what?
And what if that change, that compromise, that new vision for a positive path to an inevitable future, became the best thing Ige does as governor? The lasting legacy of his time in office and a testament to his growth as a statesman could be when, like Takai, he found a way not just to save face but to boldly stand on the right side of history and end ugly opposition to Native Hawaiian rights.
TMT may lead to amazing discoveries in astronomy, but it may not. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. TMT would make a lot of money for some people, but that does not make for the kind of proud legacy that school kids will write essays about in fourth grade social studies class. TMT may have won the fight in court to begin construction, but there are many legal questions that have still not been addressed, issues like rights on ceded lands.
At the base of the mountain, Kanaka‘ole chanted about change, his voice lifting into the cool winds. The dancers in front of him ranged from the highest level of training in hula to absolute beginners, from a visiting Oahu high school to kupuna who had, decades ago, fought for the end of military bombing on Kahoolawe, from lifelong Hawaii residents to foreign visitors; a diverse group all coming together.
Kaeo smiled. “Change has already happened,” he said. “We’re changed forever.”