Indigenous Hawaiians rallying to protect Mauna Kea |

Indigenous Hawaiians rallying to protect Mauna Kea

Kahu Kaalekahi
Special to First Nation’s Focus
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state of Hawaii.
Courtesy photo

It is difficult, we could say impossible, even, to translate the depth of meaning from an Indigenous language, phrase or word to modern English.

Perhaps we can make a frail, yet endearing, attempt with `Olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian Language). “Mauna Kea” can be roughly translated to “White Mountain.”

From the oceanic base, this mountain measures to be the largest in the world, and is regularly capped with white snow. What is not common knowledge to the visitors of these islands is the full name of this mountain, “Mauna A Wakea,” — or, “The Mountain of Grandfather Sky.”

The name implies that this mountain is not mine or yours, and what our ideas or our plans are for this mountain does not matter. The name says this mountain is outside our dominion, for the mountain is sacred. The mountain belongs to our “Sky Grandfather.”

The layers of understanding and meaning within names and stories often do not reach the “modern” person who has no affiliation or allegiance to Indigenous Epistemology (Ways of Knowing) and Ontology (Ways of Being).

So maybe we can ask, why is this Mountain considered sacred? What determines “its” sacredness? Mauna A Wakea is the beginnings of a watershed. Being over 13,000 feet in elevation, the mountain gathers the clouds that would otherwise float over the island. Bringing the clouds to rise and compress so that rain will fall, Mauna Kea creates all rivers, streams and springs that lead to the diverse ecosystems of Hawaii Island.

These intelligent environments, with their endemic and indigenous flora and fauna, that are so loved by people all over the World, begin with this mountain and eventually flow back into the ocean. Ola I Ka Wai, “Water is Life” — what could be more sacred than the protection and recognition of what creates all life?

For decades there has been community opposition to development on Mauna Kea. Recently, on July 15, thousands of kia`i (protectors), began congregating at the base of Mauna Kea, blocking the access road to deny the construction of the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, the $1.4 billion TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope).

This project would require excavating 20 feet underground to build a 18-story (194-foot) tall structure, covering over 8 acres. Here’s a point of reference; a single football field is 1.32 acres and the County of Hawaii building regulations restricts anything larger than 15-stories (162 feet). The final Environmental Impact Study (EIS) states that TMT would produce approximately 120 cubic feet of solid waste per week, requiring 5,000 gallon underground tanks for waste storage, with the potential to spill or leak, furthering the risk of environmental damage upon the sensitive ecosystem.

There are already 22 telescopes (13 still in operation) on the mountain, that have contributed to the contamination of surrounding areas as a result of mismanagement. Where is the concern for damages already incurred and for the rectification of trust? What about the insurmountable developmental impact that a project like TMT would require?

The Indigenous understanding of self is one that is enmeshed in place, that as a people, they cannot identify themselves without the landscape, the elements and fundaments that weave them into being. We are because they are, we exist because they have been here ever since. The future is shaped by the choices we make in the present, and our present choices are not free from the weight of our past, so when a people are standing up once again for their home and their way of life, are the development plans really of benefit for the community?

Are the mistakes of history repeating themselves in the form of “advancement” and ‘technology”? The study of the Universe has been achieved in many ways, just as the advancement and continuation of a people have been done in diverse ways. Is it worth the destruction of all we depend on and all we hold dear in the name of “science?”

Hawaii and her Native people have endured over 100 years of systemic oppression. The Kingdom of Hawaii was established in 1810 and was a sovereign nation recognized by the world powers of the time. In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was unlawfully overthrown and illegally occupied by the profiteering motives of American businessmen who were the descendants of Christian missionaries that arrived in 1820. This resulted in discriminatory treatment of Native People, evidenced throughout the institutions of society that brought overwhelming development, massive immigration for the plantation workforce, illegal seizure of inheritance land, and the banning of the Hawaiian language.

From the criminal justice system, to education, to health and wellness outcomes, the Native People have become the population with the lowest standard in all societal respects. In addition to being forcibly disconnected from their cultural roots and lifeways, countless Hawaiian sacred sites have been dismantled, desecrated and used for U.S Military training and target practice, et al, the whole island of Kaho`olawe, commonly known as “The Target Isle.”

Many news outlets and media platforms portray the “protest” of TMT as being a “Science vs. Culture/Religion” issue, which is completely inaccurate. There is no “versus’” attached. It is fundamentally understood among the Protectors and their allies that science, culture and religion can and do coexist. The pursuit of science divorced of humanity is simply another example that disregards the rights of Native People to live and thrive in their own homeland, on their own terms, to carry their traditions, ancestral knowledge and identity for the benefit of all people, visitor and local alike.

There are many opinions on the subject and many sides to the story, yet this takes us deeper than so-called advancement of society and our relentless pursuit for more information.

How can an “idea” like the construction of a telescope or any other technological structure having “potential” for scientific advancement be more important than what is already here in existence, to what is vital for and in support of life as we know it, such as Mauna Kea?

“Kapu Aloha” means to have kindness, empathy and compassion with accountability and discipline. This is the phrase that carries the power of love, that has unified people in Hawaii as kia`i, and brought the solidarity of other protectors across the world to stand for their special, sacred places. Kapu Aloha says there is a limit to what can be done; just because we can, does not mean we should, and that we must take a stand for these places because they do for us.

On July 17, 34 Kupuna (Elders) were arrested for blocking the Mauna Kea access road in Kapu Aloha. They went peacefully, while singing the songs of resistance and chanting the words of their Ancestors. Our Elders are the experts of cultural knowledge because they live it. Their words and insights were not heeded; instead, they were met by police and handcuffs. Younger generations around the world saw Elders on the front line sacrificing themselves for their beliefs and for the inheritance of the younger generations.

The growing movement for protection of Mauna Kea is not isolated to Hawaii alone, nor is the plight of TMT only for the people of Hawaii to bear. As the effects of Climate Change and other mounting environmental issues across the world weigh heavy, along with the growing awareness of the blatant corruption of government on all levels, the Mauna Kea movement is for all of humanity to awaken to what is unfolding in our time. Urging us to bear witness to what has been and what can soon be, that this struggle is ongoing and has no definitive beginning or end is a predicament that is relatable to all Indigenous people the world over.

“Aloha `Aina” — love that which feeds, love of the land. This phrase reminds us to recognize the responsibility and privilege we have been given as human beings, to see all of our places as special, meaningful and sacred; that we can be their caregivers and protectors; that we can strengthen our connection to place and thereby deepening the understanding of ourselves. The traits of our mountains can be embodied among all us all; we can stand tall and proud, resilient and vigilant, come what may.

Kale Kaalekahi is a self-employed Hawaiian musician/entertainer and Cultural Activist in Maui. Email him at


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