Words by Nikki Sanchez
Images by Danielle Da Silva
At the base of Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain when measured from its ocean base, the largest land defense action in modern Hawaiian history is currently taking place and the entire movement is being guided by love. The Hawaiian cultural principal of Kapu Aloha (love and respect) has been adopted as the central strategy of non-violent direct action in organizing a frontline blockade to protect the summit of the Mauna Kea from becoming a construction site for what would be the world’s largest telescope, known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).
For Indigenous Hawaiians, it could not be any other way. In their cosmology, Mauna Kea is the origin place of the Hawaiian people. The Hawaiian genealogy teaches that the summit of the mountain is the meeting place of Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and Sky Father, Wākea, and that the Hawaiian people are their direct descendents. Therefore, Mauna Kea is utmost sacred ground; it is the piko (umbilical cord) of Native Hawaiian existence.
The mountain is home to innumerable lepa (altars), akua (gods and goddesses) burials and ceremonial sites that have been in use as long as the island has been inhabited. Holidays and ceremonial traditions are held on the mountain, with families maintaining and visiting their specific lepa generation after generation. For some families, the umbilical cords of newborn babies are brought to the aquifer at the summit of the mountain, to ground them in their homelands just as their ancestors had done.
As a church is to Christians or a mosque to Muslims, Mauna Kea is a sacred place for Native Hawaiians; therefore being on the Mauna necessitates acting with the highest standards of protocol, to one another, the land and the ancestors. In Ōlelo Hawaiʻi,(the Native Hawaiian language), this is referred to as “kapu aloha” or state of love. Although there are currently innumerable Indigenous land rights and sovereignty struggles around the world, Mauna Kea is distinct in that every action being taken for the protection of the mountain is being guided entirely by traditional Hawaiian culture values- of love for the land, for the community and for all of creation.
The threat to Mauna Kea
Although Mauna Kea is both crown land (lands belonging to the former king of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Kamehameha) and a designated conservation area, since 1968 13 telescopes have already been constructed on the summit of the mountain. Many of these were built by the international astronomy community for space exploration without proper permits and against the wishes of the local community. While some remain in use, others have been abandoned and left dormant. Attempts to build the TMT have re-opened past wounds wherein scientific imperialism trounced Native Hawaiian cultural values and ways of life. In fact, the TMT was initially slated to be built in 2015 but following island-wide protests, 31 arrests and global pressure the project was forced back into the Hawaiian courts.
The mountain is not only spiritually significant but also ecologically fragile, with unique biogeoclimatic zones and an aquifer that is the source of freshwater for the Big Island. For decades there has been concern over mismanagement of the observatories; including waste management and mercury spills. Despite these issues remaining unaddressed, the proposal to build the world’s largest telescope — led by the University of California and partner institutions from Canada, China, India and Japan, as well as the US philanthropic organization Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — it was approved in the Hawaiian courts. The approval to build came on the heels of years of oppositional testimony from Native Hawaiian Elders, knowledge keepers, professors, legal scholars and local residents.
The $1.4 billion TMT, marketed as “astronomy's next-generation telescope”, is is to built 18 stories high, nine stories down and five acres across. According to the project website it “will allow astronomers to address fundamental questions in astronomy ranging from understanding star and planet formation to unraveling the history of galaxies and the development of large-scale structure in the universe”. The University of Hawai’i at Hilo prepared an environmental impact statement has been a subject of controversy after testimony of falsified information from a former employee and disregard for recommendations of the cultural impact assessment, and given that it is one of the invested parties in the TMT, there is deep mistrust amongst the Mauna Protectors about the depth and accuracy of the report. This mistrust stems from previous mismanagement of telescopes in the area as well as potential ulterior economic motives by the politicians- such as demonstrating building variances in conservation areas and opening up the big island to international development- driving the construction of the TMT. While the TMT project manager has stated that they would be happy to build the project at an alternative location in the Canary Islands, Hawaiian politicians have taken desperate action to push it through, declaring a state of emergency in order to bring in the National Guard.
In addition to the cultural impact of the desecration of the summit to build the TMT, which would include the destruction of alters, burial sites and ceremonial locations, there remain many questions regarding the environmental impact a structure of this size would have in a time of extreme climate change. According to Kupuna, Mauna Kea is a storm barrier for the rest of the Hawaiian archipelago, and it provides an essential freshwater source for the Big Island. Past spills of sewage, ethylene glycol, diesel fuel, and toxic mercury marr the safety records of past telescopes that were a fraction of the size of the TMT, and no research has been done about the impact of the mega-project to the integrity of the summit of the mountain.
An occupied kingdom
In order to understand the Indigenous uprising to protect the land and defend their culture that is currently unfolding on Mauna Kea, some historical context might be helpful. Although many outsiders see Hawai’i as one of the 50 US states, the majority of Indigenous Hawaiians understand themselves to be living under the occupation of the US government and military, as Hawai’i was previously a sovereign kingdom and internationally recognized as an independent nation. On January 16, 1893, the United States Marine Corps invaded the island and illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government the next day.
Nearly a year later in his message to Congress, President Grover Cleveland acknowledged that this was an unlawful act and advised its reversal. Although this advice was never heeded, in 1993 — 100 years later — President Bill Clinton signed legislation apologizing for the US role in the 1893 overthrow but the apology did not extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians like the federal laws provided to Native American tribes.
The Native Hawaiian people have never forgotten this injustice. And like most other Indigenous nations whose lands are being occupied by colonial states, the grievance of land theft and unlawful occupation was just the first in an endless list of human rights breaches and transgressions. In Hawai’i, this includes military occupations on many of the islands, where land is often used for target practice for uncontained bombing.
The Disneyfication and gentrification of the islands have also led to Native Hawaiians being pushed out of their original communities and away from traditional ways of life. The rising cost of housing and economic incentives to develop land for vacation and retirement housing has meant that homelessness is a significant issue for Native Hawaiians. Additionally, the overdevelopment, ecological mismanagement and use of the territory as a military testing sacrifice zone have led to the endangerment of some indigenous species and their natural habitats. In response, the Department of Lands and Resources prevented Native Hawaiian peoples from carrying out traditional forms of sustenance like fishing and trapping.
After 126 years of fighting for basic rights and recognition as Indigenous people, Mauna Kea has become a turning point, uniting Native Hawaiians in aloha ‘aina (love of the land) to say, “No more.”
Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu: A new kind of frontline
Following the July 10, announcement that construction would begin the following week, a small group of 33 Native Hawaiian kupuna (Elders), kumu (knowledge keepers), and kia’i (land protectors) drove to the base of Mauna Kea to set up camp. Camille Kalama, a lawyer who is part of HULI (Hawaiian Unity and Liberation Institute) and one of the first to arrive at the mountain, recalled that upon their arrival there was no formal plan or sense of whether others would join them. But by the end of that first weekend the group had grown to nearly 500 people.
Under the authority of the Royal Order of Kamehameha (an order of knighthood established by King Kamehameha V that dates back to 1865) and guided by Native Hawaiian ceremonial protocol, the camp at the base of Mauna was deemed a Pu’u Honua (sanctuary) where kapu aloha (a state of love and respect) was in effect. Under kapu aloha protocols, everyone is welcome as long as they act with aloha ‘aina (love of the land), treat others with kindness and respect, refrain from swearing and do not bring in drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. As one of the leaders of the movement who was born and raised on the island and has been defending it her entire life, Pua Case repeatedly stated, “We shall not leave one grain of rice on this land”.
Early in the week, in anticipation for the arrival of construction trucks and state police, a frontline was established under the guidance of the kupuna who insisted they be the first line of defense. Behind them, a group of protectors chained themselves to the road on a cattle grate. Kupuna have remained there every day to block the main access road.
Construction vehicles escorted by local police arrived on Wednesday, July 17. Within hours, 35 kupuna (some in their late 80s) were arrested. Many of them needed walkers to make it to the police vans while others had to be pushed in their wheelchairs; their younger counterparts wept, sang and prayed as they witnessed the Elders being taken away by law enforcement.
By the middle of the day, the police had retreated, but the footage and images of the detention of elderly Mauna protectors traveled around the world. Within days of the arrest, thousands were on the mountain, having created a small self-sustaining community named Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu (roughly translated to Fuzzy Mountain Sanctuary, after the hill facing Mauna Kea). Dozens of solidarity actions began popping up across the Hawaiian Islands, as well as on the US mainland, Canada, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Japan, among others.
The Principal of Kapu Aloha
While Mauna Kea has certainly been receiving attention in the international media, what many of the news reports are glossing over is how kapu aloha has remained the guiding principle of the Mauna protectors. What has been created at Pu’u Honua o Pu’uhuluhulu in a few short weeks is nothing short of extraordinary.
Every morning begins with prayer, oli (chanting), mo`olelo (story) and cultural activities including hula; kupuna set the tone for the day with reminders of what it means to be in a state of kapu aloha and teach all those staying at the Pu’uhonua how to enact respect and honour protocol. Evenings end in much the same way. All day long, rain or shine, storytellers, dancers or musicians perform for the kupuna and anyone else who wants to witness and learn.
The Pu’uhonua offers three warms meals to the many supporters. There are dozens of latrines set up that are regularly cleaned, pumped out and fully stocked. There is a medical station, childcare, legal advisors and an area where massage therapists and healers provide bodywork to anyone who seeks it. A free university runs four sessions a day, with five classes in each session between 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. As one of the instructors there said, “It’s a place where tuition is free, everyone is welcome and the bathrooms are gender inclusive.”
There is daily non-violent direct action training, which is mandatory for anyone planning to stay on the mountain. There is even a designated team of crossing guards who ensure the safe crossing of pedestrians, highway traffic and delivery vehicles all day every day. While crossing, it is common for both pedestrians and crossing guards to be calling mahalo (thank you), aloha (love) and ku kia’i mauna (guardians of the mountain)- this is just one example of how the principle of Kapu Aloha has turned even the most mundane daily tasks in the Pu’uhonua into acts of love and community building.
All of this is being run entirely by layers of volunteer leaders, there is no hierarchy but rather emergent leadership. The people who have come to protect the mountain have also begun to embody the principle of caring deeply for one another, and it is working. Small children, teens, families and elders are fully cared for. It’s as though a doorway to another way of being has been created at the base of Mauna Kea.
As the kupuna were being detained by the police, they were praying for their captors, telling them they were not angry with them, that they understood, proving that the kapu aloha embodied at Mauna Kea is so powerful that not even those who have come to destroy the mountain itself can distrupt that way of being.
If only the world could understand that the Mauna is a holy place; and what is taking place there now is sacred, people are living in harmony and ceremony with one another and the land, and showing us all that another world is possible.
Now at 100 days, Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu has become a beacon for Indigenous land-based direct action and cultural revitalization. It is reframing a narrative from one in which Indigenous land defense and human rights struggles vie amongst one another for external support to one in which each action exists in solidarity with and strengthens one another. It is refuting the notion that scientific progress is inherently antithetical to Indigenous knowledge paradigms and offering alternative, decolonized ways forward. The kuma and kupa on the mountain have repeatedly stated that they are not anti-science, they are not anti-progress, they are opposed to the destruction of sacred places and the disregard for Indigenous sovereignty.
In an interview with Democracy Now, Mauna protector Pua Case explained, "We are making a stand as not just Native people and not just the local community, but really a worldwide community, because there are so many similarities… there are Native people everywhere around the world standing for their mountaintops, for their waters, for their land bases, their oceans, and their lifeways. We are no different than them."
Mauna Kea is proving not only to other Indigenous frontline communities, but to all of us that another world is possible, another way of being with one another and the earth grounded in love and the wisdom of our ancestors is viable and attainable not only in our lifetimes, but now. The kia’i on the Mauna are living, breathing, thriving examples of this every day.
Supportive delegations arrived from Aotearoa, Tahiti and Tonga, as well as high profile visitors such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Damien Marley and Jason Mamoa. One of these visitors was the founder of the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock, LaDonna Bravebull Allard, who came to support Mauna leader Pua Case — the two now consider each other sisters. When she arrived on the Mauna, Bravebull Allard expressed that she had come to “give her sister a hug” and shared stories of how it was Case’s phone calls that got her through even the hardest days of Standing Rock.
During her stay, she taught a session at University Pu’uhuluhulu in which she shared that witnessing what is occurring at Mauna Kea helped her to understand her role in Standing Rock: “it was a seed we planted,” she remarked. And look what has emerged: “the Mauna is bringing families together, it is bringing nations together, this Mauna is bringing the world together.”
What you can do:
Sign the following Change.org petitions calling on the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) to divest from the TMT
Donate your Hawaiian Airline miles for Pu’uhuluhulu to bring in medics, legal observers and teachers for the University. If you have a membership follow the link to log in and you will be directed to a page where you can donate.
Host a fundraiser or make a personal donation to the following organizations:
Follow @puuhuluhulu on Instagram for updates and support call outs
Environmental Impact Statement:
TMT Alternate Site Statement
State of Emergency
Annexation of Hawai’i
Pu’u Honua Pu’uhuluhulu
Pua Case on Democracy Now
Gordon and Betty Moore Divestment Petition
ACURA divestment petition
ACURA Member list
Hawaii Community Bail Fund
Decolonization is for Everyone