On the Mauna

“I think,” my daughter Ua said gravely, ”I want to go up on the mauna.”  In Hawai’i, these words have a distinct and edgy meaning lately.

The mauna (mountain) she was referring to is Mauna Kea, where an encampment of kia’i (protectors/protestors) of the mauna have halted construction of a cutting-edge telescope  by occupying the access road. Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in Hawai’i is one of the premier spots on the planet for astronomical research.  The summit of Mauna Kea is the proposed site in the northern hemisphere for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will rival the Hubble Space Telescope in its capacity for advancing astronomical knowledge. The telescope, whose cost is cited at $1.4 billion would be eight stories tall and cover a five acre site at the summit.  There are already thirteen telescopes on the mountain, some of them at the end of their useful life. The controversy over the TMT has been going on for many years now, with legal and political wrangling erupting every few years as the project has made its way, contested at every step, through the permitting system.  However, the resistance to the telescope feeds on an long history of mismanagement of the mountain – which is a sacred or highly valued spot by any measure or point of view – and by the even longer  history of land theft, broken promises, and general disrespect that the native people of Hawai’i have endured for more than a century.   Native Hawaiians and young people of all ethnicities have been inspired by the movement to protect the mauna.   It is a common sight to see trucks and cars on our island flying the flags of the movement:  the  Union-Jack-reminiscent flag of the state of Hawaii  hung deliberately upside down to signify the overthrow of the native Hawaiian government by American annexationist businessmen in 1893, and the yellow, green, and red flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.  In the first few days of confrontation, approximately three thousand people gathered to block the entrance of the access road.  There was a half-hearted arrest of approximately two dozen kupuna (elders) who presented themselves for arrest so as to prevent violent confrontation between younger protestors and the police.. However on my island just about everyone is related to everyone, whether by blood or social ties, so the arrests only increased public sympathy for the movement. 

It was three days before my daughter was set to go to Boston to become a freshman at Harvard when she decided she needed to go up on the mountain.  The protests had already been going on for a month, but the whirl of preparations and her roller-coaster emotions of excitement and terror had pre-occupied us both for weeks.   She is a thoughtful young woman and she has been taught the history of the overthrow, annexation, and economic colonization of Hawai’i by Western interests in some detail at her school, which was founded by a visionary Hawaiian princess, the last of her royal line, who dedicated her inheritance of valuable lands throughout the island chain to fund the education of young native Hawaiians in perpetuity.

It was a bright day in early afternoon when we pulled off the highway and parked at the edge of the encampment.  The access road to the summit starts on “The Saddle” where the two great mauna that make up the bulk of Hawai’i island meet in a broad plain of harsh, wind-swept beauty. We walked about a third of a mile past parked cars and tents to get to the main area of the protector’s encampment.  The wind whipped the many flags flying over the encampment, many of them the upside down flag of the overthrow but also flags of the various native Hawaiian groups that were taking part in the encampment.  There was a welcome tent with information about events including guided hikes of Pu’uhuluhulu, the small hill nearby and a people’s university with five different classes being offered hourly for free, with students and teachers gathered on the bare, black lava, to learn about the repatriation of native remains and artifacts or environmental law or native history. My daughter chose to attend the environmental law class, which was taught by some of the most well-known native Hawaiian and environmental lawyers and law professors in the state.  People were walking by carrying plates of food from the dining tent.  There was a medical tent and a recycling tent, and a long line of port-a-potties. There was a number of police and government vehicles present but these law enforcement personnel stayed on the roadway and seemed determinedly neutral in their bearing on this afternoon at least.

Above us all stood the mauna in all its massive, forbidding glory.  “It is so beautiful,” my daughter said of the mountain and of the encampment, “I’m glad I came up.”   The movement is beautiful – an awakening to the beauty of the mountain and of pride in native Hawaiian culture. Love of the land – of the land itself: the dirt, rock, plants and animals of the mauna – and an awareness of the sacred in our everyday life is being born on the mauna.  It is deeply inspiring.  At the same time, it is a difficult situation in which historical wrongs have found a symbolic focus.  It is not a conflict with evil on one  side and good on the other, so much as a conundrum in which well-intentioned people with different perspective and interests have come into conflict and the conflict has no bottom.  The whole of the violent, hurtful, destructive but irrevocable history of Western expansion, aggression, colonization, and, yes, dynamism, ambition, and innovation, is wrapped up in this confrontation. Some would say that this conflict is about science and progress represented by the telescope, versus the resurgence of religious superstitions, but that would be a gross mis-representation of what is happening.  The movement that has arisen in defense of the mountain is at least as cutting edge as the telescope itself but in the social dimension, rather than in the technological dimension represented by the telescope.  The value of the movement in awakening an explicitly politically empowered love for the mauna,  and for the environment in general, far outweighs the billion dollars of construction investment and the handful of jobs that would result.  What will happen on the mauna is difficult to say.  No one knows how we will resolve this confrontation.  But I do know this: we all need to stand with our mauna – whatever shape the mauna may take in your land.

(Photo credits: Ua Alencastre-Galimba)

Sorry for the long hiatus!

5 Replies to “On the Mauna”

  1. Mahalo, Michelle, for another thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written essay. Ku Kia’i Mauna!

    1. Hard to know the value of this scientific resource, when set against the love of the land. The space required is same as a new Walmart complex, are the protest of these commercial spaces as vehement?
      The astounding beauty. of the images and fundamental research value of Hubble have been inspiring. This unique location is one of the best in the world for this project and continuation of Hubble’s legacy.
      Glad to hear of revitalization of Hawaiian native pride and reverence for all nature. The stewardship of all lands, species and natural resources is sacred. This project would seem a pearl when viewed against the blight of thousands of commercial and industrial complexes. Wether strip malls or the convenience of our vehicles we all must weigh our personal and collective needs.
      From a far distance here in Florida this project seems benign and helpful. This is all said against the backdrop of the Amazon and Tundra burning and a president saying he’s seen as the King of Israel a second coming.
      Blessing to all of you and may we find the wisdom to weather these times.

      1. If somebody tried to build a Walmart on the mauna, yes, the protests would be Quite Vehement!! We do have two Walmarts on the island, and I remember the one on the east side was contested vigorously at the time but eventually got built. And that Walmart become the undisputed source of at least one invasive species: the ongoing invasion of the coqui tree frogs, and quite possibly the source of the devastation being visited on one of our most important tree species by a fungal disease brought over on house plants. On the other hand we got a lot of cheap stuff! 🙁

  2. I like that word ‘conundrum’ in this piece Michelle, and your elaboration of it. The other Mauna up there is of course where global atmospheric CO2 concentrations are monitored and I’m profoundly grateful to your island for that service to humanity.

    Wonderful though to read of the eruption of personal conviviality and love for the land associated with the movement you write of. It’s the essence of what we need to tap into and can maybe find in common everywhere we look: both the desire to be a part of something with our fellow kind, and that something being something about the land we inhabit and draw life from. I believe that desire’s at the heart of life for every creature with viscera and a soul, but completely incomprehensible to the corporations, institutions, local governments, developers, money-makers and agenda-setters etc for whom most of us work and whose projects drive development.

    1. I am glad you got a sense of the conviviality of the movement because that is one of the remarkable things about it: this spontaneous joy in being able to relate to each other in a new, informal, and organic way, as people together with a purpose grounded in love for the land, rather than, as is the usual case, serving institutions enthralled to the growth paradigm.

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