The live updates from Mauna Kea have been trickling in all day and I brace myself for the images I might see every time I hit refresh. This latest dispatch, though, as I write on Tuesday afternoon, is peaceful. Hawai‘i Public Radio reporter Ryan Finnerty has tweeted that a checkpoint established by activists (also known as protectors or kia‘i of Mauna Kea) to halt construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope remains standing. A police officer has met with kupuna to announce that there will be no arrests tonight. It’s a fragile peace (“Worth noting a similar deal almost broke down after the fact last night,” Finnerty added; see Wednesday morning’s update near the end of this story), but one met with cheers and singing by the kia‘i.
The protestors and kia‘i began to gather on the mauna over the last week following a July 10 announcement by Governor David Ige that construction of the telescope would begin during the week of July 15. “We have followed a 10-year process to get this point, and the day for construction to begin has arrived,” Ige said in the statement. “At this time our number one priority is everyone’s safety. As construction begins, I continue to be committed to engaging with people holding all perspectives on this issue and to making meaningful changes that further contribute to the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea.”
It signaled the next step for a project that has become contentious and volatile, as questions about Indigenous rights, environmental protection, Native Hawaiian self-determination, and notions of Western scientific progress have been raised. Critics and opponents of the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope have cited concerns with the height and size of the installation on environmentally protected lands, existing telescopes that “pollute” the landscape, building atop a mountain that is traditionally sacred, disrupted access to cultural sites, and a lack of state authority to determine what’s to be placed on ceded lands (lands once belonging to the Hawaiian Kingdom).
In many ways, the dispute has become symbolic of the conflict between colonizing Western forces and Indigenous peoples.
While Gov. Ige has framed the issue as a problem of “the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea,” some TMT opponents dispute this interpretation, like UH scientist and Department of Geography and Environment Ph.D. candidate Aurora Kagawa-Viviani.
“Even now, ‘Hawaiian vs. science,’ ‘science vs. religion,’ ‘culture vs. science,’ progress vs. stone age,’ and other permutations of this trope continue to be paraded around,” Kagawa-Viviani wrote in a post on Medium. “These statements that equate science to progress and upholding cultural values as backward are experienced by many Hawaiians, myself included, are not only incorrect but also dehumanizing. They caricature traditional culture and Hawaiian people while providing no critical examination of the nature of what we call science.”
She concluded, “Science and culture have long coexisted in Hawai‘i and I see these ways of knowing are thriving everywhere I look. This coexistence is in archaeological alignments, encoded in mele, cultivated in lo‘i, mala, loko i‘a, and shorelines, carried on wa‘a, restored in forests, shared from one person to another through stories, exchange, and webs of relationships. We just need to listen, create space, and cultivate.”
On Monday, the first day of this round of protests, eight kia‘i chained themselves to a cattle grate on the road to block vehicle access and construction. Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, a Native Hawaiian activist from Maui, was among these protectors. In a Big Island News Now video, Ka‘eo linked the conflict over the TMT to similar struggles of Indigenous peoples globally, like Standing Rock, mining in West Papua, and land disputes in Canada. He spoke while laying down on the cattle grate with his head pressed into a blanket squeezed against the metal.
“Our goal is to expose, not only to Hawai‘i but to the rest of the world, that there’s something rotten going on in Hawai‘i. Whether it’s David Lassner of the University of Hawai‘i who pimp[s] out our lands, to these foreign entities – Japan, China, India, Canada, Cal Tech – all being protected and supported by the University of Hawai‘i, who lease land from the so called state of Hawai‘i who manages lands… our lands that belong to our people.
“These are our people’s lands, yet we’re fighting against a subleaser,” continued Ka‘eo, who is also a UH Maui College associate professor of Hawaiian studies. “The state of Hawai‘i is using this large police and military force to threaten our people, to subdue our people in a way, to really cause us to be tamed so they can continue on this process of exploiting our sacred sites, our lands, our waters, in many ways, to corporations.
“And that’s really what’s going on: They don’t want Hawaiians thinking and being Hawaiian because it’s in direct conflict to the kind of exploitation and the kind of greedy and self-righteous mentality that’s running rampant throughout the world.”
The state’s Mauna Kea media team made no mention of colonization. In a 5pm Tuesday statement, the “Joint Information Center” conceded another day to the activists and kia‘i. “Today communication channels between the state and telescope project opponents remained open as preparations for construction continued,” its statement read. It added that an estimated 200 people were gathered on Mauna Kea Access Road and that safety is its the No. 1 priority.
How long the state will be patient during this stand off before taking action or changing strategies remains a question. What is known, however, is that the state is prepared for drastic action. “As planned, officers and vehicles from other law enforcement agencies are on island to assist with ongoing construction preparations,” the Joint Information Center stated.
When asked the number of officers and resources sent to Mauna Kea, Maui Police Department Public Information Officer Gregg Okamoto directed MauiTime to the Mauna Kea media line, which would not release any details.
Asked again, Okamoto could only state “The Maui Police Department will be sending officers to assist law enforcement on the Big Island with monitoring the TMT construction project and assist with keeping everyone safe. MPD will be sending available officers from different specialized units to include emergency enforcement details. The number of officers and how long they will assist is not available for release.”
The answer to my earlier question is, not long. Arrests of kupuna blocking Access Road began this morning, with officers citing “obstruction of a government operation.” The situation is orderly and peaceful, both Finnerty and Anita Hofschneider (Honolulu Civil Beat) agree, despite the fact that, at this point, two police vans holding nine to 10 people each have left with arrested elders. A third van is being loaded and a dozen kupuna are waiting to be taken away while activists chant and sing and a Maui Police Department van arrives on-scene. But the checkpoint still stands, for now, as the police dressed in full riot gear look on.
MauiTime will follow the situation on Mauna Kea as it develops. Individuals with connections to kia‘i are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another temporary truce between kia‘i and the police has been reached for the day. Meanwhile, Governor Ige has announced an emergency proclamation for the County of Hawai‘i to help law enforcement.
Image courtesy Kakoo Haleakala