Native Hawaiians Protesting Construction on a Sacred Mountain Prepare “For the Long Haul”

Activists have set up camp to protect Mauna Kea from the impacts of a giant telescope.

Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawai'i's tallest mountain, Mauna Kea. They fly the Hawaiian flag upside down as a protest symbol. Caleb Jones/AP Photo

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Hundreds of Native Hawaiians and their supporters gathered last week at the base of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the state, to block construction of a massive telescope that they say threatens sacred sites. The protests came to a head on Wednesday, when at least 30 elders calling themselves kiai’i, or “protectors,” were arrested by officers from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources for allegedly blocking an access road that leads up the mountain where the Thirty-Meter Telescope would be built.

People began to congregate last Wednesday, when Gov. Ige announced that construction on the Thirty-Meter Telescope would finally begin after almost 20 years of back-and-forth between astronomers and local indigenous groups. Supporters of the project say that Mauna Kea’s exceptionally clear view of the night sky would allow the telescope to capture unprecedented views of outer space, helping scientists better understand black holes and the possibility of life on distant planets. Opponents are concerned about its ecological and spiritual impacts, since the mountain is home to rare species, including the endangered palila bird, as well as ancestral burial grounds.

Native Hawaiians have filed several lawsuits to challenge the Thirty-Meter Telescope as well as other astronomy projects already underway on Mauna Kea. In 2007, a court-ordered analysis of the environmental impacts of the ongoing projects concluded that they had caused “significant, substantial and adverse” harm to the ecosystem. In 2012, two indigenous-led groups joined in a lawsuit demanding public participation in the Mauna Kea’s management; their claims were dismissed.

A 2015 suit over the Thirty-Meter Telescope reached the Hawaiian Supreme Court and halted construction for years on the grounds that the permitting process was flawed; during that time, hundreds flocked to Mauna Kea for public demonstrations. The project is now back underway after the state Supreme Court validated its new permits last fall.

As of Friday, more than 600 astronomers had signed an open letter denouncing the arrest of elders at Mauna Kea. The letter questions whether the project’s benefits to the scientific community justify the “violation of consent” and leveraging of “state-sanctioned violence” against Natives. 

Following the arrests, Governor David Ige proclaimed a state of emergency, calling on the Hawai’i National Guard to support civil authorities in enforcing state laws around the mountain so construction could move forward. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that Mauna Kea organizers devoted Friday morning to preparing for a potential clash with National Guard troops, practicing human blockades. The state’s Lieutenant Governor, Josh Green, made a Facebook post on Friday to voice his opposition the National Guard’s presence at the site.

Protectors have been sleeping overnight at Mauna Kea’s base at the Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu camp, where they’ve established a kitchen and medic tent. 

Protestors are nervously awaiting the arrival of the National Guard, though they say they will not be deterred. “We are here for the long haul,” elder and local hula master Mapuana de Silva tells Mother Jones via text, adding that their numbers are growing each day. “This is a strong thriving community of native Hawaiians who was to stop the desecration of this most sacred site, the highest peak in the Pacific, the mountain where our ancestors have prayed and practiced our culture long before any foreigners arrived. And where we still practice our culture with our families to this day.”

Here are more images from the occupation so far: 


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