On a late July morning, along the wide boulevard of South Beretania Street in downtown Honolulu, Hawaiian flags flew upside down from makeshift flagpoles.
The inverted Hawaiian flag, commonly seen hanging from car windows or the backs of pick-up trucks, represents a symbol of distress. This summer, on Hawaiian Sovereignty Restoration Day, signs reading “We Are Maunakea” lined Thomas Square Park in downtown Honolulu, where inverted flags flew in resistance. Attendees sported t-shirts with the slogan, “See you on the Mauna,” referencing Mauna a Wakea (commonly known as “Maunakea”), a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaiʻi that is the site of longstanding conflict.
The intensifying debate surrounding the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea’s summit has gripped the islands since 2015. People around the world have joined the conversation about what this project means for Hawaiʻi’s land, economy, and indigenous rights. Today, the presence of astronomical research on Maunakea continues to act as a divisive force among the people of Hawaiʻi.
The TMT—run by the California Institute of Technology, the University of California system, and research institutes in Japan, India, and China under the collective moniker “the TMT International Observatory corporation”—is the largest and one of the most expensive of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere, with projected costs at nearly two billion dollars, and would become the premier site in the world to study the cosmos. The Observatory is also partnered with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which includes Yale, Harvard, MIT, and a host of other top universities.
Though, according to Astronomy Department Chair Dr. Sarbani Basu, “Yale is not affiliated with the TMT at all, despite its AURA membership,” students circulated a petition over the summer in reaction to the news of Yale’s membership in AURA to pressure the Astronomy Department to publicly denounce the events on Maunakea. While discussions surrounding Maunakea at Yale have largely de-escalated since the summer, in late September, Mayor Harry Kim of Hawaiʻi County intensified protests when he released a statement demanding that the TMT become the last area on Maunakea ever developed for a telescope. Protesters in Hawaiʻi continue to camp on the base of the mauna at the time of this article’s writing well into October.
The TMT International Observatory Corporation has largely ignored their efforts.
In 2009, the TMT Observatory Corporation selected the summit of Maunakea as the world’s most optimal site for astronomical discovery, with construction slated to begin in 2014. However, 750 kia’i, or protectors, blocked the roads leading up to the summit, and Hawaiʻi Governor David Ige temporarily halted the construction.
Protests against the TMT also reached the courts. In 2015, David Kailua Kopper, an attorney at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, the only Native Hawaiian rights law firm in the world, defended numerous kia’i, including master teachers of hula (a Polynesian dance form) and Native Hawaiian practitioners. They were arrested for occupying and leading a vigil on the summit overnight, thus violating emergency rules established by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) in Hawaiʻi. Kopper and his plaintiffs eventually won the case, invalidating the BLNR’s emergency rules.
“For every telescope, there was always resistance within the Hawaiian community—that often gets lost in the discussion. People say ‘Why now?’ There’s a long history of people in the Native Hawaiian community being outraged and opposing these projects,” Kopper explained to The Politic. “The acts of those people in 2015, I think, created something in others, and now we’re seeing the same sentiment—the same commitment—to protecting Maunakea.”
It wasn’t until three years after Kopper’s 2015 lawsuit that public protest surrounding the TMT resurged. In October 2018, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled against all legal opposition to the BLNR’s decision to approve the University of Hawaiʻi’s leasing the area on the summit of Maunakea to the TMT International Observatory. As a result, construction resumed on the mauna in July 2019. In the following weeks, Maunakea was home to the largest and longest-standing protests in its history.
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, Professor of Hawaiʻi politics and indigenous social movements and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, recalled her experience protesting on Maunakea this summer, when the demonstrations first began. Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua arrived at Maunakea on July 14, a few days after the base of the mountain was declared a puʻuhonua, or safe sanctuary, by the protectors. “I don’t think anybody quite knew what was going to happen in the coming days,” she reflected. “The next day, when the construction was supposed to begin, I was one of the eight people in the early hours of the morning who went and chained ourselves to the cattle guard on the base of Maunakea Access Road” in an attempt to block law enforcement and construction vehicles from reaching the summit.
During the following weeks, numbers at the Maunakea Access Road surged to nearly 5,000. Protesters organized medical services (Mauna Medics) and established Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu University, a community-run school, to guide the demonstrators through lessons on Hawaiian language, history, and indigenous rights. On the island of Oʻahu, activists created a slow-moving convoy down the H1 freeway, occupying the roadways in protest of 38 kupuna, or elders, being arrested for peacefully protesting on Maunakea. At the same time, opponents of the TMT from Maui released a video statement affirming that Maui would stand with the protectors of the mauna.
“I have not seen anything of this level of unity and solidarity across the islands and in the diaspora and beyond, from allies as well, since the Kaho’olawe movement of the late 1970s,” Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua recollected, alluding to the Hawaiian-led activism against the U.S. Navy’s bombing of the island of Kaho’olawe. “It’s an incredibly exciting and powerful moment of emergence.”
The standoff on Maunakea dates back much further in the state’s history than what is often depicted by the media. In 1964, the summit of Maunakea was formally identified by the University of Hawaiʻi as an exceptional site for developing observatory sites. Public concern surrounding the growing number of telescopes on Maunakea increased in the 1970s, and former Governor George Ariyoshi expressed his concern that new development would “pose a threat to the priceless qualities of the mountain.” At the time, three telescopes were installed on Maunakea. Today, the TMT could become the 14th.
Following Governor Ige’s proclamation of a state of emergency for Maunakea in July 2019, Kopper represented Paul Neves, a member of the royal order and a hula practitioner from the Big Island, who sued Ige for denying his right to regularly visit the mauna for religious and cultural purposes. Ige withdrew the emergency proclamation by the end of July, before the case was decided.
Cheryl Ho, another long-time hula practitioner, resident of Oʻahu, and ally to the kiaʻi, echoed these sentiments of resistance. “Maunakea, I have come to realize, through this whole process starting in 2015, is a sacred mountain to Hawaiians, just like Fuji-yama is sacred to the Japanese,” Ho said. “Astronomy, as western culture knows it, and as Hawaiian science knows it, is valuable and to be learned. But the thing that I have really learned to abhor is the act of digging into that sacred mountain and defacing her and justifying that huge structure as a scientific, astronomical victory and mark of progress.”
As the accounts of Native Hawaiian protectors and allies have swept through international news and inspired worldwide calls for the defense of indigenous rights, there has been considerably less attention on the Native Hawaiians and Hawaiʻi residents who either support the TMT or are wary of mainstream media coverage of the activism against it.
Keoni Schultz, an attorney at Cades Schutte, a law firm based in Honolulu, is part Hawaiian and a proponent of the TMT on Maunakea. While Schultz acknowledged the frustrations and organizing efforts of the protectors, he argued that “at the end of the day, having a world-class, science-based telescope is great for Hawaiʻi. It’s great for the economy, great for science, great for local people to have high-paying, high-class jobs,” he explained. According to Schultz, protesting against the telescope will not ameliorate existing problems associated with living in Hawaiʻi, such as “a lack of high-paying jobs, the cost of living, and traffic.”
While demonstrators continue to organize at the base of the mauna, Schultz noted that only a few miles separate Maunakea from the Pohakuloa Training Area, the largest United States Department of Defense installation in the Pacific. “Four to ten miles away, the U.S. military is literally blowing up the ʻaina (land) on an almost daily basis, occasionally bombing it. That to me, if you want to talk about the desecration of the ʻaina, the organization that overthrew the Queen, is there. There is actually uranium that goes into the soil that leaches into the groundwater,” Schutlz described. “If all these people were there protesting the Pohakuloa, I would actually understand that.”
For Mary Beth Laychak, news coverage of the TMT conflict has too often failed to focus on the Big Island communities the proposed TMT would most directly affect. Laychak, a resident of the small town Waimea on the Big Island, has served as the outreach manager of the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope (CFHT) near the summit of Maunakea for 12 out of the 16 years she’s lived in Hawaiʻi. As part of her job, Laychak works with the local Waimea community, notably through Maunakea Scholars, a statewide outreach that helps students in 13 Hawaiʻi public schools use telescopes on the Maunakea observatories.
“For me, one of the biggest things is that I see much more civility [about Maunakea disagreements] when I speak to people in town than you see online or in news reports,” Laychack explained. Waimea, located half a mile from the CFHT, is a town of around 9,000 people, and the CFHT and Keck Observatory on Maunakea are the town’s two largest employers. A recent economic report published by Maunakea Observatories stated that astronomy currently sustains approximately 1,400 jobs statewide with $170 million of economic impact generated annually through astronomy. According to Laychak, there are over 500 individuals currently working on the Maunakea observatories, and projects at CFHT incorporate and hire as many local vendors as possible.
“It benefits everybody—the observatories, the local community—when we hire local,” Laychak explained, cautioning, “with that being said, there are some positions where you simply can’t—where there are so few people in the world who have the expertise with some systems, where you have to cast a literal worldwide net to get people who are able to do those jobs now.”
These benefits, which stem from the economic opportunities and community partnerships sustained by the science on Maunakea, make the TMT conflict much more nuanced than typical media portrayals, according to Laychak. “To summarize it in two-word soundbites completely misunderstands what is going on in Hawaiʻi,” Laychak explained.
Schultz also argued against this oversimplification: “To me, I fundamentally disagree with the argument that this is a Hawaiian thing, that we Hawaiians need to stop this telescope.” Schultz believes the nuances of the debate over the fate of Maunakea underscore the reality that no ethnic population has monolithic political or social beliefs.
This essentializing of the TMT conflict to, among other simplifications, “science versus culture,” as Laychak describes common misrepresentations, has pervaded major headlines and news outlets. Numerous Native Hawaiian scientists argue that the two are not mutually exclusive; framing it this way denies the value of indigenous scientists and their knowledge. Dr. Marissa Loving, a Native Hawaiian fellow in the School of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, rejected this notion: “I believe in practicing ethical science that uplifts and values the voices of indigenous people.” She explained, “One of my primary goals as a mathematician is a commitment to rehumanizing mathematics. For me, speaking out on behalf of Maunakea was not just my responsibility as a Hawaiian but also my responsibility as a mathematician and scholar.”
In particular, Loving expressed disappointment that “there is a lot of subtle—and not so subtle—racism on display in the statements being made in support of the TMT, pointing to former Hawaiʻi Governor Neil Abercrombie. He had stated in a July 2019 Hawaii News Now report that “the people who are being oppressed are the ones who are for the telescope. They’re the ones who have been called names, have been told you’re against Hawaiians, you’re against religion.”
According to Loving, Abercrombie’s statement blatantly disregarded the history of U.S. colonialism in Hawaiʻi, as well as the ongoing oppression that Native Hawaiians face in their homeland.
Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua also echoed these grievances regarding the media’s use of racist tropes of laziness, disorganization, and attachment to relics of the past when describing the protectors.
“The thing that I’m trying to say to all the various reporters is that it’s really important to emphasize the ways that the movement is comprised of multiple generations, multiple genders, and people from all kinds of different backgrounds,” Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua explained. “Giving a face to the protectors is really important, in particular because of these ways of trying to minimize or slander or stereotype who the protectors are.”
Amidst what is arguably one of the most divisive topics in Hawaiʻi, Kopper and Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua continue to believe in the strength of kapu aloha, or a code of conduct grounded on love and respect for others.
Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua has engaged with differing opinions regarding the fate of Maunakea in her classroom, in particular by facilitating debates on the TMT issue with students on both sides. Regardless, she hopes to emphasize how “kia’i have committed to kapu aloha to meet opponents with compassion and respect for their humanity.”
Kopper echoed the importance of this principle from a legal perspective: “I welcome differences in opinions. The purpose of this proclamation case is not so much defending a certain message or a point of view, but defending the right to have it and say something.”
On those in favor of the TMT, he acknowledged, “They definitely have a right to say it,” as long as those on both sides “keep an open mind and treat others with aloha–which is part of the kapu aloha movement. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions–it doesn’t make it right or wrong.”
Today, with what was once a week-long standoff stretching into its third month of demonstrations, the people’s presence on Maunakea shows no signs of diminishing soon. Over 100 professors on every campus of the University of Hawaiʻi system now offer courses that accommodate students who have chosen to continue protesting on the mauna.
On July 30, in reaction to widespread protest, Governor Ige extended the TMT construction until 2021. Today, it is still unclear as to how long the over-100-day presence on Maunakea will persist. And even if the TMT is successfully moved to the Canary Islands—the proposed alternative site for the telescope—protectors and their allies have proven that resistance to the TMT represents far more than just a single telescope.
Last month, a group of protestors occupied the entrance of Waimanalo Bay Beach Park in Hawaiʻi, the site of a controversial redevelopment project. Demonstrators held signs and chanted in solidarity with the anti-TMT movement. Hawaiian flags were flown upside down. In mid-October, protestors blocked the transport of equipment to a major wind farm project in Kahuku.
In an interview with Hawaii News Now, Kamalani Keliikuli, leader of the “Protect Kahuku” activist group, said, “It all started from Ku Kiai Mauna [Protect Maunakea]. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think we would have had this much support.”