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Desecration on Mauna Kea: Progress or Privilege?

On Hawai’i Island last Wednesday morning, 34 people were arrested and cited with “obstruction of a government operation”. Their crime? Peaceful protest against the construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope observatory on Mauna Kea, a mountain that is considered sacred land by the native Hawaiian people. TMT, as the observatory is known, has been controversial in the state of Hawaii for years. While the members of the organization supporting the construction (including the University of California and Canada’s National Research Council,) claim that local support for the telescope is strong, the consensus on location appears very different. Protests on the road to the summit have been commonplace over the past few years, and currently, protesters have set up a human barricade and are not allowing construction equipment to pass through.

“We’ve been through this fight before, trying to fight for our own land, and been disregarded by those not of native blood.”

Without proper background, it’s easy to make snap judgments on this issue that may not be correct. There are already several observatories on Mauna Kea because of minimal light pollution and good location. However, the construction of each one has been highly controversial, and none of them are led by (or present a tangible benefit to) native Hawaiian people. This prime location for astronomy is also highly sacred in Hawaiian religion and tradition, considered the piko or center of Hawaiian existence and a connection to the ancestors. The construction of these observatories is widely considered desecration of traditional Hawaiian culture. “[Mauna Kea] is the most sacred mountain in Hawai’i,” says Brandee Doi, a young activist who is firmly against the construction. When I spoke with Ms. Doi over Instagram, she told me that she sees some clear connections between this issue and Hawaii’s past. “The people [are] trying to save their home and their land from destruction by foreign companies. We’ve been through this fight before, trying to fight for our own land, and been disregarded by those not of native blood.”

Poll via TMT

According to a 2017 poll conducted by TMT and Tulchin Research, 72 percent of people living in the state of Hawai’i support the construction of the observatory. However, it’s important to note that these polls are not broken down by demographic. World Population Review estimates that less than 10 percent of Hawai’i residents are native Hawaiians. More than a quarter of the state’s population is white. Bearing this in mind, the poll data becomes meaningless. Anyone who is not Hawaiian, who does not have a direct connection to the tradition and culture surrounding Mauna Kea, should not get to make this decision.

This is, at its heart, an issue of privilege. The idea for the telescope did not come from the Hawaiian people, the support did not come from the Hawaiian people, and that should frankly be the only support that matters. The TMT website notes that the proposed location is on ceded land, land which was seized by a group of wealthy white men during the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and given to the U.S. government after Hawai’i was annexed as a United States territory. The idea that this land is once again being used and paved over without the permission of the Hawaiian people, the people it should rightfully belong to, flies in the face of the Apology Resolution that was signed by President Bill Clinton. It also suggests, quite depressingly, that the American colonialist idea of manifest destiny is far from gone.

A peaceful protester on Mauna Kea shouts “Unity!” while being arrested for obstruction. Image credit: Kapulei Flores


At this point, the outlook quite frankly seems bleak for the peaceful protesters (also called “protectors” by many) on the mountain. The state government has police at the protests, and Governor David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to free up more law enforcement resources. “We understand that the police isn’t the enemy, the state is giving them those orders,” Brandee Doi says. “I pray that the state sees the light and realizes how much this impacts a whole culture.”

A petition to halt the construction has received almost 50,000 signatures in the past 24 hours. I ask that you sign it as well, and understand that your responsibility is to use your privilege to support the people the land belongs to. “The Hawaiian people have lost so much and been silenced for too long,” Ms. Doi says. It’s our job to help them amplify their voices and preserve their culture before it is destroyed forever.

Featured Image Credit: Kapulei Flores (@kapzphotography)

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