Pua Case standing next to the sacred rain rock in Waimea, Hawaii. Credit: Shannon Biggs. Some rights reserved.
They say that Hawaii is Earth’s connecting point to the rest of the universe. Owing to its low light pollution, its remoteness and sheer height, some astronomers also consider Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii, an ideal place to build the world’s most powerful space observatory on land known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). However, for many Hawaiians Mauna Kea is far more than a convenient place to construct an 18 story telescope—it’s the most sacred place in the whole of the archipelago.
Today, Mauna Kea stands at the center of a fierce battle between the values of modern scientific discovery (backed by the political and financial might of the USA and other governments) and the values of Hawaii’s traditional and spiritual stewardship of this sacred place—backed by a growing international movement of ‘protectors’ and fueled by social media.
Construction of the TMT entails blasting a hole in the mountain the size of a 50,000 seat football stadium, placing endangered species and a fragile ecosystem at even greater risk. There are already a dozen older, smaller observatories on the mountain, many of which are obsolete, but none of which rival the intrusion represented by the TMT. Funding for the $1.4 billion project comes from Canada, China, India, Japan and the USA.
In recent years, a growing number of ‘protectors’ have been a constant presence on Mauna Kea, conducting ceremonies and holding vigils directly opposite the visitor’s station. They point out that eventually, the TMT will also be obsolete. Even now, a larger observatory is being planned in Chile, and undeniably the best images of the universe already come from satellites in space.
Construction of the TMT began in March, but plans were delayed by the first confrontation between police and those standing vigil on the mountain, resulting in the arrest of 31 protectors on April 7 2015. Then on June 24, in a showing of traditional Hawaiian solidarity and self-determination not seen since the US annexation of the islands in 1898, 750 people peacefully blocked the path of construction vehicles.
Like most people outside Hawaii, I was unaware of this epic clash between money, science and the sacred until I found myself on a panel of mostly Native Americans during the historic climate march in New York City in October 2014. It focused on the ‘rights of nature’—a new legal and cultural framework for environmental protection that recognizes the legal standing of ecosystems.
Near the end of the panel, a woman I had never met stood up and introduced herself as Pua Case, a Mauna Kea protector. She said she didn’t know anything about legal standing for the rights of nature, but she had already had gone to court on behalf of the spiritual rights of Mauna Kea, home to many Hawaiian deities including Wakea, the Sky Father and the thunder beings, and the burial site of the Hawaiian people’s most sacred ancestors.
She looked around the room and asked, “Would you bulldoze your own temple? Because that is what is happening where I come from.” Case is also the founder of Hawaii Warriors Rising, which is part of the international Indigenous Idle No More movement.
Case related the rest of her story to a rapt audience—telling of her home in Waimea that sits in the shadow of Mauna Kea. She described the sacred rain rock or pohaku in Waimea where her community prays, and on which the goddess of the lake on Mauna Kea appeared to her then 11-year old daughter, Kapulei, in 2009—prevailing on the young girl to relay a message to her mother: ‘please try to stop the building of the telescope.’ “What telescope?” Pua asked her daughter, and so the struggle began. Over the next months and years, the story of the #WeAreMaunaKea protectors exploded globally via twitter and Facebook.
Lorilani Keohokalole-Torio, a teacher, artist and advocate for ancestral teachings, believes the struggle isn’t against science. Hawaiians were circumnavigating the globe in double-hulled canoes while European scientists were still grappling with whether the Earth was flat. Rather, “With opposition coming from all sides [we have]…to take all the issues we are faced with and find balance…It’s about Kapu Aloha…taking responsibility for one’s actions.” Kapu Aloha is a traditional Hawaiian injunction to act only with kindness, love and empathy.
As Case explains, for the protectors this injunction specifically “dictates how one conducts one’s self on the sacred temple, which is the mountain itself…an order of behavior interwoven into the highest dignity and respect, to carry oneself as if their ancestors were standing amongst them.” An ancient proverb, He ali‘i nō ka ‘āina, ke kauwā wale ke kanaka (“The land is the chief, the people merely servants”) demonstrates the spiritual and moral obligations that Hawaiians have to protect their ecosystems.
But truly protecting ecosystems requires a massive cultural shift in which people begin to see themselves not as owners of nature, but in relationship to the natural world. As Tom Goldtooth, director of the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network has said, “I believe that as Native people, we are the land and the land is us. Those of us in the environmental justice movement have started to educate the larger environmental movement that our work protecting the environment is spiritual work. When we talk about the environment, very often we are talking about sacred elements. We’re talking about air, which is a gift from the Creator.”
In June of 2015 I visited Pua Case in Hawaii, and watched as she offered a prayer and an offering of fresh leis (or garlands) to the beings that dwell on what a visitor might think was just an ordinary rock in her hometown of Waimea. “My child was open,” she says about her daughter’s ability to see and communicate the warning of the TMT project. “Her mind was not colonized.” The truth of Kapulei’s visions of the spirit was never a question for her or for her community. “These are the things we know. The things we keep secret...it is not for me to worry about…whether you believe—whether this sounds like a fairy tale. We’re not trying to convince you if what we say is true. We’re standing for a mountain. We can no longer keep our stories secret.”
For Case, initially this meant fear. “What would it mean to stand for the mountain? What about my job?” she recalls asking herself. “What about my safety, would I have to go to court? What if no one stood with me?” But from 2009 to 2015,six petitioners including Case and her family did take the case to court, arguing that the mountain was designated as conservation land (on which 13 minor telescopes have already been built), and seeking to have the spiritual rights of Mauna Kea recognized. “We lost—every time. And we understood that would most likely happen,” she told me with a gentle shrug. “The courts are not set up for us, especially when money is involved.”
However, during the court case, many more people began to join the opposition movement. First one, then hundreds, and then thousands of people walked to the summit of Mauna Kea. In response to the blockade on June 24th, the Governor of Hawaii, David Ige (a supporter of the TMT) issued an order to close the public access road and visitors’ station, and to place locks on the only public bathrooms on the summit. “The state and Hawai‘i County,” he said, “are working together to uphold the law and ensure safety on roadways and on Mauna Kea, while allowing the people their right to peacefully and lawfully protest.”
Funds were sent from around the world to pay for portable toilets for the protectors, but they were removed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources in further retaliation for the blockade. A night-time curfew was also put into place in another attempt to keep people off the mountain. Throughout the demonstrations, the protectors have been reminded to act in the spirit of Kapu Aloha, to make sure that anger and negativity do not accumulate on the summit. “That’s been a challenge,” says Case, “but also a beautiful part of our training, particularly for those seeking to help who are unfamiliar with the expectations of Kapu Aloha.”
On July 18 2015, during the hottest summer in local memory, there was a snowstorm on the mountain. “This is my confirmation that we are on the right path,” said one of the protectors, Joshua Lanakila, to the media. “We are our land, and our land is us. When we move, the land reflects our movement, and vice versa.” The snowy reprieve from construction was brief, and to add insult to injury, the next police action came on July 31—the eve of Hawaiian Sovereignty Day. Two raids took place in the middle of the night on Mauna Kea and in Maui, where another telescope is being erected. Protectors in both places chanted peacefully and lay down in front of the construction trucks, before they were carried off one by one by groups of police. Twenty-seven were arrested.
For those standing for the mountain, no matter the outcome, the fight isn’t about science versus nature. “They’ll play that card until the last day,” said Case. “If you don’t believe in the Sacred, or culture, that’s fine. If you don’t care that laws have been broken and criteria to [protect] a conservation zone haven’t been built, that’s up to you. But this is our watershed, our aquifer for the next seven generations. For us there can be no compromise for what we believe in, what we know to be true…We will stand until the last Aloha ʻĀina patriot lives.”
To support the Mauna Kea protectors, visit their Facebook site and leave your own message of solidarity.