Native Hawaiians Sue Governor, Fight Against Telescope on Sacred Lands

Hawaian Unite. Photo: Walter Ritte
For four days over 1000 Native Hawaiians have been standing ground to block an access road to Mauna Kea, a mountain regarded as one of the most sacred places in Hawaii, to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on sacred land. “From time immemorial through the present, Native Hawaiians view, revere, care for, respect, and hold sacred Mauna Kea as the first-born child of Papa [Papahānaumoku, the earth mother] and Wākea [the Sky father]. This living and vital ‘āina [the land that nurtures] that connects Native Hawaiins to their ancestral ties of creation serves as the foundation of their cultural and spiritual identity.” So begins a legal complaint presented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation in a lawsuit against Governor David Ige from Hawaii, to fight an emergency proclamation he issued to give extraordinary powers to law enforcement to remove protectors and shut down the area, preventing more to come. The lawsuit alleges the emergency proclamation is an abuse of executive power and violates Native Hawaiins’ rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and religious exercise; and meant to be used only during natural disasters and state emergencies. So far, as many as 34 people have been arrested, including 33 kūpuna [elders] and one caregiver in a very moving event:
The protests have been led mostly by elders and organizers including members of Kanaeokana, a network of over 60 Hawaiin culture and educational organizations and schools. They have been covering their resistance live and educating people about this years-long struggle, which has included an ongoing celebration of their spiritual practices and culture:
Native Hawaiins have relentlessly called for an understanding that their fight is not against science, but how science has been historically conducted on their sacred lands: “Our fight against the TMT has never been about culture versus science. It’s about reminding people that science doesn’t trump all, especially when it comes at the expense of the ʻāina and our culture. At a press conference on June 28, 2019, protector Kealoha Pisciotta spoke about this topic. What the protectors are saying is not to stop doing science, but to do better science. To remember that science involves much more than just the subject you are studying. It affects the people, the community, and the ʻāina around you.” In 2015 TMT was given a permit to begin construction on Mauna Kea, but was challenged in court. In 2018, the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii voted 4-1 to uphold a key permit that allowed the TMT project to go ahead. Since its incept, the project has no doubt been the cause of debate even within scientific circles, where some suggested even back in 2014 that the future of sustainable projects depend on an honest, cohesive collaboration between scientists and indigenous groups. In an article in The Conversation, two researchers write: “We can look at successful collaborations between scientists and indigenous people on other projects for guidance. The development of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Western Australia was a result of close collaboration and ongoing consultation between astronomers and the traditional owners of the land. We can take inspiration from the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hoku’lea – the Hawaiian voyaging canoe. By working closely with artisans, navigators, astronomers, and historians, Hawaiians are reclaiming their ancient knowledge and in turn are sharing this with the world.” The directors of the existing observatories atop Mauna Kea have shuttered the telescopes for the time being. Hundreds of scientists are also expressing increasing unease and outright support for the protectors, particularly around the criminalization of Native Hawaiins, as well as the issue of sovereignty in a land with a long history of colonization. Last Wednesday, University of Hawaii faculty, students, cultural practitioners, and community educators held a press conference to remind its president of the ethical responsibility of “doing no harm” when doing research.
The archipelago of Hawaii was invaded and forcibly annexed to the United States in 1897 and was long used for sugar cane plantations and later, for military exercises, and did not become a state of the United States until 1959. In 1993 the US Congress issued an “Apology Resolution” to acknowledge the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and suppression of Hawaiian sovereignty, which, however, the US Supreme Court held in 2009 has no legal binding for Native Hawaiin land claims. A small victory is when the law enforcement removed a gate from the road. “We’re here to stop the desecration our land,” said one of the advocates, “We want to physically see that gate removed and hauled off the mountain. We want it out of Mauna Kea, and so they agreed… Nobody should be locked out of Mauna Kea especially kanaka maoli Native Hawaiians, the people who have ancestral ties to the land.”