Protests over giant telescope put concerns of Native Hawaiians into focus

Letting Big Science take over a sacred mountain space pushes many indigenous islanders to tipping point for sovereignty

Protesters against the construction of the world's most powerful telescope on a mountain peak sacred to Native Hawaiians walk on a road during the first of many blockades on June 24, 2015.
Holly Johnson / Hawaii Tribune-Herald / AP

ANAHOLA, Hawaii — The world’s tallest mountain from seafloor to summit is Mauna Kea, a 32,000-foot volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii where ancient Hawaiians believed the gods dwelled at the intersection of sky and peak.

In the last five months this sacred summit has also become a battleground. After plans were announced to build the world’s most powerful telescope atop the mountain, hundreds of protesters calling themselves protectors blocked Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) construction crews and equipment from accessing the summit, resulting in shutdowns and dozens of arrests.

The TMT project — a monster undertaking by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and a consortium of international organizations — has been in development for a decade, slowly raising funds, earning permits and polishing technologies to build an eye that will peer deeper into the universe than ever before.

Telescopes on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, near Hilo, Hawaii, photographed here on Aug. 31, 2015. The world's tallest mountain, the 32,000-foot volcano on the Big Island was sacred to ancient Hawaiians.
Caleb Jones / AP

Critics argue, however, that the mountain’s cultural significance is being sacrificed for the sake of Big Science. Gov. David Ige has conceded that the state and the University of Hawaii, which manage Mauna Kea, have failed to adequately act as cultural and environmental stewards, but he has also refused to stop construction.

The protests are not only responding to the mismanagement of the mountain, which hosts more than a dozen other aging telescopes, but are also are emblematic of a native people fed up with the under-prioritization of their interests, from the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom to the erosion of Hawaii’s culture and natural environment. The case is now being heard by Hawaii’s Supreme Court, and protesters are standing their ground.

A tipping point

“It’s as if Hawaiians have reached a tipping point,” said Michelle Kauhane, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “The protectors are angry and frustrated — and rightfully so, as am I as a Hawaiian — that the management plan has not been followed, that we are building on conservation land, that we are failing this sacred place. Yet we continue to build additional telescopes. We keep accepting the next telescope and the next telescope, and there have been Hawaiian voices at the table at these hearings talking about these concerns every step of the way. But we still got to this point. We’re not being heard.”

Halting construction of a $1.4 billion telescope likely won’t result in any lasting empowerment of the Hawaiians' voice. But it has brought into focus a sense of political imbalance that native Hawaiian advocates say can only be defeated by the reorganization of a sovereign Hawaiian government. In November, an election is set to take place among an estimated 100,000 Hawaiians certified by the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, led by former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, to vote for delegates who will convene in Honolulu this winter at an eight-week constitutional convention for self-governance. The document these delegates draft will guide the creation of a new government by and for Hawaiians.

The U.S. Department of Interior announced in August that it will for the first time propose an administrative procedure through which a native Hawaiian government could seek a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States. The proposed rule would not attempt to reorganize a native government or dictate its structure. Rather, it would allow Hawaiians to reorganize their government as they choose, with the option of having it federally recognized.

Hawaiian sovereignty, once as seemingly out of reach as the stars the TMT proposes to view 13 billion light-years away, appears for the first time to be coming within reach.

“This is closer than we've ever been, and we're very, very thrilled and hopeful,” Kauhane said.

Kings and currency

The Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which began in the 1970s, is fractious. There are Hawaiians who want a federally recognized native government that would afford its members the benefits of U.S. citizenship as well as the benefits of whatever self-governance structure they choose to create. Others want nothing to do with the U.S. government that robbed them of their independence when businessmen, backed by Marines, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in 1893.

Congress formally apologized for the overthrow of the kingdom in 1993 with a joint resolution that “acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands.” This document has become ammunition in a fight to dissolve the state of Hawaii and end the U.S. presence in the islands through recognition of Hawaiian sovereignty by international law.

“We are the inhabitants of an occupied state, and that is a war crime,” said David Keanu Sai, a retired U.S. Army captain and political scientist who traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, in 2000 in an unsuccessful attempt to gain international recognition of the Hawaiian kingdom before the Permanent Court of Arbitration. “If we can get an international body to verify Hawaii is an independent state, then we can operate on that presumption until someone presents us with a treaty. We already are a country, our own country. We don’t need to wait around for the U.S. to tell us that.”

Then there are Hawaiians who are not waiting around for recognition by any political authority — federal, international or otherwise. More than half a dozen sovereignty groups — some with their own kings, compounds and currency — claim sovereignty rights under for a kingdom they argue did not vanish just because the United States overthrew its government.

“I want to go back to Hawaiian laws, our laws,” said Keo Kauihana, who educates locals and tourists about the fight for sovereignty at his popular roadside huli-huli chicken stand. “What’s so outrageous about that? What’s outrageous is what happened to us.”

The legality of these groups and the activities of their members, some of whom are descended from immigrants and non-Hawaiians who lived under the kingdom, is disputed. Sai, for example, was convicted of first-degree theft and sentenced to five years of probation in 1990 for issuing bogus kingdom property titles as part of what he calls a political experiment. His company Perfect Title collected $1,500 from hundreds of homeowners who were later notified that the titles were worthless, and all property transfers conducted after the kingdom’s overthrow are invalid.

While “the kingdom defense” hasn’t typically held up in court, an attorney representing some of the Mauna Kea protesters facing criminal charges for obstructing access to the mountain has said he will argue that the charges should be thrown out because the kingdom still lawfully exists and the U.S. doesn’t have jurisdiction over the matter.

Nostalgia doesn't help

Native Hawaiian advocate Robin Danner said those who wish to renounce their U.S. citizenship to realize a Hawaiian government completely independent from the U.S. — a goal she calls far-fetched — should be allowed to do so. But not at the expense of those who want a native government with federal recognition.

“The United States overthrew our kingdom illegally,” said Danner, who is the statewide policy chairwoman for the Sovereign Council of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly. “We all agree on our history. The difference is they want to reverse 120 years, undo the state, undo the federal presence, undo the military, and that’s not going to happen.''

Danner said Hawaiians need to work within the paradigm they’re in, which means the U.S. federal and state governments.

"We might not like how we got here, but we need to stop being angry about it and stop dwelling on it and look forward to our best future,'' she said. "The U.N. isn't coming to save us. The kingdom isn’t going to save us. Real sovereignty, exercised sovereignty and recognized sovereignty by the most powerful government on the planet is going to save us.''

"We, as native Hawaiians, must save us, and to do so, we must reach for it, reach for the best tools, not nostalgia,” she said.

Danner sees Hawaiians’ best future as one in which they can obtain the kind of dual citizenship already enjoyed by the 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes that have a federally recognized form of self-governance. Word that the Department of Interior will open this pathway to Hawaiians — when and if they create their own government — means they will have a chance to perpetuate their culture and well-being without having to sacrifice the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

If that were to happen, Danner said, Hawaiian interests in Mauna Kea would be treated as equally to to those of the state.

The base camp for those protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope Project occupies a site near the summit of Mauna Kea, photographed here on Aug. 31, 2015.
Caleb Jones / AP

“We would be dealing with the federal government, across the table, government- to- government, and pushing the federal government to withdraw Mauna Kea from the state’s ceded lands inventory for documented mismanagement and transferring it to the native Hawaiian government,” Danner said. “I would much rather have access to that standing and conversation with the federal Department of Justice than begging a state Department of Land and Natural Resources board or the University of Hawaii to understand our feelings.”

Kauhane said she believes Hawaiians who want a federally recognized government are a quiet majority, sometimes intimidated by those who participate in showy, flag-waving displays of kingdom allegiance. But she believes Hawaiians on both sides of the debate can work together. Even if a future Hawaiian government becomes federally recognized, it would not prevent that government from employing international law to seek independence from the United States.

“I think we’'ve been framed as a people who aren’t getting along, who are never going to move forward as a people because we just can’t agree,” Kauhane said. “I don’t believe that. Different viewpoints are healthy. But we can’t reverse history. It will only hurt us to continue to look back at the hurtful past.”

Related News

Indian Country

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Indian Country

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter