‘Meet me on the Mauna’


By Amy Nakamura

Uncovering conflict in Hawai‘i

Illustration by  Sujean Gahng

Illustration by Sujean Gahng

The state motto of Hawai‘i, Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono, translates to “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” However, a division has defined Hawai‘i for almost a decade as a controversial construction plan to build potentially the world’s largest telescope on top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawai‘i has stirred debates.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory Corporation, in partnership with the University of Hawai‘i, plans to build a 30-meter-wide telescope that could produce images 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most powerful and versatile tools that NASA owns. The project is expected to cost $1.4 billion. 

TMT chose Mauna Kea, meaning white mountain in Hawaiian, as the destination of this grand project because of its location and geographical conditions. The isolated island has little light pollution to block out stars and other astronomical objects such as asteroids. This factor, combined with Mauna Kea’s towering height of 13,803 feet, makes the Big Island ideal for the project. There are currently 12 functioning observatories already on the mountain. 

Over the summer, Governor David Ige announced the start of construction on Mauna Kea. However, some Hawai‘i residents, many of Native Hawaiian descent, are fighting against more construction on what they consider sacred ground. 

According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the summit of Mauna Kea is considered to be the home of Hawaiian deities. The original name of the mountain is Mauna a Wakea, or “mountain of Wakea.” Wakea, sometimes translated to “Sky Father,”  is considered the father of Hawaiian people. Only high chiefs and priests were allowed on the mountain for this reason and it was kapu, or forbidden, for anyone else to access the mountain. 

Governor David Ige discusses the TMT construction on Mauna Kea at the State Capitol. The move was backed by members of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation. Photo by Amy Nakamura

Governor David Ige discusses the TMT construction on Mauna Kea at the State Capitol. The move was backed by members of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation. Photo by Amy Nakamura

Bureaucratic Trials as Kia‘i Stand their Ground

TMT first began to look into Hawai‘i in April of 2009 when the State Department of Land and Natural Resources approved the foundation’s management plan to build the telescope on Mauna Kea. The following year, approval on TMT’s environmental impact statements were approved by Ige. The University of Hawai‘i’s Board of Regents also approved the project.

After completing many bureaucratic steps, the Hawai‘i Board of Natural Land and Resources issued TMT a Notice to Proceed in 2015. Government officials faced huge backlash from the community, similar to the protests occurring today. The backlash resulted in Ige issuing a temporary stand-down at the time, along with a 10-point plan to conduct better stewardship on the mountain. 

Those opposed to the telescope took their concerns to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. 

The Court decided that the construction permit for TMT was invalid due to a flawed permit process. Thus, TMT was forced to restart the permit process. Like demonstrators on the summit today, some Hawai‘i residents were fighting to protect what they believed to be sacred. 

However, TMT kept pushing for Mauna Kea because of its prime location and conditions. They began the permit process again, and later, received approval from the Hawai‘i Supreme Court in a 4-1 decision. Finally, on June 20, 2019, the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a Notice to Proceed on TMT construction on Mauna Kea. This time, opponents to the telescope construction could not enact the same legal roadblocks they had before. 

Governor David Ige speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol following the start of demonstrations opposing construction. Video by Amy Nakamura

After Ige’s announcement in June, thousands of people have flocked to the summit, bringing camping gear with them. 

Demonstrators on Mauna kea call themselves kia‘i meaning protectors. To them, their mission is to protect what already belongs to them rather than just protesting a government action. While kia‘i spoke out against the construction, they also physically prevented it from continuing. They blocked off parts of the road that construction crews needed in order to access the site. The kupuna, or elderly, even set up a barricade of bodies, using wheelchairs and armed with signs and lei. During some demonstrations, people chained themselves to cattle gates for hours to prevent vehicles from driving down the road. However, throughout all these measures, the demonstrations on Mauna Kea have remained peaceful.

During a press conference in July of this year, Ige declared a state of emergency in response to these protests. The declaration allowed the government to use more state resources, including the Hawai‘i National Guard, to be deployed  

As a result, 33 people were arrested and cited, many of whom were elderly. But the arrests did not deter the kia‘i. In fact, it ignited a movement. 

Kia'i sit in the lobby of Governor David Ige's Office following a press conference. They are chanting speaking out about the governor's state of emergency proclamation. Video by Amy Nakamura

In late July, Ige made his first visit to Mauna Kea after a week of demonstrations. He met with kupuna and other kia‘i, many of whom embraced him and greeted him with kind words, hoping to evoke the Governor’s empathy. During the same visit, Ige announced he was transferring the responsibility of the situation to Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim. While negotiations about the situation have continued, no agreements have been reached under Kim’s control.

Intersectionality of Science and Nativism

As demonstrations continue, some kia‘i stress that they are not protesting science but protecting their culture, while some supporters of TMT say that they also support the continuation of culture and tradition. Supporters of TMT argue that the construction of the world’s largest telescope would be a huge accomplishment for the islands. 

Theses supporters welcome the creation of the telescope due to Hawai‘i’s historic culture of discovery. Astronomy and discovery are what led Pacific Islander navigators to the Hawaiian Islands (cue Moana clip). Using the sun, stars and other natural clues, these voyagers were able to navigate the ocean and find new islands in the Pacific. Some supporters of TMT say that the telescope would further the importance and tradition of astronomy and wayfinding in Hawaiian history.

Celebrity Voices and the Power of Social Media

“This is so much more than a telescope being built,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon. “These are human beings whose hearts are hurting.” 

Many celebrities and politicians have chimed in about the situation on Mauna Kea. Some of the most vocal include Jason Momoa, star of DC’s “Aquaman” and Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones,” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. 

While Johnson took a brief trip to the summit, Momoa has made his trips to kupuna. Besides being very vocal on social media, he and his production company made a short documentary, “WE ARE MAUNA KEA,” on his YouTube channel showing footage of kia‘i shouting at policemen, begging them to show compassion. 

Both actors are of Pacific Islander descent: Momoa is Hawaiian and Johnson is Samoan. Johnson attended high school on Oahu, home of the state capitol before moving around. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Johnson spoke about the situation on Mauna Kea and his trip to the kia‘i camps. 

Politicians such as Congresswoman Alexandria Occasio-Cortez and Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have all voiced their support for the demonstrations on Mauna Kea via Twitter. Former presidential candidate and Hawai‘i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard spoke in support of the kia‘i and visited the summit in mid-August after nearly a month of roadblocks.

No Clear Path to Resolution

Demonstrations by kia‘i on Mauna Kea continue. So far, no resolution has been reached between the state government and the demonstrators. 

Recently, the chairman of the University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents called for University President David Lassner to take over negotiations. No further comments from Lassner have been made, and the stand-off continues. The issue of Mauna Kea reflects the deep-rooted conflicts within Hawai‘i’s history. While the conflict continues and a resolution seems distant, all parties should remember the history behind the state and how they want the story of Mauna Kea to be told to future generations. 

Design Director Amy Nakamura is a junior studying magazine and international relations at Syracuse University. She spent the summer interning at Hawai‘i Public Radio, where she was able to report and observe coverage on this issue. HPR is a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate based in Honolulu, Hawai‘i and supplies public radio services throughout the islands. For continued coverage of the situation, she encourages you to visit hawaiipublicradio.org for more information.