Hawai’i: Mauna Kea, Hawaiian Independence and the Politics of Jurisdiction


Funambulist Long 1
Map of Hawai’i. / The Funambulist (2016)

Re-membering History ///

Hawaii was not always the 50th state of the US. In fact, Hawai’i, or the Hawaiian Kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1840 and was recognized by France and England as a state in 1843 and by the US in 1844. By 1887 the Hawaiian Kingdom signed 22 different international treaties and agreeements with other countries including Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia and Portugal among many others. The citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom were considered subjects, the majority of whom were Kanaka Maoli but which also included people whose origins were from elsewhere and who were subjects naturalization.

In 1893, a small group of Kingdom subjects who were part of the haole (white) business elite conspired with US Minister John L. Stevens to land US troops in Honolulu to assist in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and depose Queen Lydia Kamaka’eha Lili’uokalani and assume rule over the Kingdom. The participation of the US military in the overthrow amounted to what then US President Grover Cleavland called an “act of war”, an act of agression from one state onto another and, from here on out, an issue of whose proper mediation belongs in the realm of international law.

Immediately following the overthrow, the haole Kingdom subjects who took power worked to annex the Kingdom to the United States. A vigorous people’s campaign to formally file nearly unanimous opposition to annexation accompanied the Queen’s work to restore her rule (native rule) and the functions of sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Two treaties to annex Hawai’i (treaties being the legal means by which one state can annex another) failed to obtain the two thirds majority support needed in order to pass a treaty and so in 1898, as the Spanish American war was staged,
annexationist and US expansionist in Congress secured the simple majority vote to pass a US Congressional joint resolution to annex Hawai’i. The research of Political Scientist, Dr. Keanu Sai, points out that the juridical boundaries of the mechanism through which Congress “annexed” Hawai’i, a joint resolution, are the domestic borders of the US, this according to the US’s own constitution.

While in jarring contrast to the postcard paradise, tourism-driven narrative produced by the State of Hawai’i, this history of ours is not one that we have been privy to for some time due to the imposed American educational system that has been in place since shortly following the overthrow, which did well to all but eradicate this history from our collective memory. These particular facts have come to broad light in the recent years of what has now been four decades of cultural revival, language revival, political resurgence and academic research. And it has changed the political dynamics in Hawai’i entirely. Four decades of land struggles and cultural-historical recovery have birthed and grown a Hawaiian sovereignty movement that has become continuously complex and that only strengthens with each generations entry, generations who benefit from the work of the previous. The movement that I am describing as it stands today in Hawai’i is playing out in both land defense and as a movement to re-realize Hawaiian political independence as a sovereign state. And the most prominent site that this is being waged through currently is over 13,000 feet in the air at the sacred summit of the largest mountain in the Pacific, Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea ///

Funambulist Long 4
Sacred mountain of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. / Photograph by Thomas Tunsch (2012)

Mauna Kea is the tallest of all the major mountains in Hawai’i. It’s birth is found in our origin stories, in cosmogonic histories that position Kanaka Maoli as lineal decsendents of these islands with shared sacred ancestors. Two of these ancestors are Papahānaumoku (she who births the islands) and Wākea (the expansive celestial skies). Papa and Wākea are godly beings embodied in the earth and sky and they were also living people who overthrew a zealous chief on the island of O’ahu in ancient times, ending the political regime of the Kumuhonua line and beginning a new one with the Palikū line, from which all ruling cheifs henceforth could trace their descent.

In one of the birth chants for 19th century ruling chief, Kauikeaouli, named Kamehameha III, Mauna Kea is the sacred first born child of Wākea. Mauna Kea is followed by the birth of a celestial daughter, Ho’ohōkūkalani (she who populates the heavens with stars); and then a son, Hāloa, who dies at birth, is buried, and grows into the first kalo (taro) plant; and another son, also named Hāloa, from whom it is said, all Hawaiian people descend. For Kanaka Maoli (the Hawaiian people) as descendents of Papa and Wākea, we are genealogically tied to Mauna Kea who is a sacred eldest sibling. Time and again, our stories and songs point to the summit of Mauna Kea as the most sacred; a place where high chiefs bones were buried and where leaders went to cleanse and find clarity during times of political turmoil. Just as the function of this birth chant was to legitimize the authority and future reign of Kamehameha III by way of his genealogical connections to the land, so does it legitimize our stand to protect Mauna Kea from the contstruction of the would be Thirty Meter Telescope, the wished-to-be 14th telescope complex atop the sacred peak of Mauna Kea.

The summit of Mauna Kea is controlled by the State of Hawai’i who leases it to the University of Hawai’i, a public University and the only research institution in Hawai’i. The Institute of Astronomy is UH’s flagship research institute and its correlating industrial complex of telescopes that sits upon the severed mountain top has put the University of Hawai’i on the map in academia and science research. But the University has been negligent of the one of a kind environment and ecosystem of the summit as it has developed it for over four decades. In 1998 a report by the Hawai’i State Auditor was release that documented 30 years of mismanagement of the summit, designated as conservation lands in the State of Hawai’i and therefore subject to the laws and standards that address the protection of such. In 2010 resistance reignited when UH announced plans to build what would become the 14th giant telescope (and accompanying complexes) atop Mauna Kea. Between 2010-2014, the entirety of the effort to block construction was taking place in the Hawai’i State courts and oppositional arguments stood upon the University’s various violations of conduct in a conservation zone.

In the October of 2014, word was leaked that despite the issue still unresolved in the courts, that UH and TMT affiliates were to host a “ground-breaking ceremony” at the proposed site of construction on the summit. This “ceremony” was botched as protectors made their way up to the site and disrupted it entirely (see next page’s photographs). The people were on alert to UH’s imminent plans for construction/destruction, and when they got word in late March, 2015 that a TMT convoy would makes its way up the mountain to begin to prepare for construction, what was as of December 2016, an over 600 day campain to stay on alert and protect the mountain from destruction and desecration began. The campaign began with a six-month occupation at the 9,000-foot point of the access road leading up to the summit.

Funambulist Long 6
Existing telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. / Photographs by Occupy Hilo (facebook.com/OccupyHilo)

Ferver peaked following each of the two blockades that took place where Kanaka Maoli with the support of non-Kanaka Maoli, put their bodies between the state police-protected TMT convoy and the summit. Thirty-one arrests were made on April 2, 2015 and on June 24th, twelve of the seven-hundred-fifty protectors who stood that day were arrested. This sparked what one of the young leaders on the mountain, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, has repeatedly stated, “the greatest single activation, mobilization and unification of the Hawaiian people since 1897,” when 95% of the Hawaiian Kingdom citizenry protested and successfully stopped the passage of a treaty of annexation to the US in the US Congress. Millions were also watching and supporting via social media. But the State didn’t budge.

Press release after press release came out of the state Governor, David Ige’s office, supporting the lawfulness of the TMT and the unlawfulness of the protectors. The Board of Land and Natural Resources, the state entity responsible for all conservation lands in the state including the summit of Mauna Kea issued an “emergency rule” barring any “camping gear” or overnight stay a mile withing the Mauna Kea access road. The passing of this rule gave the state permission and justification for two more sets of arrests that took place in the middle of the night on protectors who were at the occupation site. The University of Hawai’i not only appeared at every state board meeting where the TMT was on the agenda to testify on behalf of the TMT but it also unilaterally decided to take an additional 5% of all research funds coming into the University to pay its lawyers to fight Hawaiian families who were contesting the TMT in court. In one of the most revealing and upsetting twists in the story, the nine seat Board of Trustees of the Hawai’i State Office of Hawaiian Affairs voted overwhelmingly to take no position on the matter and deny any support, financial or otherwise, to the movement to protect the mountain.

Challenging Jurisdiction ///

Funambulist Long 5
On October 7, 2014, Hawaiian activists gathered to stand against the groundbreaking ceremony for the TMT. / Photographs by Occupy Hilo (facebook.com/OccupyHilo)

As mentioned earlier contesting US jurisdiction is at the tip of the spear that the sovereignty movement has pointing at the state. This spear is held firmly in the hands of the people. The state moves toward the spear as its law enforcement agents physically approach lines of Protectors standing firmly, arms linked across a narrow gravel “access” road on Mauna Kea. And it is pushed by the people toward the state as Kanaka Maoli who are criminalized for protecting resources front their legal defense arguments challenging US jurisdiction in Hawai’i. They know full well that no judge will concede or recognize such claims but the purpose is not so much as to win the case as it is to force the state to confront the one question they cannot answer over and over and over again: how did the US come to lawfully obtain Hawai’i? And, if this question cannot be answered, then on what grounds does the US have the right to make or enforce law in Hawai’i at all?

A handful the forty-three arrested during the two stand-offs, both young people and elders alike, sought out legal representation from those (few) who would contest US jurisdiction as their first legal defense in the court. The decision to refute US jurisdiction in Hawai’i at the front of their criminal court case was a continuation of the hard line of refusal that Protectors had taken on the mountain itself.

The six month occupation of the mountain by Protectors was accompanied by a one-a-day social media photo campaign where Protectors snapped a photo from the very same crosswalk at the site of the 24/7 occupation, holding a white board that read how many days the occupation had completed, along with a message that was meant to educate and lift the people supporting the stand and at times antagonize the state and the shaky legal grounds upon which its power lies.

Many of the day’s messages pointed to some aspects of Hawai’i’s legal-political history, specifically to the day and year that the Hawaiian Kingdom became an independent state; to the various treaties that the Hawaiian Kingdom signed with other countries throughout the 19th century; to the fact that Hawai’i was never annexed to the US; to the letter of protest written by deposed Queen Lili’uokalani to the US Congress in 1887; and to the anti-annexation petitions signed by 95% of the entire citizenry of the Kingdom and formally submitted to the US Congress in 1887.

Funambulist Long 3
On October 7, 2014, Hawaiian activists gathered to stand against the groundbreaking ceremony for the TMT. / Photographs by Occupy Hilo (facebook.com/OccupyHilo)

The Kingdom’s national flag (since appropriated by the State of Hawai’i) appeared in nearly all of the daily pictures and were present en masse at the blockades. The most prolific symbol worn to represent support for the mountain was a small white felt triangle with an attached red ribbon pinned in an upside-down “V.” One year prior, the red ribbon sprouted up in Hawai’i as a symbol of Queen Lili’uokalani’s letter of protest against annexation to the US that she travelled via ship and train to hand deliver to the US Congress in 1897. It sprung up when the US Department of Interior in the Summer of 2014 held a series of fifteen listening session mostly in Hawai’i to ask the question of whether or not the department should work toward establishing formal guidelines for Kanaka Maoli to become a federally recognized tribe. Every hearing was crowded, over 2,000 oral testimonies were given, and 95% were adamantly opposed to the idea, standing upon the arguments of the illegality of the US’s presence in Hawai’i and calling for the US to once again recognize Hawai’i’s independence. So the symbol of the white triangle and red ribbon spoke (speaks) to both support for Mauna Kea and the illegality of the US in Hawai’i, which many understand as inextricably linked.

The Mauna Kea issue settled to a calmer state for most after the Hawai’i State Supreme Court ruled in December, 2015 that no construction or pre-construction work should take place while the issues over conservation district permitting for the TMT is yet to be settled in the courts. Consequently, the court is exactly where the contestation over the TMT is currently waging, and the question of jurisdiction has slowly moved forward. As recently as October 20, 2016, attorney Dexter Ka’iama noted to the hearings court officer in the current Mauna Kea contested court case hearing that on behalf of his client, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Protection Alliance, one of the petitioners in the current contested case hearing, that he intended to file a motion contesting the jurisdiction of the US in Hawai’i. KAHEA, an environmental advocacy group which, in the not-so-distant-past, was criticized for its lack of orientation toward Kanaka Maoli and Hawaiian issues is now not only a petitioner against the TMT but also evidently recognizes the importance and validity of contesting US legitimacy in Hawai’i.

Conclusion ///

Throughout its nearly five decade history, the contemporary Hawaiian sovereingty movement has shifted and grown new branches of political pursuit, often moving and growing simultaneously. These include rights within the US legal framework; “federal recognition” or the pursuit of a semi-autonomous self-governing political status similar to that of many Native American groups; a formal decolonization process as established by the United Nations; and to its most recent and fastest growing direction, that of re-recognizing the political independence of Hawai’i as a nation-state, a recognition that was formalized with France, Britain and the US in the 1840s.

The land struggles in Hawai’i have also deepened and become more complex over the decades. It began as asserting basic fundamental rights to housing and water in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, to challenging the use of our islands for US military live-fire training, and which led to a broader analysis of imperialism and US Empire, eventually pushing some people to call for full independence from the US. These two prongs of struggle in Hawai’i are now largely understood as the same fight. Therefore, a call for independence is a call for power to protect sacred lands and genealogies. A call to protect Mauna Kea is a call for Kanaka Maoli to come to the summit and assert sovereign authority by way of both legal history as well as indigenous kinship relations to the land they stand upon.

The struggle for Mauna Kea also reveals the logics of state-sponsored “self-governance” initiatives such as the pursuit of federal recognition supported formally by the State of Hawai’i, which leads the fight against Protectors, and by the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which sits idly by and watches it all play out in order to protect potential financial and economic benefits. We come to know that so long as the State sees financial gain from the exploitation of land, the rights and demands of the indigenous people who claim those lands will be ignored. As Mohawk scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred states: “Self-government and economic development are being offered precisely because they are useles to us in the struggle to survive as a peoples and so are no threat to […] the Settler state. This is assimilation’s end-game.” The legal agreements of the past as well as forms of law and governance that are not legible to the state are now embodied in the protectors who are fighting to protect that which is under immediately threat and most importantly for a future that is livable at all.

What political futures open up when we engage in simple acts of refusal? When we refuse offers for “reconciliation” between the US federal government and the Kanaka Maoli people? When we refuse to “share” our sacred mountain with foreign astronomers? When we refuse the colonial language in the courtroom? When we refuse to recognize the states jurisdiction over us? I believe that a paradigmatic shift occurs through these acts of refusal. It is a re-centering of that which was already here. It is a demarginalization that displaces the State as the “inside” and native peoples as protesting from the “outside.” In the act of refusal, we are at the same time cracking the pavement of colonial erasure, pouring water and shining light on our own stories, our own political history, our own language and our own way of relating to and caring for one another. It proves the elimanatory logic of settler colonialism unstable and indeed unsettled. But most importantly, as we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and sing their songs and speak our collective truths, it nurtures and nourishes and ethos of love and courage at the expense of fear. And to quote Alfred once again, “freedom is the other side of fear.”

Funambulist Long 2
(left) “Lā 153” – Day 153 of the 24/7 occupation of Mauna Kea by protectors.
The sign emphasizes the independence of Hawai’i as an internationally recognized state.
(right) “Lā 158” – Day 158 of the 24/7 occupation of Mauna Kea by protectors.
The sign emphasizes the the international recognition of Hawai’i as a sovereing state by way of the many treaties that were held between the Hawaiian Kingdom and other countries in the 19th century. One protector wears the white triangle and red ribbon symbolizing the protection of the sacred and the assertion of sovereignty.
Daily “crosswalk photographs” / Courtesy of K. Kamakaoka’ilima Long (2015)