The Fight of the Indigenous Protectors of Mauna Kea


Almost four years after her first text about the fight of Hawaiian activists protecting the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea from the settler colonial infrastructure (issue 9), we asked K. Kamakaoka’ilima Long to write an update of the struggle as protectors are camping on the mountain since July.

In October of 2018, the Hawai’i State Supreme Court ruled that the Conservation District Use Permit (CDUP) needed to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a project that would destroy at least five acres of untouched pristine Alpine conservation land on the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea, was valid. Their logic was that so much irreversible damage had already been done from the previous 13 telescope complexes on the summit, that the damage done by TMT construction would make little difference. 

Just over eight months later, on July 10, 2019, the Governor of Hawai’i, David Ige, standing side by side with a number of other state officials, including the Attorney General and President of the University of Hawai’i, announced that the following Monday, on July 15, the state would close the Maunakea Access Road, the one road that leads to the summit of the mountain, to ensure the safe passage of TMT construction vehicles. Protectors, or kia’i as we say in the Hawaiian language knew that the time had come once again to stand between the TMT construction vehicles and our sacred ancestral mountain, as we did in 2015. Only this time, the state gave off the impression of being much more organized. 

On the evening of July 12, a kia’i convoy of about 20 cars and trucks drove from the north coast of Hawai’i Island approximately 60 miles to the rest stop directly across the highway from the Maunakea Access Road. They did not know if police would be waiting and ready to deny entry and perhaps arrest protectors, or if they would be able to enter the space and execute their plan to establish a pu’uhonua, a traditional place of refuge and sanctuary, one that would serve as a place for kia’i to gather and stay and when the time came, refuse access to TMT construction vehicles on the access road. 

Police surveillance was present, but no law enforcement were at the rest stop. Kia’i rolled in, parked their cars and waited out the night to see if law enforcement would make any moves. They did not. The next day, on Saturday, July 13, the parking lot and the surrounding lava fields were, through ceremony, designated a pu’uhonua. This was now a culturally sanctified space that would, and has since, served as a staging ground to protect the mountain. From then on, more and more people came. They drove up from various areas of Hawai’i island and flew in from the neighboring islands to stand together and protect the mountain. It has since become more than we, those who rolled in that night, ever imagined. 

Four days later, on July 17, 33 kūpuna (revered elders) sat in chairs, row by row across the expanse of the road and were arrested for blocking the Maunakea Access Road. A number of kūpuna remained, waiting to be taken into the paddy wagons by police, but when 100 women locked arms in a dense multi-row blockade across the road in front of the kūpuna, the state stood down and called off law enforcement operations for the day. 

These elders’s arrests launched the issue to international eyes and ears and sparked an intensive galvanization of the Hawaiian people across the islands. It was also the perfect recipe for Governor Ige to issue an Emergency Proclamation, a legal instrument that allows the Governor to deploy the National Guard and release emergency funds that would, in this case, pay for the largest state coordinated law enforcement effort in Hawaii’s history — against peaceful protectors, many of whom are elders. 

By July 17, police forces from three different islands had convened on Hawai’i Island, as well as the state Attorney General’s law enforcement officers, state sheriffs, and the law enforcement arm of the department that oversees public lands. The Hawai’i National Guard was on standby. The kupuna were arrested in the morning and were back on the frontline by that evening. Since this day, the state has not known what to do and, as I write this, day 41 of the stand to protect Mauna Kea is twilighting. 

With what has become known as “the kūpuna tent” on the Maunakea Access Road on one side of the highway, and the pu’uhonua on the other side of the highway, this space has become much more than a staging ground to defend a mountain. It has become a place where Hawaiians are gathering by the thousands, gathering in mass reverence for our kupuna and with a deep sense of our power and commitment to justice. This space has transformed from one of resistance to one of resurgence. With the kūpuna tent at the head, the access road has transformed into a ceremonial space and the call to the people has been to come to the mountain.

Long Funambulist
Mauna Kea protectors during the ongoing opposition to the settler colonial infrastructure. / Photo by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada (2019).

If you come, you’re encouraged to attend at least one of the three ceremonies held daily at 8 AM, 12 PM, and 6 PM. As someone who has been here since the beginning, I have learned what a “living culture” actually looks like. This is a term we often use to assert to those who in the settler colonial state who chose not to know or see Kanaka Maoli, that we live on, beyond antiquity and beyond the tourist advertisement or postcard. 

I thought I knew what a “living culture” meant until I witnessed the songs, chants and hula in action, in worship of the place and purpose of this moment. Until I witnessed Hawaiians coming from all over the archipelago to give offerings to our warrior kūpuna, offerings that they prepared from the bounty of the lands that they live in and travelled from, that they learned to make from their teachers, that they courageously brought to a line of mighty drum-pounding hula practitioners to offer in true humility and aloha. 

I thought I knew what living culture meant until I witnessed our chanters, dancers and drumming hula practitioners receiving the people who come with offerings, welcoming them with songs and dances that honors where they just arrived from, that honors the legacies of their families, legacies that are usually only spoken of in informal conversation. Welcomed with the warmest aloha for their travels and their arrival. A welcome that ritually brings visitors to those who we’ve come to consider our chiefs, those who hold the knowledge and courage, our teachers, our kūpuna. These kinds of exchanges are in our ancient stories and describe a set of traditions and values that we come to aspire to. But we are living it here, on the front line in the midst of the definitive struggle of our generation. 

I thought I knew what living culture meant until I witnessed the many Oceanic nations arriving in solidarity-aloha-diplomacy-we-are-one Revival, orating as part of their presentation to the kūpuna, the histories, genealogies, politics and practices that once bound us together.  Planned cultural exchanges are not uncommon among Pacific peoples. But this is not an exchange, it’s a reunification of peoples from an ocean continent fractured through centuries of colonialism. Tongans, Samoans, Tahitians, Maori, Chamorro, Chuukese, Yapese, Fijian and more come with song and gifts to the frontline in acknowledgement of our common marginalization and a shared refusal to be victims of it as individual nations or as one Oceania any more. It is our practices of connectivity in motion. Our sea of islands coming together.

And this is, quite literally, our frontline blockade. I am not speaking metaphorically. This is the ceremony at the kupuna tent, the one blocking the Maunakea Access Road. The one preventing large machines owned by multi-million dollar corporations from ascending our Mauna for desecration. 

At this frontline, through this sacrifice to defend our Mauna and our relationship to it, we are witnessing our living culture like never before, which concurrently has become the living defense line of our Mauna. It is truly incredible to bear witness to, to support, to participate in. There is zero performance here, only purpose and function. There is zero prescription here, only knowledge, preparedness and love. 

At this frontline, we are refusing state control by being Hawaiian. We are refusing to compromise any more of our land or our history that stories our love for it. We are refusing to compromise the integrity of our origin stories that not only record our genealogical connection to this place, but that affirms our responsibility to steward and make decisions about it over that of foreigners. These are stories from our history, this is happening now. 

Governor Ige cancelled the emergency proclamation when one of our elders filed a promising lawsuit over it. But the immediate future remains unclear. We’ve been here for 41 days (as of August 23) with leaks and rumors of a National Guard mobilization or a police mobilization every few days. The road remains closed by the state. TMT construction vehicles remain blocked by our front line. If and when law enforcement comes for us again, what may be different this time than on July 17, is they will not face hundreds of kanaka arms locked across the road. When they come for us next time, they will very likely be faced with the decision to arrest thousands of Hawaiians, with our hands to the sky, and then to the ground, with our feet pointing forward and our voices in chant as we dance the songs and prayers that express our love for our mountain. 8 AM, 12 PM, 6 PM, every day for over a month. We are ready. ■