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.