In case you see a bunch of people wearing red and carrying signs at the Huntington Beach Pier this Saturday, Aug. 3, you might want to stop for a bit and listen to them. Though the events that spurred them to speak out in public are taking place 2,500 miles away, they are very relevant to everyone here, especially in California.
The immediate issue is the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea, one of the highest mountains in the world and a sacred place to the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). Though there are already many scopes atop Mauna Kea, and the TMT has been in development since 2000 (the University of California has long had a stake in the project), though construction was halted back in October 2014 by protests and lawsuits.
Construction was due to restart a couple weeks ago, but then thousands of kia`i (protectors) descended on Mauna Kea from all over the U.S., and the world. Many flew an upside-down Hawai`i state flag, which has long been a symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty. There, they formed not just an encampment, but an entire community, known as Pu`uhonua o Pu`uhuluhulu, complete with food, medical services, and a fully functioning university, with dozens of classes in Hawaiian language, culture, and history.
Hawai`i Governor David Ige declared an emergency (though protests on the mountain have remained completely non-violent) and arrests began. Things went downhill fast for the State of Hawai`i after images of cops–many of whom have Native Hawaiian lineage–arresting kūpuna (elders) in wheelchairs were broadcast across the state. Since then, Ige has rescinded his emergency declaration and temporarily halted further construction for another two years, but the matter is far from being resolved.
“For myself—and, I imagine, most Native Hawaiians—this is just another reminder of how our rights, lands, bodies, culture, and traditions are sacrificed for other interests,” said Josiah David Hester, an associate professor of computer engineering at Northwestern University in this Columbia Journalism Review story on the protests. “This is not just about Mauna Kea being sacred; it is about repeated erosion of Native rights over the past half-century, and taking a stand to try and stop the bleeding.”
Ever since the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893, then the annexation of the white supremacist “Hawaiian Republic” (in which native-born Kanaka were not recognized as citizens) by the U.S. in 1898, Native Hawaiians have been screwed over on their own islands. Today, the TMT is seen as one more insult, one more instance where they were forced to play by rules they didn’t write or consent to, and now must once again accept the consequences of being a minority in a nation they never voluntarily agreed to join.
Direct action against the TMT has taken off throughout Hawai`i over the last few weeks, and has started spreading to the continental U.S. Like the fight over the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Kaho`olawe as a bombing range (which shattered the island’s water table, rendering it all but uninhabitable now) back in the 1970s, the construction of the TMT has become a rallying cry for an entirely new generation of Native Hawaiian activists.
“People don’t really understand how much our people had to give up,” said Native Hawaiian activist Kamaha`o Kawelu in the above CJR article. “We gave up our beaches to resorts. Our heiau (temples) were taken from us and destroyed. Everything we had was taken from us and exploited for profit and geared towards tourism. What we as a people want everyone to realize is that we’re not anti-science—our kūpuna (ancestors) voyaged the Pacific using just the elements and the stars. We’re anti-location.”
The TMT protest at the Huntington Beach pier will start at noon on Saturday, Aug. 3.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.