Special Report: Mauna Kea


Editorial Note: Earlier this week, The Wild Hunt covered the current developments at Mauna Kea. Today, we share an an in-depth special report on the events at Mauna Kea. Our lead author is Amy Marsh who is a polytheist oathed to Loki, and a long-time observer and long-distance ally of the struggle to protect Mauna Kea. She blogs at Lady of the Lake.

“You build that telescope, it’s eighteen stories! More important than that, the footing will be seven stories, which will impact the watershed which feeds this island…For our future generations, please…please…”

[Mauna Kea Kia`i (protector) addressing Hawai`i’s Lt. Governor, Josh Green, M.D., during his visit to Pu`uhonua o Pu`u Huluhulu, a place of refuge at the junction of Saddle Road and the Mauna Kea Access Road, Monday July 22.]

MAUNA KEA – Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) and their allies—known as Kia`i—are making a peaceful stand against the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the top of their most sacred mountain.

The proposed TMT is eighteen stories high, with a footing dug seven stories deep into the ground and 1.5 acres wide.

The amount of force used to remove this amount of soil and rock may cause damage to the island’s aquifer and watershed. The aquifer consists of an ice-age glacier and water trapped in porous lava. It sits directly under the telescope sites.

Contrary to popular views of astronomy as a clean science, the island’s aquifer has already suffered mercury contamination and other toxic spills from existing telescopes.

The environmental effects will be adverse and permanent. But the sacred nature of the mountain and its waters are a critical reason that growing numbers of people are joining this resistance.

B. Pualani Case, a Kanaka Maoli wrote into testimony that “…in our chants the way we regarded water was sacred, Hawai‘i wai’ola, Hawai‘i wai kapu, water is life, and so the place that the water fell upon, if we could just keep that clean, sacred. So if we don’t have a business going to where the first water falls, perhaps we didn’t need to go there. When the water falls on the mauna, it’s going to end up being somebody’s water, because it is our water aquifer, it is our watershed, it is the spirit of our water.”

Rather than being solely a triumph of science and technology, the TMT may present some significant environmental challenges, affecting everything from water to the close-knit social fabric of island life, even possibly impacting local weather. Mauna Kea is a key player in regulating Hawai`i Island climate and the telescope is that massive. The impact of the TMT might be felt for generations.

“Mauna Kea from the ocean” [Credit: Vadim Kurland, Lic. CC Wikimedia]

Earlier this year, a ceremony at Pu`u Huluhulu on July 14th preceded what was to be the first day of construction. On July 15th, Kia’i prepared to put their bodies in front of bulldozers, if necessary.

Non-violent principles of Kapu Aloha are foundational to the Kia`i resistance. Between 500 to over 2000 people have been in attendance each day: chanting, dancing hula, and doing ceremony. The Kia`i are also cooking, eating, picking up and hauling away trash, managing 24/7 pedestrian safety and traffic flow, providing free clothing and medical care, and enjoying a mixture of serious talk and laughter while sharing their sense of unity and community. No drugs, alcohol, or even cigarettes are allowed at the Pu`uhonua.

Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha conduct round-the-clock coordination and security.

In Hawai`i, the elders, kupuna, are revered. On Wednesday July 17th, about thirty kupuna were arrested by police, some taken to police vans in wheelchairs or with canes. These arrests have ignited much sympathy for the Kia’i. Even though there are no incidents of violence at the Pu`uhonua, on the 18th, Hawai`i’s Governor David Ige declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard—a measure usually reserved for disasters such as hurricanes or lava flows.

A day of vibrant hula, offered by some of Hawai`i’s most renowned kumu and halau (schools), followed Ige’s proclamation. There were no natural disasters to be had, except public relations one for the governor’s office.


For Kanaka Maoli, every telescope built has desecrated Mauna Kea. Hawai`i’s state law against desecration says:

  • 711-1107  Desecration. (1)  A person commits the offense of desecration if the person intentionally desecrates:

     (a)  Any public monument or structure;

     (b)  A place of worship or burial; or

     (c)  In a public place the national flag or any other object of veneration by a substantial segment of the public.

     (2)  “Desecrate” means defacing, damaging, polluting, or otherwise physically mistreating in a way that the defendant knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the defendant’s action.

 The Kia`i and their allies have expressed outrage at the desecration of their place of worship whose impact that echoes historical trauma against indigenous people across generations.

Previous Resistance

This is not the first time Kanaka have resisted telescope desecration. An earlier struggle against the Keck Outrigger was successful. The current effort against the TMT began during 2009-2011, when an ad hoc group called Mauna Kea Hui organized to challenge it, also known later as Mauna Kea Anaina Hou. Kealoha Pisciotta is the spokesperson for these groups.

In October 2014, Lanakila Mangauil and other Kia’i stopped a groundbreaking ceremony for the TMT. An encampment to protect the Mauna began immediately, near the visitor center at 9,200 ft. Kia’i continuously staffed that encampment until June 24, 2015 when the visitor center was closed and Kanaka were told they could only have access to the summit of the Mauna once a day, no more than ten at a time in one vehicle, accompanied by a ranger, at 1 PM in the afternoon.

This trend of denying Kanaka Maoli access to their sacred mountain continues.

According to a June 22nd report, a spokesperson for the TMT Corporation said ““TMT Observatory operations will minimize daytime activities up to four days annually in observance of Native Hawaiian cultural practices…TMT will work with the Office of Mauna Kea Management and Kahu Ku Mauna to determine days for such observances.”


Map of Hawaiian Islands – Image credit: Karte: NordNordWest, Lizenz


Sacred Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in the world when you consider its roots at the base of the ocean, is also the holiest mountain in all of Hawai`i. It is an ancestor to the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians), literally an ancestor.

Kanaka Maoli spiritual traditions are not monolithic. There are family and community variations from island to island, from ahupua`a (district) to ahupua`a. And in Hawai`i, most of the gods have the property of “kinolau” — they can manifest in many bodies and forms. And people may worship different aspects of a deity, according to their personal and family traditions or their professions.

Some people focus on the “sacred place” aspect of Mauna Kea, a place of the highest kapu (sacredness) calling for exemplary behavior during ceremony. As a “place” it is also a home for other deities: Poli`ahu (snow), Lilinoe (mist), Waiau (Mauna Kea’s lake), Houpo o Kane (a spring), and Kukahau`ula (red-tinged snow).

Others commune with the Mauna as their mother, or as their elder brother—like the kalo (taro) plant, also said to be an elder brother. Mauna Kea is also the piko (navel) of Hawai`i island, the first child of Wākea, the Sky Father, and Papahānaumoku, the Earth mother. All the islands are born of these two parents.

Therefore, Mauna Kea is a divine child which has enjoyed reverent human attention and interaction for the last 1600 years since about 400 C.E. The mountain exists as its own being and is responsive as a spiritual power.

Mauna Kea is also a place of burials, where na `iwi, the bones of the ancestors may be found, even if only as dust. Mothers have buried the umbilical cords of their children on the mauna. There are also many places of archaeological significance. Human remains and archaeological sites enjoy a measure of legal protection in Hawai`i.

Developers, however, have been less reverent, ignoring the archaeological, historical and ecologically impact of their use of the mauna. This history is summarized in a six-minute video: 50 Years of Mismanaging Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is also part of the Hawaiian Kingdom “Crown Lands,” royal properties mistakenly referred to as “ceded” as no treaty of annexation exists for Hawai’i (there was no Treaty of Annexation thus no “ceding” anything to the U.S.—it was all stolen). These lands are part of the heritage of the maka`ainana, Kanaka Maoli “commoners.” There is controversy about who should have the management of Mauna Kea, the Hawai’i State Department of Land and Natural Resources or the Kanaka Maoli. They are nonetheless dismissive of Kanaka Maoli claims to enjoy present use and to decide on the future of their own indigenous lands.

Current Legal Challenges

The legal challenges surrounding Mauna Kea are complicated. The historical precedence of the challenges are related to the complex relationship between parties. The complexity came to the forefront in the Larsen v. Hawaiian Kingdom case that entered the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. The court recognized in 2001 the continued existence of the Hawaiian Kingdom into the current era because in “the nineteenth century the Hawaiian Kingdom existed as an independent State recognized as such by the United States of America, the United Kingdom and various other States”.

That decision includes a component that Kingdom laws are expected to be upheld by the occupier, as per international rules of occupation. The decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration raises questions about who has authority over the mauna.

Currently there are two legal challenges to TMT in progress. Kumu Hula (hula teacher) Paul Neves, a long-time foe of telescope development and a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, has filed a lawsuit against Governor Ige. “The complaint accuses Ige of “weaponization of an emergency proclamation in the absence of a natural disaster or bona fide emergency” that “exceeds his statutory authority to issue such proclamations in times of crisis and threats to the population of Hawai`i.” It also claims Ige “abused his executive authority to favor and accommodate TMT construction activities while suppressing and violating the rights of the public to express their opposition to the project and the rights of Native Hawaiians to honor, worship and protect Maunakea.”

On Tuesday July 23, a motion for preliminary injunction will be heard in Hilo in the 3rd Circuit Court, Judge Nakamura presiding. At issue is the legal requirement for a bond or surety for the entire amount needed to actually build the TMT and to decommission it at the end of its shelf life (otherwise the people of Hawai’i would have to bear these onerous costs). Such a bond or surety does not yet exist. In a conversation with Clarence Ku Ching, he stated that the contested case hearings officer, Ricki May Amano, refused to accept evidence concerning the requirement for this bond, yet mentioned it in her ruling in favor of TMT.

Preliminary Injunction – Notice of Hearing


Resistance – Don’t Come: Spread the Word

The present resistance has garnered international attention and support. In addition to thousands of people at Pu`uhonua o Pu`u Huluhulu, support for the resistance to the Mauna Kea desecration includes demonstrations in other locations, online petitions, letters of solidarity, and videos and photos posted on social media.

Indigenous support is particularly high. The Kia’i have heard from their friends, the Standing Rock Sioux (some are now at Pu`uhuluhulu), and from people in Puerto Rico, the Republic of Palau, American Samoa, Guam, Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Hopee Nation of New York, the Anishnaabe of Bkejwanong, and so many more. Demonstrations have happened in Japan, Germany, and many places of the continental U.S. And actor Jason Momoa has been a Mauna Kea supporter since 2014 or earlier.

Prominent politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have all recently stated support for the Kia’i. Local politicians such as Hawai`i County Mayor Kim and Lt. Governor Josh Green sound sympathetic and praise the Kia`i for their community spirit and organization. Hawai`i State Senator Kai Kahele has asked for a 60-day moratorium on construction.

In the last week, demonstrations have been held all over the world and more are planned.

The resistance at Mauna Kea, however, has requested that supporters stay home unless they are Kanaka Maoli or otherwise indigenous, or a long-time activist or resident of Hawai’i. Each new person who arrives at the Pu’uhonua increases the demand for resources and requires a shift in planning.

Allies of the resistance can best serve in a consistent, supporting role, spreading information and sharing the stories that emerge from the site. Supporters are invited to sign a petition halting activity on the mountain. They can also share support with the hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea.

Mahalo nui (much thanks) to Clarence Ku Ching, kupuna and legal challenger to both the Keck Outrigger and TMT telescopes, for his clarification of deities of Mauna Kea and for background on aspects of legal challenges.

Mahalo nui to Kāko’o Haleakalā, for the livestream video which captured the quote at the beginning of this article.

Mahalo nui loa (huge thanks) to all Kia’i and their allies.


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