M auna Kea is a sacred summit at the heart of Native Hawaiian cosmology and the site of an incredibly biodiverse and fragile watershed ecosystem. The towering volcanic mountain was illegally seized from the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, in a corporate coup by a small group of Anglo sugar planters, who stole in total 1.8 million acres of land with the backing of the United States military. For the past decade the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC has been attempting to further desecrate the mountain, for a telescope that multiple official organizations have deemed environmentally detrimental on a large scale. On July 17, Hawai‘i governor David Ige declared a state of emergency, granting law enforcement more latitude to make arrests of peaceful land protectors and opening the possibility of mobilizing the National Guard. At the base of Mauna Kea, Kanaka Maoli (the Native Hawaiian word for Native Hawaiian people) have formed an encampment and place of refuge called Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu Maunakea camp. Building on a similar 2015 camp, it has not only blocked construction on the telescope but opened a portal to different ways of relating to land and time that have existed since long before the United States.
The construction of a massive telescope, where 13 observatories already stand, is just one instance that has underscored to what end the Hawaiian archipelago is occupied and abused. The TMT has been conceived of by a consortium of university institutions, including the University of Hawai‘i, Caltech, and the University of California, under the banner of scientific progress, a so-called progress defined by exploitative exploration and not conscious stewardship. As Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada wrote in his 2015 response to the TMT, “that short-sighted model of ‘progress’ — that we seem to be standing in the way of — hinges upon all of us, all of Hawai‘i’s people, all of the Pacific’s people, all of the world’s people losing connection to land, to sea, to other human beings. The less you feel these connections, the easier it is for you to be convinced that unrestricted development is the highest and best use of land.”
This teleological concept combines the melodramatic messianic tones of manifest destiny with the pursuit of unbridled capitalist growth, extracting every last profit-making capacity from the land and the people who live and work on it. If we are to speak of progress in a world on fire, we should not be looking to the limitless advance of time’s arrow but instead to much older practices of cohabitation.
Land developers also bellowed the false promise of progress in the early 1970s, during the modernization of Kalama Valley on the O‘ahu island, an area slated to be built up into luxury subdivisions to house island elite and foreign tourists. The increasingly landless Kanaka Maoli occupied one of the few remaining local residences, in what would come to be known as the first Hawaiian land-use struggle of the 21st century. The movement would swell again on Labor Day in 1978, when Hawaiians blockaded the Hilo airport runway, which had been built despite the outcry of Hawaiian homesteaders kicked off their land to make way for construction. One of the land protectors was Moanike‘ala Akaka, who wrote in the 2015 anthology Nā Wāhine Koa: Hawaiian Women for Sovereignty and Demilitarization about her 40 years in the Native Hawaiian movement. In her recollections, she emphasized the importance of that day in 1978, and remembered especially the National Guard who were called to the runway to confront protestors, armed with batons and rifles. Akaka said, “The recent actions defending Mauna Kea against the TMT made me and others think about Hilo Airport, particularly when the State was talking about bringing in the National Guard. We printed a big photo of the Hilo airport runway confrontation, with the question: ‘It happened once, will it happen again?’”
To further understand the current situation at Mauna Kea and its relation to the cycles of struggle under colonial occupation, I reached out to several Kanaka Maoli over email to ask about the history of the island, of Mauna Kea, and Kanaka Maoli practices of land defense. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua is an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa who, in her words, had the recent honor to “lie beside my fellow kānaka aloha ‘āina, in the malu (protection) of our sacred mauna.” Malia Hulleman is an environmental activist and water protector who previously lived at the Standing Rock camp and is currently at Mauna Kea. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is a professor of American studies at Wesleyan University, activist, and coproducer of a radical-politics radio show, Anarchy on Air.
What follows is an edited compendium of their responses and perspectives.
On Hawaiian history
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: The broader context is our outstanding claims under international law and the illegal occupation of Hawai‘i by the United States. This is a question of sovereignty. But that goes beyond — and much deeper than — any statist solutions. Kanaka Maoli are engaged in projects of land renewal and stewardship that center decolonial and nonproprietary relationships between and among people and all living entities, what we might call self-determination, but that do not hinge on state recognition. Meanwhile, though, the occupying state is engaged in an ongoing settler-colonial project of land expropriation, one that is backed by the U.S. military and a range of other structural forces that serve as a form of imperialist domination.
On military occupation
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua: Hawai‘i continues to be under U.S. occupation. It’s not just about a telescope. I cannot even begin to express how thoroughly militarized our islands are. Almost 25 percent of the island I live on is controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense: bases, live-fire training areas, military recreational facilities, military housing. The first ROTC program in United States history was in Hawaiian schools.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: According to the Department of Defense’s 2015 Base Structure Report, the military has 142 sites in Hawai‘i. As if that were not enough, the militarized U.S. imperial power directed from Pacific Command [The United States Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu] oversees 36 nations across the globe. The University of Hawai‘i — also a key player — sits on Hawaiian Kingdom Crown and Government Lands AND is a University Affiliated Research Center institution [established by the Department of Defense].
On settler colonialism in Hawai‘i
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: Even across diverse geographies and periods of time, settler colonization focuses on the acquisition of land as its central feature, which is why it is premised on what Patrick Wolfe theorized as “the logic of elimination of the native.” Expropriating lands that are already inhabited entails gross violence that can take many forms. These modes may vary across time and place, but there is a continuity, a consistency to the project of elimination.
One key added difference in the Hawaiian case is that in addition to U.S. settler colonialism, there is an illegal occupation of an existing nation-state, the Hawaiian Kingdom. And here, I mean occupation beyond a merely descriptive sense (like when we identify settlers or others occupying lands to which they are not indigenous). I mean it in the legal and militaristic sense: when a belligerent state invades the territory of another state with the intention of holding the territory, at least temporarily. Under international law, the occupying state is prohibited from annexing the territory or creating another state out of it — which is what the U.S. government has done in and with Hawai‘i.
Another key difference between Hawai‘i and most of Native America is that the U.S. government’s treaties with the Hawaiian Kingdom were not treaties of cession, compelling (or coercing) Indigenous peoples to give up of rights, property, or territory. Treaties the U.S. negotiated with Native Nations in North America were.
Hawai‘i is caught within conflicting paradigms because of its hybrid status —seen as simply the 50th state under the domestic jurisdiction of the U.S., as an occupied independent kingdom, and as the homeland of an Indigenous people who are divided on the question of U.S. federal recognition of a “Native Hawaiian Governing Entity” under U.S. federal policy.
On the camp ethos
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua: We have talked less about “blockades” and more about the power of the pu‘uhonua (sanctuary, place of refuge) that was declared that stems from our culture. Before any confrontational actions were planned, it was critical to create a safe space for our people to gather. The pu‘uhonua is also a statement to the settler state about our authority as Kanaka. The Royal Order of Kamehameha declared that if anyone were being threatened by the settler state they could seek refuge in the pu‘uhonua and they would be protected. The pu‘uhonua is also significant because it is not just a temporary action; it will continue to exist under Kanaka authority for as long as the people of that place deem it necessary. So, it has the potential to continue for generations. I also think the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu presents a powerful, living example of a self-organized, noncapitalist community that is based on Indigenous Hawaiian values, is led by Kanaka Maoli, and includes everyone who abides by the Kapu Aloha. It is an emergent alternative to settler-colonial ways of governing, of providing for peoples’ needs, and of living in relation to the land. In my opinion, the blockades have only been successful because of the pu‘uhonua.
Malia Hulleman: Our strategy isn’t really properly considered “strategy,” because it’s just who we are. Kapu Aloha — a form of commitment to pono, or what is right and just — is and has always been embedded within our DNA. Aloha is what sets us apart from Indigenous [communities] around the world. I’m sure others have their versions of it. But “aloha” is globally heard, though not globally understood in the truest sense. Now, we’re showing the world what it means. It isn’t just a stereotypical greeting we use while wearing leis and grass skirts. It’s much more than that.
The pu‘uhonua is a place of refuge. It is a safe space, and with that comes very strong discipline. Our history reminds us that you would only go to these spaces if you were seeking refuge, and you must pay your respects to a place that allows you to remain without fear. This is that: a place we’re able to be in without fear of anyone or anything coming in on us. Of course, we hear of the “state” doing “sweeps” and raiding us, but with how organized and self-governed we are, there is no fear in it. There is only understanding and moving forward when and IF that time comes.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: If we consider anarchist praxis as a form of political practice that is horizontal and grounded in mutual aid and free association (consent-based relationships), we can see the direct action and mobilization of people on the front lines at Mauna Kea moving in unity within that tradition, while deeply grounded in Kanaka Maoli ethics of care and responsibility. There is so much power and beauty there at the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu Maunakea camp, which clearly looks to be well coordinated and highly organized.
On Standing Rock
Malia Hulleman: I just recently felt the mirroring of [Standing Rock and Mauna Kea] actually, and haven’t had true time to open that perspective up, but from what I can tell right now, the salient similarities would be the gathering, organization, power, recognition, and governance of indigenous peoples on their land.
As Kanaka, we currently live with an illegally occupied government, but on our own land. It’s like house arrest. It’s not that we haven’t organized and gathered before, it’s just that because of technology, the world is able to take notice (which is also a similarity to Standing Rock).
The biggest difference is that we are Kanaka Maoli, one people, and tribes on Turtle Island have different traditions and values than one another. “Native Americans” are not just a singular group but have been proclaimed as such by the same force that illegally occupies Hawai‘i. It’s hard to have so many different values and traditions come together, especially when some tribes have histories of going to war with one another, but nonetheless we did. We as Indigenous [peoples] around the world came together and presented our presence at Standing Rock.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: One of the many inspiring aspects of the mobilization to protect Mauna Kea is the solidarity pouring in from all over the globe. Meaningful solidarity can take many forms. Kanaka Maoli on the front lines have been very specific in terms of the gestures of solidarity they are asking for, ranging from prayers, to tagging photos on social media with the appropriate hashtags to raise awareness, to showing up at the base of the mountain to help form the blockade, to offering financial support for supplies and bail-bond funds, to legal support. The key is responding to what people on the ground are calling for and understanding that wherever people are, there is a role they can play, however limited that might be. We are seeing protests and marches all over the neighboring islands in the Hawaiian chain.
On the future of Hawai‘i
Malia Hulleman: I truly feel that this is [the future] for us. This is our time as Kanaka to rise up, to show the occupiers of our lands that we have never left, we are not dumb, we are capable, and we are strong.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui: What we are witnessing at the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu Maunakea camp right now is the future: Hawaiian unity for the protection of our lands and waters in a deeply respectful way that is based on the principle of aloha. The political struggle to free Hawai‘i is linked to the struggles going on globally right now, from Palestine to Puerto Rico!
I f the future is about finding a way to exist and thrive on this planet, then, Bryan Kuwada states, “the future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years.” This is what Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua calls “deep time,” time as deep or even deeper than the base of Mauna Kea. Though 4,205 meters in altitude above water, from its base on the ocean floor to its summit it measures over 10,000 meters — the tallest mountain on earth. Mauna Kea may be a geologically dormant volcano, but hearing from the Kanaka Maoli about the spirit that brings the collective together in defense of the land and in opposition to colonial governance, I was reminded of the volcanic forces that C. L. R. James described in The Black Jacobins, his classic work on the Haitian revolution against French colonialism and slavery. Describing the necessity for understanding anti-colonial struggle within a context of deep time, James wrote that during revolution, “when the ceaseless slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came.” James delineates a method for studying and writing history, a past from below that bursts into the now and beyond. In this way revolution can be a return to a future. This is not a future found through the speculations of funding cycles, or the ceaseless toiling toward an already occurring apocalypse that major institutions like universities and the U.S. military engage in, but a future made from a collaborative, people-driven way of knowing and being. There are other ways to study the stars; progress will be when we have found a way to live here on earth.