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A Mainlander’s Guide of How to Make Sense of the Protests in Hawaii

What’s being protested and why, and will it affect my travels?

Every morning at the base of Mauna Kea a large, and growing, group of protectors of the mauna (mountain) gather for ceremony. This includes storytelling, daily protocol, hula performances, greeting the sun, greeting the surrounding maunas, chanting, and praying. After ceremony ends, those who have gathered return to their camps to spend time with their ohanas (families), including keiki (children) of all ages. Throughout the day they will gather for hula lessons; classes at Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu University (tuition-free and proudly unaccredited); eating; talking story with new friends; and ceremonies at sunrise, 8 am, noon and 6 p.m. People will stop by the art tent to have shirts and signs screen printed, the keiki tent for play and art, the medic tent to care for injuries if needed, and the massive kitchen for meals and fruit to keep hydrated. All the while staying alert and ready to mobilize in case the peace is broken by law enforcement and construction trucks coming to ascend the mountain.

Laurie Lyons-Makaimoku

This is what a day looks like at the base of Mauna Kea. The people who have gathered there, some days in the thousands, are there to prevent the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop a sacred mountain, the tallest in the world (measuring from below sea level). The summit of the mauna is a place of prayer, a place for Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) to participate in cultural practices, and it serves as an ancient burial ground. This is why the Hawaiians are fighting so hard, and have been fighting for more than 10 years, since the inception of the project. The agencies behind the TMT want to build a world-class telescope atop the mountain, alongside 13 other telescopes that are already there, five of which are waiting to be decommissioned within the next 15 years. Hawai’i is an ideal place to study the stars because of its elevation (nearly 14,000 feet), lack of light pollution, and because the winds are relatively calm at the summit, making pictures from the telescope clearer. The protectors of the mauna, for the most part, support the building of the TMT–just not on Mauna Kea. This movement is not anti-science, it’s anti-desecration. It is fueled by years of mismanagement of the other telescopes and the mauna, in general.  

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Laurie Lyons-Makaimoku

The protectors of the mountain (they prefer the term protectors over protesters) have been embroiled in a battle to stop TMT for over a decade, both physically and legally. It all came to a head when, on July 10, 2019, Hawai’i Gov. David Ige announced that construction would begin on the telescope on July 15. Part of that construction included completely closing off the Mauna Kea Access Road, the road that connects the summit to the major highway. Around midnight on the Friday before construction was set to begin, the kia’i (protectors) set up camp and the Royal Order of Kamehameha established a Pu’uhonua, a place of refuge, across the highway from the access road. The newly established sanctuary was at the base of an ahu (religious altar), where kupuna (elders) who couldn’t ascend to the summit could pule (pray). The following days would see protectors from all over the islands join the long-standing activists who had been fighting for the telescope as bodies at the base of the mountain. As the construction was set to begin on Monday morning, protectors set up lines across the already closed access road (which prevented Hawaiians from reaching the summit to pray or practice their culture), not allowing police or construction vehicles to pass. That day, and in the following days, the situation would escalate as protectors chained themselves to a cattle guard on the road to prevent vehicles from passing. They eventually unchained themselves as negotiations began, but ultimately failed. They were then replaced with a line of kupuna who committed themselves to this cause for the long haul. That Wednesday, 38 kupuna and caretakers were arrested and removed from the road. As the emotional crowd cried, sang, and chanted while they were loaded into vans, a new line formed; this time a line of wahine (women) with locked arms and incredibly strong resolve. This battle is physically intense: The elevation at the base is approximately 6,500 feet, with temperatures dropping into the 40s at night, thin air, frequent rain and heavy mist, and the concrete of the roads flanked only by fields of volcanic cinder. That day, Gov. Ige declared a state of emergency, claiming that the protectors posed a danger to the public, and allowing him to call on the national guard.

Laurie Lyons-Makaimoku

Since then, the Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu has transformed into an oasis where everything–university, food, medical, childcare, and more, are free to the kia’i (all thanks to angel donors who have supported the cause). 24/7 crossing guards help to keep the highway clear and safe. Kapu aloha (to act with kindness and love) is the ruling order on the mauna, a mantra that keeps protectors peaceful, friendly, and keeps the camp free of alcohol, drugs, litter, and aggression. Damian Jr Gong Marley and the Marley ohana played a small performance; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also visited and lent his support to the cause, as have thousands across the entire world thanks to the internet, elevating the cause to an international issue over sacred grounds. There have been no more arrests and peaceful negotiations are in the works, but the native Hawaiians will not yield. This standoff could last for many more days, maybe even months.

What About My Trip to Hawai’i?

As a visitor (or potential visitor) to Hawai’i, if you’ve made it this far, you’re on your way to understanding the struggles of Hawaii’s indigenous peoples, but it goes so much deeper than this. The Hawaiian people have been struggling since America overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. Hawaiian language and culture have been systematically erased, only within recent years seeing a resurgence and restoration. While tourists might be mildly inconvenienced by this issue when visiting, more than likely the only time you’ll even notice is driving by the Pu’uhonua when crossing from one side of the island to the other. The recent #ADayWithoutHawaiians on July 22 saw some island businesses such as luaus, restaurants, and zipline tours shut down for the day in support of the cause, and other supporters occasionally slowed down highways to help bring attention to the issue, but those actions have passed. However, you are likely to still see lots of sign and flag-waving throughout the islands, and there could always be other actions that spring up.

Laurie Lyons-Makaimoku

What if the Protest Crosses My Path?

First and foremost–and this should be EVERY time you come to Hawai’i and EVERY time you visit any place, especially those with a large indigenous population–when you visit, come as a visitor, not as a tourist. Tourists can often display entitlement because they have spent a lot of money on their vacation, which can foster the feeling that spending trumps everything else. It doesn’t. Appreciate and share in the culture that you are immersing yourself in, don’t just consume it. Make an effort to learn the history of a place, to learn how to properly honor sacred sites, and to learn how to interact with people as people and not just tourist attractions. Hawai’i has a culture of inclusion, so revel in that, but do not take advantage of it. If you’re on Hawai’i Island, honk your horn in support if you’re crossing Daniel K Inouye Highway when you see the camp–and slow down!! Honk when you see sign and flag wavers, throw them a shaka and a smile. Be patient. Sure, this may be a little inconvenient for you, but this is life for thousands of Hawaiians. This is their culture and their mauna that they are fighting for–we can all sacrifice a little to support that. If you see posts online, like, share, support. Amplify the voices and the cause. If you’re visiting any of the islands, be conscious of the aina (the land). This is part of what they are fighting for, so please practice Leave No Trace principles while visiting. Here are a few other tips on how to be an Eco-Friendly Traveler.

Laurie Lyons-Makaimoku

How Can I Help?

Learn more about the issue from the kanaka perspective–follow the hashtags #wearemaunake #stopTMT #protectmaunakea. Look up the official pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and see what is really happening on the mountain. Buy local. Support local businesses, especially the ones who are donating their proceeds to the cause. Many of them sell their goods online, but be wary of those who are just creating goods to make money off of this movement without giving back. Donate to the cause, whether financially or with physical goods. A list of donation items and where to donate can be found on the official pages. Make your voice heard by letting Gov. Ige know your feelings. Now, and in the future, pay attention to the struggles of indigenous peoples. They are all around you. Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Arizona, are just a few places that are currently fighting for their rights. Hopefully, with understanding and compassion, visitors to Hawai’i can learn from this situation and become better people because of it. And yes, it’s sad that we can’t currently go to the summit of the mauna to see the sunset or offer prayers to ancestors. Instead, you might get an education, a hug, and a free meal. Come and learn not just what aloha is all about, but how kapu aloha can make a truly better world.

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