Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Mauna Kea stance helps strengthen Hawaiian belief in traditions and sacred sites

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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Soana Aholelei | Reporter / Director

Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawai’i – often regarded as the tallest mountain in the world if you count from its base on the ocean floor – and it’s also home to 13 telescopes. 

It’s a prime spot for the scientific community who, among other things, try to see into the future. But it is also the most sacred place of worship for the native Hawaiian people, connecting them to their past.

Four years ago, on the 17th July 2019, a quiet protest by native Hawaiians erupted and successfully prevented the building of a 30-meter telescope also known as the “TMT”.  

But it came at a cost.

As Mauna Kea lay dormant, below were harrowing scenes of people sitting on the cold, desert floor, blocking the intersection of the Daniel K.Inouya Highway and the access road to Mauna Kea.

For months thousands of people, families, young and old, had been camped on this site, braving the mountainous terrain, in the cold, rain and shine, supporting the stance.

Before the police arrived, the kupuna, elders, told their young people to move off the highway as they did not want them to be arrested. 

Instead, in a peaceful non-aggressive move, the kupuna sat on the ground and waited. A sacrifice for their people and the cause.

When the police moved in, hundreds sat crying while singing songs of unity, as they watched 38 of their kupunas being arrested, handcuffed and taken away. 

“We were being faced with the largest assembly of police and law enforcement. They brought in people, police from every island. They brought in the National Guard,” says Dr Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a Kanaka Maoli educator. 

A cultural practitioner and native rights activist who helped lead the protest, she was also arrested on that day along with her kupuna.

“They put all of the Hawaiian officers, law enforcement officers up front, and many of them are related to the kupuna,” she recalls.

“They were the grandmothers, the aunts, their cousins and they were doing their job and everyone was weeping. Everyone was crying. Even those in charge of that day of arresting us.

“It was probably the single most difficult thing that all of us collectively had experienced, to watch people be arrested and watch your elders be arrested. But our people understood. We were there for a larger purpose for a larger reason.” 

The fight to preserve Mauna Kea has been long, since 1967 when they first started building the first telescope.  Today 13 telescopes have been built on the Mauna.

An international consortium of institutes and agencies had plans to build another one costing over 1.4 billion dollars.  The 30-meter telescope, the TMT, would have been the largest on the volcano.

In 2015 a group of native Hawaiians carrying flags ran up Mauna Kea putting a stop to the ground breaking ceremony to build the TMT 

This one non-violent direct action began the long fight and in 2019 the stance at Mauna Kea erupted.

“We were up there for nine months and just developed very close, loving relationship with large group of people from all over the world and I think it brought a lot of people who were sitting on the fence or maybe had some thoughts about their support but hadn’t been pushed forward to actually take any action,” Dr Wong-Wilson says.

“Mauna Kea is our very beginning of life and it symbolises for us that place, where that spot, where Papa (Papahanaumoku) and Wakea met each other at the top of the summit, the very top of Mauna Kea, which is the highest point in all of the Pacific. That is the place where all creation begins.”

Many supported the protest but there were those who did not

“It was the single largest event that was an issue that divided our community and I think still does in many ways.” 

In January 2023 all charges were dropped against the 38 kupuna.  A new governing body was formed – Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority.  Dr Wong-Wilson has a seat at that table.

“There’s some really awesome things that have occurred since then, because in 2021, our state legislature created a Mauna Kea working group, and I think the speaker of the House here determined that this is a no-win situation,” she says.



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