Meet the Hawaiian women leading the fight against a $1.4 billion telescope on a sacred mountain
Mauna Kea is now a focal point for Native Hawaiian ku’e (“resistance”), but this time the dispute is not over mineral extraction or tourist-oriented development. The ku’e has been growing since the spring of 2015, when an international consortium announced plans to build a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea—which would have a 98-foot diameter, cover six acres in total, tower 18 stories above the summit and burrow two more below its skin.
To be sure, Mauna Kea, on Hawaii Island, offers some of the best views of the sky on the planet. But it is also one of the most sacred places in Hawaii, and there are already 13 other telescopes on the mountain. The resistance has managed to halt construction a number of times, and T.M.T. officials are now awaiting decisions on two appeals in the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Much of the energy for the ku’e has come from women like Hannah Reeves and Pualani Case. “Auntie Hannah” (an avowed Christian) and “Auntie Pua” (a practitioner of Native spirituality) are linked through their reverence for the land and the inspiration they draw from the gods. The influence of the Hawaiian gods (or nature spirits, as they are called) endures despite the desecration of the land here. The Christian God, despite the aspirations of U.S. missionaries, simply coexists among the other deities.
The influence of the Hawaiian gods (or nature spirits, as they are called) endures despite the desecration of the land here.
Auntie Hannah is a direct descendant of Queen Lili’uokalani, who was overthrown by the U.S. Marines in 1893, five years before the United States annexed Hawaii. She is also in the line of royal kahunas—experts in physical and spiritual caregiving. As a young woman, she was deeply involved in the sacred dance of hula, but she says that changed one evening when the Christian God, whom she refers to as the Creator, told her to stop. Auntie Hannah became a Christian, but she says she still has a relationship with Pele, the spirit of the currently erupting Kilauea volcano, who appeared on the hood of her truck one night after she delivered blankets to the homeless. (“I said, ‘Pele, in the name of Jesus, get off my car!’”)
Now 81 years old, Auntie Hannah says she usually sleeps in her truck, mostly spending her time caring for the poor and campaigning for the recognition of Native land rights. She is unequivocal about Mauna Kea, the home of some of the most revered Hawaiian nature spirits. “You cannot cut into that mountain,” she says repeatedly in public forums.
The consortium behind T.M.T. may not have the bad image of the oil industry, but its violation of indigenous land rights is equally distressing.
Auntie Pua is a teacher, chanter and dancer trained in the traditional sacred arts of oli (chant) and hula. She says it was Mo’oinanea, the nature being who lives near the summit of Mauna Kea, who compelled her to become part of the resistance to T.M.T. She and her family were at Maunaua, a sacred place where prayers and leis are offered for rain, when her daughter, then 9 years old, suddenly said: “The lady from the lake. I see her. She’s talking to me. Mom, the lady asks...‘Can you stop the telescope?’”
Despite her initial apprehension, Auntie Pua leaped into the court battles to stop T.M.T. Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources first approved the project in 2011, but it has been tied up by appeals ever since; one successful lawsuit, alleging that the board had not followed due process, was initiated by six appellants, including Auntie Pua. The indigenous people of Hawaii cannot stay apart from the political system, she says, “because if we do that they’ll be building something right over our heads.”
Women like the Aunties have found common cause with other indigenous peoples protecting sacred sites. Auntie Pua and other Native Hawaiians have traveled to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline. The consortium behind T.M.T. may not have the bad image of the oil industry, but its violation of indigenous land rights is equally distressing.
The ku’e is about much more than a telescope. Poverty is endemic among Native Hawaiians. They reside in the poorest areas of the state, suffer disproportionately from diabetes and cancer and are one reason Hawaii has a higher rate of homelessness than any other state. The ku’e comes in response to more than a century of corrupt appropriation of land and resources.
“There comes a time when you have the birthright, the obligation and the privilege to say, ‘No, enough is enough,’” says Auntie Pua. “It’s so complicated to save this last bit of our Hawaii. It’s almost overwhelming at times if you don’t align yourself to your true leader, which for me is the mountain.”
There are two remaining appeals before the Hawaii Supreme Court. In the meantime, the consortium says it may consider an alternate site for the telescope—in the Canary Islands.
Update from The New York Times, July 10, 2019: “Gov. David Ige of Hawaii announced on Wednesday that construction will begin next week on a giant telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, the volcano that looms over the Big Island of Hawaii.”