Native Hawaiians on coverage of Mauna Kea resistance

July 29, 2019
Demonstrators gather on July 15 to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Photo via Caleb Jones/AP

In 2009, an international consortium of scientists set their sights on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea volcano as its preferred location for a massive, cutting-edge telescope. Native Hawaiians have long resisted the project on Mauna Kea for many reasons: Activists say construction there violates indigenous rights, threatens Mauna Kea’s fragile ecosystem, and is an affront to Native Hawaiian cultural and religious traditions.

For years, however, coverage of Native Hawaiian resistance has portrayed the situation as a battle between science and religion, revealing the journalism field’s severely misguided understanding of Native Hawaiian perspectives. “The telescope builders have a strong claim to legitimacy, and they are being blamed for things they had nothing to do with — like the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the loss of native lands, the state’s many social ills and degraded environment,” wrote the New York Times Editorial Board in 2015. “This is an unfair burden for a group that has spent years cultivating local support, navigating the approval process and successfully—so far—fending off lawsuits.”

After a decade of court battles, Hawai’i Governor David Ige announced that TMT construction would commence in mid-July. Last week, activists engaged in nonviolent direct action aiming to halt the project. Their efforts have attracted a new round of international coverage, much of which has once more downplayed Native Hawaiians’ range of concerns.  

In an op-ed for Honolulu Civil Beat, columnist Trisha Kehaulani Watson—who also serves on the board of directors for Āina Momona, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring Hawaiian sovereignty—considered opposition to the TMT alongside Kaho’olawe, an island used for decades as a US military training ground and bombing range, now the subject of remediation and restoration efforts. Opposition to the TMT, wrote Watson, “has nothing to do with a telescope”:

It has everything to do with the enduring battle over Hawaii’s future. The continued destruction of land and natural resources is short-sighted and fundamentally detrimental to the future generations who will one day live in these islands. The pattern of land mismanagement and natural resource abuse that the Thirty Meter Telescope represents should concern everyone, because it is not isolated to Mauna Kea.

CJR asked Native Hawaiian activists, scholars, and scientists to share their thoughts on coverage of opposition to the TMT: What has it overlooked, and how might reporters better represent the numerous issues that shape it? A selection of their comments, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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Kawena Phillips, Native Hawaiian activist 

In the ’70s, activists took on the US military over their misuse of one of our islands and kickstarted the Hawaiian Renaissance. Growing up and hearing those stories is what inspired a lot of younger activists to speak out against the Thirty Meter Telescope. Kaho’olawe was the rallying point of our parents’ generation, now, Kū Kia’i Mauna is the rallying point of mine. This is an organized resistance that has been strengthening for decades.

Some of the most iconic and influential people leading the charge are in their 20s and early 30s. Every young, educated Hawaiian is a victory for us because that is a Hawaiian who knows their history, and has a better understanding of the struggles we face. If journalists would talk more to the younger generation resisting on the Mauna, I think they would gain better insight into our perspectives. We are speaking out for many reasons, including for our cultural beliefs, the ecological impact on the watershed, and the state corruption that has bent the law for this one construction project. This is about telling the world that Hawaiians have a right to our own land, a voice in what happens to it, a right to have people listen to and respect our wishes for our land.

Local news outlets on the island do not have the resources to properly cover all of the resistance. Outside news sources often copy and paste from local outlets, and so those outside of Hawai’i do not hear the full story. That’s where media can improve: Talk to people on the ground. Come and see how organized we are and how dedicated to the cause we are. Then we can help others understand us.


Dr. Uahikea Maile, assistant professor of Indigenous politics, University of Toronto

I flew from Albuquerque, New Mexico to join the kiaʻi in stopping TMT construction. The efforts to protect Mauna Kea have been incredible. It was terribly painful to see our kūpuna arrested by police. But I was so proud that we all remained steadfast at that time and did not open the road. Knowing that each day we maintain the reoccupation and blockade feels so pono, so right.

Mainstream media have missed an opportunity to genuinely report on how organized we are. When Governor David Ige fixated on reports about drug and alcohol use on Mauna Kea — which then was circulated by mainstream media —  he reinforced a racist trope about Kānaka Maoli that we are dirty drug addicts and alcoholics. It contributes to colonial marginalization of our people by manufacturing our community as incapable of self-governance. This is just wrong. We are building our nation here and now. There is free housing, food, health care, transportation, and education for everyone, even those that are not Kānaka Maoli.

I don’t believe news reports have generally illustrated the diversity of our concerns; however, the in-house media team here at the Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu, a place of refuge at the base of Mauna Kea adjacent to the access road, has accurately portrayed our struggle. It is unfair for media to flatten and homogenize the struggle into neat binaries or racist tropes. Kānaka Maoli are a diverse people with many claims and stakes in this movement.

To journalists: Come to Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu. Take a tour. Enjoy a meal with us. Listen to our mele and oli. Learn at our university. Open your eyes and ears to our truth. Let our voices be your guide, instead of the corporations, politicians, and judges. We’re the eyes of this land.


‘Iwakeli‘i Tong, oceanography PhD candidate, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

I think one big aspect that has been underreported in the media is that the Pu‘uhonua is extremely disciplined, strengthened by the aloha and abundance of our lāhui (our people) and our allies. Food and supplies are being brought up to camp almost continuously throughout the day, such that we are prepared to feed hundreds at any given meal. Another underreported aspect is the public education happening through Pu‘uhuluhulu University, a tongue-in-cheek rebuke of the University of Hawai‘i’s claim that it is “a Hawaiian place of learning.” Up to 20 workshops are being given to the general public on topics ranging from Hawaiian language, poetry, history, health, gender studies, spirituality, science, and more.

I have definitely seen a shift in the tone of the local coverage of this movement over the last week, to where journalists are replacing the word “protester” with “protector” or even “kia‘i.” More gradually over the past four years, I have seen a shift as well in the popular science media with stories going from excluding Native Hawaiian sources to centering those voices. Some have argued that social media has played a role in broadening the public’s perception on what is at stake in this issue. Moving forward, I believe that journalists should also hear from the next generation who is being raised in our Native language, provided there is adequate capacity for accurate translation.


Josiah David Hester, PhD, assistant professor of computer engineering, Northwestern University

For myself—and, I imagine, most Native Hawaiians—this is just another reminder of how our rights, lands, bodies, culture, and traditions are sacrificed for other interests. This is not just about Mauna Kea being sacred; it is about repeated erosion of Native rights over the past half-century, and taking a stand to try and stop the bleeding.

The management of lands held in public trust for Native Hawaiians has caused a lot of anger and grief in the Hawaiian community. Mauna Kea is leased for $1 a year. Tourism is booming in Waikiki and other ceded lands, all while Native Hawaiians (many of whom are displaced) attend dropout factories and live in low-resourced areas of the island.

There is so much context and history behind this issue and this moment. Nowhere in news coverage have I seen history of the litigation that has been ongoing for years around the Mauna, the century-long fight of Native Hawaiians to be recognized, eventually culminating in an apology from the US in 1993 for the forceful and illegal annexation of Hawai’i.

There is also a personal narrative here that has been largely missed by journalists. Ask Native Hawaiians about the family histories that lead them to protect the Mauna; journalists will likely hear stories about family members that went to the Mauna to escape abuse, to pray, to gain strength before a competition, to mourn a lost loved one. These stories are what connect the ancient traditions and sacred location to the very real, and very in-the-present emotional and spiritual relationship Native Hawaiians feel to the Mauna. Knowing that our ancestors also sought solace and comfort in the shadow of the Mauna, just as we do, makes us want to preserve that for our own children and for generations to come.


Kamahaʻo Kawelu, Native Hawaiian activist 

Speaking up against TMT is more than myself being a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) because it’s not just a Kānaka issue—it’s knowing the difference between right and wrong. I’m here because I want the future generations to be able to experience what myself and everyone before me has. I’m here because the Mauna is our island’s main source of fresh water. It gives us life.

People don’t really understand how much our people had to give up. We gave up our beaches to resorts. Our heiau (temples) were taken from us and destroyed. Everything we had was taken from us and exploited for profit and geared towards tourism. What we as a people want everyone to realize is that we’re not anti-science—our kūpuna (ancestors) voyaged the Pacific using just the elements and the stars. We’re anti-location.

David Ige, the governor of Hawaiʻi, declared peaceful protests to be a state emergency. If journalists want to get the best, straight-up information, don’t ask the government. Ask the natives, because we’re the only ones really out here not profiting off of any of this.


Sara Kahanamoku, integrative biology PhD candidate, UC Berkeley

As Hawaiian leaders have been stating for decades, this struggle is about “more than just a telescope”—a narrative that has only recently been adopted by mainstream media. The current narrative of TMT as the latest pitting of “scientific progress” against “traditional culture” distracts from the true issue at hand—that indigenous rights are on the line. 

I urge journalists to focus on kapu aloha—the decree of radical compassion and nonviolence to which all kiaʻi and supporters of efforts to protect the Mauna must adhere. I believe that we all have an opportunity to learn from kapu aloha; we can all embody the teachings of the movement in order to work towards a future that is truly equitable. Rather than focusing on “science v. culture” or portraying Hawaiians as a people “digging in their heels” and “living in the past” in “protest” of the inevitable, we should focus on the opportunity that we have to learn from and incorporate into our practice the unique values of Hawaiians and other indigenous people around the world.


Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, professor and chair, Department of Political Science, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

I would like to see more journalists focusing on who the protectors are, and how they contribute to making Hawai’i and the world better. Among the kia’i (protectors) are teachers, farmers, psychologists, stay-at-home parents, attorneys, nurses, accountants; the list goes on and on. The major figures in this movement are educators, like Pua Case, Kalani Flores, and Kaho’okahi Kanuha. Of the eight of us who chained ourselves to the cattle guard last week, four of us are university faculty and staff, and all eight are educators in one way or another. 

I hope journalists will report on the prominent role of women and of queer folx in this movement. Some of the women on Hawai’i island include Ruth Aloua, Kealoha Pisciotta, Hawane Rios, Luana Busby-Neff, Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, Maxine Kahaulelio, Leina’ala Sleightholm, Mehana Kihoi, and so many more. On O’ahu, one of the leading kia’i is Hina Wong-Kalu, a self-identified mahu wahine (transgendered woman), who led a freeway slowdown and who helped bring a delegation of Tongan community leaders to the Mauna. Deeper reporting could look at the gendered aspects of the movement, as well as highlight the white-supremacist, colonial, and heteropatriarchal structures within TMT-supporting institutions.


Antoinette Freitas, PhD, director of Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

To me, the public really does not fathom the degree to which the Hawai’i Supreme Court ruling last year on the telescope’s construction impacts the world’s future as we face a climate crisis. The majority ruled in favor of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resource’s absurd argument that the mountain has become so degraded that the TMT would not pose much more relative harm, which the dissenting opinion says “violates norms of environmental law.” This is a dangerous precedent that opens up any degraded environment to development rather than restoration.

It is important — in the name of resilience, adaption and recovery — that Mauna Kea be protected so its natural ecological functions can continue without interruption. This is how you combat climate change.

Most Americans do not realize that Hawai’i was a sovereign independent state and that state still exists. We Kānaka Maoli have our own language, culture and worldviews. It is this worldview and knowledge base that must have a place to stand to battle our global climate crisis. Some reporters get it right; the majority, unfortunately, get it wrong. The press continues to lean on old tired tropes of lazy, superstitious, backwards Hawaiians clinging to the old way. Our ancestral knowledge is what we need now more than ever to heal our planet and give it the aloha and respect it deserves.

ICYMI: My side of the story

Marisa Peryer is a rising junior at Yale University, where she reports on science and technology. Her work has appeared in the Yale Daily News and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow her on Twitter @marisa_peryer.