The protest roadblocks that kept telescope construction equipment off the summit of Mauna Kea from 2015 to 2019 are on hold, but the cultural clash over the future of Hawaiʻi’s most sacred mountain is far from over. Despite the protests’ clear message of community opposition, proponents of California’s Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) continue to push their Hawaiʻi plans, even as they pursue permits for an alternative site in the Canary Islands. They’ve tapped old allies in the state legislature and recruited a potential new ally in the federal government, the National Science Foundation (NSF). But the “mountain protectors” (Ku Kiaʻi Mauna, or Kiaʻi), composed of Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, and other islanders, remain undaunted. (All photos by Tom Peek except where otherwise noted.)

Mauna Kea at dawn with three of its international observatories visible on the summit ridge.

The Kiaʻi protests and roadblocks were the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle to protect one of the holiest places in Hawaiian tradition—home of revered deities, a sacred lake, ancient shrines, the highest burial site in Polynesia, and the place of Native Hawaiians’ creation story. Its spectacular alpine desert is habitat for plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.

But 14,000-foot Mauna Kea is also one of the last Northern Hemisphere mountaintops with dark skies still unsullied by air and light pollution and suitable for cutting-edge astronomy. Numerous telescopes have been built there since 1964, including several of the world’s largest, such as California’s Twin 10-meter Kecks.

Puʻu Poliʻahu (right foreground) at dawn with Kona’s Hualalai volcano visible below Mauna Kea’s rising morning shadow. Puʻu Poliʻahu is named for Hawaiians’ legendary goddess of snow and ice, one of several female deities said to reside on the mountaintop.

Peaceful protests draw worldwide attention and support

Between 2015 and 2019, the mountain protectors repeatedly blocked TMT construction equipment from reaching the summit, citing Hawaiʻi’s anti-desecration statute as their legal justification. To ensure their protests remained peaceful, they imposed on themselves an ancient “Kapu Aloha” protocol that prohibits violence, and even expressions of anger. Even so, police arrested numerous nonviolent protectors, including thirty-four elders on July 17, 2019.

That arrest drew worldwide condemnation and an outpouring of support, including from US Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and numerous music and Hollywood celebrities. Jason Momoa, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Damian Marley were among the many figures who joined the Kiaʻi at the roadblock. More than half a million people have signed global petitions of support, including those on the Change.org petition and hundreds of astronomers denouncing the elders’ arrest.

State officials, frustrated by growing support for the Kiaʻi—and running out of funds for their months-long police presence on the mountain—forged a December 26, 2019 truce with the protectors. Police were withdrawn in exchange for removing the protest encampment at the access road and a promise that protectors would be notified if TMT decided to again attempt construction.

Mountain protectors regard the mountain from Puʻu Huluhulu, a cinder cone above their encampment across from the Mauna Kea access road. In 2019, this area was dedicated as a puʻuhonua (place of refuge) by the Royal Order of Kamehameha, a safe place for people to gather and sleep during the blockade. This Hawaiian flag was one of many flown upside-down at the demonstrations to symbolize an occupied nation in distress.

Kiaʻi protests part of a larger movement

The mountain controversy is one of many growing out of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance, a movement to restore Native Hawaiian language, cultural practices and sacred sites in the decades following Hawaiʻi’s statehood in 1959. Mauna Kea is one of those sites, a wao akua or “realm of the gods,” long revered by cultural practitioners, including traditional Hawaiian astronomers (kilo hoku).

Renaissance-inspired scholarship on Hawaiʻi’s turbulent colonial history—including the American-supported coup d’état in 1893—sparked calls to actually enforce Hawaiians’ existing legal rights and eventually reestablish some form of native sovereignty. On Mauna Kea the question became who rightfully owns the summit, which is “ceded” crown land confiscated after the coup and transferred to the state in 1959.

Islander opposition ignored for decades

Islanders, including from Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, Ka Lahui Hawaiʻi, the Royal Order of Kamehameha, and the Hawaiʻi Chapter of Sierra Club, have long criticized the mountaintop’s overdevelopment and the state’s summit management. Several legislative audits, from 1998 on, lambasted the state for encouraging observatory development without adequately protecting the mountain’s cultural and environmental resources, often ignoring their own plans, rules, and regulations. State agencies and some observatories also violated state and federal laws designed to protect unique ecosystems and Hawaiians’ cultural and civil rights.

In a faceoff with armed state police, Mauna Kea protectors block the summit access road on June 6, 2015, preventing TMT construction vehicles from reaching the summit. It was the first of several blockades between 2015 and 2019.

Decades of public hearings followed, but astronomers and state officials repeatedly ignored concerns expressed by cultural practitioners, environmentalists, and other islanders, forcing them to seek relief from the courts as well as demonstrate in mass gatherings. For years, the courts sided with the islanders until a 2018 Hawaiʻi Supreme Court decision validated TMT’s construction permit.

A growing concern now is that Hawaiʻi’s courts, like its other two branches of government, have become vulnerable to pressure from political and economic powerbrokers pushing for new island development. In the aftermath of the court’s 2018 decision, Mauna Kea protests on Hawaiʻi Island spread throughout the archipelago, including marches in Waikiki that each drew over 10,000 demonstrators.

Blockade leader Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, flanked by kumu hula and blockade leader Pua Case, addresses the throng during the elders’ arrest on July 17, 2019.

Longtime Mauna Kea protector and litigant Kealoha Pisciotta is interviewed by a New York Times reporter following the elders’ arrest, while police and National Guard soldiers stand by on the access road.

Pressure to build escalates during the blockade hiatus

The Hawaiʻi clash is part of a larger, longstanding battle among astronomers themselves, a race for who will dominate the next phase of ground-based astronomy. The $2.4 billion TMT is competing with two other “Giant Optical Devices” (or “GODS”) now under construction on high mountains in Chile—the 30-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the 39-meter European’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). TMT’s financial backers include billionaire Intel founder Gordon Moore (its biggest donor), Caltech, the University of California and science organizations from the US, China, Japan, India and Canada.

Twenty telescopes and antennae already crowd the summit of Mauna Kea (not pictured is the US government owned Very Long Base Array radio telescope).

In 2020, astronomers from the TMT and Giant Magellan joined forces to lobby the National Science Foundation to fund both telescopes, asking this US government agency for $850 million dollars for each cash-strapped project. With that level of federal “undertaking,” NSF can no longer argue that its longstanding financial and policy support for TMT does not trigger a federal EIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and a cultural consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). TMT officials now assert that if they obtain additional NSF funding those two elaborate reviews will somehow change Native Hawaiians’ longstanding opposition.

Hawaiians have already made clear that won’t happen, and in a September 2020 letter to NSF, Kealoha Pisciotta and other Mauna Kea cultural practitioners and lineal descendants criticized the agency for repeatedly ignoring Hawaiians’ prior requests for a federal EIS and Section 106 consultation. It’s not the first time NSF has been criticized. Native Hawaiians and Sierra Club warned NSF about TMT’s cultural and environmental impacts as far back as 2012, urging them to follow federal law.

Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou testifies at yet another hearing in which state officials and astronomers ignored the pleas of Native Hawaiians. This time it was the University of Hawaiʻi’s Board of Regents in 2019.

Pro-TMT legislators stride into the fray

This spring, pro-TMT legislators—led by House Speaker Scott Saiki—passed a House resolution creating a Mauna Kea Working Group, ostensibly to explore ways to reform decades of mismanagement by the State’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaiʻi. But Hawaiians and environmentalists worry that the 15-member group appointed by Saiki—which includes only three Mauna Kea Kiaʻi—is a Trojan Horse, not only to continue state support for TMT but also to extend the state’s 65-year mountaintop Science Reserve lease, which expires in 2033. TMT officials view the lease extension as crucial to their project.

The 2021 legislature, again ignoring islanders’ pleas, also passed House bill 499 allowing the state to extend leases on state land by up to another 40 years. This sparked a July 4, 2021 protest at the Honolulu airport to raise consciousness about state land abuse in Hawaiʻi. Some Mauna Kea protectors participated.

Protest supporters’ First Amendment rights challenged

Meanwhile, litigation to quash a state subpoena seeking the financial records of the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance (KAHEA), a non-profit that supported the Kiaʻi roadblock, has wended its way through the courts. The subpoena, issued by Hawaiʻi Attorney General Clair Connors, would reveal the identities and contributions of KAHEA supporters. The state’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments in early 2021.

KAHEA’s attorneys characterized the Attorney General’s probe as a “fishing expedition” or “witch hunt” infringing on the First Amendment rights of KAHEA and its members (which includes this author). “They’re going after anyone who’s in any way associated with or affiliated with peaceful protest up on Mauna Kea,” said the group’s attorney Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman. A ruling is expected soon.

Offerings made at an altar to honor kupuna (revered elders) at the base of Puʻu Huluhulu across from the Mauna Kea access road.

Are two TMT financial partners wavering?

Mauna Kea protectors have long urged TMT’s international partners to move their project to a different location. In 2020 Kealoha Pisciotta of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and other Kiaʻi met with the University of California Board of Regents, and some regents openly expressed newfound concerns about the Mauna Kea site (brief video excerpts from their July 30, 2020 meeting can be viewed here.) UC, one of the original TMT partners and a major donor, has long been under pressure, including from their student bodies, to divest from the project.

Canada is also an early TMT partner, having committed $243 million, including manufacture of its dome. But in May 2021, the Canadian Astronomical Society, responding to the concerns of Native Hawaiians and Canada’s First Nations people, adopted a position at its annual meeting that it cannot support TMT unless it has the genuine consent of Native Hawaiians.

They cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Canada is a signatory, and which requires the “free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities for projects on their traditional territories.” The Society’s position also raises the bar on the next Mauna Kea telescope, the Mauna Kea Spectrographic Explorer, a 10-meter giant planned to replace the existing 44-inch Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope on the summit’s uppermost ridge. A discussion of all this is available here.

Mauna Kea protectors Uncle Earl Deleon and Ruth Aloua talk with another Kiaʻi on July 17, 2019.

So the battle over the future of Hawaiians’ sacred mountain is far from over.

One of the many good things that have come out of the Mauna Kea controversy is that its unprecedented coverage by the mainstream media and in social media has deepened the world’s understanding of contemporary Hawaiian culture, Hawaiʻi’s colonial history, and Native Hawaiians’ commitment to defend their land with aloha.

Superficial images of the islands fostered by hoteliers and real estate developers after statehood are finally giving way to a fuller, more authentic picture of these unique volcanic islands, their rich Polynesian culture, and the extraordinary commitment of their people to resolve conflict with both steadfastness and aloha—a precedent-setting example of peaceful, pono (moral) struggle in an era of duplicity, polarization, and violence.

Archive photo of Mauna Kea’s pristine summit area in 1939.