“If not now, when will we stand?” Native Hawaiians fight construction of telescope on Mauna Kea

Construction on a $1.4 billion telescope is in the works on Mauna Kea, a sacred Native site on the Big Island of Hawaii and natives are taking a stand.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

A historic indigenous resistance is unfolding on the Big Island of Hawaii, where thousands have descended on Mauna Kea, a sacred Native site, to defend it from the construction of a $1.4 billion telescope. Scientists say the Thirty Meter Telescope will help them peer into the deepest corners of space, but indigenous resisters say the construction was approved without their consent and will desecrate their sacred lands. Last week, police arrested 33 people—most of them Hawaiian elders—as they blocked a road to prevent work crews from reaching the site of the telescope being planned atop Mauna Kea. And on Sunday, demonstrators reported that more than 2,000 people had gathered at the access road to stop construction. We speak with Pua Case, an indigenous organizer and activist defending Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.


AMY GOODMAN: The Filipino-Hawaiian musician Kalani Pe’a, who’s been at the protests that we’ll be talking about now. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we go to Hawaii’s Big Island, where growing protests are heading into a second week against the construction of a massive telescope on top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, sacred Native site, that’s become a flashpoint of indigenous resistance. On Sunday, demonstrators reported more than 2,000 people had gathered at an access road to stop construction on Hawaii’s highest peak from starting. Last week, police arrested 33 people, most of them Hawaiian elders, as they blocked a road to prevent work crews from reaching the site of the Thirty Meter Telescope being planned atop Mauna Kea.

HAWAIIAN ELDER: We have a right to worship god in the environment of our belief. Respect it!

AMY GOODMAN: Just hours after the arrests, Hawaii’s Democratic Governor David Ige signed an emergency order granting police more power to clear the way for construction equipment.

GOV. DAVID IGE: This afternoon, I signed an emergency proclamation for the situation on Mauna Kea. Since Monday, protesters have illegally occupied roads and highways. … We do believe that this emergency proclamation gives law enforcement the additional tools that they need to continue to work to keep the people safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Activists say construction of the telescope was approved without consulting the local Native community. The protests build on decades of indigenous resistance in Hawaii. This week, the Hawaii County Council plans to vote on a resolution, quote, “strongly urging” Governor Ige and Mayor Harry Kim to honor a request for a 60-day moratorium on the construction.

For more, we go to Hawaii’s Big Island, where we’re joined by Pua Case, an indigenous organizer, one of the leading activists defending Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Pua. If you can describe for us where you are and just tell us what is happening? Who is building, or attempting to build, this telescope? And why are the indigenous people of Hawaii so concerned?

PUA CASE: Aloha Mai Kako. ‘O Pua Case ko’u inoa. ‘O Mauna a Wakea ko’u mauna. Aloha, everyone. My name is Pua Case. Mauna Kea is my mountain. I’m reporting from a hunter’s check-in station, at a place called Pu’u Huluhulu, which is right across the street of the access road leading up to Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is a sacred mountain for us here in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is genealogically linked to the Native people of these lands. Mauna Kea is known as our kupuna, our ancestor, our teacher, our protector, our corrector and our guide. And so, for the last 10 years, we have held off the project of the building of an 18-story telescope on the top of our mountain, near the summit, on a pristine area called the northern plateau, over our water aquifer and the source of water for much of this island.

Those who are partnering in this project are Canada, China, India, Japan and the United States in the area of California, with the largest single donor being the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto.

So, why we are standing for this mountain is quite simple, Amy. And thank you for having me on the show. If I could put it very simply, I would say, if we don’t stand for the most sacred, what will we stand for? And if not now, when will we stand?

So, we are making a stand as not just Native people and not just the local community, but really a worldwide community, because there are so many similarities. There are Native people everywhere around the world standing for their mountaintops, for their waters, for their land bases, their oceans and their lifeways. We are no different than them.

But because Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world from seafloor, and, spiritually speaking, there are reasons that Mauna Kea is connected to many different mountains around the world, and the integrity and the essence of water in our spirituality, is why we must not allow 18 stories to be built on the northern plateau of our mountain. It is the one too many and the one too big. And we have said no for the last 10 years and have been successful so far in stopping the project.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the foundation gave money to Caltech, is that right, Pua?

PUA CASE: Yes, it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was consulted? Why do they have rights to this mountain?

PUA CASE: The university—

AMY GOODMAN: There are other telescopes there, is that right?

PUA CASE: Yes, there are other telescopes on the summit of the mountain. The University of Hawaii has the lease on the summit of the mountain until 2033. So, from the late 1960s, there have been smaller telescopes built on the mountain. And, you know, Amy, you have to understand, and I’m explaining to the world community right now, it would take a whole semester course to try to explain why 13 telescopes are now sitting at the top of the mountain.

What I can say is that for many of our people, my grandparents’ generation and my parents’, as well, you know, there comes—in that time period, you don’t even know if you have the ability to stop something like that. We were in a time period where people would say, “Oh, they’re just going to build it anyway.” And a lot of times, we were not even aware that building was occurring on the summit. And so, for a lot of different reasons, 13 telescopes sit on the summit of Mauna Kea.

The 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope cannot possibly fit on the mountain. The desecration, the construction and the destruction of the northern plateau is just something that cannot be allowed on our sacred mountain. As I said before, it’s the one too many and the one too big.

So, what I will say is, the University of Hawaii initiated the permit on behalf—the permit application on behalf of the countries, because most of the countries are already up on the mountain in those 13 other telescopes. Only China and India are not on the mountain at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: We heard that the National Guard might be called in. You have the Hawaii governor, David Ige, issuing an emergency order granting police more power to clear the way for construction equipment. He says that the protesters are dangerous. Can you talk about what you expect to happen today? First, I want to go to an activist speaking last week during a news conference.


KAHO’OKAHI KANUHA: And I reaffirm to each and every maka’i, each and every police officer, each and every individual who’s going to come and attempt to get us out of the way, we will stand, and we will stand in Kapu Aloha. We are committed. We are absolutely committed to peace, peaceful protest, nonviolent action. We are not wavering from that. And so, to the maka’i, I ask you folks to make that same commitment, because you guys are not my enemy. None of you are my enemy. Our enemy is this illegal occupying state, that continues to deny the rights of Kanaka, who continue to treat us as a nonexistent, dead people. Eka Lahui, are we dead?





AMY GOODMAN: That, an activist at a news conference last week. So, talk about the governor’s charges and also where the Honolulu mayor stands.

PUA CASE: That young activist is one of our organizers. That’s Kaho’okahi Kanuha. And his words exemplify the stance that we were taking on the day that the law enforcement came in to the access road area.

And what I want to preference—preface this with is, who would ever think—and that’s what I spoke to the maka’i, or the law enforcement, about as they stood there, some of them in full riot gear with their batons, many of them either our relatives or Native Hawaiians, who are put in a very difficult position to have to stand there and possibly arrest us, and, certainly, the possibility of harm. So, what I said to them that day was, who would ever think—who would ever think that in Hawaii, I, as a middle school teacher and just the daughter of ranchers that come from this area—and many of us, you know, we are just—we are mothers and fathers. We are aunties and uncles. We are elders, and we are youth. And being so passionate about what is left of our culture, our sacred places and our life ways—that we would find ourselves standing in the middle of the street facing armed officers with only our Kapu Aloha, or the manner in which we stand, our code of conduct, integrity, standing in the way that our ancestors would expect and command of us, in nonviolence, no resistance, facing our relatives. And so that that in itself is very difficult.

So, Governor Ige, our governor, did issue a state of emergency at the end of that day, after 33 of our elders were arrested because they had made a stand, and they are still sitting in those chairs ’til today, make a stand to block that access road, because that is the only way that the machinery will be able to go up the mountain. So, what I want to—

AMY GOODMAN: Pua, I wanted to—

PUA CASE: —have—yes?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the local paper.


AMY GOODMAN: It says, “The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2007 committed $200 million to the California Institute of Technology and the University of California toward TMT’s construction. Gordon Moore is a leader in the semiconductor industry and co-founder of Intel Corp., creator of the world’s first microprocessor.” You have what happened yesterday at Standing Rock, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal members gathering at the epicenter of the Dakota Access pipeline to show solidarity with you, with Native Hawaiians, who are opposing the construction of this huge telescope at Mauna Kea. Can you compare what’s happening right now to what took place in Standing Rock? Do you see similarities?

PUA CASE: You know, I certainly can, because I was at Standing Rock twice. And so were a large number of our people here. When Standing Rock occurred, we already had a relationship with the leadership of both Sacred Stone Camp and Standing Rock. And, in fact, the first day, when we took that stance, when the elders sat there and chose to block the road, the first caller that we had that morning to bless our day was LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.

So, we have a very close relationship to our relatives, because we are both standing for what is sacred: water. We are standing for the water from our mountain, and they, of course, are standing for their water.

The similarities are astounding, some of them being you have a small space with a large amount of people that cannot help themselves but be there, because for those of us who are either struggling, who have lost so much, when we see the opportunity to assist and support relatives who are going through the same thing, we will do everything in our power to either be there or assist in some way from afar. So, many, many of our relatives from Standing Rock have pledged to be here, if we put the call out. So, the camaraderie, the alliances, the networking and the relationships that you create when you stand on each other’s front lines is something that is binding. We make a commitment to each other.

Right now we have not put out that call, because we went from 30 people, when we started last Friday—we are up to about 3,000 people. So, at this point, we have not put a call out to anyone anywhere other than Hawaii. However, we are finding each day that relatives from all around the world are finding their way here, even though that call out has not been made.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you expect the National Guard to come out today?

PUA CASE: The National Guard is here, yes. When Governor Ige did issue the state of emergency that allowed for the deployment of the National Guard, we know that they have been flying in. We know that they are housed very close to where we are, because the Pohakuloa military base is just miles down the road.

I can’t tell you what will happen today, to be quite honest. It changes every second of the day. I’m not sure we are aware of what is going to happen. We just remain on alert. We remain vigilant, 24 hours.

We are actually located in a parking lot, which has become a sanctioned sanctuary and safe place for us, and along the sides of a road in lava fields. So, that’s where we differ from Standing Rock. We don’t have the kind of infrastructure here to create a large camp, except to be right in the elements, in the lava, and in the parking lot across from the access road.

We know that the National Guard is here. We know that a large amount of law enforcement is here, as well. And again, I have to emphasize that we are people, just people. We are not trained. We are not armed. We come from all walks of life. We are Native people. We are local residents. We are visitors. But we have made a commitment.

So, what I would like to share, just as an example of how it is here—

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Pua.

PUA CASE: Oh, I’m sorry. So, what I would like to say, in ending, if we have 30 seconds left, is I want to thank the worldwide community for standing with us. And so, what we are asking is that you go to Actions for Mauna Kea Facebook page. You can find all the information about us. Thank you to everyone around the world, and to you, Amy, for allowing us to voice what is happening here in Hawaii. We are proud people. We are standing for what we have left. And—


PUA CASE: Mahalo.

AMY GOODMAN: Pua, I want to say thank you for joining us. I’d like to ask you to stay to the top of the hour to do Part 2 of this interview, where you can explain further why you are taking this stand. I want to thank you, Pua Case, indigenous organizer defending Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. She is there at the access road with so many others, who are trying to prevent the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, from being built at the summit of Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in the world, a volcano. Thank you so much for being with us from Hawaii.

When we come back, the Environmental Protection Agency says it will not ban a widely used pesticide, even though the agency’s own research shows it can cause brain damage in children. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Protesters singing at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Special thanks to Mikey Inouye.


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