Sunday, July 21, 2019

Dispatch from Mauna Kea: The line in the sand

MAUNA KEA—Upside-down Hawaii flags snap in the stiff breeze as the mournful notes of a conch shell are echoed by long blasts from the horns of semi trucks rolling by.

Blankets and sleeping bags are draped over the wildlife fences, drying from the night fog in the bright sun that daylight brings to the clear mountain air.
 Friends fall into each others’ arms in hugs and strangers are greeted with a smile and “aloha.” Laughing children run and play, occasionally colliding with adults’ legs. Colorful tents are staked around the camp or attached to cars and pickup trucks parked on the lava along the roadside.

  People chatter, take selfies, meander around the campsite, climb the adjoining Puu Huluhulu (very hairy hill) and cross busy Saddle Road back and forth between the base camp and the roadblock/checkpoint that protesters have installed across Mauna Kea access road.

There’s food everywhere, from hot bentos served in the main tent, to wandering helpers offering fresh coconut, bananas, watermelon. There’s plenty of water, plenty of portable toilets, plenty of sunscreen.  Plenty of the yellow, red and green Kanaka Maoli flags, plenty of aloha.

But it’s not all Woodstockian bliss as a group of more than a thousand Native Hawaiians and their supporters prepare for what seems inevitable conflict over a plan to build a giant telescope on the flank of Mauna Kea.

The Thirty Meter Telescope, an effort by an international consortium, would join 13 other telescopes that have dotted Mauna Kea beginning in the 1970s. The mountain is considered one of the premier sites for stargazing in the world.

Already there have been arrests. Thirty-four kupuna, or elders, were hauled off by police last week after they refused to move from the roadblock.

 Some Native Hawaiians believe the mountain is sacred.

 They’ve fought the permits for the $1.4 billion telescope for a decade, but a state Supreme Court ruling has cleared the way for construction.

   Opponents – who prefer the term “protectors” to “protesters”--have filed new lawsuits and are seeking a temporary restraining order until their new arguments can be heard.

This is no slap-dash undertaking.

There’s a coordinated effort, a clear division of duties. There is a medic tent, marketing and fundraising functions, supply officers, official spokespeople for the cause, legal observers, traffic control, security guards and checkpoint/roadblock officials.

Some security guards’ faces are hidden behind kerchiefs; others wear black ski masks. A car is stopped at a checkpoint. "I don't know you," says a kupuna, standing at the checkpoint with a masked security guard behind him.

A “Kanaka Uber” function shuttles people to and from the Hilo and Koa airports, with a sign posted at the New Arrivals tent. A couple of newcomers reminisce about the old days of protesting with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Opponents point to a long history of others disrespecting the host culture, beginning with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893, annexation to the United States, the dividing of Hawaiian Kingdom lands and continuing through the 1959 statehood proclamation.

Missionaries tried to force Hawaiians away from their animistic religious beliefs, the native tongue was forbidden in schools and native cultural and gathering rights were steadily eroded under private land ownership.

Among the public in this social media age, people are taking sides and lines are drawn in the sand.

Polls have shown a majority in the state, even among the Native Hawaiians, support the telescope as a way to advance science and employ islanders who too often have to leave the state to make a living. But few of the supporters are speaking out as tension builds.

The likelihood of compromise wanes with each passing day, as the opponents solidify their position and reinforcements arrive from around the globe. The state has sent more police officers, although only a few were on site Saturday.

Politicians have jumped on the issue, some taking the opponents’ side outright, while others call for a moratorium to allow a cooling off period and give everyone time to Ho'oponopono, the Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.

On Saturday, a festive atmosphere of community gathering still prevailed. But simmering beneath, there’s a growing tension that everything could change in the coming weeks.


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