Mauna Kea’s Thirty Meter Telescope Is the Latest Front in the New Fight for Indigenous Sovereignty

Native Hawaiian activists pray at the base of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea in background.
Photo: AP

Kealoha Pisciotta used to journey up Mauna Kea in Hawaii for work. A Native Hawaiian (or Kanaka Maoli), Pisciotta worked at the Joint Astronomy Center for some 12 years helping tune and care for the telescope instruments. She liked her job and aspired to become a cosmologist someday, studying the galaxies for a living. Then, everything changed.

“I can remember the day that I really turned that corner when I started to realize that the human landscape was becoming dominant, and the sacred landscape being pushed down and suppressed and tampered with and destroyed,” Pisciotta told Earther.

Mauna Kea—a mountain sacred to many Native Hawaiians who have been using it as a place of worship for centuries—was transforming before Pisciotta’s eyes. By the 1990s, she saw the cultural, natural landscape of the nearly 14,000-foot tall mountain become more of what she called a “humanscape.”

That’s when she started speaking out to protect this sacred place. After 25 years, Pisciotta’s efforts have a renewed focus. The Thirty Meter Telescope, otherwise known as TMT, would be the world’s largest telescope and have the ability to gaze deep into space and time. But it has been opposed by Native Hawaiians and a growing number of academics who see it as a form of scientific colonialism. Hundreds of protesters have been gathering at the mountain since July to stop construction from starting on the TMT.

Mauna Kea is the latest manifestation of an energy has been bubbling for years now among indigenous activists. Indigenous communities from around the world are no longer sitting back and allowing corporations, governments rooted in colonialism, or private interests to trample their sacred lands.

We’ve seen what these mobilizations can look like in Standing Rock, in Canada and the battle to stop the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and in Brazil where tribal nations have been protesting the loss of their land (especially now that they have a fascist in office). Indigenous people are demanding governments, developers, and even academics respect their tribal sovereignty. And they won’t quit until they’re taken seriously.

In North Dakota, the movement of all movements dominated headlines in 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe brought thousands of people together, including some First Nations people traveling from as far as the Ecuadorian Amazon to challenge a massive crude oil pipeline that would cross their ancestral burial grounds and nearby water bodies.

This certainly wasn’t the first time indigenous people came together to combat a giant company, but Standing Rock signaled a breakthrough of this growing effort from indigenous people on an international stage. There was an urgency around ending fossil fuel infrastructure construction and consumption in the era of climate change. The protests also arose, however, around the issue of consent. The tribe alleged that developer Energy Transfer Partners never properly consulted them to build the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline across parts of their land, something the company disputed. Many tribal members didn’t want to see their prayer grounds overrun by fossil fuel infrastructure that could also threaten their water and resources should a spill happen.

The frontlines of the battle at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota back in 2016.
Photo: AP

“We’re trying to not only protect our sacred places,” Tara Houska, a tribal attorney with the indigenous organization Ginew Collective, told Earther. “We’re trying to prevent further desecration of these places, as well

Similarly, the Native Hawaiians who have rallied at Mauna Kea don’t want to see their lands degraded any further. As the first people to inhabit these lands, their opinion should count for something, right? Well, not everyone sees it that way.

The Dakota Access Pipeline was completed despite widespread opposition. And the TMT International Observatory—the group of partners behind the telescope—still plans to bring the project to the summit of Mauna Kea despite project leaders recently applying for permits at an alternative site in the Canary Islands. The Hawaiian Supreme Court has approved the telescope’s construction, so no real legal barrier exists to stop the project for now. Opponents are still filing lawsuits, but none has resulted in an injunction or pause to construction.

It’s important to note that the protests aren’t an attempt to thwart science. They’re about protecting a sacred place.

In addition to the legal battles, folks are betting on the power of prayer and protest to stop the construction of the massive telescope. If construction vehicles can’t reach the summit, then construction can’t happen. And if their actions open the world’s eyes to what this land means to Native Hawaiians, the outpouring of support could permanently put an end to construction.

That may not have worked at Standing Rock, but it almost did (until Donald Trump entered the White House). And since then, indigenous organizers have learned many lessons. The fight at Mauna Kea is much more organized than the last face-off in 2015 over the telescope, said Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii who studies indigenous sovereignty and has been protesting at the mountain.

Some of the people who’ve come to Hawaii to protect the mountain spent time at Standing Rock. Others have participated in acts of solidarity with First Nations in Canada to protest oil pipelines.

“There are active networks and sharing of knowledge and solidarity with one another,” Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua told Earther. “There’s the practical aspect of it, and there’s also the cultural and philosophical and ethical connections where we’re all in so many ways organizing for similar causes against similar forces. It may not be exactly the same configuration of corporate power and settler-state governments, but essentially that’s what we’re all organizing against: the combination of settler-colonial state government enforcing the interests of corporate powers over indigenous peoples

It’s hard to say exactly why these efforts have been growing in recent years. Social media has kept people more connected, Houska said. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook make it easier to find out what’s happening oceans away. Still, social media alone isn’t enough to explain the rise in concerted indigenous activism.

As Houska notes, a cultural awakening is taking place among tribal communities as they heal from the traumas of colonialism and genocide—histories that many living today still remember. And this awakening is happening alongside an urgent realization that Earth is becoming unstable in the face of human activities. That, too, is a likely contributor to the newfound energy that indigenous people haven’t seen since the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, which also tried to push forth tribal sovereignty.

All these telescopes already sit atop Mauna Kea.
Photo: AP

“So with all those things, we’re at a moment where people are looking to indigenous people and seeing these struggles and understanding that we are protecting these sacred places
 and willing to put our bodies on the line,” Houska told Earther.

And their bodies will remain on the line. From the top of Mauna Kea to the frozen Arctic where Alaska Natives are challenging oil and gas infrastructure on the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, indigenous people are rising up to protect what they hold sacred. If people around the world can cry about the burning of Notre Dame, why can’t they rally to save what remains of indigenous people’s land? For them, it’s not just dirt and grass. The land serves as temples, guides, relatives.


more recommended stories

  • Smoke Has Blotted Out the Sun in São Paulo as the Amazon Burns

    Smoke from human-ignited fires across the.

  • Anti-Protest Laws Are a Sign of Weakness

    Photo: AP Here is a simple.

  • Icelanders Mourn Loss of Okjökull Glacier With Ceremony, Plaque

    The shrinking of the Okjökull glacier.

  • Big Donors Are Pulling Out of Brazil’s Amazon Fund; That Could Spell Trouble for the Rainforest

    Photo: Getty Norway and Germany have.

  • Portugal Is Using Goats to Prepare for Wildfires, But There’s Not Enough Shepherds

    Goats used to clear brush in.

  • Elizabeth Warren’s Latest Plan Tackles U.S. Injustices Against Tribes and Their Lands

    Photo: Getty Elizabeth Warren is a.

  • Invasive Pests Are Devastating American Forests at an Alarming Rate

    New findings show that invasive species.

  • Hundreds Dead, a Million Displaced as Monsoon Rains Inundate India

    Look at all that water.Photo: AP.

  • Newark’s Lead-Tainted Water Crisis Is Getting Worse

    Photo: AP When Al Moussab had.

  • A Coalition of 22 States Are Suing the Trump Administration Over Its Weak Coal Rule

    New York State attorney general Letitia.

  • Lightning Struck Near the North Pole as the Arctic Continues to Unravel

    Photo: AP In the scheme of.

  • Endangered Species Act Faces Gutting by Trump Administration

    Photo: Getty At a time when.

  • So, Salmon Cannons Are A Thing

    Photo: Jeff Mitchell (Getty) A viral.

  • At Least 22 Dead, Over a Million Reported Displaced as Typhoon Lekima Makes Landfall in Eastern China

    At least 22 deaths have been.

  • Trump Administration Authorizes ‘Cyanide Bombs’ to Kill Feral Hogs. Seriously.

    Photo: Eric Gay (AP) On Thursday.

  • Twin Typhoons Approach East Asia With Terrifying Force

    Super Typhoon Lekima and Typhoon KrosaGIF:.

  • Welp, Using Volcanoes to Understand Geoengineering Might Not Really Work

    Eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the.

  • If You Think 30-50 Feral Hogs Sounds Bad, Just Wait

    Photo: Eric Gay (AP) Hey, it’s.

  • A Global Water Emergency Is Right Around the Corner—Unless We Stop It

    Photo: AP When Chennai, India’s main.

  • ‘Surprise’ Ocean Heat Waves Are Becoming More Common

    Photo: Getty There are two flavors.

  • July ‘Equalled, If Not Surpassed’ Record for World’s Hottest Month

    Photo: AP Sometimes the headline says.

  • Greenland Lost 12.5 Billion Tons of Ice in Record-Breaking, Single-Day Meltdown

    Image: Sean Gallup (Getty) After Greenland.

  • Climate Change Has Made Our Stormwater Infrastructure Obsolete

    Photo: AP We are not ready.

  • This Satellite Image Shows Everything Wrong With Greenland Right Now

    Photo: Getty If you could sum.

  • California Is First State Where Utilities Must Tell Customers if Their Water Is Contaminated by Dangerous Chemicals

    Photo: Getty If you don’t know.

  • Thunderstorms, 70 MPH Winds Could Affect Up to 52 Million People in the Northeast Today

    Photo: AP Powerful storms are roaring.

  • This Coalnado Is About as 2019 as It Gets

    GIF: Meredith Garofalo (Twitter) If last.

  • Are We Watching the Arctic Pass a Tipping Point This Summer?

    Wildfires burning in Siberia on July.

  • Why We’re Not Moving Forward With Our Climate Summit

    Illustration: Illustration: G/O Media/Getty A good.

  • Vietnam Seizes 275-Pound Haul of Rhino Horns, Seven Frozen Tiger Carcasses

    Image: Elaine Thompson (AP) In a.

  • Europe’s Heat Wave Threatens Record Melting of Greenland Ice Sheet

    The Greenland ice sheetPhoto: AP A.

  • Las Vegas is Literally Crawling with Grasshoppers

    Photo: Schalk van Zuydam (AP) As.