Sacred Hawaiian volcano is at center of centuries-old battle over Native lands


(NEW YORK) — Sacred chants recited by elders, like Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, reflect indigenous beliefs and worldviews that go back a millennium.

“In our culture, the elements have names and we consider them gods and goddesses, like the rain, wind and snow,” she told ABC affiliate KITV-4’s Lei U’i Kaholokula in the “Soul of the Nation” special “Together As One.”

“Maunakea is one of our most precious and special places, and it cannot be duplicated,” she explained.

Over the past several decades, Maunakea, a dormant volcano on the Island of Hawai’i, has been at the center of a simmering battle between Native Hawaiian activists like Wong-Wilson, who want the mountain protected for spiritual, cultural and ecological reasons, and research universities who see it as a scientifically optimal place to build world-class telescopes.

When groundbreaking began in 2014 for a fourteenth telescope, known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, Native demonstrators blocked the roads in a series of protests that happened intermittently for five years. During an explosive and emotional protest in 2019, Wong-Wilson was one of 38 native elders who were arrested.

Watch on HULU: “Together As One: Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage — A Soul of a Nation Presentation”

While the controversy over Maunakea represents a textbook case of an indigenous community resisting development on sacred land, it has evolved over the past year into a story about the importance of open communication and inclusion.

This May, the Hawaii Legislature passed House Bill 2024 CD1, which community members like Wong-Wilson are calling a welcomed change; if it passes into law, Native Hawaiian community leaders like her will have input into how the land is managed.

“It’s a huge step because it’s the first time that, legally, Hawaiians will actually have a seat at the table,” said Wong-Wilson.

The bill establishes an 11-member board called the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority that will oversee the management and human activity of the project on Maunakea. The board will include Native Hawaiians, educators and the mayor of Hawaii County, among others, according to the bill. It is currently under review by the governor, who has until July 12th to approve or veto the bill.

While HB 2024 CD1 has its critics, community members like Wong-Wilson say the bill and the Mauna Kea Working Group, which provided recommendations that led to the bill, represent a new model in how indigenous and science communities can work together going forward.

“We have to learn to talk to each other, one-on-one and get to know each other,” said Wong-Wilson, who credits the working group with helping lawmakers and scientists better understand the Native perspective on the sacred land.

“If the governor signs it into law, it would be a big accomplishment to bring this mutual stewardship paradigm shift into being,” said Rich Matsuda, associate director of external relations at the W.M. Keck Observatory, who also participated in the working group. “If it works,” he continued, “I think it serves as a model for all kinds of other indigenous spaces.”

If passed, the bill would end University of Hawaii’s stewardship of the mountain; the University said in a statement, “CD1 does address our highest priorities and supports our vision for Maunakea,” but noted “technical and operational concerns and questions with the final language” which they do not believe are a basis to request a veto of the bill.

Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources called the bill “well-intentioned” but voiced concern in a statement saying the bill “opens Mauna Kea to further development and commercial use without the regulatory oversight.”

Still, community members like Wong-Wilson see the bill as progress towards mutual stewardship that honors the cultural significance of the land. “Now we shift from just fighting the powers that be, and protesting,” said Wong-Wilson, “to moving forward and actually being proactive in how the Mauna should be managed.”

An Innovative Working Group

During the pandemic, the Mauna Kea Working Group, made up of 15 people of different perspectives, from educators to state legislators, had weekly virtual meetings with the goal of coming up with recommendations on how to manage the mountain.

“There was a lot of effort put into just getting to know each other, so we could tackle the hard discussion,” explained Wong-Wilson. The cultural practitioner and Hawai’i Island resident said she participated to exercise Hawaiian self-determination and to ensure Hawaiian philosophy and relationship toward the ʻaina, or land, was central to the discussion.

On the other side of the table were individuals from the science community such as Matsuda, an operations and electronics engineer and Mauna Kea telescope veteran of 28 years. “I was nervous; I didn’t know what would come of it, but it’s been transformative for me,” he said of the experience.

Matsuda, who grew up in O’ahu, is a third generation Japanese-American whose great-grandparents came to Hawai’i in the 1800s to work in the sugarcane plantations. Although he learned about the impact of colonization on Native Hawaiians in school, he said it wasn’t until the working group that he better understood the Native community’s experience of marginalization and the hurt feelings that built up over years as a result of being dismissed.

“I felt it in my heart and in my gut in a way that I had not…understood it intellectually before,” said Matsuda, explaining the impact the discussions had on him personally.

While he used to see Maunakea simply as a place for astronomy work, he says he now views the mountain as “a living ecosystem” with deep cultural significance that should be respected by all parties.

“What I’m standing up for is trying to build bridges,” continued Matsuda, who explained science and indigenous cultures don’t have to be at odds. “Once we build on this idea of mutual stewardship and mutual decision-making… that dichotomy between culture and science goes away.”

A History of Struggle and Resistance

For Native Hawaiian activists such as Wong-Wilson, the controversy over Maunakea has been personal because it represents a centuries-long lack of regard for Native rights and wishes. Long before Hawai’i became part of the United States, it was an internationally recognized sovereign nation governed by generations of Native Hawaiian royalty.

No place is more emblematic of that than Iolani Palace, a piece of living history and a preserved historic landmark dedicated to keeping the legacy of the Hawaiian monarchy alive.

“Our monarchs did remarkable things and this [Palace] reminds us of who we are as a people, and who we were as a kingdom,” said Paula Akana, executive director of The Friends of Iolani Palace, on a recent tour with KITV-4’s Lei U’i Kaholokula.

But all of that changed in 1893 when elite businessmen backed by the U.S. military overthrew the last sovereign monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani.

The queen’s supporters fought and tried to restore her place to the throne, but failed. She was later placed under house arrest for nearly eight and a half months and charged with treason.

In 1898, the U.S. government annexed Hawai’i despite the fact that tens of thousands of Hawaiian citizens signed the “Kūʻē” Petition Against Annexation the year prior. A legislative joint resolution, known as the “Newlands Resolution” was employed allowing the land owned by the Hawaiian monarchy to be transferred, and a new government to be installed. To this day, many scholars and Native Hawaiians say the annexation was illegal.

In 1959, Hawai’i became the 50th state. Decades later, in 1993, the U.S. government passed a resolution officially acknowledging that it had invaded Hawaii, overthrown the government of Queen Liliʻuokalani and in the process suppressed the sovereignty of the Hawaiian people.

Despite this history and a legacy that has often left Native Hawaiians marginalized, Akana says places like Iolani Palace stand as a testament to Hawaiian strength and resiliency.

“I really believe this palace shows the greatness of our people; we continue to thrive, the language is back strong, the music, the culture, the voyaging… we don’t give up,” said Akana. “And so, what may have been seen as the end, perhaps is now the beginning.”

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