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Just after dawn broke Friday, a woman danced to a mele celebrating Mauna Kea more than 9,000 feet up. Dozens of people watched in silence, some wiping away tears. The mountain’s peaks grew clearer as fog receded.
It was Day 16 of a protest against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a $1.4 billion project planned as one of the world’s most advanced observatories. The telescope would be the 14th on the mountain, adding 140 jobs and boosting the state’s $167 million astronomy industry. But Native Hawaiian activists have gathered for the past two weeks to hinder construction crews, camping each night on the mountain in spite of the harsh cold, in opposition to what they consider desecration of the land.
This week has been relatively calm after Gov. David Ige called for a temporary moratorium on construction Wednesday following the arrests of 31 demonstrators. Still, activists haven’t wavered in their vigil, holding cultural ceremonies and sharing stories of Hawaiian history.
Hawaiian bands played and the atmosphere was hopeful, almost festive, at the camp across the street from the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center.
But minutes after the last band packed up, about two dozen protesters — who call themselves protectors — gathered under a gray tent to discuss their strategy for the next inevitable showdown with police.
Where should they block the crews? Should they sit or stand? How many other demonstrators might join them? What other tactics could they use to legally delay construction? Who should get arrested, and who should try to avoid it?
The discussion lasted over an hour as mist settled on the mountain and the sun disappeared behind the clouds.
While the odds are long that the demonstrators will permanently halt a project that’s received state approvals and cleared legal hurdles over the past seven years, activists are determined, buoyed by support from around the globe. In the past week alone, protesters raised $20,000 to help pay the bail for those who are arrested for blocking construction crews.
“We might get arrested but we ain’t gonna lose,” Kauai native Kamalei Alexander told the group during the strategy discussion. “We’re ready.”
While the demonstration is directed against the Thirty Meter Telescope, many of the activists see the protest as just one battle in a long-standing struggle to regain Hawaiian sovereignty.
Kahookahi Kanuha is one of them. The 26-year-old preschool teacher from Kona spent most of his life attending Hawaiian charter schools and majored in Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii.
Last summer, he was one of many Native Hawaiians who opposed federal recognition during Department of the Interior field hearings on the grounds that the U.S. illegally took over the islands.
The youngest of the activists to get arrested last week, Kanuha sees himself as carrying on a fight to de-occupy the islands from American rule and return the land to the native people.
“If we can’t stop desecration and construction … on the most sacred lands and lands designated as conservation by the legal state, then what can we stop? What difference can we make?” he asked. “It just seems absolutely ludicrous that they would allow this.”
Kanuha not only wants to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope, he also wants to eventually see the decommissioning of the rest of the observatories.
Not all activists share his view.
Taimi Pajimola, a 21-year-old Maui resident who has spent the last five days at the mountain, said she would be open to the project if it were replacing an existing telescope instead of disturbing a new area.
She’s worried about how the new construction could impact the Big Island’s environment, particularly its water.
The University of Hawaii has emphasized that extensive research shows there’s no risk to the Maunakea aquifer.
But Pajimola is not sure she believes that. Several activists are distrustful of the analyses that have been conducted, as well as statements by TMT officials. Kanuha even stopped a TMT construction worker Thursday to ask where he was going, and later followed him up the mountain to ensure he wasn’t working.
“Conditions not met, bought off I bet,” reads a sign activists placed near the entrance to the visitors’ center, which already sells T-shirts and mugs promoting the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Despite the strength of their convictions, activists emphasize they are peaceful protesters and they come with aloha.
After demonstrators chanted to greet the sun at dawn Friday, Lanakila Mangauil told them they must hold to “aloha kapu,” what he described as a standard of being steadfast, disciplined and compassionate.
“A warrior is not the one who puffs up their chest,” he said. “A warrior is the one who controls themselves. Uncontrolled makes you a liability.”
The same message was repeated throughout the day, drawing praise from those who came to support the group, including Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Carmen Lindsey.
“I’m only one of nine trustees but I have a loud voice,” she said. “And I will do whatever I can to support the protection of our Mauna.”
Lindsey said OHA lent its support to the project in 2009, but the board plans to reconsider its approval at its meeting next month.
That may come too late for the demonstrators. On Friday, they said they expected construction to resume as soon as Monday. On Saturday, however, Gov. David Ige said he had been notified by Thirty Meter Telescope that construction would be postponed until April 20.
So far, it seems as though the delay is helping the protest gain steam. Friday also saw a rally on Oahu at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus as hundreds of students protested and built an ahu, or shrine, stone by stone.
Oahu resident Deborah Bear Barbour, who was visiting Mauna Kea on Friday, said she was impressed by what the protesters had achieved so far.
Part of the Oglala Lakota tribe that lays claim to the Black Hills in South Dakota, Barbour is no stranger to indigenous activism. But in Hawaii, she sees more possibility.
“A lot of things were stolen from the Hawaiian people but they can be restored,” she said.
Civil Beat reporter Jessica Terrell contributed to this report.