The Office of Hawaiian Affairs spent almost $5,000 to support a massive public demonstration in Waikiki earlier this month, one focused on land use in the islands in general but opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope in particular.
Many organizations contributed to the march. What’s different about OHA’s support is that it is a quasi-state agency using money designated for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.
CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe explained in an internal OHA memo dated Aug. 13, four days after the Aloha Aina Unity March, that he approved the funds because “the goals and specific planned outcomes of the march were directly supportive of OHA’s strategic priority results related to aina and moomeheu.”
“Aina” is Hawaiian for “land,” while “moomeheu” translates as “culture.”
The unity march, which drew an estimated 10,000 participants, was a show of strength that organizers hope to translate into ongoing political action.
The march’s main purpose was to “express political views regarding issues that are impacting the management and use of land and natural resources in Hawaii,” according to a Facebook page for the march. “At the forefront of these issues are the construction of TMT on Mauna Kea, regulation of pesticide use on agricultural lands in rural communities throughout the state, and mismanagement of agricultural lands across the State.”
“TMT is what’s hot, but the march was an opportunity for people to recognize all the other things that are going on in this state as well. Mauna Kea drew everybody out, but there is also GMOs and pesticides.” — Kuhio Lewis, OHA community outreach manager
While the march was foremost about bringing Hawaiians together, several participants told Civil Beat, a major concern expressed at the march was protecting Mauna Kea and protesting the TMT, planned to be the biggest and most advanced telescope on the mountain. Construction has been stalled since early April, following the arrests of protesters attempting to halt the $1.4 billion project.
Underscoring the connection between the march and the telescope, an announcement of the march was made in front of the Hawaii Convention Center, where 2,000 astronomers were attending a two-week-long convention of the International Astronomical Union.
The IAU turned down a request by leaders of the protest movement to address the conference or participate in a public discussion. The protesters then elected to invite the astronomers to march with them to Kapiolani Park to learn about Mauna Kea and also Haleakala, the mountain on Maui that is also the focus of observatory protests.
OHA’s Board of Trustees initially supported the TMT project. In April it rescinded its support, but also took no position opposing it.
Crabbe makes no mention of Mauna Kea, telescopes, the TMT, protesters or protectors (a word preferred by some instead of “protesters,” to emphasize care of the mountain, which is considered sacred by many Hawaiians) in his internal memo.
Robert Lindsey, board chairman, directed Civil Beat’s media inquiry to Crabbe. In an email statement, Crabbe said:
“The Aloha Aina March brought attention to many land use issues important to Native Hawaiians. OHA was approached by beneficiaries concerned about the health and safety of our kupuna and others involved in the march. After reviewing the information available to me at the time, I approved funding for trolleys to allow kupuna to safely participate in the march, along with water, parking and food.
“OHA did provide other incidental expenses as we would customarily do for a march similar to this. OHA’s support was intended to protect the health and safety of those involved in the march and to ensure all voices were given an appropriate venue.”
Calls to Tiare Lawrence, a lead organizer of the unity march, were not returned.
Trustee Colette Machado, who requested a breakdown of OHA’s expenses for the march, did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry.
Here’s what the $4,785.13 was used for:
While opposition to the TMT was on the minds of many marchers, the free T-shirts distributed by OHA at the event were construed by some as pushing another controversial cause.
The red shirts read, “E Ala, E Alu, E Kuilima Kakou,” which translates as “rise, together, join hands.”
The shirts featured a triangle symbol that is also featured on a website for Nai Aupuni, a recently formed organization that is guiding efforts for an election and convention for Native Hawaiians that could lead to a degree of governmental self-determination.
While Nai Aupuni’s website stresses that it “is separate and independent from OHA and the State of Hawaii,” the group is supported by OHA grants to a nonprofit called the Akamai Foundation.
Civil Beat found no evidence linking the “kakou” T-shirts with Nai Aupuni. In his memo, Crabbe says nothing about Nai Aupuni or elections.
Neither is there mention of Kanaiolowalu, a project of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, a campaign “to reunify Native Hawaiians in the self-recognition of our unrelinquished sovereignty.” The roll commission is tied administratively under Act 195 to OHA’s offices.
The funds for the unity march came after Crabbe said he received an “urgent request” from march organizers to help them out.
Crabbe himself participated in the march, as did Kuhio Lewis, OHA’s community outreach manager, and other OHA employees. As Crabbe explained in his memo, staff assistance in the march was conducted during non-work hours.
Lewis told Civil Beat that OHA’s contribution to the Aloha Aina Unity March was “minimal” compared with other groups like the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club and KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. Other supporters, according to the Aloha Aina website, included Babes Against Biotech, the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and Protect Mauna Kea.
“In my personal opinion, the march was a big call to action,” Lewis said. “TMT is what’s hot, but the march was an opportunity for people to recognize all the other things that are going on in this state as well. Mauna Kea drew everybody out, but there is also GMOs and pesticides.”
Still, TMT was clearly at the forefront of issues to be raised during the march. Lewis helped organize publicity for the march, sending out a media advisory Aug. 2 asking Aloha Aina leaders to “call Mauna supporters to share aloha with astronomers at the International Astronomical Union Conference.”
The advisory states, “As a result of the astronomers’ denial, Mauna a Wakea leaders will explain alternate plans including a large march through Waikiki at a press conference.”
The press conference was held Aug. 4 outside the Hawaii Convention Center.
In the memo, Crabbe says the “aloha aina and collaborative focuses of the march are strongly aligned with OHA’s mission, vision, and brand.”
Governance efforts have been elevated to a new level in recent weeks, with the U.S. Department of the Interior moving to propose rules to deal with a Native Hawaiian governing entity.
Walter Ritte, a longtime Hawaiian activist on Molokai who wants to remove the telescopes on top of Mauna Kea and who participated in the unity march, told Civil Beat that he welcomed OHA’s participation but wished the agency had spent more than just $5,000.
“It’s about time,” said Ritte, a former OHA trustee. “We’ve been asking OHA to support us from day one. If they want to do it in some small increments, that’s their choice, but it should be a bigger amount. It’s our money. We are Hawaiians.”