On Oct. 27, members of the Hawaii Unity and Liberation Institute gathered at the state Board of Land and Natural Resources meeting demanding the resignation of Sam Gon III, the so-called “cultural expert” who serves on the board and has voted in favor of the Thirty Meter Telescope three times.

Despite their peaceful protest, three Hawaiian protectors — Kaleikoa Kaʻeo, Kahoʻokahi Kanuha and Andre Perez — were arrested for speaking the truth, that Gon, as a non-Hawaiian, doesn’t have the kuleana to represent the interests of Hawaiian people.

It’s crucial that Hawaiian voices are foregrounded in the TMT struggle, which is why this op-ed isn’t about the TMT or Mauna Kea as much as it’s about the responsibilities we as non-Hawaiians have to Hawaiians.

I write as an Asian settler myself, calling on all settlers in Hawaii to recognize that Gon isn’t just a “Hawaiian issue” — he is our problem too, and arguably the problem of everyone in Hawaii who desires a sustainable future.

Demonstrators line the access road with clouds and rain chanting against the DLNR motorcade that was making their move up Maunakea. 24 june 2015. photgraph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In June 2015, demonstrators lined the access road running up Mauna Kea, chanting against the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Perhaps even more significantly, however, Gon is just the latest iteration of a systemic issue of Asian-settler colonialism. We can call for his resignation and stand in solidarity with HULI while also staying focused on the larger system that enables individuals like Gon to occupy positions of power and make decisions at the expense of Hawaiians.

As Kaʻeo has revealed, the struggle over Mauna Kea isn’t a rejection of science; it’s about the humanity of Hawaiians and their right to be self-determining.

“Weʻre demanding to the world that we be recognized as human,” Kaʻeo states, “that we be afforded the right to protect our sacred sites.”

A lot of people see themselves as having nothing to do with the TMT or Hawaiian independence. They believe the most convenient truth available to them: that they can happily live in Hawaii and remain apolitical. What they don’t realize is that, in an illegally occupied territory like Hawaii, there is no neutral space to claim.

Settler colonialism has us believe that development is necessary because it’s in service of “progress.” But developmental narratives are predicated on envisioning a future where Hawaiians remain on the periphery, or worse, don’t exist at all.

As non-Hawaiians in Hawaii, or settlers, we’re all implicated in the violence against Hawaiians that happens every day through settler colonialism, through our participation in and identification with the U.S. settler state, through our refusal to name the violence and interrogate our complicity in it. By violence, I mean the unjust arrests, as well as Gon’s disavowal of the very people whose culture he claims expertise in.

In an illegally occupied territory like Hawaii, there is no neutral space to claim.

While Act 104 once stated that a cultural expert must assist the board “with respect to native Hawaiian issues,” later iterations no longer include that language, despite the law’s original intention to represent “Hawaiian concerns” on the BLNR.

This begs the question: why have a “cultural expert” if they aren’t representing Hawaiian interests? To push for development while claiming they have the backing of a “cultural expert”?

I don’t doubt that Gon is knowledgeable of Hawaiian culture, but his “expertise” must be called into question if he doesn’t believe that desecration of a sacred site is hewa. Non-Hawaiian people can and should learn about Hawaiian culture, but we must do so while acknowledging our position as settlers and the privileges that we have under U.S. occupation.

And when it comes to positions of authority, like this “cultural expert” seat on the BLNR, we need to recognize that this isn’t our place to settler-splain (like man-splaining, but with our settler privilege). In a settler colonial system that actively works to diminish and even eradicate Hawaiians’ relationship with their ancestors, the land, Hawaiians must be the ones leading these conversations.

A Hawaiian Epistemology

There are so many questions we need to continually ask ourselves in an effort to unsettle our positions as settlers, but one crucial one we all need to be thinking about now is, why have a non-Hawaiian person serve as “cultural expert” when there are numerous Hawaiian cultural practitioners who have the expertise to serve the board?

How can we use our privilege to stand behind Hawaiians and support their struggle for self-determination? Part of this is realizing that what’s often cast as “Hawaiian issues” are everyone’s issues, and that rather than retreat to an apolitical space, we can think critically about our own practices and beliefs, make the effort to learn more about Hawaiian history and epistemologies, and get involved with one of the many ongoing struggles in the island against development and militarization.

As Kaʻeo said on the morning of his arrest, “to be Hawaiian is a criminal act.”

Mauna Kea ‘Protector’ Kahookani Kanuha makes a point during DLNR Board meeting held at the Kalanimoku Building. 10 july 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Mauna Kea “protector” Kaho’okahi Kanuha makes a point during a BLNR meeting in Honolulu in July 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is precisely because the Hawaiian principle and practice of aloha aina and cultural literacy of moolelo that recognizes the sacred and cultural significance of land directly contradicts the settler state’s interests.

Above all else, the settler state cares about development, and Candace Fujikane, a professor at University of Hawaii Manoa, has argued in her research that the state divides land into smaller areas in order to say that while one area may be significant, another is not, so that developers can go ahead with their projects.

This is impossible in a Hawaiian epistemology. The environmental and cultural impact statement of Mauna a Wakea, for example, claims that all of the mountain is sacred, not just the summit. And if this wasn’t already clear from the testimony of a number of Hawaiian cultural practitioners, no amount of money from the TMT is worth the desecration of Mauna Kea.

Land And People

Mauna Kea was born of the union of Papahanaumoku and Wakea, just as the Hawaiian people were. As Kekuewa Kikiloi, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa, writes, this shared ancestry “forges links between the genealogies of both land and people.”

As people of non-Hawaiian descent, however, our own genealogical ties are elsewhere, my own being in Okinawa, Japan and China.

By acknowledging the political power that we now have, I don’t mean to diminish the histories of oppression that Asian laborers on plantations suffered. While it is important that those histories are not lost, we must recognize what our role is in the present moment.

We can do nothing and thus stand with the settler state who perpetuates violence against Hawaiians every day in the form of dispossession, water diversion, militarization, sand-mining, the desecration of Haleakala and Mauna Kea. Or we can fulfill our moral and political imperative and stand behind the lahui Kanaka, who are tirelessly working to actualize a sustainable future for all people who live in Hawaii.

Gon made his choice to align himself with the settler state, and for that reason, he must resign. But we can still make ours.

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