Government officials including state law enforcement officers recently took to Mauna Kea to dismantle ahu (altars or cairns made of stones) and other structures built using traditional dry stack methods by Native Hawaiians who are opposed to the development of the University of Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope project.

Shortly thereafter, Gov. David Ige — flanked by Attorney General Clare Connors, University of Hawaii President David Lassner and Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case — held a press conference to announce that the TMT has received a notice to proceed. They also claimed the state “will proceed in a way that respects the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique.”

The state removed at least two ahu. Two from the summit within the project area where the TMT is to be built, and another ahu fondly named Hale o Kukiaimauna (roughly translated as “home of the steadfast guardians of the mountain”), located off the Mauna Kea Access Road from the Mauna Kea visitor information station.

The state Supreme Court held last year that the two ahu located at the summit were not protected under laws that project Hawaiian traditional customary practices. Further, the state determined the structures were “unpermitted structures,” because they are located within the conservation district and therefore would typically require authorization from DLNR before being built.

At the heart of the matter is a fundamental lack of appreciation as to how to handle or respect sensitive cultural issues. This isn’t new.

Mauna Kea speaker on opening day of the 2019 Legislature speaks in the rotunda.

A speaker voices opposition to Mauna Kea development on opening day of the 2019 Legislature.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s also important to appreciate that a site’s cultural value may or may not be linked to its historic age. “Sacred” is perhaps a word that is sometimes thrown around too loosely, but it nonetheless reflects that Hawaiians, who are indigenous to this place, have prescribed a certain cultural significance to a site, whether or not that site is in fact “historic” under law.

Plainly put, a site does not need to be historic to be considered sacred.

Conversely, a site that may be historic may not necessarily be considered sacred to native people. So, while the ahu on Mauna Kea may have legitimately been considered sacred, they would not have been eligible for protection under historic preservation laws, because they were contemporaneously built.

This is where native people and historic preservation laws can find themselves strange bedfellows. Historic preservation laws can be tremendously valuable tools in protecting historic sites, but they should never be perceived as some panacea for stopping development. That’s just not how it works.

While I understand, and agree, that the modern ahu would not receive protection under historic preservation laws, I do believe they could have been protected under traditional and customary rights laws, and they certainly would have been protected under international law had it applied.

All the structures were new and as explained to me, created from new material gathered on the mountain. And I want to state clearly that I would feel very differently if existing traditional sites or other sacred sites been altered or dismantled to contribute to the building of these sites. I find the act of removing iwi from their current state of rest to be placed in these structures abhorrent. I consider any action that alters, modifies or destroys traditional (or historic) sites or features of existing sacred, cultural sites an affront on the Hawaiian people.

Traditional sites are what we have left from our kupuna. They are as valuable as any book or any other knowledge we have left. When you alter them, particularly without having fully documented or preserved what was there, you are bleaching their cultural DNA.

In turn, when new sites are created with appropriate materials and in an appropriate manner, these are modern practitioners weaving themselves into the tapestry of our history. These practices and the resulting craftsmanship are the very fabric of who we are. They are the product of a living culture.

For this very reason, they should not only be protected, but encouraged. And the guidepost of whether or not they are being done appropriately should be dictated by cultural law, not western law.

I understand the two ahu at the summit were in the way of the project. But there was no need to outright destroy them. There was no need to dismantle them with such little respect. They could have simply been moved, and the press conference that should have been held, prior to any ahu being touched, was one that offered practitioners a nearby, alternative site and the opportunity to move the ahu.

Whether or not the kia‘i accepted the offer is irrelevant, but if Ige truly had any respect for the Hawaiian culture, this would have been the approach.

I cannot see any justification for moving Hale o Kukiaimauna. I’ve been there myself. I’ve been to and in that hale, it posed no safety threat. It’s very disrespectful dismantling, particularly those who tossed pokahu through their legs as if hiking footballs, was nothing more than an effort to exert dominance.

It was petty and it was unnecessary.

I’ve been told that in traditional times, when one party wanted to declare war against another party, they would cut down the targeted party’s coconut trees.

It was meant to symbolize castration and intended as a throwing down of the gauntlet. I thought of that when I saw the photos and videos of the ahu being dismantled: the state just chopped down all the coconut trees and declared war on the kia‘i of Mauna Kea.

I don’t think that was the intent, but it was nonetheless what they did. The manner in which the state’s actions took place were poorly advised. And it was a huge mistake. And I don’t think for a single second that the state or the university are really ready for what comes next.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.