In all the media coverage of Mauna Kea this week, it was a story about Kahoolawe that caught my attention.

Nearly 200 volunteers have been working on the island, a former military bombing site. Planting native seedlings by hand, the volunteers are attempting to restore the largely barren and degrading island ecosystem, which is estimated to lose soil at close to 2 million tons each year. This erosion not only adversely impacts the land, but it devastates the nearshore coastal area by covering fragile reef environments and harming marine species.

Healing the island from the damage caused by the state’s willingness to lease the land to the U.S. military will take generations. We are seeing that painful reality now.

It’s been 43 years since Walter Ritte, Emmett Aluli, Ellen Miles, Karla Villalba, Steve Morse, Kimo Aluli, George Helm, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean and Ian Lind, the group that would be become known as the “Kahoolawe Nine,” began to reclaim Kahoolawe.

Kapu shoreline sign Kahoolawe at Honoko'a Bay. 9.27.14
To this day, Kahoolawe is a dangerous place to walk because unexploded ordnance remains on the former bombing range. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Today, no one believes Kahoolawe was better off as a bombing range. No one doubts that stopping the military activity on this island, which Hawaiians first established as a center of navigation, adze quarry, religious site and agricultural utopia, was the proper course of action.

Uncle Charlie Maxwell and the others who led the effort to protect Kahoolawe are remembered as heroes.

Many did not feel that way back then. In 1976 they were agitators, rebels, troublemakers, trespassers. As the effort to save Kahoolawe unfolded, these Hawaiians were marginalized and maligned.

They were made criminals.

Uncle Walter and Richard Sawyer were sent to into a maximum-security prison for trespassing.

TNT detonation on Kahoolawe Island during Operation Sailoir Hat. 1965.
A TNT detonation on Kahoolawe during Operation Sailor Hat in 1965. Naval Historical Center

Nonetheless, they stood steadfast. The battle to not only protect, but save Kahoolawe, did not die. That fire refused to go out. And the late Daniel Inouye, recognized today as one of the greatest statesmen in Hawaii and U.S. history, would eventually come to advocate for the return of the island to the state of Hawaii.

In 1997, Inouye actively participated in efforts to restore the island.

He often spoke of his tremendous love and respect for the Native Hawaiian people. There is no doubt that this love and respect, combined with his own honor and integrity as a Japanese-American war veteran, contributed to his decision to make the hard, but right decision, and support the return and restoration of Kahoolawe.

That sort of leadership is sorely missing in Hawaii today. Gov. David Ige has shown in his consistent mishandling of the Mauna Kea situation that he lacks the fortitude and integrity possessed by the late senator.

David Ige is no Daniel Inouye.

Uncle Walter is 74, not the young activist who first stepped ashore on Kahoolawe in 1976. His heart and his spirit have not changed a bit.

Yet, despite his kupuna status, Uncle Walter chained himself to a cattle grate at the base of Mauna Kea on Monday. He lay there, chained to the road, for hours, first in freezing cold, then blistering heat. He lay there with a new generation of activists much younger than him, with his loving wife Lorretta ever by his side, because today Mauna Kea is our Kahoolawe.

TMT Demonstraor Walter Ritte stands to use the restroom after being chained to cattle grate from early in the morning on July 15, 2019.
Walter Ritte, second from right, stood up for Kahoolawe in the 1970s. On Monday, he laid down for Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And now, just as then, the state’s gross negligence of its mission to protect natural and cultural resources is appalling. Now, just as then, the state’s wanton disregard of its obligations to Hawaiians and proper stewardship of ceded lands has forced Hawaiians and local residents to place themselves in harm’s way just to protect the resources the state refuses to protect itself.

People don’t chain themselves to a road for fun. They only take such drastic action because they recognize the need to protect something more important than themselves. People use their bodies as shields only when nothing else works.

When the system fails, when political leaders lack intelligence and compassion to act on behalf of the greatest good, when proponents of desecration and destruction use money as a weapon to promote their cause, people inevitably rise.

They rose in Montgomery. They rose in Selma. They rose in Stonewall. They rose in Kahoolawe. They are rising on Mauna Kea.

The movement to protect Mauna Kea has nothing to do with a telescope. It has everything to do with the enduring battle over Hawaii’s future.

The continued destruction of land and natural resources is short-sighted and fundamentally detrimental to the future generations who will one day live in these islands. The pattern of land mismanagement and natural resource abuse that the Thirty Meter Telescope represents should concern everyone, because it is not isolated to Mauna Kea.

Development is an insatiable beast. This is why the first telescope was not enough, nor the second, nor all 13 that already sit atop Mauna Kea. Development renders these telescopes obsolete just as quickly as they are built.

No development project is worth the pain and suffering it has brought Hawaii.

Like Kahoolawe, future generations will be saddled with removal of this generation’s development. Future generations will be left with the onerous task of remediating and restoring Mauna Kea.

History will not be kind to David Ige or University of Hawaii President David Lassner. Their paramilitary offensive launched in the name of these telescopes will be ridiculed by future generations for the fool’s errand it is, and the movement of those rose up to protect their homeland will be remembered for generations for its grace and bravery. History has proven time and time again that justice prevails.

It will inevitably prevail on Mauna Kea as well.

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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.