You can wrap your hands around the neck of another person, choke off his breath or pin his body to the earth for only so long, before all that resides within him strains and then struggles to reclaim life. It’s not a moment for compromise.

Oh what the Native Hawaiian protectors on their sacred Mauna Kea have awakened.

I live on Kauai. For 10 years that literally meant sleeping inside a tent snug up against Kaheka — the Salt Pans, where the paakai — salt — has been harvested by these same indigenous families for thousands of years. Harvested by the moopuna – lineal grandchildren — in a manner that carries this service to their people in their bloodlines. And it is a service, a holy practice, not a business.

There is so much about the salt makers and the salt making that is widely unknown. It is an esoteric practice, not because it is closed off in any way to wider understanding. But rather, because — like the native language and spiritual observance, matriarchal ascendance and ancestral connection — it has been silenced by law and shame.

Now, the protectors on the mauna have drawn a red line that reverberates well beyond that mountain and its contentious telescopes. That assertion of cultural identity is more than just contagious. It has awakened a battered and brutalized people to the inherited pain of their ancestors. It has awakened the lives that came before — and the lives that will come after.

The protectors of Kaheka — the sacred Salt Pans — have made their stand with the muscle of youth on the aging shoulders of their kupuna.

The salt of Hanapepe is worthy of protection. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat

Let me explain the physical importance of the paakai with a simple lesson from another’s history. Mahatma Gandhi’s first rebellious act in the overthrow of British colonialism was this. He incited his people to reclaim their sea salt.

He did it because human life depended on that salt. No less on the Hawaiian Islands. Without refrigeration, the fish — that centerpiece of the indigenous diet — was preserved with salt.

Geological Phenomenon

Throughout the Islands salt can be scraped off reef or rock and sold. But the Salt Pans in Hanapepe are something quite other. There are just a few places on the planet Earth where salt is created under the same geological circumstances.

Counter to the flawed hypothesis that frames the Thirty Meter Telescope dispute as science versus religion — the Salt Pans are both a wonderfully rare geological phenomenon and the heart of the Native Hawaiian culture. No false war of words can apply.

Here’s what happens. The weight of the ocean pushes the salt up through the dry pans, where it is filtered underground by small shrimp, and then ritualistically harvested by the same families who have done this sacred service for thousands of years.

The beach dunes protect the process from ocean water. The salt cannot be harvested if the rains inundate the pans. The pinkish salt — colored by the red earth — may never be sold, only gifted.

“There is no limit to the greed of the guests who assault their host culture on these islands.”

It is a gift indeed — one of the few remaining vestiges of authentic and unadulterated culture left on these islands, and it is healing in indefinable ways.

Like the mauna, the Salt Pans have always been at the very soul of these people. The Native Hawaiians gasped for breath at the construction of each of those 13 telescopes. They struggled for life as most of those pans were bulldozed to make a country park. They strained for breath when the adjacent World War II airport (mandated to be closed after the war) became the home for noise-bellowing tourist helicopters.

There is no limit to the greed of the guests who assault their host culture on these islands. There seems to be no limit on their capacity for harm.

All day, every day, helicopters fly over this rare-on-earth geological and spiritual gem. Every day, helicopter companies make money where the Salt Makers struggle to breathe.

Look around the Islands: the dying coral reefs, the contaminated fish, the bulldozed heiau, the eroding beaches, the poverty and ill health and incarceration rates of our hosts the native people. Look at the elevation of greed in the face of generosity, of fear in the place of faith.

The line is drawn. The world watches. Get the helicopters out of the Salt Pans. Allow this single remnant of a culture that — we, who are guests, claim to value — survive.

All the compromises that will ever be made, have already been made. There is truly only one possible end to this story. Now is that moment.

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About the Author

  • Inette Miller
    Inette Miller was a national and international journalist for 16 years — a war correspondent for Time magazine in Vietnam and Cambodia. She is the author of "Grandmothers Whisper," which was awarded the Visionary Award for memoir. She is currently writing her Vietnam memoir, "Girls Don’t!" The website that she runs with her husband is