By Dr. Jeff Corntassel
Standing at 33,000 feet when measured from its underwater base, Maunakea is the highest mountain in the world. It is also the piko (umbilical cord, center) for Kanaka Maoli / Native Hawaiians as the sacred meeting place of Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and Sky Father, Wākea. As one Kūpuna (Elder) explained to me during my visit, you only go to the summit of Maunakea if you have a spiritual need to do so. This place of reverence is currently the site of the largest Hawaiian mobilization in over one hundred years.
Following a July 10th, 2019 announcement that construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at the summit of Maunakea would begin the following week, Hawaiian kia‘i (guardians or protectors) began to gather at the base of Maunakea to protect it from scheduled construction. The TMT, which is a 1.4 billion dollar project, would be 18 stories high and 5 acres wide, and threatens the integrity and sacred nature of the Maunakea ecosystem. While there are already 13 telescopes constructed on the summit of Maunakea, most of these were built without proper permits and without the consent of Kanaka Maoli people. Acting under a protocol of kapu aloha (governed by love, respect and discipline in accordance with Kanaka Maoli teachings and spiritual practices), Kia’i stood their ground at the base of Maunakea as 38 Kūpuna were arrested on July 17, 2019, by police as construction vehicles were blocked from going onto the mauna.
Kūpuna, some with walkers and wheelchairs, were led one-by-one to police vans as kia’i witnessing the arrests sang and chanted to support the Kūpuna protectors. With the ensuing media coverage of the Kūpuna arrests, over three thousand Kanaka Maoli traveled to Maunakea to demonstrate their support and Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu was created by kia’i as a sanctuary for supporters to protect Maunakea.
In September 2019 I traveled to Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu to express my solidarity as a Cherokee citizen with Kanaka Maoli kia’i. I met some Kanaka Maoli as well as supporters who had lived here since July 15, 2019 and they expressed their Aloha ʻĀina (love of the land) by contributing their talents to make Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu a liveable and safe place grounded in Kapu Aloha. Since the beginning of the struggle, kia’i have followed protocols for the mauna three times per day (8am, 12pm, and 5:30pm), which includes chants, hula, presenting ho’okupu, a mele and finally a recitation of the protocols for living at Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu. This kept our focus on Maunakea and forms the spiritual core of this movement.
In addition to the intake tent, the medic tent, the food tent, the recycling tent, and the arts and crafts center, there is a university. This is not just any university – this is the land-based Pu’uhuluhulu University described as “an actual place of Native Hawaiian learning” and is a Kanaka Maoli innovation. Classes are held on the lava fields and are free of charge. I taught a short course on Indigenous sustainability and it was an amazing discussion and experience. Presley Ke’alaanuhea is the Chancellor of Pu’uhuluhulu University and is also a kumu (teacher) at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. As Chancellor, Presley schedules new classes, recruits kumu to teach them and designs the spaces where the teaching takes place. It’s truly a space for ʻĀina-based education and has inspired other grassroots educational opportunities, including the new Hūnānāniho University in Waimanalo. Overall, Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu can be described as a kipuka (an “island” of land or new growth surrounded by one or more younger lava flows) of Hawaiian resurgence. Kanaka Maoli are exercising their self-determining authority to honor and nurture their relational responsibilities to Maunakea and are doing this following protocols of kapu aloha. As one kia’i told me, “we are learning to live in community again.”
Byline: Dr. Jeff Corntassel is Associate Director at the Centre for Indigenous Research and Community Led Engagement (CIRCLE) at University of Victoria, he is also a PPP Board Member and contributing partner to RedTide: International Indigenous Climate Action.