Mauna a Wākea, also known as Mauna Kea, is the piko (center) of the Hawaiʻi Island and its people. This sacred mauna (mountain) is the tallest in the world from the seafloor and a place where traditions, culture and gods live in perpetuity. It is also home to a freshwater aquifer that nourishes all of the people and ʻāina (land) of Hawaiʻi Island.

Starting on July 15, thousands of Kānaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians) and supporters assembled at the base of Mauna Kea to stop the construction of a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the sacred mountain. The stand to protect Mauna Kea from the TMT began in the court system in 2010, but the people of Hawaiʻi have been in opposition to the building of all existing telescopes on the mountain since 1968. There are already 13 telescopes on the top of Mauna Kea, a mountain grossly mismanaged by the state for decades. While only a few of those telescopes are currently operational, their observatories remain, accumulating trash and sustaining spills of toxic chemicals and sewage.

Protectors, known as kiaʻi, of the mountain disrupted a TMT groundbreaking ceremony in 2014 and later brought construction to a halt in June 2015. They successfully argued in court that the state of Hawaiʻi had issued the project a construction permit before they could voice objections. The permit was rescinded while “contested case” hearings took place. However, in October 2018, Hawaiʻi’s Supreme Court upheld the permit.

On July 11, 2019, the Department of Land and Natural Resources gave the TMT a “notice to proceed,” meaning that it could move ahead with construction. Kiaʻi responded accordingly and, once again, stood to protect the sacred Mauna.

The Mauna Kea movement has often been misrepresented as a clash of culture versus science, but that is inaccurate and a diversion from what is actually on the line. This fight is about Indigenous peoples’ land rights, self-determination, and the protection of their sacred spaces. This is about trying to prevent irreparable damage and contamination of a freshwater aquifer that sustains the people of Hawaiʻi Island. This is about a dangerous precedent that would be set by constructing a 30-meter,18-story structure on an island that, otherwise, would not allow any structure of this height.

Ultimately, this movement is about enough being enough. The kingdom of Hawaiʻi has been illegally occupied by the United States since 1898, yet the people are alive, active and are rising up to perpetuate their culture in the best way they know how: by protecting what is sacred. As activist Aunty Pua Case said, “If we don’t fight for the most sacred, what will we fight for?”

Here, images from the frontlines. 

Words: M. Kaleipumehana Cabral and Kapluei Flores for Survival Media Agency
Photos: Kapulei Flores/Survival Media Agency

M. Kaleipumehana Cabral (Pumehana) identifies as a queer Kanaka and child of the diaspora. She was born in Hawaiʻi and raised between the islands and the continent—with family in Hawaiʻi Island, Oʻahu, California and Washington. She finds refuge in words, film, movement and the ocean as well as (re)connecting with kūpuna and her Native Hawaiian culture. A recent recipient of a masters degree in social work, her current work includes social justice- and community building through film, project management with ‘āina-based education programs in the Koʻolau region, and creative projects with the queer/ trans/ instersex/ people of color) community.

Kapulei Flores is a 19-year-old Native Hawaiian photographer who has been involved in the Protect Mauna Kea movement with her family since 2011. She has helped organize and had her work featured in a series of exhibits, as well as working with Mauna Kea Education and Awarness (MKEA). Flores is currently working on a new film “Standing Above the Clouds” by Jalena Keane-Lee and Reaa Puri.