It's Not Just About a Telescope

The movement to protect and preserve the summit of Mauna Kea, one of the most sacred sites in the Hawaiian Islands, has grown from a small group of local activists to a much larger and diverse coalition around the globe, complete with celebrities and pop stars who have brought wide media attention.

Their immediate goal is to stop construction of the giant Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, the world's largest optical telescope, atop the mountain. But as captured in the above news report from KITV, it's about much more.

It's not just about a telescope. This is really about the larger issues, about us, our people, our political status, our rights as the native people of this land. And this is just the beginning. -- Kumu Hina Wong Kalu, native Hawaiian teacher and community leader

It wouldn't be the first time that a protest sparked something larger in the struggle of native Hawaiians to retain their land and culture. In 1895, an armed revolt protesting the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom led to the Aloha ʻĀina movement, which gathered more than 21,000 signatures on a Petition Against Annexation that persuaded the U.S Senate not to make the Islands a U.S. Territory. (Unfortunately, the Senate changed its mind the following year, when the outbreak of the Spanish-American war made Hawai'i an invaluable fueling spot on the way to the Philippines.)

Then in 1976, a handful of scrappy activists landed on the shores of Kahoʻolawe, which Hawaiians believe is the physical incarnation of the sea god Kanaloa, to protest its use as a bombing range by the U.S. Military. This bold action is widely credited with playing a key role in triggering the Hawaiian Renaissance -- a resurgence of interest and attention to Hawaiian language, music, hula, ocean voyaging and identity, and a political movement that led to a new State Constitution that officially recognizes the rights of native descendants to exercise their cultural practices and benefit from public lands.

Might the Mauna Kea movement lead to a similar, even broader, awakening? There are hopeful signs from atop Mauna Kea. Most notable is the young age of the "protectors," as they prefer to be called. The majority are in their 20s and 30s, and students (many from the University of Hawaii, the manager of the telescope project) have been among the most active both in the social media-sphere and on the ground. These young people have grown up following the voyages of the Hokulea on TV, hearing and speaking Hawaiian at school, and taking it as a given that their indigenous values, including the protection of sacred sites, deserve respect.

Another hopeful omen is the movement's diversity, including its embrace of one aspect of native culture that was largely overlooked during the Renaissance of the 1970s: the traditional Hawaiian embrace of those who embody both kāne (male) and wahine (female) spirit. This includes Kumu Hina, who grew up as her family's son, but is now their daughter, respected and admired as a māhū wahine, or transgender woman, who brings her own unique wisdom and strength to the cause.

This little known aspect of Polynesian culture will receive its first wide exposure in the continental U.S. with the Independent Lens broadcast of our PBS documentary Kumu Hina on May 4 at 10-11 PM EST (check local listings). We hope it will help open hearts and minds to why it is so important to preserve indigenous beliefs and to respect the sacred lands that Hawaiians, and other First Nations Peoples, call home.

For anyone who might doubt the power of these traditions, we offer this exclusive recording of Kumu Hina performing her composition Halehale Nā Moku O Ka Pae ʻĀina (The Lofty Islands of Hawaiʻi) at Lake Waiau atop Mauna Kea. Itʻs what Hawaiians call a chicken-skin moment.