How the Conflict Over the Thirty Meter Telescope Has Reawakened a More-Than-Century-Old Battle

It’s the largest movement since Native Hawaiians rallied to fight the military bombing of Kaho‘olawe in the 1970s. Now the visibility of the conflict over Maunakea has rallied the lāhui (nation) of Hawaiians to stand up against projects across the state.
Thirty Meter Telescope
Photo: Getty Images


Dressed in malo with his arms draped in a large cloak, Lanakila Mangauil runs barefoot across jagged lava and single-handedly halts the groundbreaking ceremony of the Thirty Meter Telescope.


“I hope the world is watching,” Mangauil scolds the seated attendees on top of Maunakea, then turns to a man standing in front of him. Sternly, he says: “I did not run over here barefoot for you to move me. It will not happen.”


Recorded by news crews, the disruption in 2014 aired on local TV newscasts and streamed on social media. For Hawai‘i Island residents opposed to the Thirty Meter Telescope, it was a pivotal moment. At once, the battle that had been largely waged in hearings, letters, and in scientific and community circles catapulted into the broader consciousness. Months later, hundreds blocked construction vehicles from reaching the top of the mountain and on July 16, 2019, 34 people, largely kūpuna, were carried away from the crowded blockade by law enforcement. The scene, recorded on video, recaptured the world’s attention.


SEE ALSO: The Sacred History of Maunakea

protest at iolani palace


No matter where you stand on this issue, there is no question that widespread media coverage surrounding Maunakea has reinvigorated activism in the Hawaiian community and focused attention on other movements and protests across the state. 


On Sept. 26, 2019, 28 people were arrested while blocking construction equipment headed to a $32 million proposed sports complex at Waimānalo’s Sherwood Forest. About three weeks later, 22 arrests were made in Kahuku and 33 in Kalaeloa after dozens of protesters tried to stop transportation of turbine equipment to the Nā Pua Makani wind farm project.


They’re all part of a larger movement that’s been going on for more than a century and has never gone away: Aloha ‘Āina.

  operation sailor hat

The second bombing of Kaho‘olawe during Operation Sailor Hat, April 16, 1965.
photo: public domain


What’s Different Now


A thunderous clap shakes the island of Kaho‘olawe. A mushroom cloud of white smoke blasts skyward, followed by a ball of fire that grows larger and larger. Infamously known as Operation Sailor Hat, the American military’s detonation of 500 tons of TNT on the island on three separate occasions in 1965 mobilized Aloha ‘Āina, and turned it into a mantra for Native Hawaiians. Their fight led to the January 1975 occupation of Kaho‘olawe. While it was a galvanizing moment, Aloha ‘Āina’s roots go back to the end of the 19th century when Hawaiian patriots were protesting U.S. annexation.


“It all came together with this idea of aloha ‘āina, which means love and protect our land, love and protect our nation, and our sovereignty as a people, and also connect with our spiritual natural life forces,” says Davianna McGregor, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. McGregor is also a member of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana.


“I see [Maunakea] as a continuation. I think many do,” she says. “It’s like our next generation now is building upon lessons to take it to another level.”


To connect the dots between Kaho‘olawe and Maunakea, you can follow a string of protests over decades, all related to the idea of aloha ‘āina. These include demonstrations at the Hilo airport over its construction on Hawaiian Home Lands in 1978, the discovery during excavation of 900 iwi kūpuna (bones of ancestors) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel development on Maui in 1989, construction of the H-3 freeway. The list goes on.


SEE ALSO: Divided Over TMT: We Take a Look at Where Things Stand and How We Got Here

UH Manoa professor
Professor Davianna McGregor of University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Projected backdrop: A crater on Kaho‘olawe created by Operation Sailor Hat.


So did the victories. “We stopped the bombing, we changed the laws that were allowing them to bomb Kaho‘olawe,” says McGregor. “We reinforced the law opposing Native Hawaiian rights of access to the forest of Wao Kele O Puna. We created new law to protect our unmarked Native Hawaiian burials on all the Islands. And it’s time for new law, new policy to accommodate the aspiration of our people and the commitment of our people to stop this kind of desecration.”


The ’70s brought a rejuvenation of Hawaiian culture and language. The Hōkūle‘a made its inaugural voyage in 1976. The 1978 Constitutional Convention created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. It was a reversal of more than a century of suppression, after missionaries, and then the U.S., had denounced and even banned traditions and ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Three or four generations were discouraged from learning anything Hawaiian.  


But in 1978, the Hawai‘i Department of Education started promoting the study of Hawaiian culture, history and language. The University of Hawai‘i began its Hawaiian Studies degree program in 1982, and the first ‘Aha Pūnana Leo Hawaiian immersion school opened in 1984. In 1999, for the first time in more than 100 years, a class of students educated entirely in Hawaiian from kindergarten to 12th grade graduated. That knowledge brought pride, increased awareness and a commitment to being stakeholders of the land and community. Now, those children are among the leaders in today’s protests.


We stopped the bombing, we changed the laws that were allowing them to bomb Kaho‘olawe.

— Davianna McGregor


“There is a movement taking place where people are beginning to ask the right questions,” says David Keanu Sai, a UH faculty member and political scientist who specializes in Hawaiian constitutionalism and international relations. “Kaho‘okahi Kanuha (one of the leaders in the anti-TMT protest) represents a generation that has been educated with the truth.”


Sai is well known for lectures stating Hawai‘i is not part of the United States. His reasoning is that Hawai‘i never had a treaty of annexation, and so the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists and is under occupation by the U.S. Under this tenet, Sai has said land titles are invalid and, in 1999, was convicted of first-degree attempted theft when he and a couple who lost their home to foreclosure tried to claim it back.


In 2015, he was a consultant for Kanuha’s lawyer when Kanuha filed a war crimes complaint with the Canadian Justice Department against the United States, claiming Hawai‘i was never legally annexed.


“Kaho‘okahi represents a new generation of people that are getting educated right now,” says Sai. “They don’t have all the information, but they have a lot more than what his parents had as far as understanding. Now, the ones that are learning even more is the generation below Kaho‘okahi.”


SEE ALSO: [PHOTOS] Many Gather in Downtown Honolulu in Support of Maunakea

mauna kea protest
David Keanu Sai of Windward Community College. Projected backdrop: the H-3 freeway.


The Ripple Effect


Now these new leaders have a worldwide stage. Because of social media, Maunakea is bigger than Hawaiian protests of the past—far bigger than even Kaho‘olawe. Search #maunakea on Instagram, and you’ll pull up more than 188,000 posts. Natalie Ai Kamauu’s post of the studio session recording of “Kū Ha‘aheo” sits near the top of the feed above Janet Jackson’s post-concert comments about the battle and images of people in and outside of Hawai‘i flashing the two-handed triangle symbol in support of the cause. Since the Maunakea protectors (or protestors, depending on who you ask), became some of the first to utilize social media strategically in 2015, local Aloha ‘Āina campaigns have sprung up across the state and across the globe.


“What we saw Maunakea utilize was its ability to post videos at a moment’s notice, to go live, and become your own journalists, so to speak, to help keep and raise awareness. So that’s what I would say made 2015 and Mauna Wākea different than Aloha ‘Āina movements prior,” says Nakia Nae‘ole, a Kahuku activist who lives in neighboring Lā‘ie. After spending most of his childhood and adolescent years in Kahuku, Nae‘ole has become a vocal member of Kū Kia‘i Kahuku, the group opposing construction of a new wind farm on the North Shore. “Mauna Wākea helped to just give Aloha ‘Āina that greater platform. It utilized this modern day and age, this ability to quickly activate and mobilize those who are like-minded.”


Says Waimānalo resident Kauilani Kalama-Ohelo: “It bridged us no matter what island you’re from. … There were people holding signs all over Hawai‘i for that. [It] has given people kind of like an attitude that I can stand up for what I believe in, or that I should stand up for what I believe in.” That includes Native Hawaiians who have spoken up and rallied for the TMT.

  hawaiians protesting

Hawaiians show up in cultural attire in May 1977 to support Kaho‘olawe occupiers at federal court.


Kalama-Ohelo is focused on a fight of her own. She’s currently a board member for Save Our Sherwoods, an organization opposing the park development project in Waimānalo. A frequent attendee at neighborhood board meetings, she was shocked when a petitioner at a local festival mentioned the plans for a new sports complex, a project that had been quietly in the works for more than 10 years. Now, you can often find Kalama-Ohelo protesting in Waimānalo with her husband, her 13-year-old daughter, nieces and nephew.


Prominent musicians have also shown their support including Pomai Lyman, Paula Fuga and Kawika Kahiapo, who all visited the site on the same day. “It was kind of like a mini impromptu concert,” Kalama-Ohelo says. “And my daughter comes up to me and she’s like, ‘Mommy, I’m so proud to be Hawaiian.’ And that was amazing to me because that started for me in college, when I learned my history, but this is happening for them at a younger age.”


Kekona Piliahi, 18, joined the Sherwood Forest movement after spending time on Maunakea.


There are a lot of people who are very dissatisfied with the government and the way that they are using the ‘Āina.

— Tēvita Ka‘ili


“I have friends younger than me who are going out of their way and becoming the public speakers,” says Piliahi. “I heard about Sherwoods and what was going on, so I thought I was obligated to help out and do my part because this side of the island is taking care of me for so long and I thought, it’s my time to give back. This whole Maunakea movement I can tell is really helping push all these other little communities to fight for what they believe needs to be protected.”


Synonymous with the Maunakea movement is the idea of kapu aloha, a commitment to nonviolent action. Photos of Kahuku, Waimānalo and Maunakea activists all showed up in the 22,000 posts with the #kapualoha hashtag in 2019.


Tēvita Ka‘ili has been involved with the North Shore wind farm fight since 2014. He’s not only seen a surge in protest participation in the past year, but he and other leaders have taken lessons in kapu aloha on Maunakea.

  mauna kea

Professor Tēvita Ka‘ili of Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i. Projected backdrop: Kahuku wind turbines.


“Many of us involved in the Kū Kia‘i Kahuku movement have been up to Maunakea many times,” says Ka‘ili, a cultural anthropology professor at Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i. They’re also receiving lessons from leaders there. “Andre Perez came and trained us a few weeks before and, on kapu aloha, Hinaleimoana Wong came and trained us. So all of this happened actually before the first day that we blocked the road. These were weeks and weeks before, when people who are involved with Maunakea came in and trained us.”


But not all has been peaceful. Someone set fire to construction equipment at Sherwoods and cut a utility pole in Kahuku. Organizers condemn these acts of violence and vandalism. On the frontlines, they say everyone tries to keep each other in kapu aloha through prayer, song and camaraderie. 


“We also have a campsite just like Maunakea. And then at our campsite, we do a protocol at 6 a.m., 12 and also 6 p.m., and we do all the same protocols that they do up in Maunakea,” Ka‘ili says, including a morning ceremony, chants and dances.

  protests in Hawaii

A “Stop H-3” demonstration at the state Capitol, March 20, 1975.


The attemped blockades in Kahuku did not derail the construction of the wind farm which, at last check, was still on time. But organizers believe they can still take a stand.


“I think [these community protests] are just the beginning, and we will see more of this,” says Ka‘ili. “There are a lot of people who are very dissatisfied with the government and the way that they are using the ‘āina, and so they’re finding this as a way to kind of stand up and protect the ‘āina, and it has also connected to the sovereignty movement and other things that are happening here in Hawai‘i.”


In his lifetime, Nae‘ole wants to see the day that aloha ‘āina no longer is recognized as a protest slogan, but rather as “a joyous occasion” to just be Hawaiian.


“I believe fully that the last Aloha ‘Āina, these last protest versions of Aloha ‘Āina, need to end, have to end, must end in my generation’s time as parents, so that when our children get older and take upon themselves the mantle of the world, they’re able to do so knowing that they can just live,” says Nae‘ole. “If they can live a life full of aloha ‘āina, then the better off they’ll be in the future.”


Writer Christine Hitt is an alumna of Kamehameha Schools and University of Hawai‘i Mānoa. She is the former editor of MANA and HAWAI‘I magazines and continues to cover Hawaiian news and issues.