Editor’s note: Contributor Will Falk has been working and living with protesters on Mauna Kea who are attempting to block construction of an 18-story astronomical observatory with an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Opposition in Hawaii to the building of the telescope is based on concerns about potential disruption to the fragile alpine environment and the fact that Mauna Kea is a sacred site for the Native Hawaiian culture. On June 24th, agents with the Department of Land and Natural Resources abandoned an attempt to escort construction workers to the proposed location after discovering the only road up the mountain was not navigable.
By Will Falk
The pohaku stopped the Thirty Meter Telescope construction last Wednesday. They began appearing on the Mauna Kea Access Road like raindrops. First, they were sprinkled lightly underfoot. A small rock here. A larger one there. The cops cussed and swore as they tried to remove them from the path of their seemingly unstoppable paddy wagons.
As the cops ascended, washing over the lines of Mauna Kea Protectors standing in their way, small piles grew into a drizzle of stones formed in the gathering fog. Then, the pohaku became a downpour. Looking up the road half-a-mile, I saw heavy boulders standing up, marching to meet us, making it impossible for the TMT construction crews and their police escort to climb any higher.
As a legal observer for the Protectors, I was tracking an angry Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) branch chief officer Lino Kamakau making sure he knew his actions were watched. When he, his men, and the retreating Protectors rounded the first hairpin turn on the gravel road marking DLNR’s jurisdiction on Mauna Kea, they had already arrested and dragged 11 of our comrades off their feet and into paddy wagons to be taken to jail. Included in these 11 were two men I admire and consider friends – Kaleikoa Ka’eo and Kaho’okahi Kanuha.
A terrible sense of powerlessness set in as I watched DLNR men grab Kaleikoa as he chanted pule in Hawaiian. The cops manhandled him as he went limp, so he could not be accused of resisting arrest. I remembered how a few days before, when Kaleikoa arrived on Mauna Kea to offer his support after the TMT’s announcement that construction would begin again, he walked right up to me and pushed two cans of iced coffee into my hands. Kaleikoa remembered from a breakfast we shared 10 days prior, before his now-famous “Don’t Drink the Dirty Water” speech that I love iced coffee.
Kaho’okahi had already been involved in one intense confrontation with Kamakau lower down the Mountain. Earlier, Kamakau and his men had stormed Kaho’okahi’s line knocking down two Kanaka guys even bigger than me (I’m 6’2, 200 pounds). Kaho’okahi stood nose to nose with Kamakau, while a crowd of Protectors tightened up around Kaho’okahi with cameras pointed at the cops demanding their right as Kanaka Maoli to pule on their most sacred mountain. The cops realizing they were severely outnumbered, and sensing the anger in the air, hesitated.
Kaho’okahi negotiated time for the Protectors in his line to withdraw farther up the Mountain. He reformed about 200 yards higher up and watched as 10 arrests were made. It looked like we could not stop the cops. Kamakau was merciless, demanding that his men arrest anyone they could catch up with. When the DLNR cops reached Kaho’okahi the second time, I watched with deep sadness as my friend’s eyes flushed with the specific sorrow that only accompanies the realization that fellow humans have lost any sense of reason.
All I could think of was how kind the Kanuha family had been to me while I lived on Mauna Kea. I remembered Uncle Joe taking me to lunch with his big-hearted laugh. I remembered Auntie Patti calling out to me from the sea in Kona after the Kamehameha Day March that she loved me and to be safe going up the Mauna. I remembered Kawai recalling my alma mater’s (the Dayton Flyers) recent success in the NCAA basketball tournament. I remembered Kaho’okahi, sensing my homesickness, inviting me to come watch Game 1 of the NBA finals at a bar with him and Kawai. The Kanuha’s became a surrogate family, for me, and I knew they would be very anxious for their son and brother’s well-being.
My heart was sore as we made that turn in Mauna Kea’s clinging mist. My feet – especially my left foot – hurt. My face was peeling from sunburn. I was growing deeply weary from running up and down the Mauna with messages for organizers. After Kaho’okahi was arrested, as the cops approached a line of young women dancing in prayer, I wanted to sit down and weep.
I despaired. I didn’t believe the arrests were going to stop. I wanted to throw down my clipboard, rip off my obnoxious yellow legal observer t-shirt, and let the nearest cop drag me away, too. In those moments, I knew we could not stop the cops.
As the lump in my throat hardened, I thought about how the tone had been set early that morning when the very first cops to come up the Mauna Kea Access Road ran over my foot in their paddy wagon. With my experience as a public defender, I volunteered to be a legal observer when the cops came to clear us out of the way in order to start construction. With the letters “Legal Observer” printed across my chest, it was my job to shadow the cops and make sure they behaved.
I was more surprised than injured. I had leaned closer to the front window of the paddy wagon ready to record with my clipboard and pen as my friend David asked for the officer’s name and badge number when the police officer unexpectedly sped away and over my foot. “Is this how the day is gonna go?” I wondered aloud, wincing and testing the pain in my foot.
Unfortunately, there was not much of a bruise, though my friends did take pictures of the tire mark over my shoe.
Trailing the cops on the Mauna Kea Access Road, anticipating another brutal round of arrests, I told myself the incident with my foot was an omen: The cops simply were not going to stop their march up the Mountain for us. No, they would not stop for us, but maybe other beings could stop them.
As we began passing the pohaku on the road, a sense of spiritual resonance grew. The stones renewed my courage. Even though I was 9,000 miles from my ancestral homelands – Ireland and Germany – my haole heart felt the importance of the phenomenon I was witnessing.
My heart remembered how, two days before, I went with the Mauna Kea Protectors to the summit to build an ahu – a Hawaiian altar made of stacked stones – on the TMT construction site. A truck load of lava rocks – referred to as Pele by Hawaiians because lava is a manifestation of the powerfully sublime Hawaiian goddess Pele – was brought up the Mountain. At 13,700 feet, under a blazing hot sun, we had to carry, one by one, what must have been 1 ton of rocks a quarter mile across the TMT construction site.
Forty or so of us formed one long line and passed each rock, person to person, to the end of the line. We had to do this 10 times to get the lighter stones to the ahu site. The younger and stronger among us – myself included – heaved the heavier stones over our shoulders and limped our way in the thin Mauna air to the ahu.
My hands bled. My forearms were bruised. My back hurt. I had not showered in 10 days, and I was grateful for the cleanse of well-earned sweat. It was beautiful work.
I have written about the loneliness I felt on Mauna Kea. Some of that loneliness was the typical loneliness that accompanies living in a new place. Some more of that loneliness came from visiting a land I had never been to before, where I did not know the names of the hills, the trees, or the flowers. The most profound loneliness, though, came from my unfamiliarity with the rituals and ceremonies of Hawai’i. I simply did not know how to pray on Mauna Kea.
The prayers came to me, finally, when I stooped down to lift heavy pohaku for my Kanaka Maoli friends. The stones’ skin rubbing on my skin woke the prayers sleeping in my body. Using my muscles in an ancient way stirred ceremonies I had forgotten. For the first time on Mauna Kea, I knew I was where I belonged.
While we were lifting these stones and I was rejoicing in the feeling of prayers remembered, one of the Protectors began singing an old Hawaiian song of resistance: Kaulana Na Pua. The song was written in 1893 after Americans forcibly overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii. The song urges Hawaiians not to sign papers in support of annexation to the United States. Instead of accepting anything from the United States, the song powerfully declares that “we are satisfied with the stones/the astonishing food of the land” implying that Hawaiians would rather eat Hawaiian stones than accept American occupation.
Lifting stones on Mauna Kea to help Kanaka Maoli protect their sacred mountain, I recognized the power in these Hawaiian stones.
Officer Lino Kamakau did, too.The pohaku standing on the Mauna Kea Access Road had simply become too thick for the DLNR men to move. I followed three feet behind Kamakau, unsuccessfully attempting to record his words with my phone, as he told his men to wait while he climbed the road a hundred yards to survey the path ahead.
The road was straight, carved into the mountainside with 20 foot walls on the uphill side. The mist surrounding the procession began to clear. We could see a half-mile to the next hairpin turn. Strong pohaku, standing thickly on the road as far as we could see, barred the way.
Kamakau radio’d his superior and said “We can’t move them all. We have to stop. We just can’t do it.” The ten or so of us who heard him say that jumped up and down, hugged and high-five’d, while some simply sat down and cried.
Eventually, Kamakau and the DLNR re-assembled to tell us that the stones presented a public safety concern and that they must stop until safer conditions exist. As the news spread, and people higher on the mountain saw the DLNR men get in their vehicles and turn around to ride in defeat down the Mountain, there was more cheering and more crying. Celebrating with 700 hundred people, who all came bravely together to protect one of the world’s most sacred places as we did, was one of the purest feelings I’ve ever felt.
Then, people began to sing. The first song I heard was Kaulana Na Pua and so much meaning accompanied the victorious words, “We are satisfied with the stones, the astonishing food of the land.”
In the last two days, (I’m writing this on Friday, June 26) the DLNR and Office of Mauna Kea (OMK) Management have shut down the Mauna Kea Access Road. A sign hangs on the Visitor Center door saying “Closed Until Further Notice.” For the first time since the first telescope was built on Mauna Kea’s hallowed summit, the Mountain knows peace. I hope it lasts forever.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media has been parroting this “public safety concern” language. Of course, they are trying to deceive the public into thinking the Mauna Kea Protectors and the pohaku present the safety hazard. They are lying.
If we’re going to talk about public safety, then we have to talk about the 7 reported mercury spills associated with the telescopes on Mauna Kea. The largest freshwater aquifer lives under Mauna Kea and leaked mercury in the Island’s biggest source of freshwater is a serious public health concern.
If we’re going to talk about public safety, then we have to talk about the three construction workers who died in a fire during the construction of the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea. If we’re going to talk about public safety, then we have to talk about the threat of serious accidents posed by hundreds of automobiles driven by tourists up Mauna Kea every day. If we’re going to talk about public safety, then we have to talk about the presence of guns brought to Mauna Kea – not by peaceful Mauna Kea Protectors, but by the police who violently ran over my foot and violently dragged away non-violent demonstrators.
Do not name the pohaku as a public safety concern. They simply stood – strong and stoic -resolute in their heaviness and stopped the TMT project from destroying Mauna Kea’s summit.
For other stories in this series, go here.