Protecting Mauna Kea: Why the Mountain?

by on April 24, 2015 · 4 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Media, Organizing, Politics, World News

The Mauna Kea Summit in winter

The Mauna Kea Summit in winter

By Will Falk / San Diego Free Press

I am preparing to leave for Hawai’i to offer myself in support of resistance to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project that would place a large telescope and stadium-sized structure on the peak of native Hawaiians’ most sacred place – Mauna Kea.

The project, funded by a partnership including the University of California, the California Institute of Technology, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy among others, would also place a 5,000 gallon chemical waste container above the largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island.

I first heard about this struggle from the brilliant documentary film-maker Anne Keala Kelly when she spoke at the Earth at Risk conference in San Francisco organized by the Fertile Ground Environmental Institute last fall. I was beyond excited when a friend recently put me in touch with Keala explaining that the Mauna Kea protectors seek more support from the mainland.

It’s been over a year, since I gave up on the possibility that – as a white settler – I will ever truly be able to call stolen native land “home.” Instead of settling into one place, I believe I can be more effective traveling in support of indigenous sovereignty. So, after a wonderfully encouraging conversation with Keala, I am resolved to go.

The first practical step towards getting to Hawai’i is finding the funding. After some donations from friends and a generous offer from the organization that originally introduced me to the struggle at Mauna Kea – Fertile Ground – it looks like I will be set to leave in the next couple weeks.

Before I go, however, it is important to articulate exactly why I am going. Why is stopping the construction of a telescope on top of a mountain thousands of miles away so important? Why, with all the social ills in the world, are you headed to Hawai’i, Will? Or, to borrow the phrase forming the title of Keala’s current documentary film project, “Why the Mountain?

One essay is insufficient to articulate why, but I will start with this:

The dominant culture currently threatens the ability of the planet to support life itself. No where else is this more apparent, perhaps, than in Hawai’i. Hawai’i is widely known in ecological circles as the extinction and endangered species capital of the world for the staggering rate of extinction decimating Hawai’i’s largely endemic plant and animal populations. Bird populations are the famous example.

According to Dr. Les Beletsky, a wildlife biologist formerly of the University of Washington and now a full-time writer, at the first arrival of Europeans in Hawai’i 200 years ago, 59 known bird species existed in Hawai’i. 21 currently survive and more than half of those are endangered. One of the important connections to make here is that colonization – the theft of indigenous land and destruction of indigenous peoples – precedes ecological collapse. It is a pattern that has played out around the world for centuries. With every species wiped off the face of the planet, every indigenous culture destroyed, every acre of old-growth forest lost, we move closer to total annihilation.

I’ve spent the last year traveling in support of indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection. Before that, I spent a year as a public defender and three years as a law student volunteering in prisons trying to use the system to fight institutional racism. My experiences lead me to believe we will never see a mass movement to save the world. If we’re going to save the world, we’ll have to do it ourselves. And, because we must do it ourselves, we need to be armed with an analysis that allows us to strategically maximize our effectiveness. To maximize our effectiveness we need to recognize the root processes fueling the destruction of the world. Then, we must attack and defeat those processes.

Over the next few weeks, my essays will attempt to point out the processes at work in Hawai’i that even make the desecration of a place as sacred as Mauna Kea possible.


I want to back up, though, and get back to answering why I personally feel so strongly about protecting Mauna Kea. One of the first reasons, I am going to Hawai’i is because I am sick of those in power – whether they are men, astronomers, or the American government – refusing to take no for an answer.

My experiences that follow are an attempt to show just how deeply this refusal to take no for an answer runs. I share these experiences because I want the attacks on those I love to stop. And, the first step involves all of us recognizing that these attacks are happening.

In the last few months, I’ve sat with four different women – all of them close friends – as they’ve told me they’ve been raped or severely beaten by men. I have heard similar stories from other women, but never at this rate. Of course, this will come as no shock to women, but the conversations have become commonplace. Writing the word “commonplace” to describe conversations about the rape and battery of my friends makes me feel physically ill.

Sometimes, I know the man who did it. Sometimes, I can only picture him and then feel disturbed by how easily it is to imagine a man doing this. Sometimes, I watch as pain pools in a friend’s eyes. Sometimes, I want to reach out as a distance seems to open in a friend’s mind.

Sometimes, she seems to be struggling with a presence I only vaguely detect. Sometimes, there are tears. Sometimes, there is only an icy determination to recite the story. Every time, though, I feel an overwhelming desire to take the pain away. And, in those moments listening, I know I can’t. I know I can’t stop violence that’s already happened.

With each successive story, I find myself wondering how these almost unspeakable horrors continue to be possible. I cannot call the stories “unspeakable” because these women have been so brave speaking about what has happened to them. They have shown incredible courage revisiting traumatic memories to name the abuse they’ve suffered. My pain, simply listening to their stories, is nothing compared to the pain they’ve felt and continue to feel.

I know I cannot take their pain away, but I can work to make sure this shit stops happening.


Abuse is essentially a refusal to take no for an answer. Rape happens when a woman tells a man no and he refuses to respect that. The degradation of natural communities happens when humans refuse to respect boundaries set by other beings.

Mauna Kea and the Hawaiian people are being abused by the TMT project. It started in 1898 when Hawaiians wrote to Congress after they were forcibly annexed to the United States explaining that they did not want to be Americans. It continues as Hawaiians say no to the desecration of Mauna Kea.

What allows men to decide that rape is acceptable? What is it about the American government that allows it to decide that the occupation of a land that does not want it is acceptable? What is it about the TMT project that allows them to decide they can desecrate Mauna Kea?

In each case, it’s a culture of entitlement. I’ve heard culture defined simply as the stories we tell ourselves. Men are told through the media, through pornography, and through centuries of institutionalized hatred towards women that women are objects to be used. Hearing these stories, men feel entitled to take from women what they want.

The American people are told that the American government is the best possible government in this scary world and as such the government is entitled to take the land and lives of other peoples. Meanwhile, a steady rain of American bombs falls around the world.

The scientists, astronomers, and corporations backing the TMT are told that science is going to save the world, that spending billions of dollars to make sense of planets lightyears away while the planet we’re on burns is justified because science is the highest form of knowledge the universe has ever seen. As a result, one of the world’s most sacred places is under attack.

I, for one, am ready for some new stories.

Comparing abuse of all kinds to the TMT project at Mauna Kea is more than just a passing connection. When we allow violations to occur over a whole culture’s protests, we normalize the abuse. We give the dominant culture another story of entitlement to add to a bloody list that’s already grown much, much too long.

So, why am I going to Mauna Kea? I am going because a people have clearly said no and I am sick of this violation imperative harming those I love while destroying the world.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Christo April 25, 2015 at 7:47 am

13. That’s the number of working telescopes currently on Mauna Kea.

11. That’s the number of countries currently researching on Mauna Kea.

3. That’s the number of groups that we know of that overran the pre-existing culture in Hawaii BEFORE Cooke landed there.

0. That’s the number of those cultures that had a functioning written language.

It seems to me that it’s an argument about returning to the stone age versus understanding our universe and it’ll be interesting to see who wins in the end.


Marc Snelling April 28, 2015 at 5:06 am

As you point out the summit already has 13 telescopes, there is little undeveloped land left on the sacred summit. This project is on a much larger scale than any of the previous telescopes and is being built on some of the last undeveloped land on the summit. None of the others have an assoicated 5000 gallon tank for storing hazardous chemicals and solid waste.

Stone age cultures had an advanced understanding of the universe and spent much time watching the night sky. It isn’t a ‘versus’ situation it’s about having respect for everyone. There has been no shortage of space used for scientific research on Mauna Kea.

Spoken language is actually a more reliable way to pass information from generation to generation. Papers burn, unlike memories, and people alive today are a bridge to the past. Europeans are no different. If the building site for this massive structure was Stonehenge there would be a simialr outcry.


Jan Michael Sauer April 26, 2015 at 12:23 pm

This is a fabulous site for a telescope. I love looking at the night sky with my telescope too. The major problem on Earth is that there are way too many people and that is the root cause of most of our other problems. I love science more than anyone but enough is enough. There will be a new telescope to replace the Hubble and that is a good idea. We should be extra careful with our Pacific paradise and respect the ghosts of the natives that cared for the mountain. Sooner or later something bad will happen up there and maybe then, after we have scarred what we pretend to cherish, will we wise up. Thank you for standing up for what is right Mr. Falk.


Arthur Austin May 4, 2015 at 11:48 am

Save our Sacred Mountain


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