This is another piece I wrote for Letters: The Life of the Mind, so it was written for a general (not local or Hawaiian) audience – it is slightly amended here.
When measured from the sea floor, the tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Decades ago, a telescope was proposed for the summit. There are already a dozen telescopes there, but this is the very large Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The construction of TMT on a summit that Hawaiians consider sacred has provoked the largest protest movement in recent years, rivaling the mass movement to stop the Navy’s target practice on the island of Kaho’olawe. A few weeks ago, Native Hawaiian activists blocked the entrance to the road to the summit, creating an encampment. In July 2019, Native Hawaiians began to make national news over their efforts to block the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i Island. NBC news recently covered the emergence of a school. Named Pu’uhuluhulu University, it offers free classes, taught mainly by Hawaiians. NBC’s headline read that protestors (who call themselves “protectors”) started the school to teach “local culture and values.”
Native Hawaiians are involved in the building of infrastructure that could lead to greater things. I’ve written before about the need for a Hawaiian college here. The university established during the occupation is as grassroots as it’s possible to be, and seemed to emerge spontaneously out of the lava rock. It included lectures on decolonizing religion, “stepping into sovereignty,” water law, Hawaiian language classes and training for hula that would be performed during protocols. My lecture was titled “Nonviolence and Land” – two topics I know well, allowing me to speak extemporaneously without notes. But the organization of this occupation included medical services, a fully operational kitchen, and a protocol area in addition to the school. Many groups appeared with offerings for the leadership of the movement, on the day that I was there offerings were made from the Native American tribe from Standing Rock.
At one point, when the movement seemed to build steam, I thought to myself: “where were these people when the permitting process was happening?” This occured mainly in the 1990s, with some friends of mine (about my age – in their 40s and 50s now) being very active in that process. But I realized that many of the current protestors were in elementary and high school at that time. But here’s the rub: many were in schools that were started as part of the larger Hawaiian movement: Hawaiian Language Immersion schools, Hawaiian Culture-focused charter schools, as well as the school that I teach at (Kamehameha Schools, exclusively for Native Hawaiians). For example, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, who many consider the leader of this movement, is the first graduate of Punana Leo, the Hawaiian immersion preschools, as well as a graduate of Kamehameha. In the 1970s Native Hawaiians had a cultural renaissance, and in1990s and 2000s they built institutions, from which the current crop of protectors has mainly emerged. So viewed from a larger social perspective, the presence of millenial-aged protectors is a product of the institution building of previous two generations, and thus a case study in social movement building.