by Lotty Clare

Towering out of the ocean at 13,796ft, Maunakea is the tallest point in Hawai’i, and one of the most culturally and spiritually important sites in the archipelago. It is considered to be the piko (umbilical cord) of Hawai’i. It is also seen as kūpuna (ancestors/elders), and is the home of deities as well as the site of various shrines and burial grounds. Furthermore, the mountain is also an important habitat for several endemic species of animals. If you were to have driven  down the road to the summit on the 15th July, you would have been stopped by a line of kūpuna blocking the road with their bodies. They were protecting this sacred site from the construction of a 30 meter telescope (TMT) which was given the OK by Hawai’i governor David Ige. Since then, this group has gained traction, and crowds have grown from a few hundred, to thousands. If you were to go there today, you would find a large camp on the site, with tents, cultural ceremonies taking place, traditional food being prepared, and a community run day care and school.

The University of Hawai’i and many in the scientific community say that Maunakea is an ideal place for the TMT due to the high altitude and clear skies. The TMT, if built will provide some of the most detailed glimpses into space. Hawaiian protectors, however, feel that the governor and University of Hawai’i are not listening to them or respecting their culture. There are already 13 observatories on Maunakea despite resistance for all of them, and despite many promised as being the ‘last one.’ Hawaiians have had enough. 

The protests, like the situation for indigenous communities all over the world, are part of a long legacy of resistance to colonial powers. In 1893 when the kingdom was overthrown by Americans, land, culture and power was taken and suppressed despite kanaka maoli (indigenous Hawaiians) never consenting to the taking of their lands. In the 1970s there was a period of cultural resurgence known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, when finally, the Hawaiian language was allowed in schools and the hula was revived. ‘Protect Maunakea’ is more than a protest. Many are saying that the movement that has grown around Maunakea is a part of a new Hawaiian Renaissance, standing in solidarity with their kūpuna who have resisted colonial violence for generations, saying ‘no more’ to the desecration of their culture and land. They are standing up for Maunakea not just as a culturally and environmentally significant site, but are standing together with true Kapu Aloha (love, togetherness) and aloha ‘āina (love for the land), for the dignity of native Hawaiians and right to self-determination. The ethos of the movement is represented in the most recent press release from the ‘university’ Pu’uhuluhulu that has been set up at the Maunakea site: 

It is a struggle that communities across Hawaiʻi have faced for far too long—our government agencies who are supposed to protect what our society values are instead skirting the law and acting on behalf of private corporate interests. Our movement of aloha ‘āina has ignited not just Hawaiians but people worldwide who want to protect Hawaiʻi from self-serving, big-business.’

Maunakea protectors are in solidarity with a resistance struggle in another pacific nation: Aotearoa New Zealand. Despite the country being praised for being forward thinking on indigenous rights, Māori people have faced terrible injustices at the hands of colonial powers, and this continues today. An area of land known as Ihumātao in the Waikato region near Auckland is planned to be the site of hundreds of high-priced new homes built by Fletchers Residential Limited. Ihumātao, or Puketāpapa, was confiscated ‘by proclamation’ by The Crown under the New Zealand Settlements Act in 1863 as part of the colonial invasion of the Waikato. This drove mana whenua (Māori who have historic and territorial rights over the land), of South Auckland from their lands. 

Since 2014, when this area was declared a Special Housing Area and subsequently handed over to Fletchers, the people who live in Ihumātao have been campaigning under the banner of Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL). This movement has been lead by mana whenua, whose families have lived on the land for generations. The whenua is considered sacred to the local iwi (tribes consisting of several hapū) and hapū (descent groups) and was taken by force. SOUL are fighting for the recognition of important Māori ancestral landscapes which a SOUL leader, Pania Newton states: It seems to me that as a nation we value some forms of heritage more than others,’ referring to how the majority of protected and recognised heritage sites in Aoteoroa are colonial-built heritage. Newton expressed that she feels an ‘umbilical connection to the landscape, because the land, the mountains, the awa, and the moana sustain me spiritually, physically, mentally, and socially, which aligns with our holistic worldview – a Māori worldview.’ It is also important nationally, as it is home to the oldest continuously occupied Māori Village in Auckland. The residents of Ihumātao have already faced the encroachment of industrial projects on their land such as the expansion of Auckland airport, as well as having to deal  with the loss and pollution of local food and water sources. Members of local iwi are calling for the whenua to be returned to them:

this whenua belongs to us, we belong to the whenua …..who are these big companies to come in? The land should have been given back…ok we have a housing problem, but there are ways round it this is our papakāinga (home base). Leave us alone. Back off.’ (Irie, Voices of Ihumātao)

As with any land contestation, it is not always as black and white as it may seem initially; there are some people from the Māori community and even the same iwi and hapū on both the Fletchers side and the SOUL side. Fletchers have given concessions to the local community such as returning a portion of land to the mana whenua. For many SOUL protesters these concessions are not enough. The land was stolen from their iwi, in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, and local Māori were not consulted in the decision making of the housing project. Consent was not acquired. Ihumātao resident Torerenui a Rua Wilson explained why she is protecting Ihumātao in a speech posted on social media, with the powerful words: I tried to stay quiet but my ancestors wouldn’t let me.’ 


Image credit: Protect Ihumatao Facebook page

In recent months the media attention and size of the occupation has swelled, with the protests remaining peaceful but more arrests occurring. The protests at Ihumātao have not gained as much international attention as Maunakea, but there is at least some international solidarity, particularly between indigenous peoples. A delegation of Māori scholars and advocates recently visited the site at Maunakea, whilst Hawaiian activist Dr. Emalani Case visited Ihumātao to speak on behalf of the Kanaka Maoli expressing solidarity: 

“Mauna Kea and Ihumātao are not isolated moments, they are movements that speak to each other across oceans … from Mauna Kea, we recognise the struggle at Ihumātao because we know it, we’ve felt it.’

Aotearoa New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour coalition government have been criticised for failing to improve the lives of Māori citizens. Māori often face economic and social marginalisation due to historical patterns of inequity and injustice. Ardern has put a halt to the development but has yet to make any substantial decisions.  Last week a petition was marched to her office in Auckland city but she was not there to receive the petition with over 26,000 signatures. She has also not visited the site as of yet. At Maunakea, despite celebrity allyship and a relatively loud international media presence, the Hawai’i governor shows no signs of backing down from his pro-TMT stance (one only has to glance at his Twitter account). 

It is important to understand these protests in the context of a long history of both colonial violence and dispossession, and a long history of Kanaka Maoli and Māori resistance. These movements are about justice and recognition for native people’s culture, land, resources, and ways of being. They are not new, but they are gaining momentum. With indigenous people’s ability to link together and help in meaningful solidarity, what’s happening at Ihumātao and Maunakea shows the power of radical hope.

If you want to find out more and do your bit to help, visit:

For Maunakea:



For Ihumātao:



Featured image credit: Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu Maunakea Facebook page

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