Violence Loses

Like so many with a Native American heritage I have been watching the protests at Standing Rock, trying to figure out which side of the issue I am on. I find I can not automatically support the tribal side of this as some of my relatives have, the issue is not so clear cut. I have been reading both sides to see where the issue lies.

The incident has much in parallel with the issues here on our mountain. Native people protesting a project that takes place on a purported sacred site. There is also the element of environmentalism in protesting an oil pipeline, and entirely different issue than a clean project like an observatory.

This week’s violent episode has me asking questions. How did this happen? What happened. The protest side has been loudly proclaiming that security guards just attacked them with pepper spray and dogs. They play up the injuries, including some to a child.

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What about offerings?

I walk a short distance from the road looking for a vantage point to set up a camera and note three different offerings within a minute, you can do this at any random spot with a good view along the summit road. They are everywhere, old leis pinned underneath rocks, the remains of little bags filled with shells and coral, ti leave bundles bleached nearly white by the weather.

An old offering
An old offering of shells and coral in a cloth bag left atop Mauna Kea
Out of respect I leave them alone, as does most everyone who spends time on the mountain. They are never in my way, I just note them and move on. But what can you do about these offerings when they begin to be an issue for the environment?

Previously the rate of offerings was fairly sedate, their appearance uncommon but steady. At the summit, at Lake Waiau, at out of the way ahu that few ever notice. Since the TMT controversy started the rate of offerings appearing on the mountain has multiplied tremendously.

In the lowlands, the forest, the seashores, offerings like these would quickly return to the earth from which they were created. The natural process of decay ensuring that the materials are cycled back into nature. The summit of Mauna Kea is different, the very dry environment preserving plant materials for years or decades. Other offerings include materials that do not break down so readily, shell, coral and cloth can persist for a very long time.

Is there a correct way for a cultural practitioner to remove offerings from an area? Is there someone who can be tasked to do this? Many other religions include rules for handling offerings left at shrines or altars, if only to make way for further offerings to be left. Is there no choice but to leave them in place?

If not TMT, then what?

There are more than a few of us examining our relationship with the mountain. The current controversy has any intelligent person asking hard questions of themselves. And like me, some express their thoughts in words. Hopefully words that resolve some questions. But other times all we have are questions.

The following is a guest post from Chris Stark. Thanks Chris!

A colorful sunset seen from the summit of Mauna Kea

If not TMT, then what?

I work as an IT professional in the astronomy community. For months now, my daily life has been assaulted by the phrase “‘A’ole TMT” scrawled all over people’s homes, vehicles, and businesses — I can’t seem to get away from that phrase. As frustrating as it can be for me to randomly encounter this sentiment, I understand people’s anger, frustration, and feelings of loss of identity. But there’s more at stake here than a telescope on a sacred mountain.

There are as many reasons WHY people oppose TMT as there are people actually opposed — and that is not a slight towards the opposition. Every person’s perspective is unique and personal, no matter whether in support or opposition to TMT. I have my own reasons for supporting TMT, and while they may echo many of the sentiments heard from the other supporters, as with everyone else, my mix of perspectives ends up giving me my own unique angle on all of this.

The reason “‘A’ole TMT” causes me so much frustration is that no one is presenting viable alternatives to TMT. Like it or not, something needs to breathe life into this stagnant, low-wage economy of Hawaii Island. We deserve better than what we currently have. We’re smart, talented, and hard-working. We’ve been through a lot together.

The opponents to TMT say “‘A’ole TMT!”, but to what do they say “‘Ae!”?

Who among us wants to work for an unfair low wage for tedious, mundane work with no room for advancement? Who among us wants our children to have the exact same lack of opportunities we have by choosing to stay in this place we call home?

The upcoming generations of Hawaii Island children are smart and skilled; they have bright futures, and many of them are going to work in technologically advanced fields — and no matter the field, technology has become a major component. The question is, are they going to work in these fields here at home, or are they going work in these fields somewhere else, likely not to return? The more we say “no” without providing an accompanying “yes” alternative, the more we are losing our best and brightest minds to the mainland and foreign countries.

I graduated from a Hawaii Island public high school in the early 1990s, and the vast majority of my friends left this island and now have lives elsewhere with no real motivation to ever return. I’m also of the age now where many of my colleagues have children ranging from primary school all the way to pushing closer to graduation from college and beyond. How many of my colleagues want to see their sons and daughters pack up and leave, never to return? How many of the opposition want to see their sons and daughters pack up and leave?

What is more damaging to the Hawaiian culture: a population working dead-end, slave-wage, jobs with no alternatives? A population thinly dispersed across the world with no physical connection to their homeland or family? Or a telescope on a sacred mountain top whose very goal is to bring heaven closer to earth?

We need the education, work force development, and jobs promised by TMT.

If “no” to TMT, then “yes” to what?

The Ranger Reports

In the lead up to the BLNR meeting the Office of Mauna Kea management released some of the ranger’s and MKVIS staff reports. These document the day to day happenings at the MKVIS and the summit over the last three months since the protests began.

Mauna Kea Protest
Protests on Mauna Kea, June 24, 2015. Photo by Dan Birchall, used with permission.
I knew it to be bad, I had heard about a number of the specific events detailed in these reports. I really did not have a full picture of the occurances, something that these reports make very clear.

Read for yourself… MKSS Rangers and Staff Logs

The reports detail repeated vandalism, some petty thefts, continued harassment of staff and visitors, and repeated and illegal blocking of the road.

Many have declared these reports to be outright lies, claiming that these things never happened. I know better. I know the people who wrote these reports personally. I have breakfast with them routinely in the Hale Pohaku dining room and have listened to them relate these same occurrences. Often the words they used were a little less diplomatic than these written formal reports, the product of frustration and anger. Everything in these reports rings true, down to specific events that were described to me first hand.

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What about the ahu?

Ancient ahu dot the summit slopes of Mauna Kea. These stone shrines or altars are primarily found on the southern plateau near the adze quarry. There are dozens of sites scattered across the slopes, usually atop prominent rock outcroppings. The most typical structure is a stone pile or platform with a large upright stone at the center. A few sites have multiple uprights. The uprights are clearly carefully chosen, usually a long narrow pohaku.

An ancient ahu (shrine) atop Mauna Kea with Mauna Loa in the background
These ancient ahu are usually modest constructions, none exhibiting the fine stonework visible in the heiau and other religious sites across the islands. The harsh weather of Mauna Kea has taken its toll, often the stones are scattered, the upright has fallen.

There is one modern ahu that has been around for a while, sometimes. At the very summit of the mountain an ahu can usually be found. Apparently there is some disagreement about the presence of this ahu. I have seen the stones scattered, I have seen the ahu reappear. When I first began working on Mauna Kea the summit this ahu had a lele, a simple wooden platform built over the ahu.

The current attention focused on Mauna Kea has seen a resurgence in the building of ahu as an act of protest. At least five have been built that I am aware of. Two at the TMT site, two in the middle of the gravel portion of the summit road, one alongside the summit road about halfway up the switchbacks.

These are typically much more substantial structures than the ancient sites. Actually quite well built, sometimes with local rock, at least one is built with rounded stream boulders brought from far below the summit. Unlike the ancient sites these new ahu are fairly standardized, a rock platform around 10-20 square feet in size with a single large upright at the center.

Ahu in the Road
An ahu built in the downhill lane of the Mauna Kea summit access road
What is the status of these sites? What about an ahu built in the middle of a road?

I think it is pretty clear that an ahu erected with ill intent is not sacred. The entire question of sacred or not sacred is a question of intent. Setting an ahu in the middle of the road is simply not pono. Whatever motive the builder may have, creation of such a structure it is still a malicious act, a serious risk to any who use the road. The builders knew this as they stacked the stones. An ahu like this should be removed, preferably by those who erected it.

The two ahu have been removed from the summit road. A third still exists, the one built on a level area beside one of the switchbacks above Hale Pohaku, not in the road. As far as I am aware the two built on the TMT site still exist, both in the roadway. Whether they are dismantled or allowed to remain is still an open question.

A Change in Mood on the Mountain

There has been a tangible shift in mood on the mountain. I sense this change in all I talk to. The sentiment toward the TMT protesters has turned from one of tolerance to active hostility. They crossed a line, and I think everyone knows it, including the protesters.

Ahu in the Road
An ahu built in the downhill lane of the Mauna Kea summit access road
From everyone’s comments it was the blocking and damage to the summit road that was the critical moment. There has always been a certain sympathy for the protesters among the mountain crews. We may disagree, but at least we understand the source of that disagreement. We are Americans, with an understanding of the right to protest, of respect for those who stand up for their beliefs.

That has changed.

Everyone who works on the mountain understands that the road is an absolutely vital link. It is the only means by which to evacuate the summit in an emergency, the only route by which help can come in the case of trouble. Contrary to many glib Facebook assertions our local fire department helicopters can not operate safely at high elevation. I have seen comments by protesters that downplay the danger, they simply do not understand the seriousness of their actions.

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. – Will Falk

“Pohaku” is of course the Hawaiian word for stone. In his writing Will waxes poetic about the effort and the beauty of placing the rocks on the road, then calls the safety concerns “lying”. His casual disregard for safety is distressing, and typical of those who simply disrespect the mountain, her beauty and her risks.

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Reaction to Governor Ige

To no one’s surprise those most opposed to astronomy on Mauna Kea have reacted negatively to yesterday’s statement by Governor Ige. Released statements by the Mauna Kea Hui, Kū Kia’i Mauna and other groups offer no compromise in response to the governor’s proposals.

TMT Protest in Waimea
A protest against TMT in Waimea, May 27, 2015
A number of protests have been organized around the island, including one at Church Row, just across the lawn from Keck headquarters. The protest is a very island way of doing this, a sign waving event along a major highway. This is a very typical event during political campaigns or social controversies like this.

Today’s protest is interesting compared to earlier protests, it seems less energetic, with far fewer passing vehicles honking in support. The previous protest at this location was almost constant honking. Has the community sentiment shifted away from those protesting? Are many accepting the spirit of compromise that was exemplified by the governor yesterday? The real test will be when construction resumes, and we all expect it to resume soon.

It was in walking over to check on the protest that I had a more interesting conversation. A Hawaiian gentleman was selling fresh ahi and pickled mangoes from a roadside stand. He ask why they were protesting the telescopes. It made no sense to him that anyone would oppose the TMT.

This is in line with many quiet conversations I have had. Many in the local community do support the TMT, but the support has been muted by the most strident voices of opposition. Conflict is not comfortable to many in this community, traditional Hawaiian and to a large extent traditional Asian attitudes that so many follow here have steered many away from the controversy. As we chatted he offered me a piece of ahi free, he had a big catch yesterday. I deferred and thanked him, I still have plenty of halibut to use up in the freezer.

The Work of Protecting Mauna Kea

Walking into the building I saw the first sign. A prominent message placed in the windshield of a car parked by the entrance… “TMT, Too Many Telescopes” The protesters were here. I had hoped they would not be, we had things to get done in this meeting. A disruption of the meeting by protesters would mean another delay.

Too Many Telescopes
A protest sign in the window of a car outside the OMKM board meeting
The event was the regularly scheduled meeting of the Mauna Kea Management Board. The board is a group of community members who volunteer their time to the work of protecting Mauna Kea. I was here because Keck Observatory wants to install a set of new weather instruments atop our building and domes. Any change to the external appearance of the structure, however minor, requires approval of the Kahu Kū Mauna council, the Mauna Kea Management Board and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

To that end I had written a proposal for the new instruments with a description of exactly what we wished to do. Attached is an appendix of photos and drawings to answer any possible questions. I was present to answer the inevitable questions I had not thought of and feared would get asked.

The room was filling rapidly when we arrived, far beyond the usual audience of one of these meetings. As I greeted the many people I know, I noted many new faces. They seemed out of place, a little on edge, a sense of having entered enemy territory. Many of those present were young, in their teens and early twenties, one a young mother, child carried in her arms. The t-shirts betrayed their allegiance, they came with cameras and poorly concealed protest signs.

I have no problem with those who oppose the telescopes atop Mauna Kea attending a meeting like the OMKM board meeting. Public participation is a good thing. Indeed, these meetings are open to the public for a reason, to allow anyone interested to attend and to see for themselves how those charged with managing the mountain do their jobs.

I worried about a protest that would disrupt the meeting, making it impossible to accomplish anything. This did not happen. I will give those who attended credit for showing respect for the proceedings and to those discussing the effort of caring for the mountain.

Continue reading “The Work of Protecting Mauna Kea”