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Panel discusses autonomy of Native Hawaiians on sacred land

‘Perspectives on Protecting Mauna a Wakea’ addresses telescope controversy in context of colonialism

Despite its location 5000 miles away from the site, the University held an event Saturday organized by Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown to discuss controversy over the construction of a telescope on a dormant volcano in Hawaii, which holds sacred value for Native Hawaiians.

A number of speakers presented their work and thoughts about the controversial telescope in an event titled “Perspectives on Protecting Mauna a Wakea,” which aimed to contextualize the fight over its proposed construction in a history of similar disputes that raise questions about U.S. colonialism, the autonomy of indigenous peoples and the determination of land use and property rights.

The event, which consisted of a series of lectures and culminated with a panel, focused on the protection of the mountain Mauna a Wakea, a sacred site for Native Hawaiians. The mountain has been the subject of controversy after a group of universities, nongovernmental organizations and five national governments began planning to construct the extremely large Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain’s summit. Following almost a decade of activism and legal battles, a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of Hawaii has allowed the project to proceed.

Four professors and a musician-activist sat on the panel, which discussed how the plans to construct the telescope on the controversial mountain site reflect the imperialist tendencies that continue to exist in political and even academic entities. Such tendencies neglect to consider the interests of indigenous populations, like the Native Hawaiians, according to the panelists.

Samuel Kaleikoa Ka’eo, associate professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai’i Maui College, addressed the crux of the controversy. “It’s not about whether or not the telescopes are good or bad, or science is good or bad,” Ka’eo said, stressing that the “fundamental question” is who should decide and determine the fate of Mauna a Wakea. As the international collection of universities, governments and organizations move forward to construct the telescope, he argued that “they are deciding for us. They are making us invisible. They refuse to acknowledge our humanity.”

Iokepa Casumbal-Salazar, assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous studies at Ithaca College, answered a question that referenced Native Hawaiians who support the telescope. To Casumbal-Salazar, the Native Hawaiians who felt comfortable with the telescope’s construction did not see “the power relations” at play or “understand that these grievances come from some place, that they’re from historical relations of power.”

“Tell people to simply do their homework,” Casumbal-Salazar said. “Learn about colonization and imperialism and abuse of power,” he added.

In addition to advocating for Mauna a Wakea’s protection, the panelists affirmed the strength of Hawaiian heritage and the role it plays in their lives. Hāwane Rios, a singer, songwriter, activist and Hawaiian cultural practitioner, performed a chant during the panel, which she said “teaches us and guides us to know how we are connected.”

“We come from a long line of resilience and truth, because it takes a lot to be able to endure” the effects of an imperialist history, Rios said. “We’ve endured this, and we’re still here.” Reflecting on the panel’s conversation, Rios said she felt “love, aloha.”

Rios discussed her experience meeting indigenous leaders of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation and described the “bridging of solidarity” she experienced on her visit, from “being able to go to Standing Rock … and pray on their lands” for their cause.

The similarities between the Standing Rock protests and the efforts to protect Mauna a Wakea extend beyond indigenous peoples fighting against industrial and institutional forces. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, professor of American studies and an affiliate faculty member in anthropology at Wesleyan University, moderated the panel and argued that “indigenous peoples’ principles for earth-based societies” reflect shared values because those principles “emerge from the land.” She pointed to the oft-repeated phrase “water is life,” which was cited frequently during the protests at Standing Rock and aligns with the beliefs of many Native Hawaiians. Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU Dean Itsuji Saranillio also spoke at the event and participated in the panel.

Kauanui argued that resolutions to such conflicts could be found in the “ethics derived from the principles of the ‘Āina,” a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “land” but with broader theological and cultural connotations.

“What do we have right now? Continued desecration, a fraudulent state, the farce of the rule of law (and) abuse of state power,” she concluded.


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