Karin Louise Hermes, Thirty Meter Telescope, Hawaii, Impolitikal, Evelyn Marsters

Q&A | Karin Louise Hermes on why Hawaiians are protesting a 30M telescope

On July 31, 7 people were arrested during an around-the-clock vigil opposing the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) astronomical observatory to be built on Mauna Kea, in Hawai’i. On the same night 20 people were also arrested on Maui protesting the Daniel K. Inouye observatory construction on Haleakalā. The presence of observatories on Mauna Kea dates back to 1967 when the first telescope was built, and while resistance to the telescopes by indigenous Hawaiians, the Kānaka Maoli, has existed since this time, the TMT has more recently ignited protests of a different scale. A mix of indigenous peoples, local residents and international activists are getting behind the cause.

According to Kānaka Maoli, the summit of Mauna Kea is where the Hawaiian deities Wākea and Papahānaumoku came together to create their first-born child Mauna Kea, and resistance to the TMT is tied to issues of American land occupation, sovereignty and the cultural rights of indigenous Hawaiians. Evelyn interviewed Karin Louise Hermes about her involvement with Mauna Kea and the TMT and the role of social media in bringing this issue to international attention.

What drew you to the issue of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and Mauna Kea?
Motivation for activism like this usually depends on personal connections and timing.  In October 2013, I knew there was an issue with the TMT project on Mauna Kea because some of my Kanaka Maoli and other Pacific Islander friends at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (UHM) were protesting with a beautifully painted mural (which was later censored). A year later, there was also another open stand against the TMT groundbreaking ceremony in October 2014. In my own perception, the publicity of the issue died down again until April 3, 2015, when I saw my Facebook flooded with status updates and news articles about the arrests, connected to protests against the TMT which occurred the previous day.

The recent events in April 2015 coincided with a period of uncertainty after graduating with my MA in Pacific Islands Studies.  During my degree I  focussed on the issues of Papua New Guinea and West Papua illegal occupation, land disputes and indigenous stewardship to the land. The driving force behind the stand for Mauna Kea, which the TMT supporters seem to not comprehend, is that land just can’t be owned, but must be cared for as an ancestral family member. This is aloha ‛āina, the “love of the land”. The movement has been called a kākou thing, which is the Hawaiian pronoun for an inclusive ‘us’ and includes those who respect and express aloha ‛āina. One important feature in the stand for Mauna Kea is the perspective of being ‘protectors not protestors’. I feel this gives a sense to the aloha ‛āina, where it’s not to be seen as just a belligerent protest against those invading and altering the land, but emphasises the position of defending the sacred land from desecration.

After leaving Hawai’i I wanted to shift my research orientation towards interethnic relations in Hawai’i. When I saw the TMT conflict become so big again, I was in Germany and perhaps the best explanation would be that I was ‘homesick’ for Hawai’i. A good friend of mine, a native Hawaiian engineering student at UHM, posted on Facebook about needing volunteers for academic writing on Mauna Kea, so I sent him a reply feeling an obligation to help out.

Mauna Kea is a historical site of resistance, how do you think the recent activism is different from the protests in the past?
I think the biggest changes here are the role social media plays, as well as the pride and knowledge the Hawaiian cultural revival has been able to strengthen over the past generation. Now, for the first time since the Kingdom overthrow and illegal occupation, the protectors in their 20s and 30s have been able to fully immerse themselves in the Hawaiian language and culture to regain fluency and expertise in their cultural practices.

It was a crucial moment when one of the arrested protectors, Kaho‛okahi Kanuha, refused to speak English in court and only spoke in ‛ōlelo Hawai’i. The judge told him he had to speak English, because she couldn’t understand him, and the audience in court and online was in uproar over this disrespect for Hawaiian culture. Of course the activist spoke fluent English, but Hawaiian is an official state language equal to it, and treating Hawaiian as a foreign language or even lesser – since no official translator was provided – had to be challenged.

I joined the protest after seeing the call on Facebook. Blogs, Instagram and Twitter are also major outlets for discussion and raising awareness. This year, Kanaka Maoli actor Jason Momoa, jumped onboard and came up to Mauna Kea to stand with the protectors. He also had some of his colleagues involved via Instagram as well. This helped spread the word globally to their fans who may have had no previous affiliation to Hawai‛i or Mauna Kea. This is what brought positive international media awareness towards the protectors.

In addition to independent writers, there are also new social media news groups coming up to counter the media bias. Smartphones and other cameras to film the arrests show the protectors’ point of view and can often dispute any claims of violence or wrongdoing that the activists are being accused of. The video footage is really important, because it can reach a wide-ranging audience and is more effective than commenting against internet trolls, another big problem.

Facebook discussion groups are the biggest influence, and the increasing membership of about 17,500, show that many of the activists – unless they are actually standing on the summit road of Mauna Kea – are sometimes not even in Hawai‛i themselves. I have seen how awareness can spread virally on the internet. For example, I was following astronomers on Twitter discuss a racist email from prominent faculty members at UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley which called the protectors a “horde of native Hawaiians that are lying”. Since it was still the middle of the night in Hawai’i, I double-checked that no one had posted anything on it yet in any of our Facebook groups, and then I posted it. Within half an hour, members on the US West Coast with connections to Berkeley and the native American students and faculty there were doing what they could do to speak to the Chancellor and organise a protest in solidarity. We kept this circulating online and finally got mainstream media attention after a few weeks. So, one leaked email had this global impact to show how racist and paternalistic the TMT supporters could be.

What are some of the ways in which people are trying to protect Mauna Kea?
The protectors vary in their personal and professional involvement. Some focus more on the environmental aspects and others on the cultural practices impeded by the desecration of Mauna Kea. Some focus more on raising awareness through the dissemination of information, and merchandising is also widespread. Others are plaintiffs going to court against the TMT consortium and speakers at public hearings and roundtables. The latter group of protectors are respected cultural practitioners or UHM scholars and some are even from the previous generation of aloha ‛āina protectors, like Walter Ritte, who was involved in stopping the US Navy bombing on Kaho‛olawe and reclaiming the sacred island for Kānaka Maoli.

I guess I would say I belong to the assortment of writers. While I was blogging for one of the media outlets of the protectors, I wrote an article confronting the haole attitude and the sense of entitlement outsiders were imposing against Kānaka Maoli. Any academic paper publication I write will never acquire the readership in the thousands that I gained from that.

One of the aspects that strikes me about the TMT is the globalised partnership of the project involving the USA, Canada, Japan, China, and India and the lack of discussion around the ownership of the scientific data that is discovered on Mauna Kea. Does dialogue exist between the corporates and the native Hawaiians about intellectual property?

This dialogue does exist, but only in the background or among a minority that claims to speak for native Hawaiians and doesn’t speak for the protectors. It gets brought up by the TMT and their supporters, who argue that Kānaka Maoli are protesting only to gain more money or benefits from the project. The TMT then says they would be paid-off with scholarships, so please step aside and let it be built. In truth, the division doesn’t lie between Kānaka Maoli and the TMT itself, but there are Kānaka Maoli on both sides. When hearing anything said by TMT supporters who are also Kanaka Maoli, the protectors are aware that these individuals are connected to the TMT project and profiting personally in prestige or employment. These connections are seen as the only reason they are speaking as the ‘native Hawaiian voice’ for the TMT and against the protectors.

Others bring in arguments that the telescope could be given a Hawaiian name or that any ‘discoveries’ could pay a sum to Kānaka Maoli. They miss the point the protectors are making: the idea of intellectual property is a Western concept and the ownership of a land lease that the TMT is basing its legal access on also doesn’t apply to the indigenous worldview of the land as family to be cared for. Overall the stand of the protectors is motivated by calls for de-occupation. Critics who argue that the TMT and illegal occupation are two separate issues really don’t understand aloha ‛āina and the immeasurable value land holds to Kānaka Maoli. Some of the most paternalistic arguments refer to the fact that Polynesians practice celestial navigation and came to the Hawaiian Islands with the help of the stars. Of course, then it’s only an extension of Hawaiian knowledge to build a five acre telescope on the sacred mountain that is the navel of Kānaka Maoli creation.

There are also Kanaka Maoli scientists opposed to the TMT project, so it isn’t a science vs culture debate, or even ‘anti-science’ as some like to describe it. It’s the location on the summit of sacred Mauna Kea that is the problem. Japan is part of the TMT consortium and the protectors’ appeals to the Japanese government directly refer to the awareness that Mt Fuji is sacred land. If the Japanese people would never allow for desecration there, why do they insist on it for Mauna Kea?

You are not native Hawaiian, nonetheless you have chosen to become involved with this issue. Can you talk to us a little bit about your position within this protest as a non-native Hawaiian?
I try to be careful in making my own opinions on any internal conflicts that are a part of the sovereignty movement and the protection of Mauna Kea, because I really am just a malihini, a visitor. These are based on my experiences and the access I have been able to have to these discussions. I know that if I didn’t have so many classmates and friends involved the conflict might have passed me by, as I know it does for the many haole friends I have at UHM.

I would say the main factor for my involvement is not just my connection to any individuals, but also to the whole concept of aloha ‛āina. I called it ‘homesick’ above, but I think the reason that I sort of ‘get’ aloha ‛āina comes from my personal background of moving from place to place and being an outsider in many of these. Whereas, in Hawai’i I am often assumed to be an insider by both insiders and outsiders, which gave a sense of home better than before. This may be based on my ethnic appearance which is mistaken to be Polynesian, but probably also thanks to Pacific Islands Studies, where similar concepts apply throughout the region, and discussions with classmates informed me about Kanaka Maoli issues too.

I have been told I adapt well, and maybe because of this I’m invited into forums that other outsiders to Hawai’i may not easily receive access to. I also think that being part-Asian as most people in Hawai’i are, as well as being European instead of American like the imperial oppressor, influence my personality and behaviour that I’m admitted into what could be more exclusive forums.

Despite my ability to ‘pass’, the difficulty is always in knowing when not to speak or only to speak when called upon and with the statement of positionality: ‘I’m not native Hawaiian, but…’. This comes up a lot, which is why I run some of my statements on Hawaiian matters by the friend I mentioned earlier and others, before I get harshly criticised. I think this is necessary and not a hassle at all, because it’s a part of the basic humility and respect towards the community that I’m not quite a part of. It involves the community and those concerned, instead of speaking for them. Honestly, it’s why I don’t know if I’m the right person to be answering these questions or if I should have handed this over to someone else! I do believe that speaking for or with the protectors when not being native Hawaiian may give a better insight into how inclusive the movement is, and that it’s really all about aloha ‛āina, which ‘is a kākou thing’.

Karin Louise Hermes is a Berlin-based academic with an MA in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawai’i. Read more by Karin.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.