Shouts of “ku kiai mauna” — the guardians of the mountain — could heard Thursday at Mauna Kea’s summit as police led 12 arrested protesters away from the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) construction site.
The Hawaii Police Department said they were blocking access to construction workers who were en route to the summit to begin work on the telescope.
Scientists hoping to see 13 billion light years away, giving them a look into the early years of the universe, are facing opposition from Native Hawaiian groups who say the construction site of a new telescope is on sacred land.
While the Native Hawaiian groups opposing the project do not oppose the telescope itself, they disagree with the location of the construction on Mauna Kea, the highest point in the state.
Scientists revere the site for another reason. They believe it’s an ideal location for one of the world’s largest telescopes because of the site’s remote and sheltered position, nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano.
Opponents who question whether land appraisals were done correctly and whether Native Hawaiian groups had been consulted have tried to prevent the construction of the $1.4 billion telescope.
Native Hawaiians believe the site where the telescope is being assembled is sacred because it is where their creation story begins, said Kealoha Pisciotta, an opponent of the telescope project.
“It is the burial grounds of some of our most sacred and revered ancestors,” Pisciotta said. “It is a place where we go for sanctuary and release from the world around us, and it is also the home of our god.”
All of the highest points in the islands are considered the home of deities, she said.
Protests also disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony last year, but no one was arrested. In fact, some protesters who yelled during the ceremony later apologized to event organizers and helped put away chairs, Pisciotta said.
“We said aloha to each other, and we hugged,” she said.
Between 75 and 100 protesters, who referred to themselves as protectors, participated in the second roadblock this week on the Mauna Kea Access Road.
The TMT opponents, who arrived outside the Mauna Kea visitor center at the 9,000-foot level before sunrise, held the workers back for the first few hours as they staged multiple roadblocks up the steep, winding summit road.
The crews eventually reached the construction area and began their work at about noon, but not before the protesters held another stand at the site, which they filled with the sounds of Hawaiian chants and songs.
About 30 to 40 TMT opponents gathered at the summit, and warmly embraced those who were willing to be detained as they were loaded into a police van.
The arrests were carried out peacefully and with little anger, with the exception of 70 year old Moani Akaka who was outraged with the idea having to be handcuffed.
They stood afterward in a prayer circle on the summit road with a few police officers who joined them at their request.
Police said they warned protesters after an incident Monday that anyone who blocked the road would be arrested.
“We regret that police action had to be taken to enable our legal access to the project site,” Thirty Meter Telescope project manager Gary Sanders said in a statement.
Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for University of Hawaii, which operates the astronomy precinct, said the TMT location will be the last new telescope construction site on the mountain. Any additional projects will have to replace existing telescopes.
Meisenzahl said that the university is saddened about the arrests, but that access to site must be maintained.
The university sub-leases the land atop Mauna Kea for the telescope project, and it has always maintained that protesters would have free access to the site as long as they were not breaking any laws, he said. Meisenzahl said he was not certain why the arrests were made.
The observatory is expected to be operational by 2024, the same year a 39-meter telescope is expected to be completed in Chile.
The following people were taken to the Hilo police station for processing and released after posting $250 bail:
- Ronald Fujiyoshi, 75, of Hilo
- Moanikeala Akaka, 70, of Hilo
- Joseph Kanuha, 56, of Kailua-Kona
- Eric Heaukulani, 38, of Kealakekua
- Kelii Ioane Jr., 63, of Hilo
- James Albertini, 68, of Kurtistown
- Erin O’Donnell, 40, of Kamuela
- Craig Neff, 56 ,of Pāpaʻikou
- Gary Oamilda, 66, of Ocean View
- Chase Kahookahi Kanuha, 26, of Kailua-Kona
- Dannette Henrietta Godines, 45, of Hilo
- Lambert Lavea, 27, of Mountain View
Additional enforcement was conducted by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which is responsible for enforcement on property owned by the state.
Hawaii County Police and the Thirty Meter Telescope have issued separate media releases regarding Thursday’s mass arrests on Mauna Kea.
The Mauna Kea Access Road has been blocked to TMT construction crews by a group of Mauna Kea “protectors” for about a week. Today, county police arrested twelve people, all of them from Hawaii Island. Big Island Video News filmed the incident which took place at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.
“During the arrests, our officers practiced the Hawaiʻi Police Department’s core value of compassion,” said Assistant Chief Henry Tavares, who oversees police operations in East Hawaii, in the media release.