The legacy of colonialism on public lands created the Mauna Kea conflict

Public lands are often the only places where Indigenous sacred landscapes still exist.

 

Demonstrators gather on July 15th to block the road at the base of Hawai’i’s tallest mountain. Since then, thousands of Native Hawai’ians have come together to maintain the blockade.
Caleb Jones/AP Images

If you spend much time in the American West, you’re likely to see someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Public Land Owner.” It’s an assertion that public lands are owned by everyone and that their management is of critical importance to us all. In Hawai’i, a battle over public land and Indigenous rights has complicated that sentiment for many, as Native Hawai’ians find themselves forced to defend their homeland.

For weeks, thousands of Native Hawai’ians have been blocking the only access road to Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in Hawai’i, to oppose the construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at its summit. After 10 years of fighting its construction, Native leaders began demonstrating after Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a “notice to proceed,” allowing the University of Hawaii, the permit holder for the TMT, to begin building. 

The conflict on Mauna Kea — between Indigenous people and the state of Hawaii — illustrates not only the issue of how public lands are managed but also an emerging debate over how Indigenous rights to those lands are addressed. What we see in these conflicts are two ways of viewing and using public lands in the American West: as places for development and as culturally important landscapes. 

As an Indigenous person, I can identify with Native Hawai’ians who want to save what is left of their sacred mountain and their right to access it, before it is overdeveloped. As a scholar, however, with an undergraduate degree in physics, no less, I understand and even sympathize with scientists who want to build one of the world’s largest telescopes in order to better understand the mysteries of our universe. A telescope on top of a mountain is ideal — but perhaps not on this mountain.

As governments push to further develop public lands, places Indigenous people see as their last refuge, conflicts between Native people and federal or state governments will only increase and intensify in the coming years. 

Colonization of Hawai’i began in the late 18th century. American businessmen continued the process of dispossessing land and resources when they overthrew the Native Hawai’ian monarchy in 1893, later ceding their “public lands” to the U.S. government via annexation in 1898. Native Hawai’ians have always contended that their land was illegally taken, a view that President Clinton codified in his 1993 apology. When Hawai’i became a state in 1959, the U.S. transferred what was left of these public lands to the new state. Today, Mauna Kea is no longer owned by the Native Hawai’ian community. It is now on state public lands.

Mauna Kea’s story, unfortunately, is not unique.  

Twenty years ago, the Apache in Arizona tried to stop the construction of the Mount Graham International Telescope on their sacred mountain in the Coronado National Forest. More recently we have witnessed similar struggles at Bears Ears in Utah and the Badger-Two Medicine in Montana, where, despite Indigenous protests, protections for important Native lands have been removed or put into question.

An artist's rendition of the Thirty Meter Telescope at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.
TMT International Observatory

Public lands are often the only places where Native American sacred landscapes still exist since so much land was lost to conquest and colonization, and they are among the few places where Native people can practice their religions, hunt, fish or gather their sacred medicines. Hawai’ian leaders have consistently stated that the demonstration at Mauna Kea is not about “science vs. religion.” It is about development on public lands and the Native people’s right to steward those lands. 

“This mountain represents more than just their building they want to build,” Hawai’ian activist and elder Walter Ritte told the Hawaii Tribune Herald. “This mountain represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give them.” 

Mauna Kea is named for the god Wakea or “sky father,” one of the nine gods or goddesses connected to the mountain. Mo‘olelo, the narratives passed down through generations of Native Hawai’ians, tell the histories of these sacred landscapes. 

But what is their future on public lands?

This past week, William Pendley was appointed the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, formerly president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, has a long history of advocating for development on public lands — including Native American sacred landscapes. Most recently, he defended an oil and gas company’s lease in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine region — on my ancestral homelands and the sacred lands of the Blackfeet. Earthjustice and a coalition of Native American groups have asked the Department of Interior for Pendley to recuse himself as the attorney of record for all matters concerning that lease. To date, he has not done so.

I went to Mauna Kea when the demonstrations began to stand with Native Hawai’ians because we face a similar foe, which 30-year old Native Hawai’ian leader Kahookahi Kanuha, passionately described, “Our aina (land) is in danger. Our lahui (nation) is in danger. ... If we want to stop this, if we want to beat this settler-state system that is forcing itself upon us, we need to rise up and stand together.” 

It is time for “public-land owners” in the American West to stand with Indigenous people to protect public lands from development, because these conflicts — like the fight over Mauna Kea — will only continue to grow.

Rosalyn LaPier is an award-winning Indigenous writer and ethnobotanist with a BA in physics and a Ph.D. in environmental history. She is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and Métis. Email NewTowncarShare News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Republish Print
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Live in a spectacular part of the West and work with great people to build power and win! The Western Organization of Resource Councils is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MONTANA WATERSHED COORDINATION COUNCIL
    About MWCC: The Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) is a dynamic network advancing the Watershed Approach to conservation across Montana. The Watershed Approach is a...
  • COALITION FOR THE UPPER SOUTH PLATTE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    http://cusp.ws/jobs
  • MOUNTAIN BIKE HEAVEN!
    Home For Sale $320,000. Apple Valley, UT. It is in a very quiet, peaceful part of the county and has the dark night sky. It...
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]