Hawaii's Kaniela Ing on Colonialism and the Mauna Kea Protectors


We spoke with Kaniela Ing, the native Hawaiian and democratic socialist who served for six years in the state’s House of Representatives and whose 2018 bid for Congress was endorsed by leading progressive voices and organizations like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Ing shared his insights on the movement of Hawaiians rising up to prevent the construction of a giant $1.4 billion telescope on their most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: Can you give us some background on the protests currently happening in Hawaii? What is the Thirty Meter Telescope project and who are the Mauna Kea protectors?

KI: Sure. The Thirty Meter Telescope, also known as the TMT, is a collaboration between a lot of universities, funders, and private donors, and they’re trying to build this massive structure on Mauna Kea, which is considered to native Hawaiians our most sacred space, our most sacred mountain, in our entire homeland. They’ve been trying to build it for quite a few years now, maybe four or five years at least. The first round was in 2015 and late 2014, and the protectors actually halted construction. The project went through a round of legal challenges and the proponents finally got the clearance from the state’s supreme court. Now TMT is back at it again with help from our current governor and law enforcement.

MFU: Can you talk about what’s happening with the protectors now? Are they still blocking the road to the construction site and being arrested? 

KI: There haven’t been any arrests in the last few days. There was the first round of arrests that were really traumatic for a lot of us because that was our kupuna, also known as elders. They decided that they were the ones who were going to be sitting on the frontline, and if anyone were to be arrested it would be them first. Seeing those images of our elders being arrested really moved a lot of people across the state, and very quickly the situation went from thirty or forty Mauna protectors to I think 3,000 up on the mountain today. It wouldn’t make sense for law enforcement to try to arrest 3,000 people right now in order to help a private entity get up the road — they’re supposed to protect the public, not further private interests — and I think they’re just kind of at a stand off right now. 

There’s a lot of division from the decision-makers. The governor announced an emergency proclamation right after that first round of arrests, which seemed really out of line, so the lieutenant governor, various state senators, and even one of our congress members called that a mistake. They’re asking not to send national guard at all, and to rescind the emergency declaration, because a bunch of elderly folks sitting on the road is not an emergency. There are real emergencies here, like the housing crisis and the climate crisis, that really need some attention, and I think we would be much better served if the governor used his full scale of power to address those instead.

MFU: What types of law enforcement officials were sent in? 

KI: State officers from the Department of Land and Natural Resources were sent. Many of them are tasked with conservation, so this isn’t their job. They don’t want to be doing this, and actually we witnessed law enforcement officers on their hands and knees crying because they were arresting their own family members. That was a decision I think made by the higher-ups, to purposely send officers of native ancestry to kind of divide our community. And it torments both sides. It’s good for things not to escalate, I suppose, but it seems like a racially-loaded call to make. Then there were county police officers in full SWAT gear who loaded up our kupuna into the paddy-wagons, and there was a few hundred national guard. So it’s completely militarized. I think the governor has committed to not sending more national guard, but that’s as far as he went. 

MFU: How are these companies and universities justifying the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope?

KI: Well of course the same argument that any corporation would make — jobs. And education opportunities. But there’s already thirteen telescopes up there. That’s also an argument they’re making — they’re saying there’s already thirteen telescopes. But that’s like me taking a hammer to your windshield and being like, ‘Don’t worry, there’s already some dents in your hood.’ Existing damage and pain isn’t an argument for more, it’s an argument for less. 

They’re also not willing to compromise. If we were to propose, ‘Hey, let’s build on the existing footprint. Let’s decommission some of these older telescopes that are obsolete, and just keep that square footage,’ they’d say no. They want thirty meters or bust. They want their telescope that’s eighteen floors high, in a county that only allows six-floor buildings. I understand that the second tallest building on this whole island is three stories high. They want an eighteen-story building with a footprint that’s anywhere from six to nine football fields, which means a lot of drilling to build something that high. They don’t want anything smaller, and I think that shows we’re the rational, reasonable ones, and they’re approaching this in a my way or the highway colonial fashion. 

The third thing they’re saying is that this project is going to help us revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Now I think our kupuna and the things that we learn from our native people will help us revolutionize our understanding of the universe. And when you look at what else is being built, there’s a thirty-nine meter telescope in Chile that’s much bigger that’s nearly functional, and there’s a new Hubble, the next-generation, cutting-edge James Webb space telescope that’s near completion as well. In reality the TMT is B-Team. Astronomy will be fine without it.

But the better argument is, if there’s an alternate location that’s not on a sacred mountain fit for a purpose, build it there. And there is, it’s the Canary Islands. They have a website called the TMT La Palma already up. And the project manager, Gary Sanders, said so himself that they can do marvelous astronomy there and that they’d be happy to move if protests continue. 

MFU: Are there any local efforts to strengthen native Hawaiian land rights?

KI: There’s been many over the decades. I think we’re at a tipping point now. You have grassroots movements, some of the Mauna protectors like Walter Ritte, whose first stance like this was in the 1970s when he occupied Kahoolawe to stop the military from bombing one of our islands as a test location. Now he’s up on Mauna, and he has chained himself to a cattle guard. It’s really nobel what’s happening up there. 

We have the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and various advocacy organizations that now oppose and have demanded a halt to construction. They didn’t go this far in 2015, and this year they have, so the movement has grown. It’s beyond I think what’s sacred religiously to some Hawaiians; it’s sacred culturally to all of us now. And you see people on the Left and Right in corporate spaces, non-profit spaces, following the lead of working class and poor Hawaiians. It’s a real powerful organizing model that I think we can learn from across the world. It’s very strictly adhering to kapu aloha, which is nonviolent direct action. 

You can see it on the Mauna, there’s so much love and aloha there for everyone, and it created this community where all labor is visible. It’s like everything that’s wrong with American capitalism today is subverted in the most beautiful way right now on the Mauna.

MFU: Some reports have claimed that there are drugs and alcohol at the protests. You’ve compared those words with Trump’s words about immigrants, calling them “painful, shocking words meant to conjure racist imagery among an otherwise sympathetic public.” Who made those claims and can you say more about this framing?

KI: Our governor, Governor Ige, said that in a press conference in order to justify his emergency proclamation. He won’t cite any source. He says law enforcement told him that, basically shifting blame to the officers. But the mayor for Hawaii county and the lieutenant governor went up there and their reports were in the exact contrary. The mayor said, ‘I have a six year-old granddaughter who I love more than anything in this world and I feel perfectly safe leaving her here alone.’

Even if it were true, which it isn’t (there’s a strict rule of no alcohol or any sort of drugs, aside from the first aid Mauna medics have organized), there’s no reason to say those things in a press conference other than to paint that racist imagery in the public’s mind. It’s really disappointing because as Hawaiians, as native people, we’ve been facing these kinds of stereotypes for generations.

MFU: You served in Hawaii’s House of Representatives from 2012 to 2018, then ran for the US House of Representatives in 2018. Do you plan on running for Congress again?

KI: No plans right now. For me, I want to be where I feel like I could make the biggest impact. And for now, for native Hawaiians, I think that’s how a lot of people are starting to feel. I see people working in magazines, CEOs from companies, professors, folks with PhDs, and lawyers — they’re up on the Mauna too. We’re all trying to figure out what our kuleana (responsibility) is right now, and how we could do our best, play our position best, for this movement. I don’t think running for office right now is that for me. There’s space for a lot of different things, for amplifiers, thought leaders, for people who can push the issue out on a national level. It’s all hands on deck right now.

And the beauty about this is, when it comes to those press conferences, when they say, ‘Hey, there are not enough facilities on the Mauna,’ our lāhui (native Hawaiian community) goes and brings more up. And when they say, ‘There’s disorder,’ we blast the message of truth even further. So it just backfires, they’re just fueling more and more, and the unity is something I’ve never seen. 

MFU: Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about this issue?

KI: Yeah. There are a lot of great leaders up there. The frontline has mostly been native Hawaiian women. It’s a really intersectional struggle. But I think a quote from Walter Ritte, from uncle Walter, really explains it. Walter Ritte is a kapuna, a famous activist. He said, “They took all the fish out of our ocean, they put all the tourists on our coastlines, they poisoning our farmlands. Now they want to take our most sacred mountain. It’s like eliminating us. We cannot do this alone. We need everyone to rise up.” So it’s not just this one project; it’s generations of persecution.

I didn’t know my Hawaiian last name in my family because my great great grandmother had to drop it because she wasn’t allowed to speak Hawaiian at schools. When I found it out we named our son Kekipi, which means the rebellion, or the resistance. So it’s all of those things compounded, and this is a flashpoint, a tipping point of generations of injustice.

Kelly Wilkins