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    Indigenous peoples in the United States

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Indigenous World 2020: Hawai’i

Ka Pae Aina (the Hawaiian archipelago) is formed of 137 islands, reefs and ledges stretching for 2,451 kilometres south-east / north-west in the Pacific Ocean and covering a total of some 16,640 km2.

The Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Ka Pae Aina or Hawaii, account for some 20% of the total 1.2 million population. In 1893, the Government of Hawaii, led by Queen Liliuokalani, was illegally overthrown and a provisional government was established without the consent of the Kanaka Maoli and in violation of international treaties and law. It was formally annexed by the United States and became the Territory of Hawai’I in 1898.

From 1959, Hawaii has gained statehood, and formed a part of the United States of America. The Kanaka Maoli continue to fight for self-determination and self-governance and suffer due to past injustices and violations of their rights, ongoing to this day. Some members participate in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which views the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 as illegal and views the subsequent annexation of Hawaii by the United States as illegal. The movement seeks, among other things, free association and/or independence from the United States.

There have been formal requests for redress from the United States for the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani, and for what is described as a prolonged military occupation beginning with the 1898 annexation. The so called “Apology Resolution”1 passed by US Congress in 1993 is cited as a major impetus by the movement for Hawaiian sovereignty.

The United States announced in 2010 that it would support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as moral guidance after voting against it in 2007. The United States has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169. While American Indians in the United States are generally American citizens, they are also citizens of their own nations. However, the UNDRIP guides the actions and aspirations of Hawaii’s Indigenous people, together with local declarations such as the Palapala Paoakalani.2

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

Several hundred demonstrators, mainly Indigenous Polynesians (Kanaka Maoli) have been blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) since mid-July 2019.3 This is set to be the largest telescope in the northern hemisphere.

This blockade is the culmination of a ferocious battle that has been tearing the Hawaiian Islands apart. After the site for the telescope was identified in 2009, preparations continued toward construction. From 2014, protests have been continuing against the TMT and in December 2015, Hawaii’s Supreme Court declared the TMT’s construction permit invalid due to failures in the consultation process in an apparent victory for the protestors. This obstacle was removed in October 2018, however, when the court finally gave the go-ahead for construction to proceed.4 Since then, the campaign against the TMT has regained its momentum.

Hundreds of Indigenous people have been campaigning over the last six years to put a stop to this giant telescope project as its preferred site is on the sacred Mauna Kea volcano on the main island. When David Ige, the island’s Democrat governor, announced the start of works in July 2019, these groups set up camp on the mountain and blocked the access road, determined to allow nothing to pass.5

On 15 July, protestors blocked the access road to the mountain preventing the planned construction from commencing. On 17 July, 33 protestors were arrested, all of whom were kūpuna, or elders, as the blockade of the access road continued.6

This struggle is symbolic of the defence of Indigenous rights across the island chain. The TMT, as it is known, is being funded by an international consortium of universities from five different countries and has a valid scientific value. It is also intended to be one of the largest telescopes in the world. The total estimated cost of the works amounts to USD$1.4 billion. However, opposition to these kinds of projects, which have neither respected Indigenous rights nor their right to consultation is not new. Thirteen other smaller telescopes have already been established on Mauna Kea since the 1960s. This in part is due to the volcano’s topography and location as it is an ideal site sheltered from all light pollution. The issue of Indigenous Peoples, and their rights regarding their lands, culture and religious practices has continued to come into conflict with attempts to build these large-scale projects. While the construction of these 13 observatories has succeeded, they have been consistently accompanied by protracted litigation. The University of Hawaii has committed to remove five of these existing telescopes as a condition of the permit to build the TMT. The three chosen so far are among the oldest telescopes on Mauna Kea.7

According to legend, Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the archipelago (4,201 metres) is the place where Wakea, the god of the sky, met Papa Hanau Moku, the goddess of the earth. It is not only a sacred space, but an ancestral burial ground where many Hawaiians from the Kanaka Maoli tribe are buried.8


Notes and references

  1. United States Public Law 103-150, is a Joint Resolution of the S. Congress adopted in 1993 that “acknowledges that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum” (U.S. Public Law 103-150 (107 Stat. 1510)).
  2. The Paoakalani Declaration, accessed 27 February 2020 at: http://www.papaolalokahi.org/images/Paoakalani_Declaration_05_reduced.pdf
  3. Finnerty, Ryan “TMT Supporters Rally at State Capitol, Opponents Assemble Across the Street”. Hawaii Public Radio. 26 July 2019: https://www.org/post/tmt-supporters-rally-state-capitol-opponents- assemble-across-street#stream/0
  4. “Hawaii top court approves controversial Thirty Meter Telescope”. BBC News, 31 October 2018: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46046864
  5. de Graffenried, Valerie “Hawaï invoque ses dieux contre un projet de telescope”. Le Temps, 20 September 2019: https://www.letemps.ch/monde/hawai- invoque-dieux-contre-un-projet-telescope
  6. Kelleher, Jennifer Sinco and Jones, Caleb “Hawaiian Elders Arrested as Standoff Continues Over a Telescope Slated for a Sacred Mountain”. Time, 18 July Archived on: https://web.archive.org/web/20190718100835/https:// time.com/5629162/hawaii-mauna-kea-telescope-protest/
  7. Witze, Alexandra “How the Fight over a Hawaii Mega Telescope Could Change Astronomy” Scientific American : Nature Magazine, 20 January 2020: https://scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-fight-over-a-hawaii-mega- telescope-could-change-astronomy/
  8. Op Cit. (5)

Patrick Kulesza is the Executive Director of GITPA (Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones www.gitpa.org)


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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