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The Indigenous World 2021: Hawai'i

Ka Pae Aina (the Hawai’ian Archipelago) is made up of 137 islands, reefs and ledges stretching 2,451 kilometres southeast / northwest in the Pacific Ocean and covering a total of 16,640 square kilometres. The Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous Peoples of Ka Pae Aina or Hawai’i, make up around 20% of the total population of 1.2 million. In 1893, the Government of Hawai’i, led by Queen Lili’uokalani, was illegally overthrown and a provisional government established without the consent of the Kanaka Maoli and in violation of  international treaties and law. It was officially annexed by the United States and became the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. Hawaii acquired statehood in 1959 and became a part of the United States of America. The Kanaka Maoli continue to fight for self-determination and self-government and continue to suffer from past injustices and ongoing violations of their rights. Some members are involved in the Hawai’ian sovereignty movement, which considers the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893 illegal, along with the subsequent annexation of Hawai’i by the United States. Among other things, the movement seeks free association with and/or independence from the United States.

There have been formal requests for reparations from the United States for the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 and for what has been described as a prolonged military occupation, starting with the 1898 annexation. The so-called “Apology Resolution” passed by the U.S. Congress in 1993 is cited as a major boost by the Hawai’ian sovereignty movement.

The United States announced in 2010 that it would endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a moral guide after voting against it in 2007. The United States has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169. Indigenous people born in the United States of America are generally U.S. citizens; they are also citizens of their own nation. However, the UNDRIP guides the actions and aspirations of Hawai’i's Indigenous Peoples, as do local declarations such as the Palapala Paoakalani.

Events in 2020

The Kanaka Maoli’s opposition to construction of the observatory on Mauna Kea continued in 2020.

Statement from the Governor of Hawaii on the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT)

On 19 February 2020, Hawaii Governor David Ige told reporters that he had reassured the head of the Department of Education, Science and Technology that Hawaii remained committed to the rule of law and would ensure peaceful and safe access to the project site.[1] Ige said:

I would like to assure them of the efforts we are making to resolve the disputes over the project, through the ho‘oponopono[2] sessions that are underway and the Reconciliation Commission that I will be forming to talk about the broader issues of reconciliation with indigenous Hawaiians.

Hawai’i Island Mayor Harry Kim had previously said that he wanted to delay construction of the TMT for two months or more and that the extra time could allow TMT officials to reach an agreement with the project’s opponents. “I would like to have a longer extension so that we can use this quiet, non-confrontational period to see what we can do to move forward,” he said.[3]

Anti-TMT forces calling themselves kia'i or “mountain protectors” believe that Mauna Kea is sacred and that building the telescope would be a desecration. Demonstrators have occupied the road leading to the summit, delaying construction for several months. Mayor H. Kim negotiated a temporary truce in December 2019 that reopened the road and suspended construction of the telescope. The truce is expected to expire in less than two weeks, however, and Kim says it will take longer than this to find common ground. TMT spokesperson Scott Ishikawa confirmed that Mayor Kim has contacted TMT for an extension. However, he stated that TMT had no deadline to begin construction of Mauna Kea.[4]

Codification of rules for activities authorized on Mauna Kea

Meanwhile, the new rules developed by the University of Hawaii to regulate permitted activities on Mauna Kea could take up to a year to be fully implemented, officials have said. The governor approved the rules in January 2020. But it will likely be six to 12 months before they are implemented, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald has reported.[5]Full implementation will require a number of steps,” said Greg Chun, member of the Mauna Kea Management Office’s Board of Directors. The rules prohibit waste, speeding, noise, fires, drugs, alcohol, drones and camping. They are also intended to regulate commercial activities, circuits and motorized traffic, including off-road driving.

COVID-19 spread is limiting the presence of TMT opponents on Mauna Kea

Amidst the continuing spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, and the respiratory difficulties it causes, native Hawai’ians who oppose the construction of the TMT have reduced their presence on the Hawai’ian mountainside.

On 14 March 2020, the Pu'uhonua o Pu'uhuluhulu community camped on the mountainside issued a statement on their website and via Twitter asking kupuna (the elderly) and “those at higher risk of respiratory disease to stay home and off the mountain”.[6]

The group, which describe itself as kia'i or guardians, also asked visitors and supporters to refrain from visiting Mauna Kea until the worst of the pandemic had passed.

On 1 April 2020, Hawaii reported a total of 258 confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

In addition to taking the generally recommended precautions, the kia'i said they were concerned that tourists visiting Hawaii from elsewhere would put their elderly at increased risk.

Although the elderly have been asked to withdraw for their own safety, there is still a kia'i presence on the mountain, Kupuna and Kia'i spokesman Noe Noe Wong-Wilson told Space.com. “We're still here,” she said, adding that this reduction in their active presence did not mean that the movement was winding down.[7]

Controversy between TMT opponents and Canadian astronomers

On 27 September 2020, the Canadian Astronomical Society designated the controversial TMT as its priority project for the next 10 years. The Canadian government undertook to contribute CAD $250 million of the TMT’s total CAD $2.4 billion cost in 2015. However, the challenges have forced Canadian astronomers involved in the project to consider how best to reconcile their scientific ambitions with Indigenous rights.[8]

Astrophysicist Sara Ellison, President of the Canadian Astronomical Society, said:

It is not for the astronomers to make the final decision about the future of the TMT. The Canadian Astronomical Society, which recently made the TMT its priority project for the decade, has nonetheless been careful to advise a policy based on indigenous consent in its long-term plan. It is up to the indigenous Hawaiians and the State of Hawaii to decide whether or not we are welcome. If we aren’t then we won't go.[9]

Pauline Bramby, astronomer and co-chair of the group that drafted the long-term plan, hopes that “the creation of an indigenous consent policy will spark more conversations among astronomers, where we can reflect on the kinds of privileges we have as astronomers and how these privileges relate to colonialism”.[10]

Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli Professor of Indigenous Politics at the University of Toronto, considers that:

relegating the construction of the TMT to the status of an internal issue in Hawaii is a way for Canadian astronomers to distance themselves from the ethical considerations that arise when dealing with human populations. In fact, to be able to study the stars and the universe, they have to face the people of our planet.[11]

Mr. Maile hopes that Canada will withdraw from this project and wants to raise awareness of the Kanaka Maoli position. He believes that, although the conflict surrounding the TMT may seem to be a clash between culture and science, it is rather a territorial and jurisdictional issue resulting from colonialism and the fact that decision-making control has been taken away from the Indigenous Peoples.


Patrick Kulesza is the Executive President of GITPA, the Groupe international de travail pour les peuples autochtones. www.gitpa.org

This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Press, Associated, and Ku`uwehi Hiraishi. "Hawaii Governor Recommits To TMT; Protest Costs Now At Least $12M." Hawaiʻi Public Radio, 19 February, 2020. https://www.hawaiipublicradio.org/post/hawaii-governor-recommits-tmt-protest-costs-now-least-12m#stream/0

[2] The Hoʻoponopono (ho-o-pono-pono, sometimes translated as “putting things in order” or “restoring balance”) is a social and spiritual tradition of repentance and reconciliation among Hawaiian elders.

[3] Brestovansky, Michael. "Mayor Asks TMT To Delay Construction For Two More Months". Hawaii Tribune Herald, 18 February, 2020. https://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/2020/02/18/hawaii-news/mayor-asks-tmt-to-delay-construction-for-two-more-months/

[4] Idem.

[5] Brestovansky, Michael. "Implementation Of Maunakea Rules Could Take 6-12 Months". Hawaii Tribune-Herald, 16 February, 2020. https://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/2020/02/16/hawaii-news/implementation-of-maunakea-rules-could-take-6-12-months/

[6] "COVID-19 Statement: FOR THE SAFETY OF OUR KUPUNA AND CAMP KIA‘I". Puuhonua O Puuhuluhulu, 14 March, 2020. https://www.puuhuluhulu.com/; https://www.puuhuluhulu.com/s/COVID-19-Puuhuluhulu.pdf

[7] Urrutia, Doris Elin. "At Thirty Meter Telescope Protest, Native Hawaiian Elders Leave Mountain Over Coronavirus Threat". Space.Com, 2 April, 2020. https://www.space.com/coronavirus-shrinks-thirty-meter-telescope-protest-in-hawaii.html

[8] Jones, Caleb. "La Construction D’Un Télescope À Hawaï Oppose Toujours Autochtones Et Astronomes". Radio-Canada.Ca, 27 September, 2020. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/espaces-autochtones/1736910/ttm-astronomie-science-autochtones-kanaka-maoli-mauna-kea

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.



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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