An Interview with a Mauna Protector


Dr. Kalama O Ka Aina (Kanaka Maoli) comes from a Native Hawaiian family that has resisted colonialism and the corporate takeover of traditional lands for generations.

A Wake-Up Call to the Rest of The World”: An Interview with a Mauna Protector

Dr. Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu (Kanaka Maoli), lifelong protector of sacred Native Hawaiian lands and co-founder of the Mauna Medic Healers Hui, gave an interview to People’s Tribune Correspondent Adam Gottlieb on July 2, 2019. This was shortly after Hawaii Governor David Ike announced on June 20th that the State had given the green light to the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project (TMT) on Mauna Kea, after years of heated protests and legal battles.

AG: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the struggle you are in now.

KN: My name is Dr. Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu… Where I came from, my family has been in generations on the front line struggles in protecting Kanaka Maoli land, life, and culture. We’ve been a part of an ongoing international struggle both working for the liberation of all workers, but also creating indigenous networking particularly through the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific. My father was on the steering committee for that. We’ve just been through generations, even here during the Kingdom times, here in Hawaii. We’ve always stood up for protecting the people and, if necessary, putting our bodies on the line.

A couple of things that I focused on [growing up] are food sovereignty and fighting for kalo, which is the taro, of the land. And also we’ve been fighting on land struggles that came from that, as they tried to destroy our traditional lifestyles… fighting for water rights, land rights, resisting eviction, and standing up for places in unity such as Standing Rock, where I was a co-founder of the Standing Rock Medic Healers Council. And I’m also one of the co-founders for the Mauna Medic Healers Hui. We utilize a model that we developed over at Standing Rock to provide emergent, urgent care in times of conflict. And we’re applying the same principles here.

AG: Are you a medic yourself?

KN: I’m a physician, but I’ve also been trained to be a street medic as well. It’s a different philosophy from what we do in the clinic. I can do higher-level medical treatment, but when you’re on the front lines, there’s a different philosophy around that – a different need and priority that you need to follow, in which the state agencies and their resources aren’t necessarily going to be on your side.

In 2017 a similar struggle happened on another Mauna called Haleakala, where one of our Kia’i [protectors] that stood up against the destruction of their Wao Akua, or their sacred peak, was roughly taken down, violently, and to this day he suffers permanent brain injury.

AG: Could you give us a brief background on the long and somewhat complicated history of the struggle to protect Mauna Kea and stop the Thirty Meter Telescope project?

This is an indigenous land struggle, and so in order to understand where that lies, you have to understand, you know, going back a hundred and twenty-five years during the overthrow of our kingdom. From 1840, we were an internationally recognized sovereign nation. We were part of the family of nations on the level of England and Britain and France and the United States. We were a global power with embassies all over the world, and not a lot of people realize that. We had 98% literacy. We had a fully developed free medical, educational system that is in many ways what people envision communism to be, or socialism to be. We had already envisioned that. We also had the first constitution that enshrined non-discrimination, which said that anybody who was a slave who came to Hawaii would immediately be freed, and no one was allowed to be discriminated [against] based upon the color of their skin or their racial origin.

So we have this very egalitarian, international, neutral, friendly nation, which was then taken over by greedy businessmen and also the United States, for the interests of Manifest Destiny and spreading a military might throughout the rest of the world. So, Hawaii has become Pacific Command [PACOM] for half of the world’s surface and about half of the world’s population — in order to enact the United States’ might, in order to extract resources from around the world. So Hawaii is a very critical site, and… is now increasingly being recognized as never being legally annexed, because in order to have a legal annexation you either have to have a treaty between both nations or a 2/3 vote by Congress… and that never happened… So we have these Kingdom lands, these lands that belong to the Kanaka Maoli people and were stolen and seized illegally, and called ceded lands. And those lands, even though they have supposedly transferred title over to the state of Hawaii, they have a responsibility to go in trust to the Hawaiian people.

Now these lands that Mauna Kea is on, those are Hawaiian lands. Those are Hawaiian Kingdom lands. And the other thing that’s really important to understand is that in our traditional way of land stewardship, there were certain lands that were [considered sacred]. The oceans were for the deep whales, and needed to be considered sacred. And we know now with climate change how important the whales are at producing phytoplankton. And half the oxygen that’s produced in the world is actually produced by the ocean, and so keeping that sacred is really important. Then you have the Wao Kanaka, which is where the humans, the people, lived. And we cultivated that. And then we also had different layers and stratifications going all the way up to the highest peaks, and that is where Mauna Kea and Haleakala are at, which we deemed the Wao Akua, or the realm of the gods, in which people are not supposed to destroy those lands. They’re not supposed to build on them. They are only supposed to be accessed for traditional and sacred ceremony, and then you’re supposed to come down.

Now, science has recognized that Mauna Kea has provided tremendous resources of protection for the people of Hawaii. Two things in particular come to mind: one is that it’s the highest mountain from the ocean floor to the summit. And if you look throughout the entire Pacific, it has played a significant role in leading our people home using traditional voyaging techniques. But with increasing destabilization of climate change, where the weather is becoming increasingly unstable, what Mauna Kea has done is it has diverted multiple hurricanes away from the Hawaiian Islands, making it possible for our peoples to actually survive when they normally should have been devastated. And as climate change happens, as hurricanes occur more often, that role of that mountain is starting to become increasingly important and clear. The other thing that is really important about that is if you can look at an island ecosystem, the water is incredibly important in the middle of the ocean where you have to be able to drink water. That’s actually the aquifer source for the entire island of Moku o Keawe, which is the Big Island. So if they were to put an 18-story [building] — the largest building on the entire island of Hawaii — and dig all the way into the surface of this very delicate ecosystem, what they risk is incredible contamination of the entire island’s aquifer. And The United States has already destroyed one of the water plates and aquifers from one of our islands, called Kaho’olawe, through to the bombing over there.

So that’s the important thing: understanding that it is really a native land issue; it’s a scientific technological issue for sustainability; and it’s not specifically about a telescope, although they’re trying to frame it as that. It’s really about the destruction of the environment and the people who are willing to stand up and protect it.

AG: If you could take us up to the present moment… now that the state has approved the contruction of the Thirty Meter Telescope… how would you describe where the struggle is at currently?

KN: Essentially what happened is there were several legal avenues that we were pursuing in order to protect the land and actually utilize the state of Hawaii and the United States, the laws, in order to stop the construction of the telescope. Some of the key legal battles have decided that the TMT can move forward. And so at this point what we’re looking at is there are some additional legal challenges that we can raise and people will continue to raise them, but it looks like they have decided to move forward with it and, you know, they continue to do that in Hawaii a lot because we have a very complicated legal system over here. They will move forward just like they did with the Dakota Access Pipeline, just like they do with a wide variety of other things where they don’t have complete and total clearance for it, but you know, might makes right, and so we’re at the point right now that in order for it to stop, in order to protect the mountain, in order to protect the realm of the gods really, the only thing that’s going to be able to stand in the way of the destruction of the sacred is us.

It looks like the State of Hawaii has already… [effectively] requisitioned 2.5 million dollars for the defense. The entity that protects that particular site — the government entity — has purchased an LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device]. They already have… MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] and several other paramilitary types of equipment that they have developed as part of the militarization of the police that is happening all throughout the United States. It certainly entered the the Hawaii law enforcement very strongly, and so it seems to be clear that they’re gonna ramp up. And you know we’re going to show up again in peaceful prayer, and we’re going to show up to protect the sacred. We will remain in ceremony, as we always have. But it sounds like they are prepared to bring violence into our communities and upon our people. And we are prepared to go in prayer. And whatever decision that they decide to make in order to bring violence, it won’t be us to bring the violence; it will be them.

AG: Why do Protectors of the Mauna draw such strong comparisons between Standing Rock, which was about an oil pipeline, and this struggle over an Extremely Large Telescope?

KN: Well, Standing Rock was always about Mni Wiconi. The fundamental philosophy of standing rock was to protect the water. And if you look back decades, centuries back, with the way that the European and United States economic structure has dealt with pollution and destruction… especially through the Pacific: “dilution is the solution to pollution.” So in other words, if something is bad, all they have to do is just dump it into a big enough body of water, and it will be diluted enough so that, you know, nobody will notice the difference. You can really see historically what that’s done to the Thames [River in England]. The Thames for hundreds of years has been this most disgusting body of water. And this cultural perspective of not respecting the waterways is really connected to not really understanding the preciousness of limited resources and the planet, and also husbanding what resources you have.

So not [just] talking about recycling, not just talking about utilizing (that means first protecting the planet)… really being aware of your role in the world, and being conscious of the ecosystem that you’re at. And if you protect and you respect limited resources, and you identify what is sacred, this was a way, our way, a means of indigenous peoples really perpetuating technology in a really egalitarian way to the masses: for us to identify that there are certain places that you did not destroy. If England and Europe could look at the Thames as recognizing that that was a water source, maybe the extreme diseases and the plagues that have afflicted England would not have occurred. And when they went to indigenous places like, you know, Hawaii — when they went to North Dakota or Moku Honu [Turte Island] or Puerto Rico, and they thought that people were weak, and our immune system was weak, it was simply that we understood that we had sacred rituals and also practices and prayers that identify that there are just some places you did not destroy. There are certain things that you did not pollute. And even if you could get away with it immediately, that the thing is it’s not about how far you can get away with it, but recognizing what is precious and what needs to be protected.

So there is a massive imbalance that’s happening in the world right now, and that’s why you’re seeing climate change. And so this is why indigenous peoples are around the world at the forefront. It’s because we recognize the things that are supposed to be sacred, that there are certain balances. The earth is only able to rebound to a certain point before the balance is tipped. And so we identify — for a really long time we’ve identified — with Standing Rock. In fact, before Standing Rock was a thing, they came to Mauna Kea in 2015, and that’s where they got the term “protectors,” from our word Kia’i… that’s where they got the idea of a protector, and also an encampment, and blocking the way: from the Mauna Kea struggle. And we learned from the native peoples too. That’s why we went there, because they came to us, to help protect our site as well, and that’s why we went in large force. The Mauna Kea protectors were at Standing Rock. I helped create the Medic Healers Council, the Director of the Water Protectors Legal Collective was Kanaka Maoli… one of the first arrests was Malia, she was a Mauna Kea protector. So there’s a very deep, deep connection between the Standing Rock struggle and the people that are fighting [TMT], because we all know that the struggles are united.

AG: Why is this narrative that this telescope is for “science” a problematic narrative, and what is it’s connection (if there is one) to the military strategy that you’ve already alluded to?

KN: So basically coming back to the fact that PACOM is the military jumping-off point for basically the all the intelligence and decisions about where the Unites States military is going to operate within the Pacific and Asian Islands here all the way over to the east coast of Africa, and applying to Asia. Those decisions are made and spearheaded from Hawaii itself. So for example, a lot of people know about the intelligence that was gathered that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on. He was actually stationed in Hawaii and that all came out from Hawaii, from the information that was being collected over here about surveillance of the rest of the world. Then they move from here to utilize this as a jumping-off point for all branches of the United States military. For example, in my home right now in Oahu, 25% percent of that land is actually controlled by the US military. We’re one of the most heavily militarized lands, you know, populations on the planet. And it’s really for United States greed.

Now connecting again to climate change and the true science that we’re really facing right now, as far as this crisis that we’re looking at: the United States military… could not exist as a force at all if it wasn’t for the utilization of fossil fuels. They are the single largest utilizer of fossil fuels on the planet — the United States military — and so therefore the single largest group that contributes to climate change throughout the planet. And they’re their main priority and reason for existing is for military might to protect the extraction of precious resources from around the world so the United States can continue to have a dominant worldview and also… to have all the creature comforts that the rest of the world is not able to have, and actually that the planet’s ecosystem is unable to support… In particular we do know in Haleakala that that particular telescope is being utilized by the Air Force. And there’s a big ramp up right now as far as building up. I think that with Trump in particular, he’s been beating the bushes for some type of enemy somewhere, somehow. And right now we’re looking at the possibility of Iran being an enemy; there’s the possibility just recently in Korea. So that might happen or might not happen, who knows, but they’re certainly building up the fear-mongering, particularly of China. And so one of the things that they push for is [to] increase the budget to 70 billion dollars for the United States military, so they’ve been investing quite heavily in Hawaii in particular for the military. And one of the big things that they’re looking for is utilizing it as a place to develop the anti-missile technology, so if nuclear weapons were deployed from China or Russia to the United States that Hawaii’s technology would be utilized in order to try and shoot those missiles down, the ICBMs [Intercontinental ballistic missiles] out of the sky. And in order to do that they have to have a powerful visual device in order to pinpoint those things, and in order to target them appropriately.

So while on the surface that we haven’t been able to have a specific fiscal or contractual connection with the military — look at how long it’s been going on for right now. At one point I think 1.3 billion dollars [were] dedicated to this, and they’ve been pushing it now for about twenty years in spite of everything that’s been pushed up against it… This whole idea of science and technology… If they really wanted to invest in sustainability, we have incredible aquaculture technology; we have incredible traditional farming techniques. Our peoples just recently went around the entire planet. I’m one of the medical officers for Malama Honua voyage where we use traditional techniques to sail around the entire island on a traditionally designed canoe, called Hōkūleʻa. And so we’re connecting the science and technologies of First Nations all over the world. It’s really pure racism, colonialism, and classism that dismisses the fact that for millennia people lived with technology in a way that did not destroy the planet. And so if the United States really wants to pursue and support actual science, the science that’s needed right now [for] the existential crisis they are facing is trying to figure out how to preserve life on this planet and to not destroy it, and to figure out a way that we can move away from these destructive tendencies. And a big way that they need to do that is to not destroy the peoples that have the scaffolding of the technology and the actual social structures that could potentially lead the pathway forward to the salvation of the entire planet.

AG: Given this 500-year-plus struggle led by Indigenous peoples for the rights to manage their own land and resources, what is the strategy that all Americans, and ultimately all peoples, can learn from your struggle. And what is your vision that guides you and your work?

KN: Well, I really think that right now, the planet will survive. The planet is incredibly resilient, you know, she’s strong. What we are fighting for is our survival. We are fighting for the ability to survive on this planet. And what we’re looking at right now – part of the Dakota access pipeline and other struggles like that, was to try and bring a wake-up call to the rest of the world about what the future is holding – and the United Nations just came out with a statement saying that what we are to anticipate is there will be a climate change apartheid. And that’s where the direction is going to, in which small, like, the regular average people, you know, a lot of Americans think that they will be safe from this. But as you can see right now in middle America, with the floods that are happening that they haven’t even declared – some of these places that should be declared national emergencies – they haven’t been declaring them. And if you look at the places where the main food sources that provide food to the rest of the world for the United States and then other places in the rest of the world, places like Phoenix in Arizona where the droughts are happening, same thing with California, you see a lot of destabilization. The ecosystems in Mexico – these are all places where the primary food basket for the United States [is]. If those those places get destabilized, what’s going to end up happening is the average citizen is going to be left on their own. The rich will consolidate those resources, they will take it for their own and then it’ll be, you know, they will not come for us. They will not come for our communities, they will not come for our people, they will not come to protect us. So it’s not just a matter of stopping climate change, but it’s also a very radical position of protecting and taking care of our communities, to understand what are the natural resources around you, and that traditional societies did not live in big cities. You did not have this huge relocation of resources from one to the other. People lived within their means, they lived humbly, and they had to learn how to work together and live together. And to do it in a way that did not destroy the places that they are on.

So, the lessons that can be taken from our struggles is that… the actual nuts and bolts of taking care of each other have been erased from the mindset and the mind-view of most Americans and a lot of Europeans. A lot of the two-thirds of the world that… are struggling, they actually have skill-sets that you guys don’t have, that are going to be necessary for our survival. Growing our own food, being able to make our own clothes, being able to have shelter, those are all types of technologies. And if you don’t recognize it as a technology, try to live, you know, in the middle of the winter in Chicago without it, and try to live like the traditional peoples, the First Nations in Chicago, did. Like we did in North Dakota in negative 60 degree weather in a teepee, you know. If you don’t think that that’s a technology in and of itself, then you clearly may not survive what’s coming in the future from where we see the progression of where the first world and really the global elite is going. The 1% isn’t going to take care of us so we need to start taking care of each other more proactively and more intelligently and we need to start making these connections directly ourselves.

AG: Thank you so much, Dr. Kalama. Any other final comments or calls to action that you’d like to make?

KN: At this point what we’re organizing is the Mauna Medic Healers Hui. You can go onto our Facebook Page… We have a wish list of supplies that we still need resources for. We are anticipating that they’re revving up, that there will possibly be police brutality on the Mauna. The people who are here fighting for the planet and the earth here don’t have a lot of resources because, clearly, we’re not participating as strongly in an exploitative and extractive ecosystem and class structure. So we actually actively practice taking care of each other, and as a result we don’t have a lot of resources. We also don’t want to have monies; we want to be clear about how we’re utilizing it, to protect the people, which is for first aid. So if anybody can go to our Facebook page, there is a wish list there. You can actually go through there and you can order some things. We have our address where it’ll deliver directly to us. You can also get a gift card as well and send that to us because then we can utilize it for whatever we need in addition to whatever we have already from the beautiful and very very generous Aina [land] that we are on right now.

Visit the Mauna Medic Healers Hui Facebook Page for more information, including a list of needed items and a system for sending them directly to the front lines.

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