LIHUE — Steam rose from the asphalt on Rice Street, as thousands of demonstrators marched in solidarity with the Native Hawaiians, who for the past two weeks have blocked the road to the peak of Mauna Kea, where construction was scheduled to begin on the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The fight over access to Mauna Kea, one of the most culturally significant sites in the state, has been going on for years, but the cause recently attracted national attention, amid escalating tensions that led Gov. David Ige to sign an emergency declaration last week, resulting in the arrest of 33 peaceful protesters.
Shortly after the march began, clouds opened up above the throng of people, who moved like a river of gold and red under Kanaka Maoli banners, signs, and state flags turned upside-down, symbolizing the United States’ occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
The storm seemed to fuel the throng, whose chants grew louder under the falling rain, which stopped almost as suddenly as it started. The heat returned as the clouds cleared, and the marchers moved up the hill toward the Historic County Building.
The demonstration was expected to draw about a thousand protesters, but at least twice that many showed up. People were packed shoulder against shoulder, filling Lihue’s main street from curb to curb, and from front to back, the procession took at least five minutes to pass spectators lining the sidewalks and police blocking intersections.
By about 1:30 p.m. the crowd reached the county building, nearly filling the entire lawn. In front of the steps, hula dancers performed, giving mana to the protesters. The demonstration lasted through the afternoon alternatively serious and contagiously happy.
At times the protest felt more like a celebration. Friends touched foreheads and embraced. Children ran and played on the lawn. The people called back refrains of Hawaiian chants in a single deep voice — the unified sound of people refusing to let their culture be quietly subdued.
“Our people are coming up to a breaking point,” Peleke Flores said. He wore a red malo — a traditional Hawaiian loincloth. “If we let that go now, they can really take everything from us.”
For Flores, the protest is about more than just the Thirty Meter Telescope.
“It wasn’t just a Mauna Kea — it wasn’t just a Hawaii thing. It’s like a world thing,” he said. “We’re all indigenous people that’s fighting that struggle, and we’re just trying to push and stand in solidarity for the rights of the people.”
When asked if he had anything to say to those who weren’t at the protest, one man said simply, “Pray for humanity.”
He stood beside the steps of the Historic County Building under a banner that read, “Pule to our Protectors &all wahi pana. Aloha Aina.” Beside him was a woman who said she just wanted people to understand what the struggle is about.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on, and they need to know,” she said. “Whether they’re for it or against it, they just need to know what’s going on.”
A man who said he “just got off the mauna,” climbed the county building steps and told the crowd, “This is about the consistent cycle of neglecting our concerns.”
“The voices of Aloha are standing strong. And Aloha is really changing the world. You guys need to all know that. Aloha is changing the world,” he continued. “And what the message is, is that an attack on Hawaii is an attack on the world.”
County Councilman Mason Chock also gave a brief speech, explaining that the protests and the anti-telescope movement have grown because the Hawaiian people have been pushed to the breaking point.
“You know, it takes a lot for us to step up, but now we have no choice,” he said. “We have no other choice but to stand up and to speak — speak for our kupuna, speak for our future, speak for Mauna Kea.”
James Kaui, a kupuna standing near the back of the crowd, carrying a Kanaka Maoli flag atop a 30-foot kiawe pole, said the march on Sunday was the first time he’s ever been involved in a protest.
“I never did make a movement until last week. And, you know, I been sitting all my life. But praying, cause I had it in me,” he said. “But the movement got me.”
“The people of Hawaii got one responsibility — one kuleana. You know, they gotta take the stand for the kupuna — the kupuna in the past,” Kaui explained. “And the whole thing about it is the Aloha. You know, the Aloha is what Hawaii was about, from the past to present.”
For Cecelia Hoffman, the movement is about one thing — “Change,” she said. “Change for the people and change in the government, so they listen.”
When asked whether the protests can work, Cecelia she said, “Yes. Yes. I believe it can. Definitely.”
Hoffman connected the issue on Mauna Kea to an ongoing dispute between a helicopter tour company operating out of Port Allen and the families who harvest pa‘akai from the salt beds nearby.
“In fact, on the West Side, we’re talking about the pa‘akai. The changes have been made, without even asking for permission,” she said. “I know the government want to help improve things, but if you make the changes without asking God for how to make these changes, it doesn’t work.”
“So, it’s from Niihau to Kauai, up to the Big Island,” she said. “We’re all connected. And I think as people we’re connected to the land. If you don’t take care of the land, how can it take care of us?”
One woman who was asked if she’d like to comment for the newspaper pointed to her auntie, who stood nearby, saying, “She can help you.”
Iwalani Ka‘auwai-Herrod turned around and explained the problem in a simple, common-sense way.
“You know what, bottom line, people are more important than money and progress,” she said. “And our culture is not for sale.”
For Ka‘auwai-Herrod, protesting the TMT is a fight against the erosion of her culture.
“We love Hawaii, and we wanna keep Hawaii,” she said. “We don’t want to lose it.”
Asked if it’s possible to stop the telescope from being built, she said, “That’s what we’re trying to do. And we’re not gonna stop.”
She went on: “We feel like the government needs to include our people. We’re from here. We grew up here. Our ancestors are from here. If we don’t fight for that, it’s gonna be gone. We’re all gonna be gone. It’s gonna be extinct.
“You know — just gone. And that’s what we want. We want our people to continue to live. I mean, it’s not just about movies, nice hula and a little prayer here and there. We matter too. Our lives matter.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.