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Hawaii Doesn’t Want You Anymore

Tourists and telescopes have sparked a backlash against American rule — and now the land’s indigenous peoples want their state back

There’s an unforgettable two-lane road that winds along the southeastern coast of Oahu, the most populous island in the state of Hawaii. You pass by sheer cliffs and spotless coastline, where soft sand meets warm water in swirls of turquoise and blue. On the right day, it feels a million miles away from the tourist traps on Waikiki Beach and the rush-hour traffic deemed some of the worst in the country. 

I forgot how much I missed it until I returned to the island two weeks ago for a wedding. I try to visit Oahu once a year, but it’s rare that I get to spend any time on the east side, where I grew up. Driving along in a rented Nissan sedan, it really felt like nothing had changed, at least until I cruised into the rural town of Waimanalo and past the entrance to Sherwood Forest beach

A squadron of protestors flanked the entrance, waving signs at passing cars. “SAVE SHERWOOD FOREST,” one read. “FIX WHAT WE HAVE,” declared another. On all sides were Hawaiian flags, flying upside down to symbolize a nation under extreme duress. Equally prominent was the “Kanaka Maoli” flag, decorated in green, red and yellow. The words mean “Native Hawaiian” in the indigenous language, and the flag, created in 2001, is a counterpoint to the state banner, whose design references both the Union Jack and American stripes. A stream of cars, some with their own flags, honked in noisy support. 

The Sherwood protest is, on the surface, about a community that didn’t want to see a new rec center built until the state improved existing facilities and found ways to help the homeless taking camp near the beaches. But it seemed like the protesting spirit was everywhere in Waimanalo, which has long been an enclave of working-class Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. I noticed the bright red-and-gold signs yelling “‘A’OLE TMT,” a rejection of the ongoing plans to build an 18-story observatory (the “Thirty-Meter Telescope”) on top of Hawaii’s tallest, most sacred peak. I saw others referencing the fight against wind turbines being built along the northern tip of the island.

And, in the parking lot of a brewery where I stopped for beer, I saw a Toyota pickup with bumper stickers that referenced all those fights and more. The owner was Walter Kalani Smith, a retired Native Hawaiian waterman who was born and raised on the east side of Oahu. The 52-year-old smiled thinly when I approached him, curious about why he felt so strongly about these developments. Things have only gotten worse in the last 20 years, he tells me. His own kids left the island because of the spiraling cost of living, and he wondered what the traditional ideals of “working the land” would mean if corporate interests continued to buy up natural resources.  

“This is existential, you know? A line in the sand. People standing up, saying we will tolerate the abuses and thievery no more. Our enemies say that we’re backwards and anti-science. That’s a lie. It’s a racist lie,” explains Smith, his thick Pidgin accent lilting with each accusation. “What we want is to assume some real control over the resources and places that are sacred. We don’t want to end up in the history books as a what-if. And that starts with saying no mo’ until our rights are acknowledged.”

In that moment, my mind snapped to another, more cryptic sign I’d seen by the Sherwood group: “RESPECT THE LAWS OF OCCUPATION.” It’s a reference to a popular concept in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which basically points to the 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili’oukalani by white American businessmen, with backing from the U.S. military, as the nexus of modern problems for Native Hawaiians. There is a strong case that Hawaii is actually a nation occupied by a foreign force under international law. The truth of this case is forgotten by the non-native majority that lives on the islands. But the memory of the overthrow and the subjugation that followed for Native Hawaiians in the 20th century remains a raw, brittle nerve — one that’s motivating all kinds of fights in this chain of eight little main islands. 

The old and young gathered at the mouth of a forested beach in Hawaii don’t hate rec centers any more than the kia’i, or “protectors,” who chained themselves to the road on Mauna Kea hate astronomical exploration. The people who are angrily calling for a quota on tourism, and encouraging visitors to go elsewhere, don’t hate you for wanting to come. Well, not really, anyway. Consider this a generational war that’s taken on a desperate edge as young natives, in particular, rally around the urgency of intervention. 

I see it most clearly in the words of Jamaica Osorio, an organizer and award-winning poet who has become one of the most influential leaders in the Mauna Kea fight against the TMT telescope. In one mountaintop speech, she retold how activists rallied together in 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the monarchy. “Ten thousand of us gathered at Iolani Palace to hear the brilliant Haunani Kay-Trask proclaim that we are not American. We are not American. We are not American. We will die as Native Hawaiians. We will never be American,” Osorio told the assembled. 

I arrived in Honolulu as a 7-year-old with no connections on the island, but spending my most formative adolescent years in this land warped the way I saw the world. We learned in school about the Hawaiian people, the atrocities committed against them, how the present is shaped by the forces of war and capitalism. I understood why “America” could be a dirty word. And while tourism was extolled as the lifeblood of the state, I realized how toxic the dregs of so many strangers could be. It isn’t surprising that so many could see cultural prostitution in the cheap aloha shirts, Disney hotels and sterile portrayals of history. 

Coupled with rising cost of living, a housing crisis fueled by speculative investment and ongoing pollution concerns, it’s enough to even make me question whether I can ever tell someone they ought to go to the islands anymore. In fact, it makes me question what my role could be — and what I owe a place that keeps changing as fast as I can visit. 

There is a Hawaii that doesn’t want you anymore. Could it be the Hawaii that the future needs?

* * * * *

Jon Osorio stood in the kūpuna (or “elder”) line at Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii earlier this summer, peering toward the summit while trying to catch his breath — he never did well at altitude. His daughter, Jamaica, had rushed to Mauna Kea as soon as she heard the governor’s announcement that construction trucks would arrive on July 15th. She wondered when he could join her. “The thing is, I hate camping,” Osorio tells me, only half-joking. “I’d always been opposed to the telescope. In fact, I’ve been involved in legal action against it since 2011. But it was still from a distance — I never thought I’d go up there to protest.”

Yet he couldn’t help being inspired. Over the course of his career as an educator and musician, Osorio watched numerous fights over construction at the top of Mauna Kea. Now, he was the dean of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii — an institution with a president that supported the TMT and a board of regents that seemed either helpless or apathetic about the situation. Being there, he realized, was the least he could do. 

When Osorio arrived with a sack full of cold-weather clothes and food, he noticed that young leaders like Kaho’okahi Kanuha and his daughter had camp strategy under control. The kia’i were ready for the July 15th standoff. So despite all the nervous energy, the morning unfolded without too much drama. Osorio sat on the road at the base of the mountain, next to other kūpuna whom he remembered from years past. He also marveled at the care and efficiency that went into the operation, as younger workers rapidly built a structure around the elders to shade them from the sun and eyes of police. 

Nobody had told him that Jamaica was up the road, chained to a steel cattle guard embedded in the asphalt. She’d been there since the pitch black of the pre-dawn morning. It was almost noon by the time he heard word, but a surprised Osorio made the walk up the hill to see her. “I saw her chained there and asked if there’s anything I can do. She asked me to sing. I went back to the bottom, borrowed the guitar, walked back up and sang,” he says. “It didn’t surprise me that she sang along.” 

The song he picked was one he knew since his high school days. “Pu’uwa’awa’a” speaks of the spiritual beauty of a furrowed hill on Mauna Kea that Osorio used to spot from the passenger seat of his grandfather’s car as they drove up the saddle road to Kona. There are a lot of songs written about Mauna Kea, whose peak is considered the “umbilical cord” between the mortal and divine worlds and has long been a sacred refuge for Hawaiians. Some don’t even approach it, believing the mountain will call them when the time is right. 

So it was for Osorio, who saw the link between two generations unfold as he and Jamaica sang. He never planned for her to be in the activist fight for Hawaiian rights, he tells me. “That’s just an incredible blessing to me. In a way, it validates what I’ve done in my own life.” 

Then he pauses, and sighs.

“In another way, it’s just… I ask myself, what else could’ve happened? Really, what choice do we have as native people? Unable to control the destinies of our people, to exercise sovereignty. What else would we do but to carry a resistance from generation to generation?”

Many reports have described the fight on the mauna as being one of a native people’s culture against scientific and economic development, but the kia’i reject that. As “ceded land” in the takeover of Hawaii by the U.S., Mauna Kea is technically held in a trust to benefit future generations of Native Hawaiians; activists argue that instead, the controlling powers in the state have pimped out the land to outside actors who have helped destroy the environment on the summit. 

Thirteen telescopes have been constructed on the mountain since the 1970s, and a 1998 audit shamed the University of Hawaii for failing to protect the mountain’s resources. A 2007 NASA report doubled down on those findings, stating that three decades of astronomical use had left “significant and adverse” harm to the mountain ecosystem. In a cynical twist, the corporate backer of the TMT tried to argue in its environmental report that the existing pollution on Mauna Kea would render the TMT’s impacts moot — because, in essence, things are already so bad. 

“The fight is against ‘business as usual’ — selling off Hawaii to whoever has enough money to exert their will versus the needs of the aina [land] and the community that lives off it,” Osorio tells me excitedly. “TMT is only a symptom of this. Look, I’m shocked people don’t realize we’ve fought these goddamn things before. There’s nothing different about it. Even if people support wind turbines because it’ll help us be less dependent on coal and gas — well, so will consuming less. There are other ways.” 

The songs and dances that take place every day on Mauna Kea speak to these “other ways,” communicating the beauty and dignity of how the kingdom used to be. Everything old is futuristic again — and Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, a University of Hawaii professor of political science who was also chained to the cattle guard on Mauna Kea, sees a younger generation of Native Hawaiian activists succeeding with a renewed cultural vocabulary and passion for direct action.

The generation of Kanaka Maoli born after Hawaii gained official statehood in 1959 suffered because Hawaiian culture, language and identity were all suffocated in the name of integration, she says. Some Hawaiians tried to scrub their skin to be lighter. Others merely found no venue to speak the native tongue. All ended up, in some way or another, questioning the value of their genealogy. 

“I was an undergrad at [the University of Hawaii] in 1993, at the time of this big surge of interest and pride about Hawaiian rights and how Hawaii was taken from us. But this new generation that’s in their 20s and 30s, they were raised speaking the language. They didn’t need to figure out how to be proud of being Hawaiian,” she says. “They bring a depth of understanding into their history that previous generations didn’t have. And that gives them a confidence that really inspires others as well.” 

There was a time when practitioners of Hawaiian culture were considered to run in different circles than Hawaiian political activists, Goodyear-Ka’ōpua adds. Now, though, that divide has eroded with a greater belief that the future passage of culture and history relies on a radical change in governance. “Practicing culture is, by virtue, political because doing so requires a relationship to land that the dominant society doesn’t recognize,” she explains.  

That much is clear when you look at how indigenous activism is changing the way people consider scientific agendas elsewhere, especially in conservation. And so, I reached out to Bert Weeks, an old friend from high school who is now assistant director of Malama Pu’uloa, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring Pearl Harbor. Like me, he’s not Native Hawaiian, but also like me, he was raised on the island with a reverence for the roots of the people and the environment around us. 

Beyond being the site of the attack that dragged the U.S. into World War II, Pearl Harbor saw catastrophic mismanagement and pollution over the 20th century. It used to be an important fish pond that fed native communities, but for much of recent history, it’s been a toxic dump site. More and more, the plans to fix it have become infused with ideas from indigenous history, especially the native approach to land management, Weeks says. Other grassroots projects are popping up, too, and he feels a sea change in how communities are taking hold of problems. 

“Everyone has their own TMT. Everyone feels like something in their own community is being mismanaged, and their voices aren’t being heard,” he tells me. “Each movement seems to connect to a bigger idea. And when you look at Hawaiian history, it’s been about power and land. When you learn about that history, you’re like, ‘Wow, things kind of make sense now.’ People are saying enough is enough.”

* * * * *

What’s obvious to Kaniela Ing is that the kind of representative democracy that should be serving native people in Hawaii doesn’t work. It’s certainly not enough. 

As an elected member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, Ing served South Maui for six years, ending in 2018 with an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat. He’s a young, photogenic Democratic Socialist who’s fluent in the language of activism, able to detail modern leftist organizing tactics in the same breath as the history of gender-fluid Hawaiians being punished by white Christian missionaries. He’s also out of organized politics these days, instead working to “amplify” the TMT protest and raising bail money for protestors in North Oahu who are fighting the wind turbines

“A lot of people think, ‘Look, this is as easy as getting everyone in the TMT movement to vote, and the thing will fix itself.’ Maybe. But first of all, you can’t get people to vote just by telling them that. You need to meet them where they are,” Ing explains. “You need to organize people, train them and prove your theory of change is more than just voting — it’s outside of just the status-quo political process.” 

The challenges he encountered as a politician were steep and often confounding, and he got in trouble by stumping for Native Hawaiian issues in a more radical way than his Democrat peers did. He remembers, for example, how being the lone yea vote for a bill that would decrease the U.S. military’s presence in Hawaii landed him in an awkward private meeting with then-Speaker of the House Joseph Souki. “He just screamed at me. Telling me I didn’t need to stick out, that Hawaiians needed the military in the economy. I tried to say, respectfully, that that mindset is exactly the problem,” Ing recalls. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I soon had a primary opponent with $100,000 in their bank account.”

He can’t help but trace a line between his experiences and other examples of Hawaiian identity being suppressed. Even today, people are threatened by judges for speaking Hawaiian in court, despite it being the first official language of the state. “We need more Native Hawaiians, but we need more environments where you can be Native Hawaiian,” Ing declares. 

And in so many ways, being more Native Hawaiian means being less, well, American. In 2017, Jamaica Osorio observed that young native people now see an alternative to working within the dominant economic forces that have shaped the islands. Many are finding ways to work the land as their ancestors had, or teaching peers about Hawaiian history and culture in grassroots spaces (there’s an activist “university” on Mauna Kea right now that does just that). 

“We don’t need the U.S. in the way that some grandparents felt they needed the U.S. And, again, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow we become independent and we’re this flourishing nation. It means that every day we take steps to live independently. If every day we can make the U.S. less relevant to our lives, if we can make the dollar less relevant to our lives, we’re one step closer to being truly independent,” she told Honolulu Magazine

In the meantime, the tides are changing with public opinion of TMT. Only 50 percent of non-Native Hawaiian island residents support the project outright, per a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll, and 51 percent of non-Native Hawaiian residents actually view the protest approvingly. And while Governor David Ige’s approval ratings are sinking, national progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have expressed their solidarity for the movement. 

The challenge is to understand this protest as intertwined with all forms of growing Hawaiian sovereignty, rather than its own battle. It’s also part of the overarching argument from scholars like Kay-Trask and Osorio that people need to stop coming to Hawaii. The latter notes that the invitation to Hawaii should extend to those who want to live and work in the islands with a sense of justice for the land and its past, “not because it’s pretty or they can make a buck.” 

“If we could remake this government… I don’t know that we need to be severed from the U.S. for us to have a better form of government,” he continues. “Just something that recognizes that we shouldn’t have a million people living here, and that 10 million visitors a year is too much. Seven million is too much. Heck, even four million is probably too much.” 

A number of Pacific Island and native communities have shown up at Mauna Kea in solidarity, and it’s obvious that Hawaii is seen as a beacon and a precedent for others in the future. Homelessness is increasing in Hawaii, as is the number of people struggling with poverty generally, which like elsewhere in the U.S., native communities are disproportionately impacted by. Yet the deep-blue Democratic legislature seems no closer to understanding the urgency felt by people on the ground. So the Kanaka are fighting — not just because they’re angry, but because they can see what Hawaii could become in the future, for better and worse. 

I think again of Jamaica Osorio, standing on Mauna Kea, under a massive Hawaiian flag whipping upside-down in the mountain winds, weaving a lesson on oppression with snippets of the state anthem, “Hawai’i Pono’i.” I memorized this song the first year I landed on Oahu, and have sung it so many times I couldn’t even estimate a number if you asked. But somehow, it feels like I’m only really starting to understand the meaning of the anthem now.

As the last verse and chorus reads: “Hawaii’s own true sons — people of this, our land — duty calls fealty. Guide in the right. Royal father, Kamehameha, we shall defend with the spear.”