Spiritual Warfare and Sacred Site Protection in Hawaii

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

On October 7, Native Hawaiians and their supporters successfully blocked a groundbreaking ceremony for the building of a new telescope atop Mauna Kea. The thirty meter telescope (TMT) will be the world’s largest telescope and is a joint project of some of the richest countries and corporations in the world. This video shows two parts of the protest: a road blockade which prevented dignitaries from arriving at the site of the ceremony, and the actual site where the ceremony was to commence.

The conflict over development at Mauna Kea is a decades-long struggle for the protection of an indigenous sacred site. To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is the most sacred site in all of Hawaii. A research report from Harvard University described it as Hawaii’s “garden of Eden,” because in Hawaiian creation narratives Mauna Kea is the birthplace of humanity, the place where Mother Earth and Father Sky met and gave birth to the human race. It is a ceremonial site and the location of over 3,000 burials (including those of Hawaii’s highest born and most beloved ancestors), and shrines which have never been abandoned by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

Over a dozen telescopes, buildings and satellite dishes have been erected at the site over the last 40 years, with little to no input from Native Hawaiians. Local laws were routinely ignored. The Harvard report tells us that “Lacking enforceable—or enforced—land management guidelines, the fragile natural landscape has been devastated by piles of trash, construction refuse, chemical runoff, and pollution from the observatory residents and employees. Not only was there little attempt made to preserve this ecosystem, but there has historically been no heed paid to the hundreds of sacred sites and family shrines: if they stood in the path of a telescope, they were destroyed.”

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It’s no wonder that Native Hawaiians are fighting hard to stop further development. As this and other videos (see the video “TMT Opponents Halt Groundbreaking Ceremony”) convey, the showdown at the groundbreaking ceremony involved not only Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners confronting the projects’ proponents. It also brought Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners into conflict with each other, as spiritual leaders (called “kahu”) were on hand to perform a blessing as part of the groundbreaking ceremony. At one point, an angered young kahu, Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, is seen confronting his elders, and one kahu in particular who was to conduct the blessing (whom he calls “uncle”), asking, “how can you make this sacred?”

The confrontation begs the question: if a blessing ceremony is a petition to the “akua” (spirits, or gods in the Hawaiian language) of the land to look favorably upon the human activities to take place there, how can those guardian akua rightfully be asked for their blessing when the activities amount to further desecration of the site?

On the other hand, the spiritual leaders opposing the development presumably, through prayer and ceremony, ask those same akua to help them protect the land from further desecration. Does this not, in theory, constitute a type of spiritual warfare? To whom will the spirits listen? Who should they honor?

This is beyond irony. No clearer example can be offered to demonstrate how colonization not only robs indigenous peoples of their lands and desecrates that which they hold most sacred, but so often pits them against each other in the process, too.

The reality of colonization is also why environmental justice struggles for indigenous peoples are different from environmental justice issues of non-indigenous peoples. Environmental justice refers generally to environmental racism where toxic industries disproportionately affect communities of color in urban landscapes. Non-indigenous peoples confronting problems like the fallout from toxic industries in their neighborhoods fight for serious reasons, like the protection of their health or the beautification of their communities, and to protect future generations.

But unlike non-native peoples, indigenous peoples fight for more than protecting themselves from toxic development. They fight to preserve their places of origin. They fight to protect the bones of their ancestors, and for their right to maintain their spiritual connections to place, their “gardens of Eden.” Unencumbered access to these places, and to have them remain pristine, is necessary for the perpetuation of their cultures. This is why sacred site protection is more than just a religious freedom issue, and why legal approaches based on religious freedom are largely ineffective. Sacred site protection is, more appropriately, an environmental justice issue.

As mere mortal human beings, we can’t presume to know the minds of the spirits. But we do know that Original Peoples in Hawaii, as everywhere, are charged with the responsibility to “malama ‘aina” (care for the land). To do anything else, or support anything else, is to be out of balance with the spiritual laws given to the people by the akua.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com

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