Leaving Island Hawaii
Christopher McLeod
Leaving Kaho`olawe at sunrise, Hawai`i. This island is the topic of the PBS documentary “Islands of Sanctuary.”

PBS Sacred Site Documentary to Detail Roadmap to Mauna Kea Victory

Marc Dadigan

This April, Craig Neff was among 31 Native Hawaiians and supporters from around the world who were arrested for blockading the construction crews headed to the summit of the sacred mountain Mauna Kea, where an international coalition of scientists and universities had been authorized by the state of Hawaii to build the massive, $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

The wave of social media and news reports that followed the arrests represented a crescendo for the burgeoning movement to protect Mauna Kea, a mountain that from seafloor to summit is the tallest in the world, from the TMT. A telescope that will enable astronomers to study forming galaxies at the edge of the universe, but many Hawaiians say is an unnecessary desecration.

RELATED: Telescope Opposition Gains Momentum With Rallies, Walk-Out and International Support

But decades earlier, Neff was involved in a previous struggle to protect a sacred area as part of a coalition of Native Hawaiians and activists who successfully reclaimed the sacred island of Kanaloa Kaho`olawe, which the U.S. Navy had used for nearly 50 years for explosive military activities. Residents were barred from even stepping foot on an island that for thousands of years had been the center of Hawaiian seafaring culture.

“We had to fight the biggest, baddest dog in the room: the U.S. military. But through political pressure, protests, ceremony and making that spiritual connection with each other, we proved anything was possible,” Neff said. “I believe a victory for Mauna Kea will be won in the same way.”

At 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 14, the story of Kaho`olawe will be chronicled in Islands of Sanctuary, the last episode of the Standing on Sacred Ground documentary series to be broadcast nationally on the PBS World Channel. It comes at an auspicious time, some Native Hawaiians say, as the films’ potential to enlighten millions of Americans about the importance of sacred sites and indigenous philosophy can help build momentum and empathy for the efforts to protect Mauna Kea.

RELATED: Defenders of Sacred Sites Around the Globe Featured in PBS Series

“It’s very timely for the country to see these film, and hopefully understand why we need to protect these pillars of worship, like (Mauna Kea) and Kaho`olawe,” said Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, a founder of Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana. “We have mentored a lot of the younger generation, and they’re carrying the ball for us at Mauna Kea.”

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli is an activist who works with Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana. Moloka`i, Hawai`i. (Christopher McLeod)

The four, 60-minute Standing on Sacred Ground films tell the stories of eight indigenous societies around the globe, from Canada to Papua New Guinea, who are fighting to preserve their sacred lands and the cultures inextricably tied to them from mining megaprojects, tar sands oil extraction, consumer culture, discriminatory laws and collusion between governments and corporations. As they fight for cultural survival, the indigenous people share their ecological wisdom and how their reverent obligation to care for their sacred lands has never been more relevant in an age of climate change, severe droughts and mass extinctions.

“Those connections (indigenous people) have to the sacred sites really provide a lot of answers for the future,” Neff said. “The people in the other (Standing on Sacred Ground) films kind of have their back against the wall. I like that the Kaho`olawe story really stands as a beacon of hope: It shows how you can care for the land and put the right people in charge of sacred places.”

Neff said that just as critics have tried to denigrate the Mauna Kea demonstrators by calling them anti-Western or anti-progress, the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana members saw the same kind of “flack” when they formed in the 1970s and organized dramatic occupations of the island.

A group of volunteers with the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana learns about Kealaikahiki—the place where voyaging canoes depart for Tahiti. (Christopher McLeod)

Kaho’olawe has long been considered a place of great spiritual power for Native Hawaiians, but after Pearl Harbor the Navy declared martial law to use the entire island for military activities and began pummeling the island with bombs, napalm and mock atomic bombs well after the war.

After Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana filed a federal civil suit, a 1980 consent decree allowed for Native Hawaiians to have regular access to the island for ceremonies and educational purposes. The military was ordered to stop using the island as a weapons range in 1990 by President H.W. Bush, and a few years later, federal law handed the island back to the State of Hawaii, which in return designated it a reserve to be used exclusively for traditional cultural purposes and environmental restoration.

Neff said that his primary role with Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana was participating in Makahiki ceremonies, which involve calling upon deities associated with peace, rejuvenation and rain to help heal the island’s fractured ecology and war-torn landscape.

Even though the federal government has not provided enough founds to fully clear the island of unexploded ordnances and there is pressure to lift the ban on commerical development, today these efforts to heal the island continue through ceremonies, re-vegetation, and environmental restoration. Aluli said they’re working on getting rid of the invasive cats and rodents on the island so native birds can return.

This blend of spiritual reverence, ecological knowledge and modern science being used under indigenous stewardship at Kaho`olawe is a powerful riposte to the criticism that Mauna Kea activists are anti-science, said Davianna McGregor, a professor in Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii and a member of Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana.

Taro farmer Josh Pastrana in Hawai`i. (Christopher McLeod)

“Our ancestors are some of the great astronomers of all time,” she said. “I think (the films) really show how the spirituality we hold dear enables us to understand science at a deeper level and that science could be better informed if it developed the deep respect for the interconnectivity of the Earth like indigenous people have.”

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