On Friday, a group of protesters gathered on Sproul Plaza to rally against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, on Mauna Kea, a mountain that is held sacred by the Native Hawaiian people, who are also known as Kanaka Maoli.
The protest began at 6:00 p.m. and lasted for more than two hours. Representatives from multiple indigenous rights organizations shared the space with local elders, UC Berkeley students and a visiting group of Pacific Islander students. Speakers imparted personal stories, poetry, songs and chants to an audience of more than 100 people.
Organizer Sheridan Noelani Enomoto said the protesters were standing in solidarity with Native Hawaiian elders on Mauna Kea, 33 of whom were arrested Wednesday in connection to their resistance against TMT construction.
“We’re witnessing a people who are not armed, who love their land and who have every right to protect their land,” Enomoto said. “All (the people behind the TMT) see is money, investment, self-interest … and greed.”
The protest specifically highlighted the role that investors in the project have played — including the UC system, a group that has thus far maintained its investment in the TMT. Other local partners of the TMT include the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the California Institute of Technology.
Protesters called on the UC system to divest from the TMT, imploring the university to invest in “creation, not desecration.”
“Our sacred places are becoming smaller and smaller,” said Corrina Gould, a representative of Indian People Organizing for Change. “We have to stand right now to protect the sacred sites, the places to which we are tied; otherwise, we, as humans, tend to lose altogether.”
As a member of the Ohlone indigenous group, Gould has fought against similar developments occurring on the site considered by the Ohlone to be the sacred West Berkeley Shellmound for more than three years. These struggles are symbolic of Western advancement impeding on indigenous rights, she said.
In the case of the TMT’s proponents, advancement entails looking back at astronomical history. According to the TMT website, the large scale of the telescope would enable astronomers to study the process of planet and star formation, among other astronomical questions.
“Mauna Kea is the site of our creation,” said UC Berkeley senior Bria Tennyson. “It is a place that contains hundreds of our shrines, which are still used for cultural practices and worship. But most importantly, it’s where our ancestors are buried.”
Tennyson, who identifies as Kanaka Maoli, said disrespect for Hawaiian sacred land displays a continuation of American imperialism and colonization. She believes that the current struggle is still “inherently tied to the land.”
But given that Native Hawaiians are not advocating for a complete cancellation of the project, only a relocation, the issue should not be framed as a fundamental debate over science versus spirituality, Tennyson said.
“The message that Native Hawaiians are anti-science is misconstrued,” Tennyson said. “Our very identity as a people is based on studying the stars. That’s how we got to Hawaii (in the first place).”
Beyond cultural concerns, building the TMT on Mauna Kea could have considerable ecological implications. According to Enomoto, Mauna Kea is an important source of fresh water and plays a vital role in keeping the sensitive ecosystem together against the threat of climate change.
Enomoto said protecting the environment aligns with the Native Hawaiian belief in Aloha ‘Āina, an idea that goes beyond love of the land to encompass a reverence for all that provides life.
“We are a reflection of our Earth and our environment,” Enomoto said. “How are we taking care of the Earth — the one who feeds and sustains us?”