Hundreds gather for prayer vigil

JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A small group of people stand atop Pu'u Huluhulu with an upside down Hawaii flag during Sunday's vigil in opposition to the construction of the Thirty Millimeter Telescope on Maunakea.
JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A group of people stand by a pickup truck with a spray-painted sign in its bed depicting the Hawaii flag with the message A'ole TMT at a Sunday vigil at Pu'u Huluhulu
JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Several people sit and stand by pahu (drums) during a Sunday vigil at Pu'u Huluhulu.
JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A number of people chant before a ahu (stone altar) with ho'okupu (gifts) during a Sunday vigil at Pu'u Huluhulu. Directly in front of the altar are two members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha.
JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A view of the parking lot at Pu'u Huluhulu shows a mere fraction of the hundreds of vehicles carrying participants to a Sunday vigil in opposition of the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea.
JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A sign at the entrance to the parking lot on Saddle Road across from the intersection of Maunakea Access Road proclaims the area to be Pu'uhonua O Pu'uhuluhulu, a place of refuge.

A 12-hour prayer vigil Sunday drew hundreds opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea to Pu‘u Huluhulu, across from the intersection of Saddle Road.

An online poster said the vigil’s purpose was “to cleanse, gather and protect Mauna A Wakea.” Hundreds of vehicles jammed the parking lot and lined both sides of the Saddle and a sign at the parking lot’s entrance proclaimed the place as “Pu‘uhonua O Pu‘uhuluhulu” — a place of refuge.


The event was a hub of activity as Hawaiian flags were flown — many upside down, signaling a nation in distress — including an upside-down flag at the summit of the pu‘u itself, a steep climb for those who planted it. Chants were performed hourly before an ahu (stone altar) built two decades ago by the Royal Order of Kamehameha. As people talked, philosophized, socialized and ate, the sounds of battery-powered drills could be heard, manufacturing signs to protest the $1.4 billion observatory and closure of Maunakea Access Road at 7 a.m. today to accommodate construction trucks scaling a mountain considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

Hank Fergerstrom of the Temple of Lono and spokesperson for Na Kupuna Moku O Keawe said the purpose of the vigil is “to set a very fine foundation in aloha that can only be done through chant.”

“When you consider what’s supposed to be coming down, do you see anybody panicking? There’s nobody even stressed,” Fergerstrom said. “And that’s a real positive thing. It’s about feeding energies. Let me put it this way: if your intent was to stop TMT, that’s a not so good energy. But if your intent were true and you were here to protect the sanctity of your temple, that’s a whole different story, one that feeds that side of the equation.”

Fergerstrom said he was heartened by the turnout for the vigil.

“People won’t usually come out for the prayer. They’ll come out for the fight, but not necessarily for the prayers and stuff,” he said.

While Gov. David Ige announced on Wednesday this morning’s closure of Maunakea Access Road, he hasn’t specified when the convoy of trucks carrying construction equipment and material for the project — which is expected to take a decade — will begin.

“A lot of this is rumor, so we don’t really know, but we do know that their equipment is all packed up and ready to go,” Fergerstrom said. “We know right now there’s a whole lot of police down at the bottom of the road, getting ready for escort.”

While no law enforcement officers were conspicuously present at the vigil, Fergerstrom said there were “spotters” on the mountain itself.

“They have so many people up here and so many enforcement agencies up here. It’s like, what do you expect to happen?” he said. “The guys are all carrying automatic weapons and strapped down with riot gear, you know. It’s like, what exactly do you think is going to go on? We’re praying. I don’t know what you guys think you’re doing.”

Those opposed to the project prefer to be called “protectors” of the mountain. Kahookahi Kanuha was one of dozens arrested during protests that halted construction in 2015. He was later acquitted in a trial held in the Hawaiian language. He was arrested again June 20 on Maunakea and charged with obstructing government operations, the same day Ige announced the notice to proceed for TMT and state Department of Land and Natural Resources dismantled four unpermitted structures, including two ahu, built by TMT opponents. Kanuha said he’s not surprised by the turnout for the event, as many came and went during the day, but a crowd still was on hand throughout.

“We’ve been telling the state now for years that our people are not going to forget about it,” Kanuha said. “We weren’t just fighting to stop the TMT in 2015. We don’t want Maunakea desecrated, ever. And so, this situation has come upon us again, and I don’t think anybody should be surprised by what they are seeing and that the people are not happy about this and they are not going to wait for something to happen. We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure that that something is not going to happen.”

Asked to elaborate, Kanuha replied, “It means that we are definitely prepared to engage in nonviolent and peaceful actions.”

Reynolds Kamakawiwoole said he was there “for spiritual reasons” and added “Maunakea is so sacred.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years … and I’ve been saying to them not to build up there because it is that sacred,” Kamakawiwoole said. “Only the kahuna (priests) and the alii (royalty) could walk on top of this mountain. The other people had to stay back. All of this was to respect and we’ve asked the state for respect, but apparently, there’s no respect. And so this is the result … that we come together, with aloha. … It has nothing to do with astronomy, nothing to do with a telescope. It has to do with the fact that there’s a possibility that someone could go up there and build something that huge on our sacred mountain.”

It wasn’t just Hawaii Island residents at the vigil. Walter Ritte, a Molokai resident and longtime activist, said he was there “to protect this mountain” and “let as many people as I know that it’s not going to end today.”

“As long as they’re trying to build up there, if it takes a year, if it takes two years, whatever, we’re going to be here to stop the equipment from coming up there. Sooner or later, they’re going to run out of money,” Ritte said.

“The reason why we’re so adamant, you have to picture the Hawaiians who lived and depended on the ocean. And now, we can’t really depend that much on the ocean. They’ve over-fished our ocean, over-fished our reefs. They even took our shorelines for hotels. Then, they came and took our farmlands with all these (genetically modified organisms) and poisons. And now, they’re pushing us to the top of the mountain, our last sacred spot. And if they take that, then we’re lost as Hawaiians. This is the line in the sand; this is our last stand.”

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