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Kealoha Pisciotta: The activist leads the fight to keep the Thirty Meter Telescope off Mauna Kea

Honolulu Star-Advertiser September 29, 2017

Kealoha Pisciotta, leader of the Maunakea Hui petitioners against the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The fight is not over for Kealoha Pisciotta, who from her Big Island home for years has led the Mauna Kea Hui petitioners against the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Of course, there is the setback handed to them by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Thursday. The BLNR voted 5-2 to end a contested-case hearing with approval of the application for a permit to build the $1.4 billion telescope at the summit.

There are more legal twists and turns ahead. Both sides have long been expected to pursue the case until the state’s high court makes the final call.

The ultimate verdict would cap one of Pisciotta’s life missions, which culminated two years ago in high-profile and nationally publicized protests atop the mountain, held as sacred among the group known as “protectors.”

Mounting the defense for Mauna Kea has made it difficult for her to resume her paid employment as a cultural monitor, most recently keeping watch on how Army work at Pohakuloa could affect cultural resources. Further, she suffered a stroke three years ago.

“It’s taken a toll on me,” she acknowledged.

Pisciotta was born on Oahu, went to Waikiki Elementary School — her father is still a beachboy not far from there, she said — moved on to Kalani and McKinley high schools and the University of Hawaii, first as a physics student. Ultimately her direction turned toward polemics, and she ended up with a bachelor’s in political science from the Hilo campus.

Some of her friends are nudging her toward a career in education, she said, to pass on what she’s learned to younger Hawaiians.

“The young people need to know their rights,” Pisciotta said. “They say, ‘Kealoha, you should teach civics.’ And you know, I just might.”

QUESTION: As a student, you were a technician with the telescopes, correct? How did you move from that point to become involved in the opposition as a protector?

ANSWER: I worked as technician at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), then moved to become a telescope systems specialist for the Joint Astronomy Centre (which is owned and operated by the United Kingdom, Canada and Netherlands). I loved my work and still have a few good friends who work up there.

But the conflict began for me when the second-wave, next-generation telescopes were being built. The construction was leveling an irreplaceable, invaluable cultural landscape — such as when the great pu‘u known as Pu‘u Kohola, which was destroyed. That pu‘u connects the Mauna to the sea and to the whales, and whales are so important in Hawaiian culture. … That cinder cone was significant.

That is how it began for me. The dominant features were no longer the natural and cultural aspects, the landscape was being taken over by man-made structures and impacting our ability to continue our practice, which we need to maintain our relationship to Mauna Kea and our ancestors who are at rest in the burial grounds there.

Q: So, it was that the construction just became overwhelming?

A: Yes. … That was actually the fear of local residents on the Big Island, because their original request was to build one telescope and observatory, singular. A lot of local people remember that time … 1968 …. Their fear was that the telescopes were going to take over, astronomy would take over Mauna Kea.

For all intents and purposes, it has. Even to the point where they wish to exclude the public. They know they can’t.

That’s another thing BLNR needs to recognize: Giving them a lease does not give them exclusivity, the right to exclude others. It’s public land, it’s ceded land, it’s conservation land, it’s historic preservation land and it’s a historic landmark. These are layers of protection that it has, in the public interest.

Q: Did this issue affect your perspective on Native Hawaiian culture or change your direction in some way?

A: The kupuna (elders) began to voice their long-held concerns to me. They shared many things and communicated with a sense of urgency about the need to protect Mauna Kea from any further destruction.

The urgency I heard was not only present in the voices of my kupuna, but in the voices of other respected elders. It affected me profoundly and deepened my understanding of the spiritual and cultural importance of the Mauna.

Q:How do you answer those who see an anti-science attitude among the protectors?

A: There are many ways of knowing, and much of what is now referred to as indigenous knowledge is science, as it is both measurable and repeatable. This is the criteria for science.

The knowledge that empowered Hawaiians to circumnavigate the Pacific and the vast oceans of the world has its origins on Mauna Kea. The sacred star knowledge connecting us to creation itself is codified in the landscape of Mauna Kea. There are the mechanical aspects of navigation, but there are also spiritual and geographical aspects that are only found on Mauna Kea.

That is knowledge that will be lost forever if the endless expansion continues to destroy the very landscape where such knowledge exists.

Further, this issue has never been about Hawaiians against science. It is about people seeking to protect the sacred landscape and our indigenous knowledge for future generations. It is a land use issue and always has been.

Q:The Mauna Kea opposition has been long established but seemed to gain strength in more recent years. Do you agree, and if so, what has fueled that?

A: The recent uprising is a function of two things, I believe.

First, there is a big baby-boom generation that has grown up hearing from their kupuna and makua (parents) opposing this issue. And second, the younger generation has had the opportunity to learn much more about their history, including the importance of Mauna Kea.

The grassroots Hawaiian leadership has been championing land-use issues such as Mauna Kea for many years — for generations now. But what is so incredible now, is that the younger generations are inspired, too, and they have risen up to speak out and to challenge the status quo with a loud and determined, collective voice.

So, now all the generations are awakened and standing for true aloha and pono, and action.

Q: How do you think social media has affected the Native Hawaiian movement?

A: Social media is important to modern day, collective and global movements. I believe it really helped to move and inspire the stand for Mauna Kea. Social media has its limitations, but overall the good outweighs the bad.

Q: What are the limitations, for example?

A: It’s the criticism that everyone has. Social media has that potential to go really viral, to establish something in an incorrect context. You can have one person out here suddenly rise up and become something when they hadn’t worked to become that. There can be a level of shallowness of understanding.

But it can also help people deepen their understanding as well. It depends on … both your intention and your execution in how you use it. …

Q: How have you managed to maintain some balance in your life, in the midst of this?

A: I am not sure balance is possible with so much suffering and the destruction of the land and wildlife. And we live with the constant threat that there will be more harm. …

There is something that we collectively suffer as a people, but non-Hawaiians, too. I call it “paradise-ism.” It’s when our suffering is a result of bad industries and lifestyles imposed on islanders, so that others can live their fantasy of paradise.

This is an old paradigm based on zero sums with few winners and many losers.

One of the most significant outcomes of the Mauna Kea stand has been the rejection of that old paradigm, for a better world held in aloha, something made of truth and right action, for the good of the many not just the few, and that is something worth building on the Mauna.

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