UCSC Mauna Kea Protectors Hosts Teach-In

Activists and students call on UC to terminate investment in TMT

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Panel speakers Laulani Teale, Valentin Lopez, Morning Star and Kealoha Pisciotta answered questions from the crowd in a Q&A session before a performance by Laulani Teale and Liko Martin. Photo by Josephine Joliff

On stage, Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, sported a lei of yellow flowers and a yellow and red kihei — a traditional Hawai’ian garment. Standing in front of a cloth banner that read, “Protect Mauna Kea,” hand stitched by the Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Santa Cruz (MKP), Lopez welcomed over 300 students to the Awaswas nation’s land. 

Lopez opened a teach-in on Nov. 25 at the Colleges Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room that discussed UCSC’s investment in the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which is planned for construction on Mauna Kea. 

“Genocide is happening now at Mauna Kea,” Lopez said to the crowd. “The efforts to destroy people’s religion or spiritual sites, how can that not be genocide? We have to recognize it for what it is.” 

The caliber of his voice stretched across the audience. Moved by his words, folks began snapping and clapping. 

MKP, a coalition devoted to advocacy and solidarity with protectors at Mauna Kea, organized the teach-in. To many Hawai’ians, the mountain is known to be the most kapu, or sacred, space and is considered the origin of all life. 

After a 10-year legal battle, the Hawai’ian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the TMT’s construction in 2018. 

If the project is successful, the TMT will be the 14th telescope constructed on Mauna Kea. The telescope, which would rise 18 stories, would have a resolution 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers favor Mauna Kea because of its remote location and high elevation. 

At the teach-in, a projector showed people in wind breakers, gloves and beanies holding upside down Hawai’ian flags, a symbol of civic unrest and a nation in distress. The people adorned signs that said, “We are Protectors, Not Protestors,” at the base of Mauna Kea. Police stood by with their hands on their hips. 

At time of press, protectors have occupied the base of Mauna Kea for 147 days. 

“As people are standing up there, we are going to stand up here,” said Will Parrish, history of consciousness graduate student and member of MKP. 

The TMT board of directors proposed multiple alternative sites, including La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. However, local environmentalist group Ben Magec — Ecologistas en Acción threatened legal action to prevent the construction of TMT on La Palma and astronomers disagreed with the relocation due to its lower elevation.

The TMT is expected to be completed on Mauna Kea in 2024.

“Ignoring for a moment the strife around the construction of TMT at Mauna Kea, I think it would be a shame for UCSC to not be involved in TMT,” said Deno Stelter, postdoctoral scholar and astronomer, in an email. “By having a voice as a partner institution, we can affect the discussion in a hopefully better direction.” 

According to a fact sheet distributed at the event, the UC has contributed over $38 million to the TMT.

UC President Janet Napolitano has the power to terminate the UC’s investment in the TMT as established in the original terms of the UC’s participation, but the UC has many ties to the project, including UCSC.

Former Chancellor George Blumenthal publicly declared excitement for the TMT during his time at UCSC. Astronomy and astrophysics professor Michael Bolte sits on the board of directors for the TMT. 

MKP filed a resolution on Nov. 5 demanding the UC withdraw from the TMT. MKP member Will Parrish said the university has not responded. 

“Thinking about settler colonialism and ways that we as a public university are complicit in ongoing settler colonialism and scientific imperialism in Hawai’i is really core to that conversation,” said Aysha Peterson, environmental studies graduate student and member of MKP, regarding a discussion between the university and Mauna Kea activists.

Activist and teach-in speaker Laulani Teale said that prior to the event, the Mauna Kea kia’i — guardians of land — and water and two student members of MKP had a discussion with astronomy and astrophysics students and faculty. The purpose of the meeting was to inform the department of alleged human rights violations at Mauna Kea, among other issues. Bolte was invited to the discussion, but didn’t take part as he was out of town. 

MKP is in the process of building a coordinated effort with student groups across different UC campuses. 

“It’s going to have to come from the greater student body expressing that they don’t want to have this relationship of domination and asserting something that indigenous people are saying no to,” Parrish said.

Elder songwriter Liko Martin closed the night with a song about the telescope, “Tell Me It Isn’t So.” As he sang, Teale strummed an ukulele and members of the audience swayed as they wiped tears from their faces.